The Mass Production of Death: Richard Jordan Gatling Invents the Gatling Gun and Sir Hiram Maxim Invents the Maxim Machine Gun

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The Mass Production of Death: Richard Jordan Gatling Invents the Gatling Gun and Sir Hiram Maxim Invents the Maxim Machine Gun


At the end of the nineteenth century, a new military technology appeared on the scene that would fundamentally change the way warfare was conducted, and which would lead to some of the most tremendous slaughters of human beings ever witnessed. That technology was the machine gun, and it changed warfare by making it possible for a handful of men to kill thousands in only minutes.


For centuries, battles had been conducted between two massed armies, with the goal of the attacking army being to break the defensive line of the other. While bows and arrows, cavalry, and even artillery could be used to weaken the line of the massed units, warfare was still a matter of those two lines moving ever closer to one another until the moment of the charge, when the attackers would rush forward to try and overwhelm the weakened defensive positions.

Even with the development of infantry troops carrying rifles and muskets, the deciding factor in any battle was that moment when the combatants would close for hand-to-hand combat. With the development of the machine gun, all basic strategies and tactics of warfare had to be changed fundamentally, because now that moment of massed attack could only amount to foolishly heroic suicide.

While projectile weapons that could fire more than one round at a time had existed in one form or another for centuries, it was only with the development of the Gatling gun in 1862 and the Maxim gun some 20 years later that the first two true machine guns were brought into combat in any widespread way. The development of these weapons hinged upon two developments in cartridge technology: the cased round that incorporated its own percussive cap, and the development of slow-burning smokeless powder.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, most projectile weapons were still muzzle-loaders; that is, powder was poured down the barrel of the rifle, a round was rammed down with a ramrod, a percussion cap was placed on a "nipple" at the far end of the barrel, and when the hammer fell upon the cap, a spark was thrown into the breech of the barrel, igniting the powder, which caused an explosion that propelled the bullet forward. This was a time-consuming and awkward process, and the effectiveness of any multiround weapon was severely hampered by the process of having to load it. During the American Civil War, however, cartridge rounds were developed. These were bullets as we know them today, with a copper or brass casing that held the powder charge and the bullet, and with a percussion cap built into the base of the casing. It was this development that made the Gatling gun possible.


Richard Jordan Gatling (1818-1903), the inventor of the Gatling gun, was, for most of his life, involved with the development of farm equipment. The son of a North Carolina plantation owner, Gatling was living in Cincinnati during the outbreak of the war, and came up with the idea for his weapon, according to legend, while watching the wheel of a paddleboat turn. The design of the weapon, however, also owes at least some of its inspiration to the sowing and seeding machines that would have been familiar to Gatling.

The Gatling gun had six to ten barrels arranged in a circular pattern, which rotated around a central pivot when a crank was turned. On top of the gun was a hopper, which fed bullets into the barrels as the barrels rotated. As the barrels rotated, bullets would be fed into the barrels, locked, fired, and extracted as the barrels moved around the pivot. In this way, the Gatling gun could fire up to 350 rounds per minute, with some experimental models achieving a rate of fire of over 1,000 rounds per minute. However, the weapon was extremely prone to jams and was large, requiring at least a three- to four-man crew. Initial versions were incapable of traversing fire—it was essentially an artillery weapon and, despite the potential it held, saw almost no use in combat save for some limited use during the Spanish–American War.

The two main problems with the Gatling gun were the complicated process through which rounds were loaded, fired, and extracted, and the fact that it was a hand-cranked weapon. In 1880 Sir Hiram Steven Maxim (1840-1916), another American inventor, came up with the idea for a weapon that would use the force generated by the bullet's recoil to operate the loading, firing, and extraction process. Maxim had previously designed a number of inventions dealing with gas illumination, as well as a process for treating the filaments in electric lights. In 1880 he came to England and, again according to legend, was attending a trade show when someone said to him, "If you want to make real money, invent something for these fool Europeans to kill one another with." Maxim's answer to that was the Maxim gun, the first recoil-operated machine gun.

The major problem that Maxim had to solve concerned the powder that was used in cartridge rounds. Black powder, which was the common form of gunpowder at the time, burned too quickly to allow gas pressures to build up and generate the kind of force needed to operate a recoil weapon. Maxim's solution to this problem was the invention of a new type of gunpowder that incorporated nitrocellulose, called Maximite. With this new powder, a fired round would generate enough power to force back a sliding breech bolt, and the spent casing would be carried back with it, to be ejected when the bolt reached the back of the breech. This backward motion of the bolt would also compress a large spring, which would then force the bolt forward. As it moved forward, the bolt would force another round from a belt of ammunition into the barrel; the round would be fired, and the whole process repeated again. When Maxim demonstrated his new weapon for His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge in Hatton Garden in 1884, it was capable of firing 600 rounds per minute without jamming, and could be fed rounds from continuous belts that could be linked together to provide virtually uninterrupted fire.

This devastating weapon was slow to be adopted by European military forces, however, and it wasn't until 1888, after it was made the official machine gun of the German army, that the Maxim was adopted in any large-scale way by a military force. During the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, the true power of the Maxim gun was demonstrated in a number of incidents during European colonial actions, and would come to its apex as it dominated the battlefields of World War I.

An incident from the British colonial campaign in Egypt provides an illustration of how even a few machine guns could change the entire course of a battle. During the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1888, a force of 26,000 British and Egyptian troops met 40,000 Arab troops. Under normal circumstances the British troops, even though they were armed with rifles, could have expected a tough battle, and might very well have been overwhelmed by the superior force. However, the British were armed with six Maxim guns, and at the end of the day these made a decisive difference. Over 10,000 dervishes were killed as they attempted to charge and overwhelm the British positions, compared to only 20 British and 28 Egyptian casualties. Over three-quarters of the Arab causalities were attributed to the Maxim guns, and as the British writer Sir Edward Arnold put it, "The battle was won by a quiet, scientific gentleman living in Kent." In 1884 Maxim had become a British subject; in 1901 he was knighted, presumably for the service his weapon had given to the British colonial armies.

It was during World War I, however, that the devastating power of the machine gun was truly demonstrated. In fact, World War I might very well be called the machine gun war. In the intervening years since 1888, Maxim had marketed his machine gun to all the armies of Europe, and as war broke out in 1914, the forces of both sides were armed with the new weapon. Set up in trench emplacements, and later mounted on aircraft and tanks, European troops for the first time faced the power of the weapon they had used so effectively against native populations. They obviously learned their lessons well; with emplacements set up every few hundred yards along a trench, it was possible to create overlapping fields of traversing fire, and hundreds of men could be killed before they even stepped a few feet out of their trench in an attempt to charge and overwhelm the enemy line. With machine guns in the trenches of both sides, the traditional strategy of charging to overwhelm an enemy position could only mean almost certain death or wounding to those making the charge. The machine gun was largely responsible for the decimation of an entire generation of young British, French, and German men who fought in the war.

After World War I the tactics of warfare changed almost completely, due in large part to the introduction of the machine gun in that war. Instead of massed armies that used overwhelming force to break an enemy line, tactics now relied upon small, often motorized, mobile units armed with rapid fire weapons. Such units could quickly move in and control a piece of ground while large armored units pushed forward, clearing the way for more infantry to advance—the blitzkrieg approach, employed with stunning success by the German army during World War II. This strategy and its variations are still used today.

In addition to affecting combat tactics, the machine gun totally changed the scale and violence of warfare and exerted a profound psychological impact on its participants. Post-traumatic combat stress, called "shell shock," emerged as a new category of battle injury during World War I, afflicting many soldiers who witnessed the horrific spectacle of mechanized mass killing on the battlefield.


Further Reading

Ellis, John. The Cultural History of the Machine Gun. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Hallahan, William H. Misfire: The History of How America's Small Arms Have Failed Our Military. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.

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The Mass Production of Death: Richard Jordan Gatling Invents the Gatling Gun and Sir Hiram Maxim Invents the Maxim Machine Gun

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