When it comes to big “black” budgets and wacky ideas, the world’s militaries take the cake.
Flush with national fervor, delusions of grandeur, and boatloads of taxpayer money, they’re often unburdened by pesky public oversight, and as such are largely free to pursue odd weapons programs that may or may not pan out.
Though some unconventional military contraptions do eventually enter service, the ones that end up on the proverbial scrap heap are often the most interesting.
Now, bizarre military inventions that never entered service.
The Puckle Gun
Though complex, cumbersome and unreliable, the Puckle gun was the brainchild of English writer, attorney and tinkerer James Puckle, and when it made its debut in 1718 it featured a number of revolutionary design characteristics.
The first weapon ever to be classified as a “machine gun,” the gun was mounted on a tripod and capable of relatively quick fire by the standards of the day, and Puckle originally marketed it as an anti-boarding weapon for use on naval vessels.
Back then, maritime engagements often ended with enemy ships side by side, after which streams of sailors and marines flooded from one to the other and engaged in deadly hand-to-hand combat.
Puckle theorized that his weapon could hold off the hordes and ultimately save the lives of countless British sailors, or perhaps he just wanted to get rich selling it to the Royal Navy.
Either way, his gun featured a single-barreled flintlock design, but unlike contemporary single-shot weapons it was fitted with a revolving cylinder that was operated manually by the firer.
With a barrel length of three feet (.9 m) and a bore of 1.25 inches (32 mm), the hefty projectiles could be fired at nine rounds per minute.
By comparison, expert musketeers of the era were capable of getting off between three and five rounds per minute under optimal conditions.
Puckle’s gun also came with two cylinders options – 6 and 11 shot models – each of which were hand loaded with shot and powder when outside the gun itself.
This meant that each unit could have multiple cylinders that could be swapped in and out during combat.
However, after each shot was fired the user had to manually rotate the cylinder so that the next chamber was lined up with the barrel.
Then, a few more cranks on a separate mechanism were required to ensure a tight seal between the two to prevent exhaust gas from escaping during firing, which would have resulted in decreased muzzle velocity, range and accuracy.
Though not terribly difficult on a range, these steps would’ve been tedious, time consuming and probably deadly during close quarters combat on rough seas and in inclement weather.
In addition, Puckle’s unique guns came in two distinct models, one of which fired square bullets, while the other fired traditional round ones.
Though it seems counterintuitive, the square bullets were more accurate and had better range.
They also caused more heinous wounds than their round counterparts, which is why Puckle envisioned them being used against the Turks and other non-Christians exclusively.
Long before the days of cultural sensitivity and political correctness, Puckle’s original patent application claimed that his square bullets would likely “convince the Turks of the benefits of Christian civilization.”
On the other hand, the round bullets were reserved for use against Christian adversaries because they were considered more humane.
But despite its promise, Puckle’s groundbreaking weapon was never produced because the British armed forces just didn’t want it.
Perhaps if it had been cheaper, simpler and easier to use they would have, but it was downright clumsy and plagued by constant mechanical issues which made it too impractical for front line service.
In the early going Puckle did round up a few willing venture capitalists, but after the weapon flopped one apparently quipped that the only people Puckle’s gun ever harmed were the investors themselves, which is actually true, since it was never fired at anything but a target.
The Great Panjandrum
According to the English vacationers who saw them being tested during the Second World War, spinning, multi-ton, rocket-powered wheels packed with explosives make great beach spectacles.
Named after a whimsical character in a satirical 18th century poem written by Sameul Foote, the Great Panjandrum was an unmanned contraption designed to breach German coastal defenses along the Atlantic Wall prior to the invasion of Europe by Allied amphibious forces.
With an average height of 10 feet (3 m) and a thickness of 7 feet (2.1 m), the Nazi’s formidable concrete bulwarks threatened to slow or altogether halt the impending landings.
But though at least some infantrymen would eventually be able to scale the obstacles, getting tanks, trucks and half-track over or through them would be nearly impossible, especially under heavy fire.
A number of odd contraptions were considered as solutions, each of which would need to be launched from a landing craft since individual soldiers carrying large charges would be sitting ducks for snipers, machine gunners and mortar teams in elevated, fortified positions.
The final design consisted of two wooden wheels about 10 feet (3 m) in diameter connected by a wooden drum that acted as an axle between them.
The inside of the drum would be packed with explosives, and propulsion would be generated by multiple rockets attached to each wheel, which were clad in steel tracks for traction on both water and land.
Demolition experts theorized that each Panjandrum would need to carry at least 2,000 pounds (1,000 kg) of explosives.
All told the machines were expected to weigh around 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) and travel at 60 miles per hour (100 km/h), which would give them sufficient energy and firepower to demolish nearly anything they hit.
If all went according to plan the Panjandrums would work like this…
First, their rocket motors would be lit, then they’d lurch from the ramps of their launch vessels, shoot across the surface of the churning sea in perfectly straight lines, slam into enemy fortifications and blow gaping holes in them, through which huge streams of men and vehicles could then charge.
What could possibly go wrong?
When the first prototype was ready for trials at Westward Ho! In Devon in the summer of 1943, testers on both land and at seas discovered that despite the epic conflict threatening their very existence, the beach was teaming with gaucking vacationers.
Nonetheless, they went ahead as scheduled despite serious safety and secrecy concerns.
Only a few rockets were attached to the Panjandrum’s wheels at first, and instead of explosives, the inside of the drum was packed with bags of sand of the same weight.
After ignition the first Panjandrum lurched out of the landing craft, but within seconds a number of its rockets burned out causing it to veer off course.
To the amusement of onlookers, several further attempts ended similarly, and over the following weeks a number of upgrades were made, including the addition of a third central wheel for stabilization.
However, each time the rockets failed to ignite or burned out altogether creating asymmetrical thrust, or in a few cases, detached from their moorings and whipped over the heads of the audience, which also included military brass and members of the press.
When it became clear that the program parameters were too stringent, it was agreed that if the device was at least able to travel in the “general direction of the enemy,” it would be sufficient.
Now with a much lower bar, the final trial got under way in January of 1944.
The event was attended by Navy officials, local politicians, and an official photographer tasked with capturing the moment for posterity, which he unfortunately did.
In dramatic fashion, the Great Panjandrum spun, sputtered, sparked, smoked and whipped to and fro erratically before rolling to an anticlimactic stop on the beach and flopping over on its side in a shallow tidal pool.
It has been theorized that the whole project might have been little more than a grand hoax to trick the Germans into believing that the the main thrust of the invasion force would land near the more heavily defended coastline around Pas-de-Calais, as opposed to the less-defended beaches along the Normandy coastline.
If so, it would explain how such a purportedly top secret project so crucial to the invasion of Europe was carried out with such blatant regard to secrecy.
Cultivator No. 6
Also known as the White Rabbit or Nellie, Cultivator No. 6 was a behemoth trench-digging device developed by the British military during the Second World War.
Though it was lightly armored and carried no cannons or machine guns, at 77 feet 6 inches (23.62 m) long and nearly 130 tons (118,000 kg), Nellie was among the largest vehicles of the war.
After the horrors of trench warfare in World War I, most nation’s military leaders vowed that in the future they’d rely on mobility and large concentrations of men and armor as opposed to long static fronts.
In the early going however, it appeared that that style of warfare would once again rear its ugly head, thanks largely to German construction of the Siegfried Line that stretched almost 400 miles (630 km) between the Netherlands to the North and Switzerland to the south.
Characterized by abundant trenches, forts, minefields and concrete anti-tank structures, it was largely seen as impenetrable by the Allies.
At least theoretically, if things did devolve into stalemate, the goliath digging machine would be able to gouge its way across no man’s land hidden in its own trench, and more importantly, be largely impervious to artillery and machine gun fire.
Then once the trench had been dug, an offensive force would be able to advance in relative safety and burst upon the unsuspecting defenders, most likely under the cover of darkness.
In addition, the top of the vehicle would serve as a ramp over which tanks and other armored vehicles could drive.
Specifications called for Nellie to dig a trench about six feet (2 m) wide and six feet tall.
Another key requirement was that the digging needed to be a continuous process, as opposed to the traditional method of filling a bucket, emptying and refilling it.
This stop-and-go method was time consuming and inefficient, but on the downside continual digging required gobs of power and huge amounts of fuel.
A number of power plant options were considered, including using Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines.
But though suitably powerful, two separate diesel engines were settled upon, each of which produced nearly 600 horsepower.
The first would propel the vehicle forward at less than one mile per hour (1.6 km/h) while digging, while the second would power the cutting head exclusively.
It was initially thought that a large circular auger similar to contemporary tunneling machines would work best, but a superior plow and rotating cutting cylinder assembly was eventually settled on because it was simpler and moved earth more efficiently.
The resulting trench would be relatively square, uniform and stable, and the excavated earth would be pushed up and outward and piled on each lip far enough away from the edge that it wouldn’t fall back in.
The project’s biggest proponent was Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who gave the final go-ahead for the prototype and earmarked £1,000,000 (£5,700,000 or 78 million USD today) for its construction.
English-American mining equipment manufacturer Ruston-Bucyrus Ltd. was contracted to design and build the colossal machine, and it was planned that by early 1941 approximately 200 would be delivered.
Ruston-Bucyrus’ machine came in two halves to facilitate transportation by rail, but though it was driven by two massive tracks coupled to steering devices similar to modern clutch brakes, once set in motion it would only be able to manage the slightest directional corrections.
Nellie did show some promise by digging impressive trenches through which men and vehicles could pass, but as the war progressed it became evident that trench warfare was unlikely, and it was therefore deemed a waste of scarce resources.
Later in his memoirs, Churchill stood by his support of the project, saying that despite its demise he earnestly felt that at the time it was of the utmost importance.
Admittedly, dolphins aren’t technically inventions.
However, during the latter years of the Cold War a few of these much-loved marine mammals were supposedly trained by covert Soviet and American handlers to carry out a variety of military roles.
The rumors of weaponized dolphins may have been embellished, but there seems to be genuine consensus that such programs actually existed, and that the animals were taught to carry out reconnaissance missions, detect explosives deposited by enemy frogmen, and to attack divers with dastardly weapons like heart attack inducing syringes and honed harpoons fastened to their backs.
There were even claims that Soviet dolphins could use their sophisticated biological sonars to distinguish between friendly and enemy subs based on their nearly undetectable propeller signatures alone.
Perhaps only miffed that they’d been outdone by their commie counterparts, US Navy brass claimed that this was impossible, which ironically only lends credence to the assertion that it probably was possible and did exist.
Whatever the case, evidence surfaced in 1990 that the American’s had a similar program, and that it was even more advanced than the Soviet’s.
Big shocker – the USN’s official stance was that no such program existed, but an ex-Naval officer and whistleblower told a New York Times reporter that he’d been approached by the CIA to train dolphins for underwater warfare and espionage.
He apparently turned them down, but it’s likely that the program had already been in existence for years.
Reminiscent of the scene in Austin Powers when Dr. Evil requested “sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads,” it was reported that some of the American dolphins had guns and explosive charges mounted to their heads, backs and snouts.
Whether or not the US trained killer dolphins, they apparently believed or knew that the Soviets did, because during SEAL training Navy divers were taught how to defend themselves in the event that they encountered these menacing adversaries.
But far from just enigmatic and long forgotten projects that may or may not have existed in the first place, intelligence revealed that after the break up of the the Soviet Union in 1991, some dolphins were sold to Iran, where according to official sources, they were “debriefed” and tasked with providing swim therapy for disabled kids.
In another tip of the hat to Dr. Evil…”Riiiiight.”
Though it was likely just a laughably transparent PR stunt to obscure the creatures’ true roles, additional American intelligence suggested that more recently a group of militarized dolphins showed up at the Russian sub base near the Port of Tartus during the war in Syria.
If true, they probably weren’t used offensively to thwart or kill enemy divers, but to patrol, detect approaching subs, and sniff out suspicious items like explosives and listening devices around vulnerable naval vessels and installations.
What’s abundantly clear however, is that if dolphins did play a part in the war in Syria, it had absolutely nothing to do with rehabilitating disabled children.
In the end, other than statements made by shady black-op folks, hearsay, and grainy satellite images supposedly showing dolphin pens around warships, there’s no real proof that these programs existed, or that dolphins ever actually entered service.