By Robert G. Segel
Miniature firearms have held the fascination of those interested in weapons for centuries. The art of producing scale models of firearms goes back to the 15th century and continues up to the present day by just a few highly skilled craftsmen. These firing and non-firing examples of high quality craftsmanship are not toys nor were they ever intended to be toys. These beautiful and exact works of art were designed and built to convey the skill of the arms maker and had to be exact in every detail. Cherished in museums all over the world are precise miniature examples of wheel locks, flintlocks, rifles, handguns, shotguns, Gatling guns and machine guns.
The skill of the craftsman is evident as they must use many different manufacturing techniques to produce a miniature that looks and feels “right” and is proportionally correct to its big brother right down to the proper sizing of the grain in wood stocks and fixtures. This was essential as not only were they made especially by commission for the demanding wealthy, but many of these miniatures were actually used as salesman samples by the arms makers themselves.
Manually operated rapid fire weapons are not technically classified as machine guns since the firing mechanism is not self sustaining. Though rapid fire is obtainable, each shot is the direct result of a deliberate physical action by the firer. They were, however, the first to provide a fairly reliable operating principle that afforded a higher volume of fire that was never achieved before especially with the advent of what we now consider to be the modern cartridge. Gatling guns have always held a fascination in the hearts and minds of shooters and collectors. Developed in the early years of the Civil War by Dr. Richard Gatling, his invention could fire at the previously unheard of rate of 200 rounds per minute. It was truly revolutionary. Used by many countries from around the world, his guns saw service from China to the Sahara and in conflicts from the Civil War to the Rough Riders charge up San Juan Hill.
One of the very first to tackle the complex task of creating quality operating miniatures of Gatlings was Dennis Tippmann of the Tippmann Arms Company. Dennis, a true mechanical genius, made a name for himself in the late 1970s by producing in 1/2 scale approximately twenty five Model 1862 Gatling guns in cal. .38 Special. It seems fitting that he chose the Model 1862 as that model was the very first model of a long line of Gatling guns made for almost 50 years with many incarnations and modifications.
In the 1980s, Furr Arms Gatling Gun Company produced a wide array of beautiful working Gatling guns in 3/4, 1/2, 1/3 and 1/6th scale in a variety of calibers. Models produced included the 1874 Gatling, 1876 Camel Gun, 1883 Gatling and 1893 Police Gun. A family business, Furr Arms always had the greatest emphasis on attention to detail in every aspect of their manufacturing process. Castings were designed in miniature from original Gatling parts and cast in their own foundry. After many hundreds of hours of work on each gun, the result is a working miniature that is so graceful and beautiful that one can hardly believe their eyes.
The legacy of making operating Gatling guns in multiple scales in the 1990s has been taken up by master machinist Richard Pugsley of Thunder Valley Gatling Gun Company in Palmyra, Nebraska. His Gatlings range from full scale in .45-70 govt. to 3/4 scale in 9mm and he is working on a 1/3 scale in .22 caliber. His guns are always a crowd pleaser at the semi-annual Knob Creek shoot. His quality and attention to detail carries on a culture of arms making that goes back many centuries. But even his Gatling manufacturing future is in doubt thanks to the Gun Control Act of 1994 which prohibits the manufacture of magazines, clips and feeding devices of over 10 rounds. He still has some guns in inventory with the full magazine capacity but when they are sold he is about done. Would you want to then buy a ten barrel Gatling gun for ten or twelve thousand dollars with a ten round magazine? And for you do-it-yourself types, there are ads for operating Gatling gun plans for sale but be warned. You can build the gun but if you build a magazine for it of more than ten rounds you may very well be looking at doing hard time in the Big House.
The Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon was invented by Benjamin Hotchkiss, an American, who went to France in 1867. He originated the 37mm projectile with a bursting charge and his revolving cannon was specifically designed for flank defense. Unique to it was that each barrel was rifled with a different pitch allowing the target to be “swept” by shrapnel. Though resembling a Gatling gun in its outward appearance, it is an original design. It has a single firing pin and a single loading piston and the barrels rotate intermittently thus allowing a pause during rotation at the moment of firing. This innovation eliminated the centrifugal force affecting the bullet when firing such guns as the Gatling where the whole mechanism revolves continuously at a high rate of speed during firing. The 1/4 scale Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon as built by Mike Suchka is a faithful operating rendition of the original.
Also commonly confused with the Gatling gun is the Gardner gun invented by William Gardner of Toledo, Ohio in 1874. It can be readily identified by the square receiver and horizontal alignment of the barrels with a bolt behind each barrel. The reciprocating bolts fired each barrel alternately left, right, left right, etc. in the two barrel model. There was a later version that had five barrels that operated in sequence. It was an extremely reliable weapon but the U.S. already had their Gatlings and dismissed it. Though the British used Gatlings very successfully, it was the British Royal Navy and then the British Army that ultimately embraced the light weight and dependable Gardner gun and it was deployed around the world to the far corners of the British Empire. It proved itself in battles in the Sudan at El Teb, Tamasi and the Upper Nile in the mid 1880s and in multiple skirmishes wherever the Empire needed to exert itself.
Of course any firearm can be the subject of a miniature rendition but it is the skill of the machinist that dictates the care and quality in which it is made. In a tradition dating back almost 500 years, it is still carried on today by a small group of craftsmen who do it for the love of the craft.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V3N5 (February 2000)