The New Colt Gallery: The Return of the Gatling Gun
Updated October 21 – Among the rarest pieces in the Greg Martin Colt Gallery at the Autry, which features guns made by Samuel Colt’s company and opened on July 23, 2011, is a Colt-manufactured Gatling gun, the predecessor to the machine gun that originally was patented in 1861 by Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling.
On display is an 1893 model Colt Bulldog Gatling gun, .45-70 caliber, that was presented to the Hartford, Connecticut, Police Department in 1892 to help promote the new model. The ammunition magazines held 104 cartridges.
“It’s the rarest of all the Gatling guns,” said Jeffrey Richardson, the Autry’s associate curator of Western history and popular culture. “They only made about ten of them. And we have Serial Number One.”
A popular image of Gatling shows him standing next to the gun, with his hand on the crank.
“That is that exact gun that we have,” Richardson said.”When you see images of Dr. Gatling, you see him with that gun. Not just that model, that exact gun.”
Gatling hoped his invention would help diminish the slaughter he witnessed during the Civil War.
“He made the Gatling gun because he thought, if you had a gun like that, it would decrease the amount of people needed for war, therefore decrease casualties of war,” Richardson said. “So if you had a gun that could do the work of a hundred people, you would only need one person on the battlefield, therefore you’re less likely to have a hundred people injured.”
Dr. Gatling had a medical degree, but never practiced. Instead, he put his energies into perfecting weapons and weapons systems, and that gave him the opportunity to see up close what happened on the battlefield. He didn’t like what he saw.
“He saw the carnage of the Civil War and said too many people are coming back injured from the war,” Richardson said. “And it wasn’t just being injured from actual fighting, but it was the disease. the lack of food, it was the terrible conditions of fighting in the Civil War which caused so many of the injuries.”
Gatling’s solution was to send fewer young men to war.
“He looked at that and said, well, if you have less people on the battlefield, there will be less people that will come back in that particular condition,” Richardson said. “What if there was a gun that could do a lot of that type of work?”
Of course, there’s a flip side to that kind of logic.
“If you have a gun that can do the work of a hundred people, it can kill a lot more people a lot quicker,” Richardson said. “So there’s two sides to that particular logic. You’re thinking about your troops; you’re not thinking about the enemy’s troops.”
Richardson said the Gatling gun was very popular in the second half of the 19th century. But its heft and operation requirements — it had to be hand-cranked and the cartridges were manually fed into the chamber — made it more of a defensive weapon, used in the ramparts of forts and during the Indian wars, rather than an attack gun. Richardson said General George Custer had Gatling guns, but the difficulty of moving them in the field made him decide against using them, so he did not have them for the battle on the Little Big Horn River that was his end.
“When people think of the Gatling gun they think of Western movies,” Richardson said. “I think of Sam Peckinpah movies where people have these Gatling guns. . . . The connection between the Gatling gun and the American West exists in fact, but popular culture and fiction has really created this idea that Gatling guns were used all the time in the West, and that’s just not true.”
So the John Wayne movies that featured cavalry detachments cranking away at a Gatling gun were, shall we say, embellishing a bit.
“It’s not necessarily like you see it in the movies,” Richardson said. “Not surprising that it’s not accurate what you see in the movies.”
The Greg Martin Colt Gallery is set to open July 23.