The Gatling Gun, from the mid-1800s, is considered the first automatic gun most resembling the design in modern use to this day. The Gatling Gun changed the world of warfare and inspired an entirely new breed of automatic firearms. Today, the Gatling Gun is a highly sought-after collectible antique at firearm auctions.  

Learn about the history behind the Gatling Gun, and how it changed the way in which the whole world designs firearms. And, find out how the Gatling Gun evolved into the heavy weaponry seen in modern military conflicts. 

Is the Gatling Gun the First Automatic Gun in History?

The difference, between a modern machine gun and a fully-automatic gun, is the system by which ammunition is fed through the bolt chamber. A modern machine-gun fires rifle cartridges, fed from a magazine or ammunition belt, in rapid succession. The Gatling Gun, patented in 1862, represents the first operational rapid-fire gun to appear in war. 

The Gatling Gun, essentially, takes the design of a Colt revolver, along with innovative features – never before seen in firearms. After all, Colt is the original manufacturer of the Gatling Gun. It came onto the scene at about the same time as other world-changing guns, like the Colt Peacemaker and Henry Rifle. 

But, is the Gatling Gun a true automatic weapon? The Gatling Gun fires by turning a crank, which means that it is not technically considered a modern automatic weapon. If you find yourself on the delivery end of the barrels, however, there is no difference. 

For all intents and purposes, the Gatling Gun is the first automatic gun to deliver multiple rounds in a consecutive manner, without a cease-fire for reloading. But, since the operator is required to turn the crank to fire the gun, some do not consider the Gatling Gun as the first automatic gun. 

What is the History of The Gatling Gun?

The Gatling Gun is the first automatic gun to feature rapid-fire action. It features a spring-loaded system and hand-crank operation. The gun takes its name from the man who invented it – Dr. Richard Gatling. 

A little known fact is that Dr. Richard Gatling designed the Gatling Gun with the intention that it would mitigate the need for war. As was a burgeoning ideology of the era, Gatling believed that the suppressive power of the Gatling Gun would bring an end to opposition, and thereby, to fighting. In fact, Gatling was distraught in finding out that his gun was being used by the United States Military as a means of expanding the theater of war. 

Nearly 100 years later, similar sentiment would abound regarding the rationale for inventing the atomic bomb. Gatling thought that inventing such a powerful weapon would serve to expose the fallacy of war and discourage violence. Unfortunately, Gatling was wrong, and, after the Civil War ended, the United States military heavily implemented the Gatling Gun to fight and win the Spanish-American War. 

The American Civil War was the first to see the introduction of the world’s first automatic gun. In 1860, Union forces used the Gatling Gun against the confederate army, however, the Gatling Gun was only accepted by the US Army after it found out that the US Navy had already adopted the gun for use atop battleships. 

What Was the First Automatic Gun – Other Than the Gatling Gun?

About 20 years after the advent of the Gatling Gun, the Maxim Gun came onto the scene. Invented by Hiram Stevens Maxim, the Maxim Gun was the first automatic gun that was recoil-operated and fully mechanized. Between 1886 and 1914, the British Empire used the Maxim Gun to cover the globe in colonial domination. 

By the time WWI broke out, the British Army had moved on from the Maxim Gun. But, the Russian Army continued to use Maxim Guns in active warfare until 1980. Throughout WWI, the Maxim Gun served as the main machine gun for the German Army, as well.  

Post-Gatling Gun: How Did the First Automatic Gun Evolve?

The Maxim Gun signifies the beginning of the machine-gun age. Following the Maxim Gun, improvements to recoil and gas-operated weapons design brought forth a revolution in modern automatic guns. The rotary-cannon design, featured in the Gatling Gun, makes a re-emergence with the inclusion of an electric drive – giving birth to the Mini-gun.   

The Minigun (Electronically Driven Gatling Gun)

The Gatling Gun fires up to 400 rounds per minute. In 1861, that was around 400-times the fire-rate of a rifleman. A hundred years later, the Gatling Gun evolved into the Minigun. 

The Minigun features six-barrels that rotate in a Gatling-style assembly. The Minigun, however, delivers between 2,000 to 6,000 rounds per minute. The Minigun is the closest modern weapon to the Gatling Gun. In essence, the only difference is the electronically driven assembly that separates the minigun from the Gatling gun. 

Final Thoughts

The first automatic gun was the Maxim Gun, but the Gatling Gun is the reason for every automatic weapons innovation that followed. Modern aircraft and warships feature rotary-style fixed-weapons, like the M61 Vulcan and GAU08 Avenger, which are directly descended from the original Gatling Gun. But, if you want one to call your own, a Gatling Gun is not legally considered an automatic weapon, meaning that you can legally keep it in your gun collection and shoot it on the range. 

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