In August 1910 Jacob Earl Fickel shot a rifle from from an aeroplane. He repeated the feat at an air show in 1911, putting six bullets through a dinner plate while flying 200 feet (61 m) from the ground. This circus-like demonstration led directly to the creation of the gun-armed aeroplane, a type that would become known as the ‘fighter’.
The gun-armed fighter would be a decisive weapon in many 20th Century wars. The gun has been a standard part of fighter armament for over 100 years with few exceptions. Let’s take a look at the ten most important fighter guns.
10. Vickers machine-gun (1913) ‘The Vickers’ missus’
The world’s first purpose-built warplane, the experimental Vickers E.F.B.1 biplane, was armed with a Vickers machine-gun (though by the time it entered service it been rearmed with the Lewis gun). The Sopwith Camel, the SPAD XIII and virtually all Allied fighters used at least one synchronised Vickers, due, most of all to its exceptional reliability. The weapon remained in service for a long time; the Gloster Gladiator was the last RAF fighter to be armed with them, though the Fairey Swordfish carried them right up until retirement 1945.
9. Maschinengewehr 08 ‘Spandau ballet’ (1915)
The answer call to the Vickers above was frequently a barrage of fire from the Imperial German air force’s equivalent: the LMG 08/15 and IMG 08 ‘Spandau’ machine-guns. The weapon of the greatest fighter pilot of all time, the ‘Red Baron‘ and armament to almost every German fighter of the War. More than 23,000 examples of the LMG 08/15 and an unknown number of the lMG 08 were produced during World War I
8. Mauser MG 213 (1944) ‘Reich said Fred’
The only gun on this list not to have entered service, the Mauser was still extremely important. The Mauser MG 213 was a revolver cannon developed for the Luftwaffe during World War II. It was initially a 20-mm weapon, but there was a 30-mm variant. Following Germany’s defeat this innovative design was closely studied around the world and directly influenced most, if not all, aircraft revolver cannons that have followed, including the British ADEN, French DEFA and American M39 cannon.
7. Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 (1949) ‘Hitting the Marx’
The NR-23 was the gun of Cold War Soviet air power. This 23-mm autocannon armed a number of aircraft, notably including the MiG-15 of Korean War fame. It was also fitted to the obscure and under-rated Lavochkin La-15, the MiG-17, some models of the MiG-19, the Ilyushin Il-28 medium bomber and the Beriev Be-6 maritime patrol aircraft. The 1974 Almaz 2 (Salyut 3) Russian space station was experimentally armed with an autocannon for self-defence, the Rikhter R-23, which would make it only space weapon on this list.
The NR-23 was scaled up to create the 30-mm calibre NR-30 used by the MiG-19, early MiG-21s, Sukhoi Su-7s and the Sukhoi Su-17, and as the Chinese Type-30 on the Shenyang J-6. An intriguing feature of the NR-30 was the ability to distribute chaff.
(With only ten places in this list there was not room for the Afanasev Makarov AM-23, which was a far fast-firing weapon largely used as a defensive weapon in larger aircraft part from the Tu-16 and Tu-95, Antonov An-8, An-12B, B-8, B-10, Il-54, Il-76, Myasishchev M-4, 3M and M-6 bombers and transporters)
6. MG 131 machine-gun (1940) ‘Goering of thrones’
At a mere 13-mm the MG 131 appeared to be lagging behind world standards in calibre terms by the time it was committed to action over Europe. However whilst lighter than any rival gun of equivalent calibre (it weighed only slightly more than half as much as an M2 Browning), it possessed an extremely high rate of fire. Being so small it could be crammed into the nose of tiny fighter aircraft, firing from the cowling or through the spinner, resulting in a much more concentrated gun harmonisation than was possible with wing-mounted weapons. It provided tragically capable and many Allies met their death by MG 131s carried by Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Fw 190s.
5. HS.404/Hispano 20-mm cannon (1940) ‘Britain’s French Heavy Metal’In 1939 the French had arguably the best armed air force in the world with the superlative 20-mm Hispano fitted to all their fighters. Sadly those fighters were generally woefully inadequate in all other regards. Meanwhile the British knew they needed a cannon but experiments with the 20-mm Hispano were proving unsuccessful. Designed to be used the right way up and fastened to a weighty engine block, laying the weapon on its side in a Spitfire wing was inspired but took a very long time to get to work. Persistence paid off however and the Hispano formed all or part of the armament of every British fighter aircraft from 1941 through to the advent of the ADEN cannon (which almost made this list). The Hispano was also produced in America, being particularly popular with the US Navy who employed it extensively through the late-war period and throughout Korean conflict.
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4. ShKAS machine-gun (1933) ‘ShKAS for questions’
The ShKAS was the fastest-firing rifle calibre (in this case 7.62-mm) aircraft armament in general service of World War II. 1,800 round per minute was virtually unheard of, and (the notoriously unreliable Ultra-ShKAS variant) unleashed a veritable firestorm of 3,000 rounds per minute! Extremely light and fast-firing, the ShKAS equipped the majority of Soviet fighters and bombers in World War II. Though not the most reliable weapon, it proved extremely effective. It influenced the ShVAK cannon (which narrowly avoided inclusion itself), and quite possibly the Mauser 213.
3. M61 Vulcan (1959) ‘Rotary club’
When Richard Gatling conceived his fast firing rotary gun in the 19th Century he considered that its awesome destructive effect would limit the size of armies and so reduce casualties, and maybe even end wars. This did not come to be. Though Gatling’s design offered high rates of fire, it was large and required external power, and by the early 20th Century its popularity had waned. Requiring fighter weapons of a higher firing rate Imperial Germany issued a requirement in the First World War for an aircraft-powered (engine or electrical system) multi-barrelled gun, a slew of prototypes followed. None entered full service but a Siemans’ prototype achieved an aerial kill during a combat evaluation.
Following World War II the US wanted a more destructive weapon than the Browning. The new gun should be capable of destroying enemy aircraft in the fleeting opportunities offered by the new era of high speed jet-v-jet combat, and the rotary cannon was the chosen solution. USAF tried 15-,20- and 27-mm rounds for the new weapon before deciding that the second option, 20-mm, was the best. The resultant M61 entered combat in 1965, and during the Vietnam War it was responsible for at least 39 MiG kills. It has also been used to devastating effect by many other nations’ air forces, notably Israel’s (on F-4s, F-16s and F-15s) and Iran’s (on F-4s and F-14s). It has armed almost every US fighter since the F-104 and today arms the F-22. Though superficially similar, Russia’s rotary cannons use a different principle, shunning electric power in favour of gas. Though historically not as significant as others on the list, its ubiquity and longevity have earned it a high ranking.
2. Berezin UB ‘The Union strikes back’ (1941)
The 12.7mm Berezin entered service a mere two months before Germany turned on the USSR. Strongly influenced by the Finnish 20-mm cannon, the UB was a fast-firing and effective weapon produced in large numbers. In 1941 6,300 were produced, and in 1943 the annual total jumped to an impressive 43,690. Similar production levels would continue for the rest of the war. The weapon was carried by the vast majority of Soviet wartime aircraft and was thus enormously important.
1. Browning ‘fifty-cal’ ‘Browned off’ (1940)
The Browning was the fighter gun that won World War II: it armed Spitfires from the Mark V onwards (smaller calibre variants of the Browning were also very important -notably the .303 weapons carried by earlier RAF aircraft), provided the teeth for P-51s escorting bomber raids over Germany and P-47s destroying tanks in Normandy, and it took the fight to the Japanese over the Pacific. Browning armed F-86s were credited with the destruction of 792 MiG-15s over Korea. This is an exaggerated claim but the fifty-cal is responsible for downing more aircraft in the post-war period than any other aircraft-mounted weapon. Despite a basic design approaching one hundred years old, the Browning is going strong as a vehicle-mounted weapon for forces around the world and forms the standard armament of the Super Tucano which is still in production. It was neither radical nor particularly advanced but the fifty-cal is probably the most successful airborne weapon in history. It is certainly the longest serving.
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