Originally published in Points West magazine
Cody Firearms Museum acquires Gatling Gun mount
By Howard Michael Madaus
Former Curator of the Cody Firearms Museum, Robert W. Woodruff Firearms Chair
During the final months of World War II, the jet fighter suddenly appeared in the skies over Europe. The speed of the new aircraft and the relatively slow cyclic rate of the then-current aircraft machine guns made it difficult to counter the impact of this new technology. The aircraft machine guns simply could not deliver enough damaging firepower in the short span that the jet aircraft was within the sights of its guns. As a result, in 1945, the Army Air Corps commissioned a study to develop a more rapid-fire aircraft weapon.
Melvin M. Johnson, designer of the Johnson semiautomatic rifle and the Johnson light machine gun, was selected by the War Department to conduct a feasibility study on a rapid-fire aircraft cannon on the principle of the multi-barreled “Gatling Gun.” When Johnson sought to field test one of the nineteenth century Gatling Guns, the War Department could not find one—all had been discarded as surplus in the early part of the twentieth century.
At Bannerman’s famous war surplus store in New York, however, Johnson located and purchased what he needed—a Model 1883 Gatling Gun made by the Colt’s Patent Firearms Company in 1886. Johnson bought the ten barrel, brass encased, .45 caliber battery and tested it, first by belting the gun’s cranking handle to a truck engine, and then to an electric motor. The result was amazing; a cyclic rate of fire of over 5,000 rounds per minute (nearly two and a half times the .50 caliber aircraft machine gun’s rate of fire) was achieved! On the basis of this feasibility study, the “Vulcan” 20 mm aircraft cannon was developed. An entire generation of “Gatling Gun” type weapons followed.
Meanwhile, in 1949, Melvin M. Johnson’s arms ventures, without the support of government programs, collapsed, and much of his inventory and test arms were acquired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company of New Haven. Among the items transferred was the Colt made Model 1883 Gatling Gun that Johnson had used in his feasibility tests. On February 18, 1949, this gun was incorporated in the Winchester Gun Museum. In 1976, when the Winchester Gun Museum’s collections were placed on loan to the Buffalo Bill [Center of the West], the Model 1883 Gatling Gun came with it, and in 1988, courtesy of Olin’s magnificent gift to the Center, the gun became a permanent addition to the Cody Firearms Museum.
Unfortunately, the Gatling Gun that Melvin Johnson had purchased from Bannerman did not include either a tripod mount or the typical Army field carriage upon which the gun was fired. Carriages from the era of the Gatling Gun’s use are rare without the gun attached, and the Cody Firearms Museum looked for one for seven years before one became available.
Returning from the Las Vegas arms show in February, I sat next to a retired arms dealer and consultant, J.R. LaRue. When our discussion turned to the museum’s Gatling Gun in storage, Mr. LaRue commented that he knew of a carriage that was about to be sold as part of the disposition of a major Hollywood rental agency sale. We asked him to pursue the item, and in May 1999, the purchase of a Model 1895 Army field carriage occurred. By mid-June, the carriage arrived. The Colt Model 1883 Gatling Gun we had received from Olin was quickly mounted on the new carriage, and it was placed on display in the Cody Firearms Museum breezeway. The new display was an instant success.
Gatling gun, ca. 1886. Colt Patent Firearms Manufacturing Co., Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of the Olin Corporation, Winchester Arms Collection. 1988.8.3327