Guillotines and Gatling Guns

Besides the alliteration, these two famous weapons had something very important in common. They were both created with the purpose of making death more humane. However, that didn’t keep them from causing an enormous number of deaths over the years.

The Guillotine:

The guillotine was an execution device used to behead criminals by dropping an angled blade on a person's neck, decapitating the victim. Below is an image of the Guillotine. The victims head would be placed in the hole below the blade.


The first execution using the Guillotine took place on April 25, 1792, in France. The Guillotine was named after a French physician named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, but he didn’t actually create the device. It was developed by Antoine Louis alongside an engineer named Tobias Schmidt. The Guillotine was named after Joseph-Ignace Guillotin because he proposed to the National Assembly in France that a better form of execution should be found. At the time the rich tended to be decapitated using swords or axes (which usually took 2-3 swings to kill the victim) and the poor were hanged (taking minutes to die). The King of France, Louis XVI agreed with Guillotin and set him to the task of developing the new method. Guillotin actually opposed the death penalty altogether, but at the time he thought that developing a method that would kill people quickly and painlessly was the best thing he could do. He even said, 

Now, with my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it!
— Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

He thought the new machine was a gift to those who were forced to be executed, but Guillotin always regretted that he would be remembered for the killing device. During the French Revolution alone, it was estimated that between 17,000-40,000 people were executed by the Guillotine. 

The Gatling Gun

Like Guillotin, the inventor of the Gatling Gun, Richard Gatling, also had his medical degree. However, he preferred not to practice medicine but instead to focus on being an inventor. He held patents on agricultural equipment, toilets, bicycles, tractors, and more, but his most famous invention was the Gatling Gun in 1861. 

GatlingGu .JPG

Gatling based his gun on an invention he had previously made to plant seeds. Although not technically a machine gun because it was hand cranked, the Gatling Gun is often viewed as the birth of the machine gun. It could fire 200 rounds per minute. This was an amazing rate of fire at a time when soldiers were still using muzzle loaded single shot rifles. Gatling was living in the midst of the Civil War and he realized that more soldiers were dying of disease than they were of bullets. He eventually stated, 

It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine – a gun – which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.
— Richard Gatling

It was Gatling’s hope that his gun would greatly reduce the number of troops in battle. However, this wasn’t the case. Although invented during the Civil War, only a few were used before the end of the war in 1865. The US army first officially bought Gatling Guns in 1866. Gatling hoped his new machine gun would discourage armies from going into battle against each other and he used his gun to try and reduce the number of casualties in war. However, his gun and machine guns in general likely increased the number of casualties. Especially since the Gatling Gun was often used by imperialistic nations who were conquering people with much less capable weapons. 

Some of these wars included:

Anglo-Zulu War

Indian Wars

Spanish–American War

Philippine–American War

Both Guillotin and Gatling hoped that the weapons named after them would be used to create a more humane world, but I’m not sure that either was happy with the way things played out. And while they may have had good intentions, they couldn’t stop these machines from causing an enormous number of deaths over the years.