Task and Purpose, Francis Horton
History, North America
A war like no other spawned some crazy weapons.
If there is anything that drives innovation in science and technology, it’s a good old-fashioned war. When you need to kill your enemies faster and deader than they kill you, governments are willing to try nearly anything, no matter how insane it sounds.
That isn’t to say we haven’t gotten amazing technology from war. Rockets, microwaves and radar were all game-changing innovations during battle, but also have turned into essential pieces of our everyday lives, helping humanity even when we aren’t smashing and destroying someone else for looking at us funny.
But while fighting Nazis happens to have also given us a new way to heat up a beef-and-bean burrito, every war has its hits, misses, and downright bat-guano ideas. The American Civil War is no exception. Here are a few examples of technological leaps, and tragicomic missteps, in military machinery during the United States’ north-south skirmishes:
1. More bang for your buck: the Gatling gun
Repeating rifles were a big hit during the Civil War, especially for your front line troops who had to barrel-load their rifles every time they needed to get off a shot. American ingenuity has never shined more brightly than when trying to kill more people quickly and with less effort. And no gun of this era was deadlier than the Gatling gun.
The Gatling gun found its way to the front lines of the Civil War, but not because the American government saw them as a great leap forward in warfare technology that would change the battlefield forever. Instead, Union generals purchased them privately (hello, Second Amendment!) and dragged them to the front lines or attached them to naval ships. The Army didn’t officially adopt the gun until 1866. (It didn’t see much use in the Civil War, but was ubiquitous among federal troops in their brutal campaigns against the American Indians.)
The Gatling gun technically isn’t the first fully automatic gun, as it required one person to turn a crank to shoot it, rather than using an auto triggering mechanism — though one can imagine there’s not much room for semantics when your platoon is getting mowed down with the Civil War version of an A-10 Warthog. They also were the first crew-served weapons, as later versions could be mounted on armored field carriages.