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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Gun That Changed America

Karen Blumenthal

Roaring Brook Press




THE GUN THAT SHOOK ELIZABETH, New Jersey, was roughly the size of a new baby, eight-and-a-half pounds unloaded and 23.2 inches long without its stock. In less than a minute, it could spit out 800 bullets if you could feed it ammunition fast enough.

It was, without a doubt, an impressive little killing machine.

Sleek, compact, and efficient, the Thompson submachine gun was a new kind of weapon for modern times, developed by a career army man dedicated to providing U.S. soldiers with proper arms and ammunition. But the gun also had a heritage, descending from an expanding line of powerful military firearms. Probably its most direct ancestor was the Gatling gun, the first truly workable machine gun capable of rapid and regular fire.

Just after the Civil War began, Richard Jordan Gatling, a medical doctor, developed his gun with the hope that it could save lives. He later wrote to a friend: "It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine-a gun-which could by rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies..." That, Gatling thought, would greatly reduce the number of men who died on the battlefield from injuries and exposure to diseases.

The early Gatling gun was an ingenious and deceptively simple design: Six barrels were clustered in a tight circle. Initially weighing more than 200 pounds, it sat like a miniature cannon between two large wheels and typically was pulled by horses or mules. Several men worked together to operate it, turning a crank that allowed it to load ammunition, fire, and load the next barrel, dispatching as many as 200 bullets a minute. The multiple barrels meant that no one barrel overheated, allowing true continuous firing for the first time.

An early sales brochure touted it as "the most effective implement of warfare ever invented."

Unfortunately for Gatling, the Union army wasn't interested. One reason may have been that Gatling was born in North Carolina and was feared to be a Southern sympathizer. But there were other problems. The army's ordnance department, which was responsible for weapons and ammunition, wasn't the least bit intrigued by newfangled innovations, especially one that was untested in battle. Already, dozens of different weapons were in use. And since the machine gun was the size of a little cannon, it was seen as a piece of artillery-something that should fire big ammunition from a long range far from the front lines. But this one just spit out little bullets, and it jammed easily.

Even more, military leaders deeply distrusted such bullet-spewing machines. A machine gun ran counter to all battlefield tradition. Where was the glory, the heroism, the courage in turning a crank? In the next century, wars would be waged with big bombs, long-range missiles, and drones. But in Gatling's day, military men believed that war should be fought by men, not machines.

A couple of wealthy and forward-thinking Union soldiers bought several Gatling guns themselves and used them in battle. But the army didn't officially adopt the gun until 1866, after the war ended.

The Gatling gun wasn't formally tested in an American battle until 1898. That February, the USS Maine exploded in Cuba's Havana Harbor. The disaster was blamed on Spain, which controlled Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. In April, the United States declared war, marking the official start of the Spanish-American War.

Troops and supplies were dispatched to Tampa, Florida, to prepare for war in Cuba. One young second lieutenant, John Henry Parker, arrived eager to challenge the conventional wisdom that modern machine guns couldn't be productive in battle. He was certain they would be more useful on the front lines than back with the cannons and other artillery.

But Parker had a hard time finding a sympathetic ear. His direct superior told Parker that he simply wasn't interested. Parker created a written proposal and approached a top commander, but he was too busy to hear Parker's plan.

By luck, Parker met the Fifth Army Corps' ordnance officer, John T. Thompson, and made his case while Thompson enjoyed a dish of ice cream.

The thirty-seven-year-old Thompson was up to his ears in arms and ammunition. He had arrived in Tampa in late April to find supply trains backed up for fifty miles. Dozens and dozens of boxes of rifle and revolver cartridges, powder charges, and mortars were arriving daily, without a single mark on the box to describe what was inside. Matching the boxes with invoices that came either days before or after the boxes arrived was a nightmare. But Thompson knew that his arsenal included fifteen never-used Gatling guns, still in their crates.

Thompson told Parker that he, too, had long believed machine guns had a place on the front lines, and he offered to help convince their superiors.

In late May, Parker was allowed to form a small machine-gun unit to operate the Gatlings. A few days later, though, when the Fifth Army Corps began to move out, there was no mention of Parker's Gatling gun group.

Parker again hunted down Thompson, who was desperately trying to get ammunition and equipment to the boat headed to Cuba. Without seeking a commander's approval, Thompson offered Parker a deal. If Parker helped to load more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition onto the train supplying the ship to Cuba, Thompson would sneak on four Gatling guns as well.

The fighting in Cuba started in late June, and the American forces found some of their equipment embarrassingly out of date. The Spaniards had newer rifles and machine guns, while the United States was relying in part on inferior single-shot weapons. The U.S. artillery's black-powder ammunition left tufts of telltale white smoke around American positions, while the Spaniards used smokeless ammunition.

Initially, Parker's battery was held back as the Americans, trying to capture Santiago, faced relentless fire. Finally, Parker got the go-ahead to move his Gatlings up to the front lines. When the Spaniards looked over the trenches to shoot at the advancing American soldiers, Parker's men took aim, firing continuously for several minutes. The enemy "were seen to melt away like a lump of salt in a glass of water," Parker said later.

While the Gatlings provided cover, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were able to storm Spanish positions.

"Our artillery, using black powder, had not been able to stand within range of the Spanish rifles," Roosevelt remembered. But then the Gatlings engaged in direct battle.

When the relentless drumming of the machine guns started, Roosevelt called out to encourage his men: "It's the Gatlings, men! It's our Gatlings."

"Immediately, the troops began to cheer lustily," Roosevelt said, "for the sound was most inspiring."

The entire war lasted just a few weeks. At the end, Spain gave Cuba its independence and Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States. The United States paid $20 million for the Philippines. John Henry Parker earned the nickname "Gatling Gun" Parker for his persistence in taking the Gatlings along.

And John Taliaferro Thompson, now an up-and-coming officer in army ordnance, was convinced his country needed more advanced weapons and ammunition as part of a more thoughtful and well-planned arsenal.

* * *

Thompson's next assignment was to the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, where he oversaw development of a new bolt-action rifle, the Springfield M1903, based on a German rifle that had been used in Cuba. The new rifle, which used smokeless ammunition, was known for its exceptional accuracy at long distances, and a variation of it would be used by American troops for the next fifty years.

In late 1903, the War Department asked Thompson and Major Louis A. La Garde, an army surgeon, to combine their experience and lead a series of tests to choose the best pistol bullet for "stopping power and shock effect at short ranges." Officials were disturbed that the army's .38-caliber Colt revolvers hadn't done a very effective job in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Even when they were shot, some enemy fighters had continued to charge toward American soldiers.

Thompson and La Garde went at their work in a most unusual-and rather unscientific-way. They first rounded up ten cadavers, hung them by their necks so their feet were off the ground, and shot them with various guns loaded with bullets of different sizes, shapes, and weights. They tried to estimate how much each body part swayed when shot. Then they examined each wound to see if bones were broken and how much tissue was damaged.

To test "shock," they tied up cattle and horses headed to slaughter. Initially, they shot the animals several times and then waited to see what happened. When the first animals suffered for longer than expected, they tried a different "quick-fire" method, shooting until the animal collapsed. Wrote La Garde: "The animals invariably dropped to the ground when shot from three to five times with the larger caliber Colt's revolver bullets, and they failed in every instance to drop when as many as ten shots of the smaller jacketed bullets ... had been delivered against the lungs or abdomen."

The experiments were crude, messy, and inhumane, but they led the pair to a key conclusion: A military pistol or revolver of at least .45-caliber would be the most effective. The bullets used in .45 caliber pistols were shorter and fatter than those used in .30-caliber rifles and moved more slowly when fired. Rather than ripping straight through a person like a smaller bullet, the larger bullet was more likely to lodge in the body, sending a shock through the system. One man who had been accidentally shot in the shoulder by a .45 pistol round described it as if "about a dozen men had rammed him with a telephone pole."

By 1907, Thompson was senior assistant to the army's chief of ordnance, based in Washington, D.C. He urged gunmakers to develop .45-caliber military pistols that could automatically load a new bullet after one was fired so that soldiers could shoot more efficiently. Old-fashioned revolvers required pulling the hammer to load a bullet from the next chamber, which jerked the gun and made staying on target challenging. Reloading the Springfield rifle required moving the bolt up and back. Thompson's work helped lead to the army's adoption of the Colt .45 M1911 automatic pistol as its standard firearm. With each pull of the trigger, the gun reloaded from a seven-bullet magazine, what we call a semiautomatic weapon today. It became an army mainstay for decades.

As a top ordnance officer, Thompson created a detailed plan for increasing weapons manufacturing, ordering ordnance, and issuing supplies so that the United States could quickly equip 500,000 men if war broke out.

He also was an active member of the National Rifle Association, an organization formed in 1871 to improve the marksmanship of potential soldiers through training and shooting contests. The NRA got a boost in 1905 when Congress allowed rifle clubs to buy surplus military arms and ammunition for target practice and competitions, the association's primary focus well into the 1920s. In 1914, Thompson urged rifle practice for high school boys, in hopes that more men would be ready for military duty.

Most of all, Thompson wanted his country to be well prepared and well armed for war. In a 1905 speech in Davenport, Iowa, he told the audience that "extreme humanitarians," such as Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, believed that adding to the weapons arsenal was a bad idea because "the mere possession of the tools of war creates the desire to use them."

But Thompson disagreed. He sided with Teddy Roosevelt, now president of the United States, who believed in the maxim: "In time of peace, prepare for war."

Guns had come a long way since the Civil War. Once, many guns had been made by hand. The development of machine tools in the late 1800s had led to consistent, finely tuned parts and more precise construction. By the last part of the century, guns that used to be made of cast iron were now made from forged steel. That made guns more powerful and accurate and helped encourage the creation of a significant steel industry in the United States.

Still to come, Thompson predicted, were more formidable arms for modern battle, especially automatic weapons, which loaded ammunition on their own and fired a steady stream of lead with a single pull of the trigger.

In 1913, Lieutenent Colonel John Thompson was named a colonel. The magazine Arms and the Man applauded his promotion, calling him "an officer of exceptional ability" and a forward thinker "who labors with sound judgment to improve existing conditions." The article also noted that Thompson "has been greatly interested for many years in the discovery of an automatic rifle" and had encouraged gunmakers to develop one.

Like the pistol and revolver, machine guns had improved since the Gatling gun. But Thompson's superiors in the army still saw such guns as accessories rather than core weapons of war. Machine guns were considered "weapons of emergency" to be used only in special situations. The army's drill regulations in 1911 were almost condescending about such weapons, saying, "fire alone cannot be depended upon to stop an attack."

Even more clear: The U.S. Army wasn't going to make any effort to develop a better or lighter machine gun itself.

In 1914, as the First World War was breaking out in Europe, the fifty-three-year-old Colonel Thompson shocked many in the military by retiring from the army. Shortly thereafter, he signed on to help build and run a plant in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, to make Enfield rifles for British soldiers.

The job almost surely paid better than the army, but there was another reason for his departure. Thompson deeply believed American soldiers needed a lightweight, handheld automatic rifle that could deliver a scorching stream of bullets, machine-gun-like, to faraway targets. If there was going to be such a weapon, he concluded, he would have to create it himself.

Text copyright © 2015 by Karen Blumenthal