Richard Jordan Gatling

Richard Jordan Gatling
Richard Jordan Gatling
Hertford County, North Carolina
Death date
Fields of study
Mechanical Engineering, Weapons Engineering


Richard Jordan Gatling was an American inventor and entrepreneur, most notable for developing the Gatling Gun. Originally producing the device to reduce the number of casualties during the civil war, the Gatling Gun became the first rapid firing weapon to be used in combat. [1]

Richard Gatling was born in Hertford County, North Carolina, on September 12th, 1818. His father was a commercial farmer who primarily raised cotton. Working with his father, Gatling's first experience with machinery came from his father's farm, where he tinkered and improved farming machines that sewed and thinned out cotton plants. Early in his life at the age of 21, Gatling established himself as a prominent inventor and created the screw propeller for steamboats; however, he discovered after inventing it that the concept had already been patented. [2]

After developing the screw propeller for steamboats, he established himself in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1844. Wanting to work on a new project, he took the cotton-sowing machine as a basis, and adapted it for sowing rice, wheat, and other grains. The introduction of these improvements and designs revolutionized the agricultural system within the area, and eventually in the country. [3]

After improving the design of the cotton-sowing machine, he went on to become interested in the sciences, particularly within medicine. Through a fascination he received from smallpox, he became inspired to receive his M.D. in 1850 from the Ohio Medical College. Despite earning his M.D., he never went on to practice medicine. Instead, he devoted his attention back to inventing. The same year he earned his M.D. he developed the hemp-breaking machine, and in 1857, he also developed the steam plow. [4]

Soon after the Civil War began, Gatling observed that the majority of soldiers died from disease due to undernourishment or wounds rather then from actual combat. In 1877, he observed that "if I could invent a machine- a gun- which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished." [5] Basing his design on the seed planter he developed earlier [6], he created the first functional Gatling Gun in 1861, and patented it November 4th, 1862.

When patented, the Gatling Gun was described to be a class of machine guns; an object (gun) that has the potential of firing rapidly, either by hand or machine. By design, it was described to have a frame of supporting cylindrical cam and a central revolving shaft bearing coils of wire. A group of barrels and a cylinder with reciprocating locks that in detail of the construction move in conjunction to fire at a rapid rate. It was also designed to have the "cartridges" be easily removed after firing, insuring that they could be used for further ammo storage. [7]

Despite its impressive design, the Gatling Gun saw little use within the Civil War. Many accused Gatling of be a "copperhead", a supporter of the South due to his heritage and past experiences living within the region. The Union military and Generals alike refrained from including the Gatling Gun in combat. It wasn't until 1865 that the military began to incorporate a small quantity of models into their ranks, but by the time they did so the war was almost over.

Gatling continued to improve its design, and in 1870 opened a factory to produce the weapon. By 1882 it could fire up to 1,200 round per minute. [8] Eventually the Gatling Gun caught popularity in Europe, where it was sold to England, Austria, Russia, and a few South American nations, and the U.S. military also used it against the Native Americans. After the increase in popularity, in 1883 Gatling successfully developed an electricity-driven gun that fired 3,000 rounds per minute, and developed one of the first automatic gas-operated guns. Gatling developed a motor-driven plow in 1900, but passed away in New York City on February 26th, 1903, just before he could commercialize it. [9]