J-aircraft.com Book Review 
Tony Williams

Title: Firepower: A History of the Aircraft Gun

Author: Scott Vadnais and Bill Holder

Publisher: Schiffer Military History 1998

ISBN: Lib Congress 97-81448

Price: 16.98 in UK


          There is a need for a general history of aircraft guns.  Rather surprisingly, this has not been attempted for a long time.  In 1945, Aerosphere published "Aircraft Armament" by Bruchiss; in the early 1950s, Colonel George Chinn commenced his monumental (if patchy) study "The Machine Gun", the fifth volume of which did not emerge until 1987.  Two years later Harry Woodman wrote "Early Aircraft Armament" and in the 1990s Ron Wallace Clarke produced his useful two-volume "British Aircraft Armament".  Despite all of this, the only successful attempt to produce a comprehensive international survey of the development of aircraft guns is contained within Bill Gunston's "Encyclopedia of Aircraft Armament", published in 1987, and for reasons of space the historical content was restricted to a concise summary.

          This new book by Vadnais and Holder should be eagerly awaited, then.  Unfortunately, the title is misleading as the content is almost entirely concerned with gun installations rather than the guns themselves or the ammunition they used.  There is no attempt to describe, let alone analyse, the different types of gun mechanisms, ammunition feed arrangements, recoil management or other installation problems.  The reasons for the development of particular national preferences in gun armament as air warfare developed are left untouched.  Ballistics and projectile design, and their influence on gun design and fighter tactics, are not mentioned. There is, in fact, no data on the guns or ammunition at all, except for a couple of references to the rates of fire of particular weapons.   Gun designations are treated erratically, with weapons often simply being referred to only by calibre, for example as a "20mm cannon".

          Even taken on its own terms, this book has serious shortcomings.  First and foremost, the content is overwhelmingly American, with other nations' developments given the most cursory, and frequently inaccurate, treatment.  To point out just a few of the errors and omissions; there is no mention of the German 20mm Becker cannon of WW1, which was the ancestor of the important Oerlikon API blowback family of weapons so widely used in WW2.  The authors imaginatively assert that in the period leading up to WW2, "Madsen was the prime name for the British with the manufacture of both machine guns and cannons", whereas the products of this (Danish) company were never adopted by Britain.  The French origin of the important 20mm Hispano-Suiza HS 404 is ignored (it is just referred to as the "20mm Hispano"), and even pro-British enthusiasts will be surprised to read that the Hawker Typhoon is "considered by many to be the ultimate of prop-driven fighters".  The only "French" aircraft listed in the WW2 chapter will cause even more surprise, as it is the Boulton Paul Defiant!  Just two Japanese aircraft, and three Soviet ones, are mentioned in this chapter; the 20mm ShVAK is the only Soviet cannon identified and the 20mm Type 99 the only Japanese one, ignoring a wealth of other weapons.  Among German equipment, the important and interesting Rheinmetall-Borsig 30mm MK 103 is ignored, among others, and the Bf 109 is credited with three 7.92mm guns, while "later versions were to incorporate powerful 20mm cannons in the wings", a highly misleading gloss on a complex development history.

          The authors appear to be impressed by the number of guns and the ammunition capacity installed, and pay little attention to the destructive capabilities of different calibres.   The defensive armament of British bombers armed only with .303" guns is described as "ample" and "awesome", whereas the firepower of the Me 163 Komet, consisting of two 30mm MK 108 cannon with 60 rounds each, is considered "minimal", despite the fact that only three or four of the powerful Minengeschoss high explosive shells were considered adequate to down a heavy bomber.

          In the postwar section, matters do not improve much.  More attention is paid to Soviet aircraft but with haphazard results.  For example, the MiG-15 was not armed with "two 37mm cannon" but one N-37mm and two 23mm (NS-23 initially, the faster-firing NR-23 in the MiG-15bis).   The little MiG-21 would have had a hard job carrying the claimed "one 37-mm cannon in the nose and a 30-mm cannon in the along the fuselage" (sic) when the standard gun armament was of course the neat little twin-barrelled GSh-23.  The Su-27 is credited with a 23mm cannon, whereas it uses the same 30mm GSh-301 as the MiG-29 (incidentally referred to as the "GHs-301").

          Western European products do not fare much better.  Both SAAB and Oerlikon (who made the Viggen's 30mm KCA cannon) would be intrigued to learn that this Swedish aircraft carried an Aden gun, and the French will no doubt be astonished that "one of the mainstay fighters of the French Air Force is the long-standing Dassault Rafale".

          Even the American content is not reliable.  The .50" calibre Browning is claimed to be in use by the end of WW1, whereas it did not see service until years later.  The American Armament Company is described as the "prime producer of cannons when the seeds of World War II were being sown in the late 1930s" but the only thing that AAC was good at was publicity; their guns were technical failures never adopted by the USA.  The P-38 did not have a "23mm Madsen cannon" (it was considered but rejected), and the statement that the P-36F had a 23mm gun under each wing is misleading; one XP-36F was temporarily fitted with them for trial purposes.  Later versions of the F-100 are said to have had their 20mm M39 guns replaced by T160s, but the T160 was actually the prototype for the M39.

          A later section of the book contains details of the armament of the various gunships developed since Vietnam, but a picture captioned "The business end of a 30mm Gatling gun on an AC-130" gives pause for thought as such a weapon was never carried by this aircraft.  Helicopter armament is also covered.  Fortunately the statement that "the RAH-66 Comanche...will carry 30mm chain gun" is changed later to a "20mm nose gun".  The assertion that the Aerospatiale Puma can be fitted with "two side-mounted 23-mm gun pods" is puzzling given that this calibre has only seen service in weapons of Soviet origin.

          About half of the book consists of photographs.  This could be a strength, but the pro-American bias continues with many of the illustrations being of various installations of the .50" M2.  Most of these are not even very informative, just pictures of gun muzzles sticking out from various wings, fuselages and turrets.  There are a very few good installation photos with aircraft panels removed, the best of them apparently taken in American museums.  A couple show the 37mm M4, with its hooped continuous-belt magazine, in the nose of a P-39; two more a pair of 20mm M39 cannon in a F-86 Sabre (although the fact that the M39 is a revolver cannon is never identified). 

          However, some of the photograph captions are startlingly wayward, especially of non-American equipment.  A Spitfire is identified as a Hurricane, a Bf 109 as a Fw 190, a Fw 190, amazingly, as a Bf 110, and what is clearly a view of the nose of an Me 262, with panels removed to show two of the 30mm MK 108 cannon, is described as "twin machine guns of the rear turret installation on the well-armed Me 110".

          I started this review by observing that there is a need for a general history of aircraft guns. Unfortunately, this book does not even come close.  It is very hard to find anything good to say about it, and readers are advised to save their money.

Anthony G Williams

(The reviewer's own book;  "Rapid Fire: The Development of Automatic Cannon, Heavy Machine Guns and their Ammunition for Armies, Navies and Air Forces" is published by Airlife)

Contribute a book review (you can even review a book that has been previously reviewed) by clicking here

Return to Book Reviews Main Page

Return to J-aircraft Main Page