Rapid Fire Weapons Before Maxim & Browning

The Navy used the Gatling gun in the ‘fighting tops’ of man-of war ships.

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 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.

Billinghurst-Requa Battery Gun
The U.S. military, always slow on the uptake, reverted back to the concept of volley fire after the Army’s disastrous first official attempt to introduce a repeating shoulder weapon using the Colt Revolving Rifle that caused many serious injuries to soldiers using it when, due to a faulty cap, or a gas leak, caused the other chambers to ignite resulting in lost hands and limbs.  By the time of the American Civil War the Army was in no mood for new-fangled gun developments.  But they did show interest in the Billinghurst-Requa Battery Gun.  Invented by Dr. Joseph Requa and built in late 1861 by the Billinghurst Company of Rochester, New York, it revived the old Ribauld or Ribauldequin principle of the Organ Gun but was breech-loading rather than muzzle loading.  Chambered in .58 caliber, this gun had twenty-five barrels that were mounted flat on a light metal wheeled mount and the sliding breech mechanism was operated by a lever.  Charging was achieved by using preloaded special clips.  Cartridges were of light steel and spaced in the 25-round clip to line up with the open rear of the barrels.  Once the breech was locked closed, each cartridge came to rest with its opening aligned to a channel filled with priming powder.  All 25 barrels fired simultaneously by a single nipple and percussion cap that ignited the powder train.  The Requa battery gun did not use paper cartridges inserted in the steel cases: the twenty-five cases were loaded by hand with loose powder and a patched ball.

Though crude, the Requa battery gun did employ the clip loading feature and the relatively quick means of locking and unlocking of the breech allowed a somewhat fair rate of fire.  With a crew of three men, the weapon could be fired at the rate of 7 volleys, or 175 shots per minute with an effective range of 1,300 yards.

25-shot Model 1862 .50 caliber Billinghurst-Requa Battery Gun.

This gun was also known as the “Bridge Gun” since most bridges were covered bridges, and with its restricted field of fire, once set up to defend a bridge, it was quite effective.  Its biggest weakness was the possibility of the powder train getting damp or wet rendering it useless and it was relegated to defensive missions rather than offensive use.  Nevertheless, this gun was used by both Union and Confederate forces.

Ager “Coffee Mill” Machine Gun
The first gun used in the American Civil War that came close to the mechanical definition of a machine gun was the Ager machine gun.  Invented by Wilson Ager (or Agar, it is spelled both ways in reference literature), the gun is a hand-cranked revolver-type weapon that can use either loose powder and .58 caliber ball projectiles, or an impregnated paper cartridge.  The gun got its nickname by the loading hopper attached to the top of the weapon and the operating hand crank thus resembling a coffee mill.  Steel tubes were loaded with a .58 caliber Minie bullet, a 750-grain powder charge and a percussion cap and were dropped into a gravity feed hopper.  Turning the crank pushed a loaded tube into the barrel chamber locking it in place and then a hammer dropped on the percussion cap firing the weapon.  Continuing to turn the crank handle then unlocked the breech, extracted the tube, and ejected it.  With continued rotation of the crank handle, the process would repeat.  If enough ammunition was prepared and the loader kept the hopper supplied with the loaded steel tubes, the Ager could fire 100 rounds per minute.  As this was a single barrel weapon, overheating was a problem that was addressed by a new unique feature: a (relatively) quick change barrel and two spare barrels were supplied with each gun.  The barrels were rifled and the maximum effective range was 1,000 yards.  Other features included a ball and socket joint mounting allowing for quick traverse and elevation adjustments and could be locked in place.  It was mounted on a light weight, two wheeled carriage with ammunition boxes mounted to each side of the gun on the axel.

The Ager was a very advanced weapon for the American Civil War era and quite a few were purchased.  Nonetheless, the military minds of the day did not know what to do with it or how to employ it to advantage, thus condemning it as impractical requiring too much ammunition and with just a single barrel, unable to reach sustained fire to the extent of being considered as an effective arm.  The guns that were bought, estimated at about 50, were relegated to covered bridge duty along with the Requa battery gun.  There were a few isolated instances where they were actually used in battle.

5-barrel Gardner gun. Note the gravity feeding bar that feeds each barrel individually.

There were other (successful) attempts at machine guns during the American Civil War that are mostly footnotes to history.  Among them are the Claxton machine gun in .69 caliber (two barrels), the Williams smooth bore machine gun in 1.56 caliber (single barrel), the 85-barrel Vandenberg Volley Gun in .50 caliber and the Gorgas machine gun in 1.25 caliber (single barrel).

Ripley Machine Gun
Invented by Ezra Ripley of Troy, New York, the Ripley machine gun was granted a patent on October 22, 1861, No. 33544.  The gun was never actually produced but it established a number of basic concepts that were used in the Gatling gun design that was patented the following year.  The Ripley had a nonrotating barrel group consisting of 9 barrels.  The breech block was detachable and had 9 chambers that mated with the barrels.  The chambers were loaded with paper cartridges and a nipple behind each chamber was capped.  As the breech block was locked in place with the loaded chambers lining up behind the barrels, a crank was turned that was located behind the cascabel that fired the barrels in sequence.  The rate of fire was determined by the speed the crank handle was turned.  When all the rounds were expended, the breech block could be removed for reloading and a fresh one inserted into the breech.

Gatling Revolving Machine Gun
Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling was born in Hertford County, North Carolina in 1818 and came from a family of inventors.  His father invented a machine for planting cotton and another for thinning the plants to a stand while young Richard assisted in the construction of these machines.  Richard Gatling then patented in his own name a rice planting machine.  Though born in the South, he felt there were better marketing opportunities in the North and he adapted his rice planting machine to other grains and 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, No. 36836, for “Improvement in Revolving Battery-Guns,” was granted on November 4, 1862.  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 a development that combined some of the principles of the Ager and Ripley guns.  Gatling’s gun was crank-operated with six revolving barrels around a central axis point that had a bolt for each barrel.  Cocking and firing was achieved by cam action and the weapon was gear driven.  A percussion weapon, the 1862 Gatling used steel tubes where a paper cartridge containing powder and a .58 caliber bullet were inserted and then a percussion cap was fitted to the nipple at the closed end of each tube.  These loaded tubes were then placed in a gravity feed hopper ready for firing.

The single barrel Ager ‘Coffee Mill’ gun was the first attempt at using a self-contained cartridge in a rapid fire weapon.

After a successful demonstration in Indianapolis in 1862, Gatling contracted with Miles Greenwood and Company in Cincinnati, Ohio to produce six weapons based upon the 1862 patent.  Unfortunately, as the weapons were nearing completion, the factory burned down destroying the guns, blueprints, patterns and pilot models.  Although nearly ruined financially, Gatling returned and partnered with McWhinny Rindge and Company, also of Cincinnati, to produce 12 guns of the 1862 model.  Shortly after the guns were completed, Gatling made some changes to these guns by using copper instead of paper in the loading tubes.  These were of the same .58 caliber and were rim fire that necessitated the placing of two projections on the bolt head to strike the rim fire primer.

Nevertheless, the 1862 model had its shortcomings with gas seal problems, getting the separate chambers to align with the bores, and feeding problems in general.  Gatling continued to perfect his gun by designing a breech system that would allow the cartridge to be inserted and withdrawn from a chamber that was an integral part of the barrel requiring the breech mechanism to have a reciprocal motion.  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.

Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon
Benjamin Hotchkiss was born in Watertown, Connecticut in 1826.  Serving as an apprentice at Colt’s Patent Firearms Company in Hartford, Connecticut, he became a master mechanic and is credited with designing and perfecting various models of the Colt revolver.  In 1860, he developed an improved system of rifling and a new kind of percussion fuze for projectiles.  As with so many American firearms inventers of the time, Hotchkiss went to Europe in 1867 where his inventiveness was given better consideration.  In France, he demonstrated an improved metallic cartridge case that was immediately ordered for manufacture in St. Etienne and the French placed an advance order for a machine gun Hotchkiss had in mind by using the destructive forces of an explosive shell in a rapidly firing gun.  With this backing from the French government, Hotchkiss remained in France and four years later in 1871 started his own company, Hotchkiss and Company.

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