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An 1883 Model Colt 10-barrel Gatling gun. Mounted on its original carriage and complete with limber and a rare Accles ammunition feed drum, it sold for $185,000 (£141,220) at Cowan’s.

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At Cowan’s (20% buyer’s premium) auction in Cincinnati on December 4 just such a weapon took pride of place, selling for $185,000 (£141,220).

Richard Gatling was a serial inventor for whom the first truly effective machine gun was apparently just an adaptation of his earlier seed planter. His motivation seems to have been equally unlikely. In 1877 he stated:

“It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.”

However misguided his reasoning, his invention was very clearly thought out. The mechanics that sowed seeds in regular drills were clearly adaptable for achieving a sustained volley from a single weapon and the multi-barrel design meant that there was a sufficient pause between the firing of each barrel to allow it to reload and cool. That proved to be the secret behind the continuous fire that had the potential to revolutionise warfare.

Civil war tentative beginnings

This potential was not quickly realised. Though Gatling guns were available to Union commanders during the American Civil War, they never had a decisive impact, perhaps because their final horrible role was not appreciated at the time.

As can be seen from the wonderfully complete equipment offered at Cowan’s, the Gatling gun was considered as an artillery piece, deployed complete with carriage and limber to carry the large amount of ammunition it was capable of firing. This meant that it was difficult to manoeuvre in overgrown or hilly country.

And so it was that it was only in the trench conditions of the Great War that the terrible power of the machine gun was fully realised.

Rights sold to Colt

The gun and limber offered at Cowan’s dated from 1887, by which time Gatling had sold his rights to the invention to Colt and it was one of 20 in 45-70 calibre delivered to the US Army in that year.

The carriage and limber were original and the 10-barrel gun was fitted with an original Accles ammunition drum which allowed the cartridges to fall into each chamber in turn as the operating crank was turned.