The Gatlin gun changed the nature of warfare

By Lennox Farrell Wednesday May 16 2012 in Opinion
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The Ballad Of Crowfoot is a short film made by the National Film Board of Canada. It is available on the Internet on YouTube [website below].


This short film, useful as an educational tool, or for information and discussion in one’s place of worship or club, examines the situation of the First Nations – usually referred to as the Aboriginal peoples – through the figure of Crowfoot, the legendary 19th century Blackfoot leader of the Plains. The film is a montage of archival photos, etchings and contemporary newspaper clippings married to the lyrics and impassioned music of the Micmac poet, Willie Dunn.


The area occupied by the Siksika – called Blackfoot by Whites from the moccasins worn by them – covers parts of Idaho in the U.S., and Alberta in Canada.


Why this film? Every resident of Canada, to understand Canada’s checkered relationship with justice, should see this film. In particular, the clip in it of a Blackfoot warrior armed with bow-and-arrow; while another clip shows a member of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) behind a gun with revolving barrels: a Gatlin gun; the first machine gun.


This gun was developed in 1861 by Dr. Richard Gatlin, descendant of a slave-owning family from North Carolina. The earliest version had ‘reloadable steel chambers and used percussion caps. It was (however) prone to occasional jamming’; not helpful during the ensuing Civil War.


However, ‘the 1862 version (used) metallic cartridges – this version was (finally) bought and used by the United States Army’. And by 1873, the Canadian North West Mounted Police.


Why by the NWMP? Because of White settlement and development in territories belonging to Native Peoples, unrest had spread both in the U.S. and in Canada. The NWMP had subsequently been formed in 1873 and sent west in 1874 to establish and maintain ‘British-style law and order’ in this Canadian ‘Wild West’.


However, in addition to the Native populations in the North West, there already existed sizeable and long-standing communities of Métis – mixed-blood descendants of the early French and Scottish fur traders. Their petitions for recognition of their land-holdings and institutions, made progressively more urgent by the swelling influx of newcomers from the East, were not dealt with by the Dominion Government, itself established in 1867 as a Constitutional Monarchy.


In early 1885, the frustration finally flared into armed rebellion. It was led by the well-educated and charismatic Métis leader, Louis Riel. Invited to return from the U.S. where he had earlier fled, he persuaded the Indian tribes to join in a general uprising: the North-West Rebellion.


Going back more than a decade to the 1869 Red River Rebellion – the first crisis of the Confederation – Riel and his followers, to pressure the central government into addressing their land claims, had successfully established a Provisional Government; now the province of Manitoba.


In 1885, they established the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan, hoping to again pressure the Dominion as they had in 1869, to address the crisis of settlers on Indian lands.


However, while some things had remained the same, some had changed – strategically against the Indians. Europeans were still settling Indian lands. Europeans were still slaughtering the buffalo, a major source of food and utensils for the Indians and Métis. What had changed was the building in 1883 of the railroad – ironically rescued by the rebellion from financial failure – allowing the Dominion to send more troops more rapidly. Changed, too, was the available new weaponry: enter the Gatlin Gun! The uprising failed. Riel was hanged.


The Gatlin, evolving into the machine gun, would also change warfare across the globe. For example, European generals entering WWI, had ideas of warfare being fought much the same as during the Napoleonic era: opposing columns of infantry and cavalry being tactically deployed. Enter the machine gun. Enter trench warfare. Enter carnage, previously incomprehensible!


In fact, between WWI and WWII, Europeans – in four decades – slaughtered among themselves more than 60 million civilians and soldiers. This number surpassed the number of slaves it had taken Europe four centuries to capture, enslave and kill.


However, though Emancipation Proclamations had ended slavery, replacing them were the 1885 Berlin Conference that more effectively colonized Africa and, their handmaiden, the Gatlin gun!


The Ballad of Crowfoot is available at the following website:



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