Dentist Helped Save The
THE STORY OF DR. JOSEPHUS REQUA
(1833-1910), A DENTIST, AND HIS CIVIL WAR MACHINE GUN
by Warren Kling
is somehow eminently appropriate that a dentist invented the machine gun. That
dentist was Josephus Requa, born in
in 1833, the son of Charity Middagh and James Jackson Requa. When Josephus was
14, the family moved to
where from 1849 to 1852 the boy was apprenticed to William Billinghurst
(1807-1880), a gunsmith. In 1853, the 20-year-old Josephus began the study of
dentistry and commenced practice two years later in Springwater,
By 1858, he had returned to
and opened a dental office in
he was 31, Dr. Requa married Mary A. Groat in a
August 2, 1864
Their first child, Leroy, was born in 1866, and their second,
in 1868. The baby
however, died on
at the young age of four months, 22
1861, three years before his marriage and coincidental with the beginning of the
Civil War, Dr. Requa introduced the first rapid-fire machine gun with metallic
cartridges to be used in the war. This is the story of that momentous invention
in the history of American weaponry.
The Need for a Rapid-Fire Gun.
An article in the Rochester Daily Union & Advertiser on
June 29, 1861
reported that Albert Mack, who was employed by the Monroe County Penitentiary,
had suggested to Dr. Josephus Requa that the Union army needed a rapid-fire gun.
Requa, the article stated, gave it some thought, came up with a design, and
mulled it over with his teacher, friend, and master gunsmith, William
Billinghurst. A scale model was finished on
July 11, 1861
, and after
favorable reviews from some prominent Rochesterians, Requa and Billinghurst
decided to build a full-size, working prototype. This was manufactured at
Billinghurst's shop, which was then located on the second floor of
. It cost $500 to
first practical machine gun was known as the Requa rifle battery and consisted
of 25 two-foot-long heavy rifle barrels mounted horizontally on a frame secured
onto a two-wheel carrier. Its gross weight was 500 pounds. Twenty-five metallic
cartridges were held together by a steel clip and loaded as an en bloc unit. The
conical bullets in each cartridge were .52 caliber and weighed one ounce. One
percussion cap fired all 25 barrels in a volley, and three men could reload
seven times a minute, thereby firing 175 shots per minute. The rifle barrel
assembly could be raised or lowered for distance.
unique feature of the weapon was the ability to spread the gun barrels in a
wider horizontal arc, covering more area with bullets. The gun was nickname d
the "street sweeper." It was particularly effective when placed near a
bridge or other strategic location where the width of the road or other
passageway was restricted, thus making it impossible for the enemy to pass.
Getting the Union Army Interested.
After building and testing the working prototype, the next challenge was to
interest the Union army in the invention. This proved to be much more difficult
than anyone could have imagined. Dr. Requa traveled to
April 22, 1862
in the hope of setting up an appointment with appropriate personnel in the
Ordnance Department. Failing to get an appointment, Requa, rather than giving
up, persisted. He finally secured an appointment with Brigadier General James W.
Ripley, who was chief of ordnance procurement. The meeting turned out to be
shocking to Requa. General Ripley summarily dismissed him with this logic: Even
if the weapon performed as claimed, his soldiers could already fire rapidly
enough, and this proposal wasted much too much ammunition. Ripley maintained
that this rapid-fire gun would only serve to aggravate the situation and cost a
fortune in special ammunition.
Requa Approaches President Abraham
The position of General Ripley defied rebuttal, but Requa refused to accept
defeat. He secured a letter of introduction to see President Abraham Lincoln and
met with him on
listened attentively to the details of Requa's proposal and Ripley's response.
The president then scribbled a note which he handed to Dr. Requa. It was short
and to the point: "Gen. Ripley, please see Mr. Requa. A. Lincoln,
May 1, 1862
note, however, proved futile, because General Ripley would not budge from his
position. Requa, undeterred, spoke again to President Lincoln. This time,
took charge of the situation. He told General Ripley that a test should be
scheduled and that he would personally be present to witness it.
The President Attends Gun Tests.
At last on
, the machine gun underwent its first
military tests by the Ordnance Department. And
indeed was present but apparently had to leave before the tests were concluded.
A series of tests were conducted for range, firing rapidity, accuracy, and
penetration, and the results were favorable. Another test, therefore, was
for Brigadier General A. W. Whipple, a
Defense Department commander. The test results were issued on
May 28, 1862
again with positive results. The concluding comments indicated that the gun
would be an asset to the Union army.
of this promotional effort was taking its toll financially for Dr. Requa, who
had been taken away from his dental practice for months. And even after these
two successful military tests, there was no purchase order imminent. Requa and
Billinghurst, now short of funds, had to secure venture capital. They approached
Smith and Bradley, who naturally wanted some tangible evidence of the weapon's
value before they committed a large monetary outlay. So a demonstration was
planned that would show the accuracy and destructive power of this machine gun
Demonstration Convinces Financiers.
selected as the test site. Local newspapers alerted the general public to the
fact that this demonstration would occur on
. As a result, a large crowd gathered
to watch as the rifle battery was set up aimed at a wooden barrel target in the
Genesee River 1,800 feet away. The firing commenced, riddling the barrel full of
holes. The crowd cheered in awe. The financiers agreed to appropriate funds for
the manufacture of the Requa rifle batteries. Contracts were then drawn up for
component suppliers, such as Remington Arms, who manufactured the rifle barrels.
Parmenter & Bramwell in
30 units and 20 more were made in
at Billinghurst's shop.
number 36,448 for the machine gun was issued to J. Requa and
September 16, 1862
on the day
before the Battle of Antietam, one of the bloodiest of the Civil War.
The Requa Rifle Goes to War.
Albert G. Mack, who originally planted the idea in Dr. Requa's mind of the need
for a rapid-fire gun, was now captain of a volunteer company, the 18th
Independent Battery, New York Light Artillery. He received a few of the first
Requa guns assembled in the Billinghurst shop. The 18th Independent Battery
became known as "Mack's Black Horse Battery," since the rapid-fire
guns were each pulled by a team of charcoal black horses.
March 7, 1863
Daily Union & Advertiser published
a Civil War song written for and sung by Mack's Black Horse Battery. One verse
describes their unique strength:
Our men are prompt
when the bugle calls,
And our guns can pour a storm of balls;
In the ranks of war, the fiercest blaze
Will be where the Black Horse
such publicity, Mack's unit had no trouble signing up volunteers at 31 Reynolds
. The unit
operated from September 1862 until July 1865, seeing duty in
and at Port Hudson,
First Performance Less Than Stellar.
The first deployment of Mack's artillery unit was to
, and it proved to
be less than stellar. The Requa rifles arrived with the regiment, but 4,000
rounds (25 cartridges per round) of the special ammunition was shipped
by boat. The boat never made it, however, having been sunk near the
The Requa Rifle Scores in Other Battles.
The Requa guns had not been officially accepted by the military since no final
report had yet been issued by the Ordnance Department. They had, however,
performed so successfully in many tests conducted by the military that a number
of regiments had ordered and deployed the advanced guns in various Civil War
battles. One of these was the recapture of
in September, 1863. Other deployments occurred at
Final Test for the First Machine Gun.
The last of Ordnance Department tests for the Requa rifle battery took place at
the Washington Arsenal in August, 1864, and the final report was issued in 1866.
This report indicated, as had the earlier reports from previous tests, that the
Requa rifle performed very well, was user friendly, and was very reliable. The
department ordered five additional guns after the Civil War had ended.
Requa, who was exempt from the draft as the only child caring for an elderly
parent, enlisted in 1864 as a member of the 5th Regiment of the 84th New York
National Guard and was assigned to a Confederate prison in
. The 5th
Regiment saw duty for just three months, and Dr. Requa never considered himself
a Civil War veteran.
The Requa Rifle Becomes a Museum Piece.
The first machine gun by Dr. Josephus Requa was displayed at the Pan-American
Exposition in 1901,
battery guns can still be seen at various military museums around the country.
One held by the military museum in
presently on loan to the Smithsonian Institution in
full-scale working prototype, serial No. 1, is presently on display at the
Springfield Armory National Historic Site in
Others are located at the U.S. Marine Corps Museum in the Naval Yard,
, and the
few years after the close of the Civil War, the Gatling gun replaced the Requa