Friends of NRA Gatling Gun Shooting Event

*Video Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Television

By Peter Lawless
Event Support Coordinator, National Rifle Association

The Spanish-American War is one of the lesser-known conflicts of American military history, but somehow Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at San Juan Hill have attained legendary status despite the unfamiliarity.

On July 1, 1898, American forces in Cuba made an assault on Spanish defensive positions atop San Juan Heights, which were the main line of defense for the city of Santiago de Cuba and the Spanish naval base there. Among the nearly 15,000 American troops there were the “Rough Riders” of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, led by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

The effective range of American artillery was hampered by the use of less powerful black powder, so any American battery deployed close enough to support an assault on San Juan Heights would be an easy target for Spanish counter-battery fire.

Unable to use artillery, Lt. John H. Parker’s detachment of four Gatling guns were ordered forward to fire on the Spanish positions in support of the infantry advance. Weapons like the Gatling and the machine gun were very new to warfare at the time and had not been developed as offensive weapons, but the success of the upcoming attack would greatly depend on their firepower.

The Gatling guns at San Juan Hill were carriage-drawn, swivel-mounted 10-barrel guns chambered in the contemporary .30-40 Krag (at the time called .30 Army) cartridge. Between four and six soldiers were needed to operate each gun. Despite being exposed to Spanish small arms fire from the entrenchments 600 yards away and losing men to wounds and the unbearable summer heat, Parker’s battery fired over 18,000 rounds of ammunition for the duration of the attack. The fire from the Gatling detachment was so intense and accurate that witnesses to the battle recounted Spanish soldiers retreating out of their entrenchments to escape getting hit, and the guns only ceased fire because American units had advanced so close to the enemy entrenchments that friendly fire had become a serious risk.

Just the sound of the Gatling guns firing helped the Americans take San Juan Heights. Roosevelt himself recounted after the battle, “While thus firing, there suddenly smote on our ears a peculiar drumming sound. One or two of the men cried out, 'The Spanish machine guns!' but, after listening a moment, I leaped to my feet and called, 'It’s the Gatlings, men! Our Gatlings!' Immediately the troopers began to cheer lustily, for the sound was most inspiring." Even after the heights had been taken, the Gatlings continued to fight by repelling Spanish counterattacks.

After the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt went on to become Governor of New York, Vice President and then President of the United States. He was a staunch supporter of the shooting sports and firearms education. While serving as President, he established the National Matches, the Small Arms Firing School, and the office that would eventually become the Civilian Marksmanship Program. Roosevelt also became a life member of the National Rifle Association in 1907.

In commemoration of the Gatling guns’ role in the Battle of San Juan Heights, Friends of NRA created a unique display for the 2013 Standard Merchandise Package featuring a bullet and casing fired from one of the original Gatlings in Parker’s detachment, a photo of Teddy Roosevelt with his Rough Riders, and a brief summary of the battle provided by the National Firearms Museum. The owners of the Gatling gun generously loaned it to NRA Field Staff, who fired over 1100 rounds and recovered each bullet and casing to make this one-of-a-kind item possible. After the 2013 banquet season concluded, supporters who had won the commemorative display in auctions at Friends of NRA banquets were invited to a special event in early 2014 to shoot the historic Gatling gun themselves.

The Friends of NRA Gatling gun shooting event was special not only because of the gun’s rareness, exciting capability and its particularly special place in American military history, but also by its indirect attachment to Teddy Roosevelt. That Gatling gun and its crew protected the future president who advocated the shooting sports in his time, just as Friends of NRA supports the shooting sports now. Firing the Gatling gun creates an experiential connection between the men at San Juan Heights in 1898 and the person turning the crank today. That connection is one that inspires Friends of NRA’s commitment to preserve our uniquely American traditions and the desire to leave a legacy much like Teddy Roosevelt did, both as a Rough Rider and a proponent of the shooting sports.