Mr. Gatling’s Terrible Marvel: The Gun That Changed Everything and the Misunderstood Genius Who Invented It

by Julia Keller, Penguin, New York, 2008, $25.95.

Buy this book to learn all about the Gatling gun—why the world’s first successful machine gun was invented, how it worked and what battles it won—and you’ll be disappointed. Get it for a gracefully written, wide-ranging examination of how the 19th century spanned a remarkable transition from the agrarian 18th to the utterly industrialized 20th and you’ll be rewarded with a good read filled with fascinating information and stylish prose.

Richard Jordan Gatling personified that fast-changing century. Keller describes him as a member of “a clan of tinkerers, of constantly preoccupied dabblers. Of shade-tree mechanics and armchair eccentrics, of men with pencils angled behind their ears, men who always seemed to be just seconds away from reaching for a piece of paper and sketching up new ways to perform ordinary tasks.” The inventor held roughly 50 patents, only a portion concerning his infamous gun and improvements to it. Others were for, among other things, a steam plow, bicycle, torch, toilet flush, and torpedo boat and a rotary seed planter that injected and covered one seed at a time in neat rows. The seed planter was the genesis of the gun: Substitute cartridges for corn kernels, and you’re halfway home.

Gatling always insisted he’d invented the gun to save lives, not take them. The more soldiers an army needed, he rationalized, the more would die. Give a gunner a tool that can do the work of a hundred riflemen, and you become a battlefield benefactor.

In the real world, of course, things didn’t work that way. Gatlings could have made the Civil War far bloodier, but, fortunately, hidebound Union generals refused to adopt the newfangled things. It wasn’t until the Indian Wars of the 1870s that Gatlings were ruinously employed, as they were during the Spanish-American War. Regarding the latter, Keller writes: “‘It’s the Gatlings, men, our Gatlings!’ a call that would resound in American military history. Lt. John Parker had arrived with his quartet of Gatling guns, providing covering fire for Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.”

In 1911 the U.S. Army declared the Gatling obsolete, having replaced it with a variety of automatic weapons that didn’t require hurdy-gurdy hand-cranking. Today, fully automated rotating-barrel weapons such as the 100-round-per-second GE and Hughes chain guns aboard A-10 tank-busters and Air Force gunships and inside R2D2-like Phalanx turrets on warships are its direct descendants.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here