Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII

Posted | By:  

Today when two or more warplanes mix it up over the skies in combat, they usually do it with air-to-air missiles. Nevertheless, back in World War Two, when one aircraft met another in combat over the battlefield, the duel was carried out with guns.

Origin of Gun Slinging Airplanes

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - chandler-1283.jpg

Just nine years after the Wright Brothers proved that a heavier than air vehicle could even fly, the US Army put on gun on one in an experiment. Captain Charles de Forest Chandler, shown above seated in the passenger seat of a Wright Model B Flyer, fired the Lewis light machinegun from the airplane in flight on June 7 and 8, 1912. This is thought to be the first time, other than random rifles and pistols carried by pilots, that a gun was fired from an aircraft in flight. This was just in time because just two years later, World War 1 brought about a completely new era of flying terror.

When the Fokker Eindecker, one of the first purpose-built fighter planes, took to the sky in 1915 armed with a single DWM Spandau MG14 Parabellum machine gun, synchronized to fire through the plane's propeller, appeared, it was terrifying to the British and French pilots. This started a steady arms race that continued until the end of the war where most fighter, bomber, and scout aircraft were armed with as many as three .30 caliber machine guns whereas huge German Zeppelin dirigibles carried up to five.

World War Two gun packages

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - hawker-hurricane-mk-xii-with-messerschmitt-bf-109e-1275.jpg

When the war first started, the most common aircraft in Europe were the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and the British Hawker Hurricane. These were the two principal aircraft that fought in the Battle of Britain. The Messerschmitt carried a pair of 13mm (.51 in) synchronized MG 131 machine guns with 300 rounds per gun, one in each wing, and a 20 mm MG 151 Motorkanone with 200 rounds that fired through the propeller hub. The German plane was faster, but the stubby winged Hurricane could outturn it and significantly outgun it with four 20 mm Hispano Mk II cannons.

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - p38-1277.jpg

The P-38 Lightning had its armament of .50 caliber Brownings and 20mm Cannon located centrally due to the twin propellers on either side of the main fuselage.

In later combat in Europe, the most heavily armed German fighter was the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, an early jet. Packing four giant 30 mm MK 108 Maschinenkanone that could fire giant 30x90mm explosive tipped rounds at 650 per minute, a Me262 would down an American B-17 with just four hits.

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - 02-1278.jpg

To fight back against these jets, the B-17s themselves, dubbed 'flying fortresses' bristled with as many as 13 (a baker's dozen) M2 Browning .50 caliber heavy machine guns. These were carried in the dorsal, ventral, nose and tail of the plane as well as in two waist positions, two in "cheek" positions, and one in the post-dorsal position, manned by gunners who armed themselves with heated socks and flak vests, which were incapable of stopping a 30mm shell.

If an Me 262 made it through the bombers onslaught, they still had to face the guns of the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt, each with a six (on the Mustang) or eight (on the Thunderbolt) .50-cals of their own.

Testing the guns of Twilight Tear, a 70-year old vintage P-51 Mustang

In the Pacific, the Japanese Zero had a slightly heavier throw than the first US planes it encountered, the P-40 Warhawks of the Flying Tigers over China and the US Army Air Corps over Pearl Harbor. The Mitsubishi A6M Zero went off to work with a pair of 7.7 mm (.303-caliber) Type 97 light machine guns in the engine cowling, with 500 rounds per gun, and another pair of 20 mm Type 99-1 cannon in the wings, with 60 rounds per gun. This outclassed the Warhawk's six Browning 50s with 235 rounds of incendiary tracer per gun at long range, but if the Warhawk got within a few hundred yards, it could chew the Zero, with its non-sealing gas tanks, to pieces.

Gun Camera footage from P-51 Mustangs. Each time the trigger solenoid was pulled, Kodak cameras captured what the pilot aimed at for later damage assessment.

Later US aircraft in the Pacific, including the Navy and Marine's Vought F4U Corsair and Grumman F6F Hellcat, packed the same armament. To take out Japanese sneak attacks at night, the Army turned to the P-61 Black Widow, an all-black twin engine fighter that packed not only four Brownings in a turret atop the plane, but also another four 20mm cannons.

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - b25allmachinegunsfiringfrontally-1274.jpg

(Several B-25s were rigged to have huge batteries of .50 caliber machine guns and even a 75mm M5 cannon mounted that were forward-firing, and even capable of sinking ships at sea)

The nuts and bolts of it

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - mustangammo2-1280.jpg
(Contrary to the popular legend, the term "the whole nine yards" did not come from the length of the belted 12.7mm BMG ammo carried by US fighter planes in WWII, although from this picture it would seem pretty spot on.)

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - air-mustang10-1281.jpg
(Loading up a P-51 was an all day job unless you had five buddies)

These guns simply were not just installed in the plane at the factory and the pilot took off to mix it up. They had to be constantly taken out when the plane landed, cleaned, and inspected, headspaced, checked and remounted, then rearmed. Guns regularly had to be reharmonised. This harmonizing process involved setting each gun inward to a convergence pattern that lined up the impact point downrange (directly in front of the pilot's gun sight).

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - p-47-gun-harmonization-two-types-1279.jpg

(Planning gun fire convergence was a geometrical art)

Harmonizing these guns varied from nation to nation, and squadron to squadron, even from pilot to pilot and could be set anywhere from 300 to 2000 yards. The most successful fighter pilot in history, German Major Erich Hartmann, set his at just 50 yards. Some American P-51 pilots adjusted their guns to fire in three different patterns, with two each converging at 600, then 750 ft., then 900 ft., which gave them a deeper envelope of lethality.

Aircraft Machine Guns Of WWII - christophereger - 20mm-cannon-firing-orbit-correction-for-a-messerschmitt-bf-109-1273.jpg

By the 1960s, guns on aircraft became largely seen as obsolete and even quaint, replaced by missiles and rockets. The newest and most advanced fighter jets of the time, including the F-4 Phantom, were designed without any guns, being missile-only. Then in Vietnam, American pilots in combat with Soviet supplied MIG fighters requested a new weapon-- a gun-- to help gain an edge in air-to-air combat.

Today every US fighter jet, the F-15, F-16, F-18, F-22 and F-35 all carry a M61A2 20mm cannon, for those just in case moments. Moreover, for those special occasions when the guys on the ground need support, it's the 25mm guns of the AV-8B Harrier and 30mm cannon of the A-10 Warthog that answer the call.

Posted in
  Email   Print
July 16, 2013  •  08:37 PM
A terrific article, thanks for putting this piece together. Well written and great pictures and video.
August 3, 2013  •  03:50 AM
I liked it, thanks