A Brief History
On July 28, 1935, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress made its initial flight. Called the Flying Fortress because of its unprecedented heavy armament of 12 (later13) .50 caliber machine guns, this mighty bomber would be eclipsed by other planes in future years. Here we list 10 of the Most Heavily Armed Warplanes, meaning armed with machine guns and cannons. (No significance to the order listed.) Obviously, World War II was the golden age of gun armament, with modern fighters using missiles as primary armament. Still, some modern planes have impressive guns nonetheless.
1. Convair B-36 Peacemaker (1949-1959).
The largest plane in the world when it was introduced, this transcontinental bomber had 6 radial piston engines driving 6 pusher type propellers and an additional 4 turbojet engines, giving it a total of 10 engines! The B-36 needed all that power to carry up to 86,000 pounds of bombs and sport a devastating self-defense battery of 16 X 20mm cannons! These 16 cannons represent the heaviest defensive firepower ever on an airplane. The guns were located in 6 retractable and 2 fixed turrets, and were later deleted except for the tail guns. This was the last of the heavily armed bombers defended by guns, with future bombers protected only by tail guns.
2. North American B-25 Mitchell (1941-1979).
A twin-engine World War II do everything bomber, it was heavily armed with an array of .50 caliber machine guns that numbered from 12 to 18 depending on configuration, the most machine guns ever mounted on an airplane. In a strafing rig, the Mitchell had an 8 machine gun solid nose with an additional 4 “cheek” guns, which coupled with the top turret could give the bomber an incredible 14 forward firing .50 caliber guns! Four of the nose guns could be replaced by a 75mm cannon, giving the B-25 the ability to sink a ship by gunfire alone. (The 8 X .303 caliber machine guns of the Avro Lancaster seem pathetic by comparison!)
3. Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (1958-2004).
You might not think of a lightweight single engine fighter as a heavyweight gunship, but the F-104 was the first fighter to come armed with the M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon, which launched 6000 rounds per minute, much more firepower than previous planes armed with 4 normal single barrel 20mm cannons that fired only about 450 to a max of about 1000 rounds per minute. When first introduced, the F-104 could put more pinpoint firepower onto an enemy than any other fighter. Early Soviet jet fighters had 2 X 23mm cannons that fired at a rate of 850 rounds per minute and a slow firing 37mm cannon. The Soviet answer to the M61 was a 23mm cannon mounted on the MiG 21 that fired about 3500 rounds of 30mm cannon ammo per minute, a devastating fusillade itself.
4. Messerschmitt Me-262 (1944-1951).
World War II saw fighters and bombers often armed with .30 caliber machine guns and then .50 caliber machine guns, but experience showed heavier firepower was needed to down tough bombers with armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and multiple engine. At first 20mm cannons provided an upgrade, but for bomber busting, more gun was needed. Thus, when the Germans fielded the Me-262, the first operational jet fighter, it was given a heavy suite of 4 X 30mm cannons that fired 650 rounds per minute (each) of high explosive shells, plenty of firepower to knock any airplane out of the sky. Although some fighters were experimentally or in limited numbers equipped with heavier guns, probably no other fighter of World War II had a more effective gun package. As measured by weight of fire per second, the Me-262 produced a WWII best of 12.5 kilos per second. (Second place was the Hawker Tempest at 6.5 kilos of ammo per second, showing just how powerful the Me-262 gun package was!)
5. Douglas AC-47 Spooky (1965-Present).
Also called “Puff the Magic Dragon” the Spooky is an adaptation of the pre-World War II C-47 twin engine cargo plane, that itself was an adaptation of the DC-3 airliner. Armed with 3 X GAU-2/M134 “mini-guns” of 7.62mm caliber, the guns poured up to 6000 rounds per minute EACH out the side of the gunship, an incredible 18,000 rounds per minute onto the hapless enemy soldiers on the ground. (An alternative armament was 10 X Browning AN/M2 .30 caliber machine guns, with 1500 rounds per minute each, for a theoretical 15,000 rounds per minute onto the enemy, though in practice this arrangement was not as effective as the mini-guns.) Other countries copied the US gunship idea with the C-47, and used a variety of other armament, often .50 caliber machine guns or 20mm cannons. The Spooky was so loved by ground troops that the Air Force developed an AC-119 (4 X mini-guns and 2 X Vulcan 20mms) and AC-130 follow on gunships.
6. Lockheed AC-130 Spectre (1968-Present).
The big daddy of the gunships, the AC-130 is of course an adaptation of the C-130 Hercules cargo plane, powered by 4 X turbo-prop engines. Armed with a variety of gun suites depending on the model, typical armament is a 105mm howitzer, a 40mm Bofors cannon, and 2 X M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling guns. As frightening as that armament is, the latest versions have a GAU-12/U 25mm Gatling gun (4200 rounds per minute, usually held to 1800 rpm), a 40mm Bofors cannon and the intimidating 105mm howitzer. Another recent edition boasts an ATK GAU-23/A 30mm Gatling gun to go with the 105mm howitzer and an array of guided and unguided missiles and bombs. The AC-130 has all the latest sensors to “see” the enemy in the dark and in poor visibility or through camouflage and represents the highest achievement in gunship technology so far.
7. Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II (1977-Present).
Also lovingly called the “Warthog” because of its ugly appearance, this tank killing machine was actually the first airplane ever designed around a gun instead of the opposite. The gun in question is the GAU-8A 30mm rotary cannon (Gatling gun) that spews depleted Uranium armor piercing rounds at up to 3900 rounds per minute. Not to be confused with previous 30mm ammunition, these rounds zip along at 3324 feet per second, faster than an M-16 round (3250 fps max) or even a .300 WinMag (3260 fps max). With the high velocity and downward angle the armor piercing rounds are fired at, the tank is penetrated like cloth is penetrated by a sewing machine needle. Probably no other airplane in history has had a more devastating forward firing gun.
8. Boeing B-29 Superfortress (1944-1960).
Think of this bomber as the big brother of the B-17, and it earned its name by boasting a maximum of 12 X .50 caliber machine guns and 1 X 20mm cannon. Plus, the B-29 had 4 unmanned turrets and a tail gun position that were fired by remote control and aimed with an early version of computer sighting. By comparison, German bombers were woefully underarmed, with the 4 engine FW-200 Condor having only 1 X 20mm and 4 X 13mm guns to defend itself. The twin engine JU-88 had only 5 X 7.92mm (rifle caliber) machine guns in its bomber configuration.
9. Northrop P-61 Black Widow (1944-1954).
Many twin engine bombers were configured with heavy armament during World War II to attack enemy bombers, but few purpose built heavy fighters were fielded, one of the most effective and heavily armed being the Black Widow night fighter. Armed with 4 X 20mm cannon (700 rpm each) and 4 X .50 caliber machine guns (850 rpm each), the Black Widow could pour enormous amounts of hot lead into an enemy plane bold enough to fly in its territory. The 20mm guns were forward firing, and the .50 caliber guns were mounted in a dorsal turret with 360 degree coverage.
10. Douglas A-26 Invader (1942-1980).
This speedy ground attack twin engine light bomber could be armed with an 8 X .50 caliber machine gun solid nose, another 8 X .50 caliber machine guns under the wings, 2 X .50 caliber guns in a ventral turret and another 2 X .50 calibers in a dorsal turret, giving the Invader as many as 20 X .50 caliber machine guns, each pouring out 850 rounds per minute. Wow!
BONUS. Also rans:
Make no mistake, these other planes are not slackers! The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt boasted 8 X .50 caliber M2AN2 machine guns, and put out more pounds of lead per second than any other WWII fighter armed with machine guns only (4.85 kilos per second). The Focke-Wolfe TA-152 was armed with 1 X 30mm and 2 X 20mm cannon for attacking ground targets and bombers, and spewed 5.96 kilos of metal per second. The previously mentioned Hawker Tempest fired at a rate of 6.5 kilos per second with its 4 X 20mm cannon. Several other WWII fighters were armed with 20mm cannons (up to 4) and some ground attack variants of fighters and bombers bore a 57mm cannon or even a 75mm cannon (besides the B-25) for anti-tank duty, although these configurations were largely Rube Goldberg contraptions that lacked practicality and effectiveness. The Focke-Wolfe 190 saw upgraded armament throughout WWII, including a version with 4 X 20mm cannons and 2 X .51 caliber machine guns. Most 37mm cannon found on WWII fighters were low velocity and low rate of fire weapons, making those warplanes lesser threats than one would think. Some fighters or ground attack planes were equipped with 37mm anti-tank type guns, a more serious threat. Modern US fighters such as the Harrier and F-35 Lightning II are armed with a dandy 25mm GAU-12 Gatling gun that fires up to 4200 rounds per minute at a muzzle velocity of 3400 feet per second, an improvement over the M61 Vulcan 20mm gun. The latest Russian fighter planes are equipped with a 30mm cannon, which sounds good, but the rate of fire is a relatively slow 1800 rounds per minute and they only carry about 150 rounds. A German Ju-88 heavy fighter variant of the Ju-88 bomber was armed with 4 X forward firing 20mm cannons, 2 X rear firing .51 caliber machine guns, and 2 X 20mm cannon firing up and forward to shoot down unsuspecting enemy planes from below. A never built proposed Focke-Wolfe FW 300 4 engine bomber would have been armed with 12 X 20mm cannons in 6 twin turrets.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which planes would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Warplane. PBS, 2006. DVD.
The featured image in this article, a U.S. Air Force photograph of a Boeing B-17E in flight, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.