From Gatling’s original patent on 4 November 1862 to 26 June 1883, American supremacy in machine-gun design went unchallenged. It is of particular importance to note that from the adoption of the Gatling gun by our Army until the conclusion of this era, there was no threat of war to our country. This disproves the pacifist’s claim that once any nation has fully developed a superior weapon, war is inevitable to prove its effectiveness.
In this peaceful era, the Navy demanded perfection from the weapons tried. Some of the requirements placed upon these guns seem impossible when compared with our present-day system of testing.
It should be especially noted that at this time a Naval Acceptance Board functioned. This body of officers had the responsibility of seeing that any gun inventor could bring his invention to trial for purposes of adoption, and of extending to him all assistance possible to make his weapon reliable and effective. In fact, some of the suggestions offered helped in no small way the phenomenal success the guns later enjoyed.
The intense and wholehearted cooperation of these officers not only contributed to the mechanical accomplishments of the weapon under test, but undoubtedly furnished the inventor an incentive, since he knew that these officers would give him all the help in their power. That this procedure paid big dividends can best be judged by comparing these 21 years of progress with any other period in the continuous effort to produce weapons.
The establishment by the Navy in 1872 of the Experimental Battery at Annapolis, Md., showed the farsightedness of the officers responsible for weapon development. This facility handled all the firing of prototype weapons. And certain defects, inevitably present during initial firing tests, were required to be remedied before the weapon was allowed to go before the board for final trial at the Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. The unbelievable performances of machine guns tested there was due to their having previously been fired under the expert supervision of Naval officers at the Experimental Battery. Many of the defects were eliminated that would otherwise have caused the weapon to fail during the rigorous acceptance trials demanded by the Navy.
Some of the official records from these two firing ranges of the Navy reveal performances that no modern fiction writer would dare to credit to the present-day machine gun; yet they were actual accomplishments of this era.
Incidentally the Experimental Battery at Annapolis was the pioneer Naval Proving Ground. In 1890 it was moved to a new tract overlooking the Potomac River at Indian Head, Md., and in 1921 the present Naval Proving Ground was opened at Dahlgren, Va.
Though these tests helped gun design, they did not enrich the designer. One fact, standing out above all others, is that during this era a successful machine gun inventor was compelled to go abroad to market his weapon, although in every instance it was first offered to his Government.
While the United States had no need, and no immediate prospect, of using these superb weapons, foreign governments not only recognized their superiority, but made every possible overture to induce the inventors to leave home and market their discoveries abroad. With no incentive in this country to warrant any other choice, a steady trek of gun geniuses left America for Europe to establish factories–not only taking with them the “know-how” and top talent of the gun profession, but, in most instances, staffing their foreign factories with the highest skilled Yankee machinists they were able to hire. Their services were thus lost forever to their own country. And the factories they established abroad have been there so long that today they are thought to be of foreign origin, when in reality they were started by skilled American citizens, building a product unwanted at home. Necessity alone placed them on foreign soil to design and perfect the deadliest known instrument of war–the machine gun.
The weapons of this quarter century were all manually operated. Since it was always necessary for a gunner to aim the piece, there seemed no reason why he should not also furnish the power to feed and fire the gun. Mechanical advantage was utilized to enable the individual soldier to maintain sustained fire with a minimum effort.
During the latter part of this era, the weapons reached such a high degree of efficiency it was predicted there was nothing left to be improved. They were accepted as “invincible reapers of death.”
As has been the case throughout weapon history, when perfection in the nth degree seems accomplished, an “impossible” principle is suddenly made to work. Past ideas, years of heartbreaking effort, and standards of perfection are outmoded overnight; yesterday’s invincible weapon is today’s obsolete scrap.