In his excellent book titled simply Machine Guns, the late Ian V. Hogg (1926-2002) explained the concept of the machine gun as succinctly as anyone, “The object of the machine gun is to spread the stuff around, not put all of the shots through the same hole.” In other words, machine guns aren’t about accuracy – and if you need accurate “go buy a sniping rifle,” Hogg added.
When it was first introduced in 1884, the Maxim Gun was primarily used to provide suppressing fire against an enemy rather than target individual soldiers. While there are cases of course where the gunner could take aim at a particular soldier, at a distance it was simply impossible to be accurate, as Hogg explained.
Even as the technology has improved, and accuracy has increased, machine guns aren’t sniper rifles. Their use is to send a lot of ammunition downrange as quickly as possible. What has changed is the methods the guns have employed to do so
The Maxim was of course the first truly successful machine gun, but it was preceded by weapons that did the same job – just differently. Not called so at the time, these were “mechanical machine guns,” which required the operator to discharge from a number of barrels.
The earliest concept of a machine gun was devised by the prolific Renaissance inventor/painter/engineer Leonardo da Vinci, who designed an innovative 12-barreled gun carriage. It wasn’t exactly capable of rapid fire as we know it today, but in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, soldiers with early firearms were lucky to fire a single shot a minute. Da Vinci’s multi-barreled weapon, which was mounted on a carriage, could fire a dozen rounds in a few seconds. The fan-like shape would have made it a potentially effective weapon against massed advancing troops as it had a decently wide field of fire.
The design never seemed to advance beyond the drawing board, but the concept of a multi-barrel or volley gun would continue to be explored over the centuries. During the American Civil War, Dr. Josephus Requa –a dentist by profession who was also an apprentice to New York riflemaker William Billinghurst – developed the Billinghurst Requa Battery. It consisted of twenty-five heavy .58 caliber rifle barrels lined up and mounted on secure frame. There was minimal interest, but it was hardly innovative and soon rendered obsolete by newer technology.
Birth of the Mechanical Machine Guns
While Da Vinci may have been ahead of his time, volley guns were simply about multiple barrels that could be fired in unison. James Puckle, a British lawyer/writer turned inventor, developed his Puckle Gun – also known as the “Defence Gun” – a primitive crew-served, manually-operated flintlock revolver. Patented in 1718, it was notable for being referred to as a “machine gun” in a 1722 shipping manifest.
It was a complex weapon, and just two are known to have been produced. Never used in combat, it is still notable for being among the earliest “revolvers” and for utilizing a crank handle to rotate and fire its nine square bullets. Because it still relied on flintlocks, it was slow to reload and once fired would serve limited purpose. However, at the time a trained soldier would have to work very hard to fire three shots a minute, whereas the Puckle Gun could fire nine bullets in a few seconds.
The Puckle Gun may have been ahead of its time, and the concept of a crank-operated machine gun was further improved by Belgian Army Captain Toussaint-Henry-Joseph Fafshamps and manufactured by Joseph Montigny of Fontaine-l’Everque. The Montigny Mitrailleuse featured 37-barrels and was capable of firing nearly 300 rounds per minute, however instead of independent fire from those barrels, it fired volleys of ammunition. Loading/reloading was accomplished by way of a pre-loaded ammunition plate that was inserted at the breech.
The Montigny Mitrailleuse saw limited use with the French Army in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), where it was employed at the Battle of Gravelotte to devastating effect.
The most famous – even infamous – example of a mechanical machine gun was of course the one designed by Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling. Today he is remembered for his “Gatling Gun,” but much like da Vinci, Gatling was a prolific inventor who developed the screw propeller, a wheat drill for planting, a steam tractor and even a motor-driven plow. Yet, it was his Gatling Gun that he is most certainly remembered for today.
An irony is that the first successful rapid-fire gun was developed not to kill more soldiers, but rather to reduce the need for so many soldiers on the battlefield! During the American Civil War, Gatling saw how more soldiers died of disease than from gunshots. He sought to develop a weapon that could supersede the need for large armies in a hope that deaths from disease would be diminished.
His mechanical machine gun was a forerunner to the weapons that were to come. The Gatling Gun’s operation centered on a cyclic multi-barrel design that allowed for its rapid fire, but also facilitated cooling of the barrels. Although the Gatling gun did see some limited use in the Civil War it wasn’t officially adopted by the U.S. Government until 1866, where it was employed by the U.S. Cavalry on the frontier. In one famous story, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer chose not to bring his Gatling Guns with his force at the time of the Battle of Little Bighorn – and one can only speculate if the battle may have turned out differently had he utilized the weapons to their full effect.
Gatling Guns were used by the U.S. Army in the Spanish-American War to great success and were only declared obsolete in 1911 after forty-five years of service with the U.S. military. By that time the age of the true machine guns – using recoil and even gas-operated systems – had arrived.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.