17 heaviest armed gunfighters/gunniest warplanes

Guns: before viruses took away the work of honest guns, people used these quaint objects to deprive others of life. Guns are horrible, but also exciting, things. Adding the excitement of the gun to the innately thrilling aeroplane produces a particularly compelling machine. Here are 17 designs that took this idea to extremes. Bang! 

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If Chekhov had a drone. Russian company Almaz-Antey developed a flying AK. A flying gun is not the same as an aeroplane with a gun so this will not be included.
B-17G-20-BO 42-31435 SU-S ‘West End’ (544BS, 384BG) with a six-gun chin turret modification.

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Nakajima G10N Fugaku, project Z (dis)honourable mention

What compares to forty rifle-calibre machine guns firing directly downwards from the belly of a huge aircraft? If nothing springs to mind, meet the Fugaku, proof that the Third Reich was not the only nation clutching at mad technical straws on the road to strategic ruin. The Fugaku project grew from the Imperial Japanese Army’s ‘Project Z’ calling for a bomber capable of attacking North America from the Kuril Islands. One of the proposed variants was a gunship version capable of firing 640 rounds a second, vertically downwards, from 40 bomb-bay mounted machine guns. Had the balance of resources in the Pacific war been a little different such a terrifying machine, possessed of an intercontinental range, may well have caused considerable disquiet to anyone liable to find themselves underneath it.

The Soviet toyed with arming a Tu-2 with 88 downward firing sub-machine guns. The guns took a long time to load, were prone to jamming –– and such was their limited range that they would have taken the Tu-2 well in range of every German anti-aircraft gun on the battlefield.

17. Naval Aircraft Factory N-1

Navies love big guns. When the age of the aeroplane arrived, navies of all nations decided to bolt the largest guns they could find to the newfangled flying machines. The fact that early aircraft were simply not ready for this sort of mighty weaponry doesn’t seem to have thwarted anybody’s enthusiasm. But then, if massive, seemingly unstoppable Zeppelins were bombing pubs and places of worship where you lived, well, you’d probably be willing to give something like the N-1/Davis Gun combination a go too. The aircraft was an underpowered float-equipped pusher biplane, something which wasn’t unusual in 1917. The Davis Gun was a little different though, the first relatively successful recoilless rifle it came in 40-mm, 62-mm and 76.2-mm versions, all aimed with a co-axial Lewis gun. It employed a counter charge firing a blast of steel balls packed in heavy grease out of the rear of the barrel to cancel the recoil generated from the round leaving the muzzle.

Four N-1s were built and none saw action unless one was to count two serious crashes as ‘action’. The Davis gun meanwhile was attached to various other more capable aircraft and several fairly incapable ones such as:

16. Pemberton-Billing P.B.29E/Supermarine Nighthawk

An interceptor with an endurance of up to 18 hours is pretty ambitious stuff, even by contemporary standards and was sensational for 1917. So was a closed and heated cockpit/observation compartment with an off-duty bunk for a crew of 3-5 men, a Davis gun, and an electric searchlight powered by an onboard generator. The only things it seemed to be missing were a baby grand piano and a humidor. The Nighthawk had everything, including massive drag. Hardly surprising when you have a stack of four 60-foot span wings. One thing it lacked in abundance however was horsepower. The combined output of its (unreliable) Anzani engines amounted to less than that of a mildly tuned Ford Fiesta and the ungainly Nighthawk could only drag itself to a maximum of 60 mph – thus rendering it slower than the Zeppelins it was supposed to chase down and destroy. This was R.J. Mitchell’s first ever aeroplane and it’s fair to say he went on to better things.

15. Robey-Peters Gun Carrier

It is difficult to overstate the effect that the initial Zeppelin raids had on Britain. These quite modest attacks, by modern standards at least, spurred a frenzied response from British aircraft manufacturers. One of the more impressive and least successful was the Robey-Peters Gun carrier. What could be more devastating than an aircraft mounting a Davis gun? Why, an aircraft mounting two Davis guns of course! Apparently ignoring petty concerns such as airworthiness and practicality, the Robey-Peters featured two tiny gondolas for gunners, armed with Davis guns, on either side of the fuselage under the top wing. Meanwhile the pilot was banished to a lonely outpost near the tail to perform his lowly duties in solitude. Alas, the Gun Carrier, in a fit of self-destructive irony, crashed into a mental institution on its first flight. No one was hurt but allegedly the President of the Robey Company considered it a bad omen and had the prototype burned. Meanwhile conventional machine-guns on existing aircraft were found to be reasonably effective against the dastardly German airships and interest in the various radical Zeppelin-killing aircraft with big guns had largely evaporated by 1918.

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14. Tupolev I-12

Two sections of municipal-grade steel pipe, each containing a 76.2-mm recoilless rifle were utilised to make this cannon fighter. Its push-pull mounted engines and twin boom layout make this a truly freakish artefact, even for the Soviet Union in 1931. Valid concerns regarding the pilot’s ability to escape in an emergency resulted in the grand total of one being built and flown.

13. Grigorovich I-Z

Designed, like the I-12 also to carry a pair of 76.2-mm recoilless rifles, the I-Z was a second Soviet attempt at a cannon-armed fighter. This one however, with its blast-reinforced fuselage to protect against self-inflicted damage, was a moderate success (by the decidedly mixed standards of this category of warplane at least). Although recoil had been eliminated, there were other serious issues to contend with. Sighting was problematic and rate of fire was non-existent as neither gun could be reloaded. Meanwhile shock waves emanating from the muzzle, smoke from burning propellant and spent casing discharge were also issues. Under 100 of these aircraft were eventually built, no doubt the machine’s two-round salvo was seen as a limiting factor though employment in numbers might have countered this deficiency somewhat. The I-Z was employed during development of the advanced Zveno parasite attack aircraft project but wound up little more than a curiosity.

12. Spad S.XII

Spad S.XII

Improved Spad S.VIIs with 37-mm cannon were envisaged to supplement squadrons equipped with the superb Spad S.XIII with its regular armament of two .303 Vickers guns. While that extra hitting power was welcome, getting there proved troublesome. All kinds of adjustments and compromises were made to accommodate the cannon and this resulted in a prolonged development period. The result was an aircraft completely different from the S.VII but ultimately not as good as the S.XIII. A geared V-8 engine was required to allow the weapon to fire through the propellor shaft and structural changes were dictated as well. The breech of the cannon, a Le-Puteaux quick firing infantry support gun with 12 rounds, also protruded into the cockpit obstructing the controls and compelling a change from an ordinary central control column to a trickier paired arrangement. Firing the gun was also said to fill the cockpit with smoke and the S.XII was unpopular in comparison to the S.XIII which was fast becoming a legendary warplane. Despite support and good results from aces, including Georges Guynemer and American ace Charles Biddle (the American Expeditionary force operated a single example), the project to add a big gun to Spad’s lineup can be fairly described as a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken. About 20 are thought to have been built of an order for 300.

11. Salmson-Moineau S.M. 1 A3

11. Salmson-Moineau S.M. 1 A3

From early 1915 onward it was apparent that First World War pilots would have to direct a little more than dirty looks and half a dozen pistol rounds at their kind on the other side. An impressively heavily-armed early aircraft, the boxy S.M. 1 mounted a pair of 37-mm cannon. Sadly, two unconventional design approaches hindered what should have been a hard-punching aircraft. The first was the selection of a gearbox and shaft system for connecting a single 240-hp engine in the fuselage to propellers mounted on struts between the wings. This odd arrangement gave a good field of fire to the two gunners but the transmission system was maintenance heavy and prone to failure. The second was the employment of an auxiliary wheel below the nose. The latter gives the S.M. 1 a quirky appearance, looking as if it were trying to be a taildragger and tricycle gear configured aircraft at the same time. The nose wheel was merely designed to prevent the aircraft going over on landing rather than to accept the weight of landing. In service however, the nose wheel arrangement was weak and prone to collapse. Nonetheless 155 were built and despite being generally unpopular a few were used right through to the Armistice.

10. Blackburn R.B.3A Perth

An inter-war artillerist, the Perth, a large tri-motor seaplane, was the RAF’s largest ever biplane seaplane. As such it was seen as a natural candidate for a large calibre weapon. Its armament of a 37-mm Coventry Ordnance Works gun was unprecedented in 1934 and this mighty weapon was envisioned to mete out damage to such diverse threats as smugglers, pirates, enemy seaplanes, blimps, submarines, torpedo boats, and lighthouses should the occasion call for it. As it was it never saw action. Four were built and the type’s service life was barely five years in length.

9. Hawker Hurricane IID

Everybody’s second favourite aeroplane may be a surprise appearance on this list but it shouldn’t be. A pair of 40-mm Vickers S Guns saw the Battle of Britain veteran cracking tanks in North Africa before the Kanonenvogel (of which more later) got into action. A small production run of Hurricanes with extra armour was made available for ground support and by all accounts the results were good. Deletion of six out of the normal eight .303 machine guns found on most Hurricane variants compensated for the weight of the bigger guns but their drag still chopped this Hurricane’s maximum speed to below three hundred miles-per-hour. Each S Gun salvo is said to have depressed the nose of a Hurricane IID by five degrees, demanding constant re-sighting for a multiple shot run. The flying can opener badge is still to be found on the tails of 6 Squadron RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoons a lifetime later.

Two Typhoon Aircraft from 6 Sqn based at RAF Leuchars, Fife, Scotland fly in a close formation over the Forth Rail and Forth Road Bridges, Edinburgh, Fife, Scotland. They then flew over St Andrews Old Course. The flight marked the stand up of 1 (Fighter) Squadron, Royal Air Force, equipped with the Typhoon, at RAF Leuchars.

8. Messerschmitt Me-262A-1a/U5 Schwalbe

A conventionally armed Schwalbe with its four 30-mm cannon might have found an honorary mention in the flying artillery hall of fame anyway but a 50-mm anti tank gun in that shark-like nose definitely guarantees a place. Fortunately for Allied bomber crews the entire 262 programme, including two versions earmarked for either a Mauser or Rheinmetall 50-mm autocannon, was hamstrung by administrative stupidity and huge technical headaches. One to three 50-mm rounds were calculated to be enough to destroy a B-24 or B-17. Extra points are awarded for its intimidating appearance.

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7. Douglas AC-47 Spooky

Terrifying rivers of lead and brass poured from this aircraft at 6000 rounds a minute when the AC-47 pilot activated his guns. Already a transport with an enviable list of achievements on its resume the C-47 popped up in green-and-brown camouflage as a fire support aircraft in the Vietnam war. Envisioned as a cost-effective alternative to greater numbers of existing ground attack aircraft, the Spooky was an innovative approach that proved terrifically effective. After field-based modifications using .30 calibre machine guns in pods and some rotary gun trials in the United States it was decided that three 7.62-mm electric motor driven Gatling guns firing through window ports on the pilot’s side of the aircraft would be optimal. A simple pylon turn with the left wing pointing at the target resulted in a sustained sweeping effect over a large enough ground area to disrupt enemy ambushes and assaults with dramatic success. The Spooky would soon find itself in serious demand all over South Vietnam and experience with it directly fostered our number one aircraft.

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6. North American B-25G/H Mitchell

North American B-25H during ground checks with engines running. Note muzzle of 76-mm gun below the quartet of .50 cals. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Complete with a gun of the same calibre as its ground-based equivalent, these two models of the ubiquitous Mitchell effectively became the Sherman tanks of the air war. Intended for the strike and anti-shipping roles they were offered to the RAF, USN and the USSR but only adopted by the USAAF. The short nose and squarish fuselage of the proven B-25 allowed for easy installation and operation (the weapon was hand loaded by the navigator) of a lightened version of the standard US medium tank gun. Considering that rockets, bombs, and no less than fourteen .50 calibre machine guns could be packaged on this platform it is a wonder it didn’t win the entire Pacific war single-handed. The aircraft was particularly effective against shipping, sinking barges, freighters and small craft and it was noted that a single well-placed hit could inflict considerable damage, even to a destroyer.

North American B-25G-5-NA “Blondies Vengeance” in the South Pacific. Note the massive gun in the nose contrasting with the laundry hanging from the tail. (U.S. Air Force photo)

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5. de Havilland Mosquito FB Mk. XVIII ‘Tsetse’

Intended as a tank destroyer, the ‘Tsetse’ (named for an African biting fly) was created by fitting a 57-mm quick-firing anti-tank weapon called a Molins gun into a standard fighter-bomber Mosquito. This formidable weapon could fire 55 rounds per minute in fully automatic mode. The Molins gun replaced the Mosquito’s normal primary armament of four 20-mm cannon but two or four .303 machine guns were retained in the nose to sight the large gun (the aircraft retained the ability to carry bombs or rockets on its underwing hardpoints). By the time the conversion flew, the 57-mm weapon was no longer competitive against armour so it was decided to operate the new variant in the anti-shipping role instead. The results were spectacular.

In about 14 months, eight U-boats were destroyed wholly or in part by Mosquito Mk. XVIIs, suggesting a cost-to-benefit ratio of impressive proportions. Enigma decrypted information was used to place the Molins-equipped Mosquitoes on top of the U-boats at the approaches to their pens in French ports and to coordinate anti-shipping strikes. At least one Ju 88 was destroyed by a Tsetse Mosquito in a fight during which a single 57-mm round was seen to rip one engine clean off the unfortunate Junkers. If you think all that was impressive, a 96-mm gun was apparently tested successfully right at the very end of the war in a single aircraft though photographs of this machine are suspiciously elusive.

4. Junkers Ju 87 Stuka Kanonenvogel

The Hs 129 had so many teething problems that Luftwaffe management decided to rehabilitate the Stuka as an interim tank buster. Although something of a lash-up, it was sickeningly successful at this job, utilising a 37-mm FLAK gun under each wing firing tungsten-cored ammunition. The Stuka pilot flying low and slow was able to select a line of fire onto the less-armoured upper and rear surfaces of Red Army tanks. It is said that Fairchild Republic engineers starting out on what would ultimately become the A-10 Thunderbolt II were each locked in a box with nothing but a lamp and a copy of Stuka Ace (and unrepentant Nazi) Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s memoir of his days as the eastern front’s top Luftwaffe tank destroyer. Rudel himself was employed as a consultant on the A-10 project which was a practical, though morally problematic, idea.

3. Henschel Hs 129B-3 Panzerknacker

The Hs 129 was an emergency effort to create a ground attack aircraft that could visit as much hate as possible on the armoured fighting vehicles of the Third Reich’s enemies. For size, its 75-mm gun is only matched by the armament of the B-25 and only exceeded by the AC-130. With 870 units manufactured it is also the most prolific of these big gunners. In the end, however, the 129 was another too-hasty technical fix brought on when the biggest criminal enterprise in human history, Operation Barbarossa, went bad.

Visibility was impeded by three inch thick armoured cockpit glass and stick forces were said to be high, both bad news for an aircraft meant to fly and fight so close to the ground. It could also have used more powerful, less seizure-prone, engines and better armour for its large fuel tanks. This aircraft’s standout feature remains the enormous auto cannon on the B models, the Rheinmetall Bk 75mm. This weapon was well engineered for installation in a plane, it was lighter than previous aircraft-installed versions of the 75-mm with a hydraulic recoil damping system, a rotary magazine and an improved muzzle brake design. Yes, the Hs 129 killed plenty of tanks and trucks but it got killed a lot itself.

2. Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II

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Letting this rugged aircraft retire seems to be impossible for the USAF. The chunky, turbofan-powered, straight-winged A-10 has written a whole new and lethally superlative chapter in all this ghoulish gun worship thanks to its hydraulically-operated, multi-barrel rotary cannon. Certainly, the wrecked Soviet-pattern tanks and other vehicles of the 1991 Gulf War alone attest to this weapon system’s effectiveness in terms of hitting power, rate of fire, accuracy and range. Consider the GAU-8A Avenger cannon for its weight alone at just over 600 lbs. That’s equivalent to more than two early examples of the PT6A turbine engine. Before a GAU-8 is removed from an A-10 for servicing a jack is placed under the tail so it will not drop to the ground, that’s how much influence the gun has on the design’s centre of gravity. Both the plane and the gun were called into existence in the wake of ground attack experience gained in the Vietnam war and with future possible conflict against the big battalions of the Warsaw Pact in mind. The war it was designed to fight thankfully never occurred but the straightforward A-10 has proved so relentlessly useful in a string of grubby conflicts over the years that it seems it will never be retired.

The GAU-8 was further developed into the 25-mm GAU-22 used by the F-35, a very powerful gun in its own right. Another aircraft that carried a 25-mm ‘gatling’ cannon was the Rutan Ares, with its GAU-12U.

It is a fact often overlooked that the Soviet MiG-27 also had a 30-mm rotary cannon. Whereas the A-10 was custom-made to handle such a big weapon the MiG-27 was an adaptation of a light fighter; the ‘Gasha’ was rather more gun than the MiG-27 could handle and its use came with a variety of technical issues.

1. Lockheed AC-130 Spectre

An armed version of a very familiar transport aircraft, with a history nearly as long as the Boeing B-52, the Spectre remains the most powerfully gun-armed aircraft yet flown. Guns including 105-mm howitzers, rapid fire 20-mm and later 25-mm and 30-mm rotary cannon, 40-mm Bofors guns (and even 120mm mortars in some versions) have been at the core of the AC-130’s strike capability since their introduction to the Vietnam war in 1967. The most recent version, the AC-130U, was still being accepted into service in 2017. Upgrade programmes for multiple sensor, targeting and navigation systems and a vast array of other weapons have been layered onto the AC-130 for decades now. Wherever the US has found itself fighting ground enemies this plane has been kept busy. Like the AC-47 did in its day, the AC-130 adds higher altitude loitering, allowing for an endurance no helicopter can match. When called by an observer to provide support the AC-130 can do so, with (mostly) great accuracy regardless of environmental conditions and with systems to protect it from hostile fire. None of this comes cheap but for fulsome effectiveness the Inspector Harry Callahan Lifetime Achievement Award goes to the AC-130.

– Stephen Caulfield/Ed Ward/ Joe Coles

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  1. anthrax2525

    The stick forces were high on the Henschel Hs 129 because there wasn’t much of a stick. The cockpit was exceptionally tiny to begin with (300 mm wide at the top, 1100 at the bottom and 1162 high), so there wasn’t a great deal of room for a proper control column or decent range of travel. That’s why the gunsight was stuck outside like a hood ornament and most of the engine gauges on the nacelle sides.
    The Hs 129 B-3 was the only type to be fitted with the 75mm gun (BK 7,5 – a modified Pak 40 75mm antitank gun). B-2s could be fitted with either a MK 101 or MK 103 30mm cannon in a belly pod, and the same BK 3,7 (Flak 18) 37mm gun toted by the G model Stuka was tested, but not accepted.
    The Henschel takes second place for biggest gun mounted on a *production* aircraft. The Piaggio P.108A Artigliere was fitted with a 102mm cannon (Cannone da 90/53, rebarrelled from 90mm to 102mm) for antiship work, but only one of that machine was made.

  2. Emmanuel Gustin

    Good post with some very interesting information, but I miss the Piaggio P.108A, which is a good candidate for biggest airborne gun — 102 mm! It’s true, in a four-engined bomber, so perhaps it was less impressive than the Yak-9K, which squeezed a 45 mm gun in the smallest possible of fighters.

  3. Glen Towler📷 (@NZAircraftFan)

    I read and believed that the Tsetse Mosquito was very effective against tanks. But the air ministry wanted to use rocket firing aircraft instead, LIke the Typhoon and Tempest and the 5 inch rocket was not a good as advertised. A salvo was meant to be the same as a broadside from a cruiser that is of course if the rockets hit their target.

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