Abe and the Coffee Mill

June 24, 1861
Abraham Lincoln today went to ordnance proving grounds in Washington and watched demonstrations of new weaponry. He fired several of them, including the first “machine gun” that the US Army ever purchased.

The “coffee mill” gun

Lincoln, no stranger to weapons having grown up on the frontier, was something of a gun and technology afficionado. He watched naval gun demonstrations along the Anacostia River, and he had a keen interest in the weapons that the ordnance department was sending to men preparing to fight the Civil War.

Today, Lincoln is thought to have tested some seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles, as well as something he called a “coffee mill” gun.

Indeed, the weapon, mounted on a wheeled carriage, had a hopper atop it and a hand-crank to the side, given it much the same appearance as a coffee mill. The hopper was for cartridges to feed into the gun’s breech as the operator turned the crank. Because of its mechanics, the gun was neither automatic nor a real machine gun, but it sufficed for the time.

The Ager Company, the gun’s manufacturer, had tried for some time to interest the ordnance department in the gun to no avail. US Army ordnance chiefs were notorious (even through the Indian Wars) for hating repeating weapons as they might cause men to waste ammunition!

Lincoln fired the coffee millt, and he was suitably impressed. He ordered the ordnance department to order 50, even at a cost of $1,300 each. 

The guns may or may not have seen service. The 28th Pennsylvania reportedly fired some at Confederate cavalry in early 1862, but sent them back to Washington as unsatisfactory. As many as 16 of the guns were apparently at the federal stronghold of Harper’s Ferry when Stonewall Jackson captured that place in September 1862. What happened to the guns is unknown.

Long, Day by Day
Joseph G. Bilby, “Load the Hopper and Turn the Crank,” America’s Civil War, March 17, 2007.

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