The Incredible weaponry of a B-17 Flying Fortress

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Firearms Talk recently got to take a walk around a still-flyable Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, one of the most classic of all World War Two US bombers. While we aren't an aviation site, the fact that the Fortress's armament of heavy machineguns was so interesting deserves mention for anyone with a curiosity of guns.

The B-17G was the final, and most complete version of the Flying Fortress to take to the air in World War Two. Of the more than 12,000 B-17s produced, a total 8,680 "G" models were built between 1943-45. At a 1943 bargain cost of about $250,000 ($3.4-million today), the US Army Air Force was taking all that could be made. There were many improvements to the B-17G from earlier models, the best being in on-board firepower.

The B-17G simply bristled with guns. Whereas the earlier models just carried four machineguns, the G had a baker's dozen-- all in hard-hitting .50 caliber varieties. Of the ten man crew only the pilot and co-pilot did not have to directly fire a machinegun as part of their job.

This amazing array of guns enabled these improved bombers to survive long enough against fierce German and Japanese interceptors to make it to their targets-- then return home. Quite often the last thing an enemy fighter pilot would ever see was the blossom of muzzle flash coming from the gun barrels poking out of a B-17.

The 13 guns were arranged in five single mounts and a number of turrets stretched along the 75-feet of the huge bomber's fuselage.

Turrets? Oh yes. There were four of these, each mounting a pair of Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber (12.7mm) heavy machineguns capable of shooting at a blistering 750-850-rounds per minute. These guns were lightened and supped up versions of the classic M2 'Ma Duece' machinegun used by the US Army, Navy and Marines on the ground for the past hundred years.

The Bendix-built remote control turret in the chin of the craft, operated by the aircraft's bombardier whenever he wasn't getting ready to release a dozen 500-pound bombs over the Nazis, set the B-17G apart from other B-17s before it. It was loaded with 365-rounds of ammo.

(Note the Bendix remote controlled chin mount, controlled by the bombadier, and the two single .50 cal machineguns sticking out from the craft's cheeks-- controlled by the navigator. The bombadier sat in the nose of the craft and you can see his bombsite in the plexiglass nosecone. The open bombay doors and belly turret are visable down the bottom of the plane)

At the rear of the plane sat the tail gunner, isolated from the rest of the crew in a world all his own. He had a bird's eye view of Messerschmitts running up the crafts tail and, with his limited axis of aim, tried to get them before they got him.

Atop the aircraft was the Flight Engineer, who, besides monitoring the flying fortresses four Four Wright Cyclone R-1820 1200hp engines and keeping everything working, had to operate the top turret-- taking extra special care not to shoot the plane's huge tail rudder off by accident.

Curled up, literally, in a fetal position around his gun's controls was the Sperry ball turret, or belly turret, gunner. This intrepid young airman sat inside an armored Plexiglas bubble under the plane and had the best view in the house, able to see 360-degrees under the plane.

It was his sole mission to defend his home from attacks coming up from below-- which every other bomber but the B-17 were especially vulnerable to. The gunner sat with his face just inches from the gun, and had to sit with the controls for the twin Brownings between his legs.

(Note the ball turrent and the waist gun position above it)

Besides the four twin gun positions above, there were also two waist gunners, dedicated airmen who stood in the rear third of the aircraft, behind the wings, and handled a single M2 machinegun. Fed by flexible belt chutes attached to huge hoppers, they fended off attacks from the bomber's left and right.

Then came the radio operator, who had a single M2 machine gun between the top turret and the aircraft's tail, and a very limited axis of protection. Because of this, this position carried the smallest amount of ammo. While most of the other guns had 600 or more rounds availed, the RO would have only 200.

The 12th and 13th guns were controlled by the navigator, whose M2s pointed out of the cheeks of the front airplane at an angle like a cigarette from the bottom lip of a 1940s film noir detective. One gun pointed to the left, the other to the right of the plane, with the mathematically-minded living GPS system having to make instant decisions over which one to fire when.

Since it took only four rounds of .50BMG to make a pound of payload, and every ounce of weight was carefully scrutinized, the amount of ammo the B-17G would carry varied. B-17s would carry anywhere from 2000 to 11,000 rounds of fifty cal ammo, depending on the bomb load, amount of fuel carried and expected resistance over the target area.

Besides the machineguns, each pilot and airman often carried either a .38 revolver or a M1911 .45ACP pistol along with the occasional survival rifle or M1 carbine in the event of having to ditch somewhere behind enemy lines.

The B-17G (Serial # 44-83575) that we had the chance to inspect is maintained by the non-profit Collings Foundation. Built at the tail end of WWII, this plane survived three different nuclear explosions then a 20-year career as a fire-bomber on the west coast before her current transition into a flying museum. She in painted in the colors of the "Nine-O-Nine," a B-17G in the 91st Bomb Group, 323rd Squadron that completed 140 missions without an abort or loss of a crewman, survived 600 bullet holes from the Germans, and dropped 562,000 pounds of bombs, over the course of 1,129 flying hours. It is one of less than 15 that are still able to fly.

During WWII some 4,735 B-17s, more than one out of three, were lost during combat missions.

The Incredible weaponry of a B-17 Flying Fortress - christophereger - pilotsm-2005.jpg
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March 10, 2014  •  06:38 PM
Fantastic article. Really makes you appreciate the engineering that America can put together to ensure our freedom. By the way, the b-52s have 3 arrays of SRAM missiles that have nuclear war heads, terrain avoidance, and can be either locked on or flown by the operator on board. Not to mention the massive rear gun and all the bombs. If I remember right, each of those SRAM arrays hold 7, so you can see why it replaced the bombers before it and is still used.
March 14, 2014  •  02:32 PM
Just love these old planes. It is too bad more Axis planes didn't survive.