Anyone who has ever watched The Last Samurai from start to finish will know how unimaginably cool a gatling gun can be when used against a larger force (or a smaller one). But if you haven’t seen the movie, we’ll ruin the ending for you: Tom Cruise’s idiot character decides to stand with a small group of samurai warriors in defense of the “old way.” Those defending the old way have swords and armor, and those trying to wipe it out have muskets and uniforms. And gatling guns.
Against all odds, the last remaining samurai warriors break through the enemy lines to charge toward the commanders on horseback, only to be completely mowed down and slaughtered when the new wave employs gatling guns toward the rear.
Considering the timeline of the movie, it made us ask a single simple question: were gatling guns ever used against Native Americans and to what effect? To put it into perspective, gatling guns were first patented in 1862. The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in 1876. That’s plenty of time to implement even more genocidal tendencies than our armies had implemented before.
So did we?
The most important thing is that we had the option. More specifically — Custer had the option just before he went to his grave. He proposed that the guns would reduce mobility too much to make his force effective in battle. Whoops! Other military commanders agreed that gatling guns simply weren’t worth dragging into a mobile fight. They were heavy and unwieldy, and Native Americans often retreated to rough or mountainous terrain — which meant gatling guns could not follow.
But they were used during some battles. For example, they were effective in taking down the Cheyenne in Oklahoma during conflicts in 1875. They were also used in the Red River War in Texas and the Nez Perce War, both of which occurred in the mid-to-late 1870s. Other uses occurred during the Sioux Wars and the Bannock War.
The guns seemed to be used to limited effect, but little information is available to support any claims.
More likely, it seems that the gatling guns probably prevented the Native Americans from launching any effective countermeasures. That’s because almost all US Army garrisons had support from the guns. Even if the Native Americans outnumbered American soldiers 10 to 1, the guns could probably provide enough fire support from a fortified location to defend against any attack. The offensive capabilities of the guns where they were most likely to be used were probably limited, however.