Richard Jordan Gatling

Richard Jordan Gatling (1818-1903), American inventor, became famous for designing multiple-firing guns.

Richard Gatling was born on a large plantation in Hertford County, N.C., on Sept. 12, 1818. With his father he perfected machines to sow cotton and to thin out cotton plants. He worked in the county clerk's office from the age of 15 to 19, taught school briefly, and became a merchant. In 1839 he patented a rice planter. He moved to St. Louis in 1844, worked in a dry goods store, then made a wheat drill and manufactured seed planters.

Gatling studied medicine and became a doctor in 1850, although he never practiced. For a time he promoted railroad enterprises and real estate in Indianapolis, then he established farm-machinery factories in three midwestern cities. His inventions included a double-acting hemp break (1850), a steam plow (1857), a marine steam ram (1862), and a gunmetal alloy.

Soon after the Civil War began, Gatling designed the Gatling gun. The precursor of the modern machine gun, it could fire 350 rounds per minute. Later improvements raised the firing rate and extended the range to 1 1/2 miles. The Union's chief of ordnance was uninterested in Gatling's gun, so it was little used during the war. A few were procured by commanders, sometimes with private funds. Union naval officer David D. Porter used some, and three Gatlings guarded the New York Times building during the draft riots in 1863. In 1864 Gen. Benjamin Butler used 12. The Army Ordnance Department belatedly ordered 100 in 1866. The Colt Company produced these and all Gatlings thereafter.

The gun was not used officially during the war, partly because of Gatling's affiliation with the "Copperheads," a group of antiwar Democrats who opposed Lincoln's policies and were suspected of treason. Also, he had offered to sell the gun to anyone, including the Confederacy and foreigners. Many Gatlings were sold to England, Austria, and Russia and to South American nations. Until about 1900 they were used in small wars. The U.S. Army used them against the American Indians.

To compete with other machine gun manufacturers, in 1893 Gatling developed an electricity-driven gun that fired 3,000 rounds per minute. Later he built an automatic gas-operated gun. However, in 1911 the U.S. Army officially declared his weapon obsolete. He gained immortality of a sort with the word "gat," gangster slang for an automatic handgun.

In 1900 Gatling invented a motor-driven plow. Before it could be manufactured, he died in New York City on Feb. 26, 1903.

Further Reading on Richard Jordan Gatling

There is no biography of Gatling. For sketches of his life see William F. Moore, Representative Men of Connecticut, 1861-1894 (1894), and Benjamin B. Winborne, The Colonial and State Political History of Hertford County, North Carolina (1906). For information on the Gatling gun see Paul Wahl and Donald R. Toppel, The Gatling Gun (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Johnson, F. Roy (Frank Roy), The Gatling gun and flying machine of Richard and Henry Gatling, Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Pub. Co., 1979.