Big Shots – History’s Largest Cannons, Mortars and Super Guns

These enormous Soviet self-propelled guns seem more like pea shooters when compared with some of history’s largest artillery pieces.

“Iraq’s ‘super gun’, while certainly mammoth, was just one in a long series of amazing ultra-heavy artillery pieces that have appeared throughout history. Consider these other ‘big shots’.”

FEW LIKELY REMEMBER the name Gerard Bull. But at the time of his death in 1990, he was considered by many to be one of the most dangerous men on the planet. In fact, the Canadian-born engineer was so feared that one world power had him assassinated. On March 22, 1990, a squad of hit men gunned down the 62-year-old Bull at the front door of his Brussels apartment. While the identity of the assailants remains a mystery, some suspect that the killers were either operatives of the Israeli Mossad or possibly agents of the Iranian intelligence service. [1]

Both countries certainly had a motive. Bull was the driving force behind Saddam Hussein’s much-feared Project Babylon, a not-so-secret two-year supergun scheme that had the Iraqi dictator’s neighbours more than a little worried. Once completed, the fixed 500-foot-long, 600-mm artillery piece would have been able to lob a projectile from an Iraqi mountaintop into either central Iran or Israel. [2] The projectiles could travel upwards of 1,000 km in an arc that would actually take them outside of earth’s atmosphere. At the time of Bull’s death, Iraq was nearing the completion of a smaller 100-foot long version of the gun that could fire both shells and even space satellites. The murder stopped Babylon dead in its tracks.

The following year, all of Iraq’s major weapons programs were destroyed in Operation Desert Storm. Iraq’s supergun, while certainly mammoth, was just one in a long series of amazing ultra-heavy artillery pieces that have appeared throughout history. Consider these other ‘big shots’.

Moscow’s 890mm Tsar Cannon was never fired in anger. How could it have been? It was way too heavy to be dragged into battle.

Largest Caliber

If we’re going to judge the size of a gun by its muzzle width (or caliber), the 20-foot-long, 39-ton Russian “Tsar Cannon” of 1586 is among the biggest. The bronze weapon was designed to fire 890 mm stone balls. [3] Each round weighed 1,700 lbs. [4] The Tsar Cannon’s tremendous size and weight, not to mention the staggering mass of its ammunition, made it totally unworkable on the battlefield. In fact, the gun was most likely manufactured as a prestige piece. [5] While there is no official record that it was ever fired, scoring on the inner barrel suggests it might have been tested at least once. The Tsar Cannon is currently on display outside the Kremlin in Moscow along with an ornamental stack of 1-ton iron cannonballs. These were supposedly forged in the 19th Century and are entirely decorative.

Mallet’s Mortar seen here was fired, but never in anger.

Amazingly, the British built an even larger caliber artillery piece than the Tsar Cannon. It was known as the Mallet Mortar. Designed for the Crimean War but not completed until 1857, the 42-ton gun could fire 914 mm exploding shells less than 4 km. [6] Each of the projectiles weighed 1 ¼ tons. Only two of the mortars were ever produced, but like the Tsar’s Cannon, neither were ever used in action. However, the Mallet Mortars were fired 19 times in total, just never in anger. [7]

History’s other 914 mm mortar also never saw combat. The U.S. Army’s Little David gun was planned to be rolled out during the amphibious invasion of the Japanese home islands in late 1945. [8] The war ended before it could be used in battle. The 40-ton weapon featured a 22-foot long barrel that could launch a 3,400 lb. shell a distance of 9 km. [9] To see a film of the Little David fired, click here.

Heaviest Projectile

The Schweer Gustav. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Schweer Gustav. (Image source: WikiCommons)

While the notorious Schwerer Gustav railroad gun of Nazi Germany was of a smaller caliber than the Little David or the Mallet Mortar, it fired the heaviest projectile ever lobbed by an artillery piece. [10] Designed in the 1930s to batter the French Maginot Line on Germany’s western border, the 155-foot long, 1,350-ton gun could throw a 7.1-ton artillery shell just under 40 kms (or about 25 miles). [11] The gun, which featured a 106-foot long barrel was served by a crew of 250 and had a rate of fire of one to two shots per hour. [12] The 800-mm Gustav Schwerer also has the distinction of being the largest caliber gun in history to have a rifled barrel – the guns mentioned above are all smooth bored. [13] And unlike the previous weapons mentioned, the two Gustav Schwerers that were produced both saw action on the Eastern Front, one of which was used during the siege of Sevastopol. Neither of the guns survived the war – one was captured by the Americans and scrapped, the other was destroyed by the Nazis before it fell into enemy hands. To see archival German footage of this super gun in action, click here.

The Type 94 was classified as a 40cm gun, but was really 460mm — a trick designed to fool enemy intelligence.

Guns on Ships

The largest modern cannon to ever go to sea was Japan’s 40 cm Type 94 naval gun. Although designated as a 400-mm weapon, the guns were actually 460 mm. The smaller sounding name was an attempt to conceal the true size and power of the weapons from adversaries. [14] Each of the three Yamato-class battleships built for the Imperial Japanese Navy between 1937 and 1942 were armed with no fewer than nine of these enormous weapons. Yamato battleships featured a trio of the three-gun turrets, each of which themselves weighed more than a destroyer. [15] Type 94s could lob both armour piecing and high explosive shells up to 42 km. They could also fire 3,000-lb. anti-aircraft rounds known as a Sanshiki. The projectiles worked like enormous shotgun shells and sprayed incendiary sub-munitions in the direction of enemy planes.

Although featuring a slightly smaller caliber than the Type 94, the British BL 18 Inch Mk. 1 naval gun did throw a heavier shell – a 3,320 lb. projectile to be precise. [16] Ordered by the Royal Navy in the years leading up to the First World War, the British admiralty wanted to put the heaviest gun possible onto a warship. [17] The result was three ships, HMS Furious, HMS General Wolfe and HMS Clive, all equipped with a single Mk. 1 gun. While the Furious never saw action, the Wolfe and the Clive did, firing a total of 85 rounds during the last year of the First World War. All three vessels were removed from service after the conflict. Two of the Mk. 1 guns were later reassigned to coastal defence duties in the U.K.

The Scottish Meg Mons cannon — the biggest gun ever to put to sea.

While both the British Mk. 1 and the Japanese Type 94 are often cited as the largest sea borne artillery in history. [18] The Scots built a bigger gun for King James IV’s 16th Century super warship The Great Michael. The gun, named the Mons Meg, was a 7 ½-ton cannon capable of firing a 510-mm, 400-lb. shot up to two miles. [19] The gun reportedly could only be fired about eight times a day due to the intense heat it would generate. While the Royal Scottish Navy found the Michael too expensive to maintain in its fleet and subsequently sold the ship to France, the Mons Meg gun was later added to the arsenal at Edinburgh Castle where she would be later be fired ceremonially on special occasions.

Each round from the Paris Gun would travel four times higher than one of today’s commercial jetliners.

Longest-ranged guns

When the first shells from Germany’s infamous Paris Gun began landing in the so called City of Light in the spring of 1918, citizens wrongly believed that they were under attack from a high-flying Zeppelin. [20] In reality, they were being bombarded by a 211-mm field gun with a unheard of range of 130 km. In the first day of its use, the gun hammered the city with 21 shells, each weighing more than 200 lbs. [21] Despite the terror the weapon wrought on the people of the city, the Paris Gun proved to be more trouble that it was worth for the Germans. For starters, the 350-lb. powder charges required to send a shell such a distance wore the barrel’s rifling down so quickly each successive shot measurably increased the caliber of the gun. In fact, after 60 rounds, the entire barrel was ruined and would need to be replaced. [22] The gun was also woefully inaccurate. Not only was it virtually impossible to hit anything smaller than a city from a distance of more than 100 km, but since the flight time from muzzle to target was more than three minutes, the gunners actually needed to calculate the earth’s rotation when aiming the weapon. Simply put, by the time one of the gun’s shells returned to earth from its then unprecedented 130,000 foot high flight path, the city had moved slightly with the planet’s own rotation. [23] Despite this, the Germans managed to kill 256 civilians with the Paris Gun. Sixty-eight died in one lucky shot alone, when a round struck a packed church on Good Friday of 1918. [24] The Paris Gun was withdrawn from service in the final weeks of the war, lest the advancing allies capture it. It was dismantled in Germany before the Armistice. Although militarily a failure, the Paris Gun was the first device to launch a man made object so high into the stratosphere.

The HARP gun test fires.

In World War Two, the Germans designed an even longer ranged gun than its Paris weapon. The 150 mm V-3 super gun was designed to fire 310 lb. shells a distance of 165 km. [25] The Nazis planned to build the V-3, into a hillside near the Pas De Calais and use the fixture to strike at London at a rate of 300 shells per hour. [26] The gun, nicknamed Busy Lizzie, was destroyed by Allied bombers before it could be fired. A pair of much smaller experimental models of the V-3 were used to pummel targets in Luxembourg in the winter of 1944 to 1945. A novel barrel design would have given the V-3 its exceptional range. A number of chambers located along the length of the barrel would be loaded with charges. As a projectile was fired and travelled out of the gun, these secondary charges would blow, adding to the shell’s energy. Once the shell left the smooth bore barrel, fins would open and stabilize its flight path.

The V-3 design was revived in the 1960s by a joint U.S./Canadian design consortium known as HARP (high altitude research project). The group was seeking a potentially inexpensive method of launching material into space or even firing shells intercontinentally. Using a testing facility in the Barbados, the HARP team managed to fire a 400-pound non-explosive projectile out over the Atlantic at a speed of 8000 mph (that’s Mach 10). The missile also reached an altitude of 112 miles (nearly 600,000 feet) – a record for highest-flying artillery shot that still stands. [27] The project was cancelled during post Vietnam-era defence cutbacks. One of the driving brains behind HARP, a Canadian by the name of (you guessed it!) Gerard Bull, would spend the subsequent decades searching for other world powers interested in developing super gun technology. He was jailed for designing artillery for South Africa in contravention of trade sanctions against that country. After his release, he found a patron in Saddam Hussein.  The rest is history.


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2. Ibid


4. Ibid

5. Ibid


7. Ibid


9. Ibid


11. Ibid

12. Ibid

13. Ibid


15. Ibid


17. Ibid


19. Ibid







26. Ibid



4 comments for “Big Shots – History’s Largest Cannons, Mortars and Super Guns

  1. 13 October, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Real interesting facts, sir. Good stuff.

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