Machine guns today are generally defined as firearms that shoot automatically more than one shot without manual reloading by a single function of the trigger. This modern definition has come about due to the development of such a weapon as pioneered by Hiram Maxim and is subsequently used for all weapons that employ all mechanical means in firearms today.
Before Maxim invented the truly automatic system of feeding, loading, firing and ejecting continuously with just a single function of the trigger, “machine gun” was a term applied to a weapon that provided these functions albeit in a manual mode of operation. In reality, the evolution of automatic weapons really began before the introduction of gun powder. From earliest times, there has been a continual attempt to augment firepower by mechanical means.
These early machines included trebuchets, catapults, ballistas and siege engines. These machines threw projectiles ranging from rocks and stones, dead animals and putrid corpses conveying pestilence, flaming projectiles, to a fusillade of javelins and arrows.
While these were large crew served weapons, there was mechanical development in the individual combatant’s weapons to increase firepower, range and lethality with the crossbow being a good example that evolved into a weapon firing a number of arrows. One could say that a general definition of an automatic weapon in these early days would be a weapon capable of discharging a number of projectiles in a short space of time, either simultaneously or in rapid sequence.
While weapon development of volume of fire and sustaining fire of ancient weapons is a discussion in itself, we will begin our discussion here with the culmination of the state of the art manually operated rapid fire weapons that lead to the fully automatic weapon.
Reliable mechanical development was hindered until the advent of percussion caps in the early 1800s, and in the next 75 years following the percussion cap patent, more was accomplished in terms of design, development and performance of firearms in general than at any time in all of history.
During this period, there was an abundance of ideas of how to make a machine gun “work,” including the use of steam and gas. Some did actually work but were too impractical and complicated. But it was the continued work on ignition that dictated the mechanical future of automatic weapons, and it was the advent of incorporating the detonating cap as an integral part of the fixed cartridge in 1856, and the first true metallic cartridge with a center fire primer and an inside anvil invented by George W. Morse in 1858 that set the stage for machine gun development.
Concurrently within this time period, it was the gun makers who took the concept and perfected the use of machine tools, particularly in New England, to speed up and economize on weapon production. This was a radical development that set in motion the Machine Age that led us to the Industrial Revolution that enabled the use of machine tools to produce advancements in light, power, heat, all modern transportation, electric communication, agricultural machinery, textiles, paper mills, printing, all the instruments used in every science, etc.: everything that ultimately affected everyone’s daily lives. At each advancement of ignition, from percussion cap to paper cartridge to metallic cartridge, gun makers were in lockstep with new mechanical developments, designing machine tools to make their mechanical ideas a reality.
Gatling Revolving Machine Gun
Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling was born in Hertford County, North Carolina in 1818 and came from a family of inventors. Though born in the South, he felt there were better opportunities in the North and he moved to a number of cities in Missouri, Ohio and Indiana. In 1847-1848, he studied medicine at Laporte, Indiana and the following year he entered Ohio Medical College from which he received his degree. However, there is no record of him actually practicing medicine.
Gatling conceived the idea of his gun and began work in 1861 with a prototype being made in late 1861. The gun was demonstrated in early 1862 and a patent in that year was granted. This gun was a crude predecessor of what was to become one of the most significant firing mechanisms of all ordnance history.
The 1862 Gatling gun was crank-operated with six revolving barrels around a central axis point that had a bolt for each barrel capable of not only volume of fire but sustained fire.
Nevertheless, the 1862 model had its shortcomings and Gatling continued to perfect his gun. This led to the design of the Model 1865, the precursor of all later Gatling guns. Gatling continued to refine the operation and mechanism of his gun. As they got better and better with each successive model, the world took notice and the Gatling gun saw service in armies and navies around the world continuing into the twentieth century. The Gatling gun was the beginning of the state-of-the-art manually operated guns that flourished until Hiram Maxim took the next step with fully automatic guns, but his operating principle lives on today in Vulcans and Miniguns.