Maximum Overkill – 10 of History’s Most Widely Produced War Machines

Unsung hero? The B-24 is often overshadowed by the more illustrious B-17 Flying Fortress. Yet more Liberators were built during World War Two than any other bomber in history.

Unsung hero? The B-24 is often overshadowed by the more illustrious B-17 Flying Fortress. Yet more Liberators were built during World War Two than any other bomber in history.

“The Liberator is just one of a number of iconic fighting machines that have been produced in mind-bogglingly vast numbers. Consider these.”

WHILE THE BOEING B-17 is the most famous American heavy bomber of the Second World War, the legendary warbird actually comes up short when compared with another Allied aircraft: the Consolidated B-24. Flying Fortresses of the U.S. Eighth Air Force certainly captured public’s imagination (not to mention the headlines), yet the Liberator could carry more bombs — and carry them farther and faster. And although the four-engine giant had a number of shortcomings – it was more difficult to fly and much more fragile than its more illustrious cousin – more B-24s were manufactured between 1940 and 1945 than any other bomber in history. An estimated 18,400 rolled off American assembly lines before VE-Day. The Liberator is just one of a number of iconic fighting machines that have been produced in mind-bogglingly vast numbers. Consider these:

10. Messerschmitt Bf-109 

Thunder_Over_Michigan_ DMiller

(Image source: D. Miller via Creative Commons)

Despite the prodigious output of American factories during World War Two, it was the Third Reich that built the single most numerous fighter plane in the history of aviation: the Messerschmitt Bf-109. Nearly 34,000 of the nimble Axis interceptors were manufactured between 1937 and 1945. In fact, almost half of all German military aircraft produced during the war were variants of the Bf-109. Both Spain and Czechoslovakia even continued to assemble and operate their own domestic versions of the Messerschmitt into the 1960s.

9. Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik

Il-2-sturmovik

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Germany may hold the title for producing the most numerous fighter in history, but the most widely manufactured military aircraft of all time is the Ilyushin Il-2. A whopping 36,000 Sturmoviks were made between 1941 and 1945. A remarkably sturdy ground-attack plane, the single-engine, two-seater was dubbed “the Flying Tank” by adoring Russians. In fact, Stalin considered the Il-2 to be instrumental to the Soviet war effort. “They are as essential to the Red Army as air and bread,” he once thundered upon learning that Sturmovik production had stalled. “I demand more machines.” [1]

8. MiG-15

A MiG-15 in the sights of a F-86 Sabre over Korea. (Image source: United States Air Force)

There’s more where that came from: A MiG-15 in the sights of a F-86 Sabre over Korea. (Image source: United States Air Force)

History’s most plentiful jet-powered warplane also came from the Soviet Union: The MiG-15. All told, the U.S.S.R., and later China, fabricated an impressive 18,000 copies of the small interceptor throughout the 1950s. More than 40 nations operated MiG-15s during the Cold War, including North Vietnam, North Korea, Iraq and Cuba, as well as every single Warsaw Pact power.

7. Mil Mi-8 Hip

Two Soviet-made Egyptian Mi-8 Hip helicopters lift off after dropping of Egyptian Army soldiers during war-games in 2002. (Image source: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Two Soviet-made Egyptian Mi-8 Hip helicopters lift off after dropping of Egyptian Army soldiers during war-games in 2002. (Image source: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

At 16,000 units, the UH-1 Iroquois holds the title as being the most widely manufactured western helicopter in history. But the Russian Mi-8 Hip utility chopper has the iconic Huey beat. Since production began in 1961, the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant has cranked out or licensed the manufacture of 17,000 of the birds, with still more being built all the time. At least 80 countries operate the twin-turbine heli as transports, search and rescue machines and even armed gunships.

6. Liberty Ship

Liberty ships could be built from the keep up in a matter of days. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Liberty ships could be built from the keel up in a matter of days. It’s no wonder that there were so many of them. (Image source: WikiCommons) 

Allied tanks, artillery and fighting men may have defeated the enemy on the battlefields of World War Two, but the final victory belongs in part to the humble Liberty ship. The 440-foot-long, 14,000-ton cargo vessels could carry up to 1,600 troops, 2,800 jeeps or 440 tanks across the ocean at a steady speed of just over 11 knots. [2] And ultimately, it was this ability to move men and materiel across hemispheres in that enabled the Allies to prevail. While the first Liberty ships were completed in about 230 days, by 1943, production was streamlined to just six weeks. As a wartime publicity stunt, one vessel was even speed-assembled in less than 115 hours! [3] A total of 18 American shipyards welded together more than 2,700 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945. At the height of production, about three were dropping into the water every 24 hours. To this day, no other class of ship comes close to touching the Liberty in terms of quantities produced.

5. ZiS-3 Field Gun  

A battery of Zis-3 guns bombard Berlin. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A battery of Zis-3 guns bombard Berlin. (Image source: WikiCommons)

While both the French 75 and the German 88-mm Flak 18/37 enjoyed production runs of more than 20,000, the Soviet ZiS-3 76-mm gun remains the single most numerous artillery piece ever manufactured. More than 100,000 were forged during the Second World War. After 1945, the model was widely exported and continues to serve in the arsenals of the developing world to this day.

4. T-54/55

Warsaw Pact T-54/55. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Warsaw Pact T-54/55. (Image source: WikiCommons)

For much of the Cold War, the Soviet T-54/55 series medium tank made up the backbone of Warsaw Pact armour. The thick-skinned, 36-ton war machine was designed around a formidable 125 mm main gun that at the time could blast holes anything the NATO might have thrown at throw at it. But what frightened the western allies the most about the T-54/55 were the sheer numbers of them available. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, tank foundries in the U.S.S.R., Poland and Czechoslovakia produced more than 100,000 of them. After serving in Eastern Europe, tens of thousands of surplus models were then exported to Soviet client states the world over. Vietnam, Afghanistan, India, Mozambique, Iran, Iraq, Angola, Yugoslavia, Syria, China and dozens of other powers added variants of the T-54/55 to their inventories. Many continue to serve in 2015.

3. Colt Model 1911

A U.S. Marine demonstrates a Colt .45 in France during World War One (Image source: Fair Use/Public Domain)

A U.S. Marine demonstrates a Colt .45 in France during World War One (Image source: Fair Use/Public Domain)

America’s ubiquitous Colt Model 1911 may very well be the most widely manufactured handgun in history. More than 2.7 million have been produced since the First World War and they continue to serve in literally dozens of armies and police forces worldwide.

2. Mosin Nagant

(Image source: WikiCommons)

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Russian armouries produced a staggering 37 million Mosin Nagant bolt-action rifles since the model was first introduced in 1891. The weapon was standard issue for the Tsar’s soldiers in 1914 and for the Red Army during World War Two. It was later distributed to Moscow’s allies and communist guerrilla movements for much of the Cold War. Millions are still in circulation. Most recently, the antiquated rifles have shown up in news footage coming out of both Syria and Ukraine.

1. Kalashnikov 

Iraqi security forces train on AK-47s. (Image source: U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Levi Riendeau)

It’s perhaps the most enduring icon of the Cold War: the Kalashnikov or AK-47. The legendary assault rifle is likely the single most produced weapon in all of human history. Since 1947, more than 30 countries have manufactured a mind-blowing 100 million copies of the deadly 7.62 mm gun. It’s been estimated that one out of every five firearms on the planet is an AK-47 or a derivative. Not surprisingly, the AK has been seen in every world hotspot in recent history. In fact, one would be hard pressed to name a conflict in the past 50 years in which the Kalashnikov wasn’t used (the Falklands Islands is the only one that comes to mind.)

(Originally published Feb. 4, 2015)

2 comments for “Maximum Overkill – 10 of History’s Most Widely Produced War Machines

  1. Alex E
    4 February, 2015 at 1:37 pm

    “One would be hard pressed to name a conflict in the past 50 years in which the Kalashnikov wasn’t used”

    Challenge accepted:

    The Falklands War

    • admin
      4 February, 2015 at 1:39 pm

      That was my first thought too. Both sides used FNs. Another possible: The Football war of 1969: El Salvador and Honduras — Both US client states. Someone suggested India and Pakistan, but I know the latter uses Kalashnikovs.

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