Big Shots: The Biggest Guns in History
War has been a notable part of human civilization, running as far back as history books can tell.
Catapults and crossbows were, indeed, the first game-changers in the history of warfare because they were the pioneers of long-range combat.
However, the discovery of gunpowder in 9th century China paved the way for the invention of some of the most deleterious weapons mankind has ever seen.
The first gun appeared in China in the late 10th century, and it was aptly named a “fire lance.” This gun was made from a bamboo tube filled with gunpowder, and it did look like a low-budget DIY firecracker. However, it was a terrifying piece, inflicting injuries and having enemies scampering for safety.
Over the years, better, bigger, and nastier guns were developed. Thus, guns went from weighing a few kilograms to hitting over a hundred thousand!
Today, we will be taking a gander at some of the biggest guns history has ever known.
Some of these ridiculously oversized guns have rather anti-climactic endings, leaving us to wonder what would have been if things had gone differently.
Let’s dive into it!
Karl-Gerät was a German-made self-propelled siege mortar which featured in the Second World War between 1941 and 1945.
It weighed a stunning 126 tonnes(139.28 short tons), and with a caliber of 600 mm(23 in), it could fire shells that weighed over 2100 kg (over 4700 lb). That’s heavier than two regular small trucks.
Karl-Gerät was chiefly developed to help the Nazis break through the impenetrable Maginot Line in France.
Although it was capable of self-propulsion, Karl-Gerät was a rather slow machine, with a top speed of only 10 km/h (6.2 mph). As a result, the Nazis would disassemble it, transport it by rail, and reassemble it on the frontlines.
This was pretty ironic because the original idea of the Nazi engineers was to build a super-heavy howitzer that would only be assembled on the frontlines. They resorted to building a self-propelled machine because the preparation time for the original idea was lengthy. But at the end of the day, these Nazis came up with a “self-propelled” machine that was dismantled and reassembled on-site!
Only seven of these giants were built during the war, six of which saw combat between 1941 and 1945.
The first combat experience of the Karl-Gerät came in 1941 during the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa. However, this was riddled with a lot of technical setbacks, from assembly problems to electrical issues.
This doesn’t quite come as a surprise because the Nazi engineers had struggled over Karl-Gerät’s design, and had ended up building a ‘self-propelled’ tank that couldn’t cover long distances without being dismantled and transported by a trailer. Even though it was German… it just wasn’t that well made.
In the following years, Karl-Gerät tanks took part in the Battle of Sevastopol, the Warsaw Uprising, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Remagen—where it fired its last shots in a bid to destroy the Lundendorff Bridgethe Ludendorff Bridge. For the records, Karl-Gerät’s shots had negligible effects on itthe Lundendorff Bridge. However, the bridge fell on the 17th of March 1945, after suffering hits from all kinds of German weapons, including V2 rockets and turbojet bombers.
By the end of the War in 1945, most of the Karl-Gerät tanks were captured and scrapped by the Allied forces.
However, there is a Karl-Gerät currently on display at the Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia.
The Obusier de 520 modèle 1916
The Obusier de 520 modèle 1916 was a railway howitzer produced by the French during the First World War.
It was (as hinted in its rather long name) a 520 mm (20 in) caliber gun, and had a total mass of 263 tons (290 short tons). The howitzer fired shells weighing over 1600 kg (over 3500 lb) across a maximum range of 17 km (10.6 mi).
The Obusier de 520 modèle 1916 was ordered in 1916, two years into World War 1. However, there were delays in the procurement process, and the first gun did not hit the tracks until late 1917—just when the war was nearing its end.
You may think that this howitzer would be on the frontlines just in time to dish out a blast in the closing phases of the war. But the Obusier could not even get a cameo appearance, thanks to a terrible error by the operators. During its firing trials in July 1918, at a range in Quiberon, a shell had detonated prematurely in the howitzer’s barrel, rendering it completely useless.
A second one was completed and delivered shortly afterward, but before it could complete its firing trials, the Great War ended.
Its story did not end here though.
The French placed the gun in storage until the beginning of the Second World War. Unfortunately, they never got to use their howitzer because they were subdued in 1940 by Nazi forces who took control of France—and their big guns.
Having a fondness for giant artillery, the Nazis refurbished the gun and brought it to the war front during the Siege of Leningrad in 1941.
A cursed breed, the second Obusier de 520 modèle 1916 got destroyed in January 1942 when, just like its predecessor, a shell detonated prematurely in its barrel.
The Paris Gun
The Paris Gun (called Paris-Geschütz or Pariser Kanone in German) was a class of long-range siege artillery made by the Germans. Several of these were in service from March to August 1918 and were used to bombard Paris during the First World War.
The barrel length of the Paris Gun was unprecedented, measuring 34 meters (111 ft 7 in). This made it the largest artillery gun of World War 1.
The shells from the Paris Gun weighed 106 kg (234 pounds). These were fired at impressive speeds and could cover significantly more height than any other weapon produced at that time.
The Paris guns were able to bombard Paris from a distance of 120 kilometers (75 miles)!
According to writer Adam Hochschild, the shells fired from the guns covered the distance to the city within 3 minutes, hitting an altitude of 40 km (25 miles) at the very peak of its trajectory. This was the highest point any human-made object had ever reached at that time, by far!
That’s nearly four times the max altitude of modern commercial airliners. This groundbreaking height (no pun intended) was only superseded during the Second World War by the German V2 rockets.
With such power, the Paris Gun earned the honor of launching the first human-made object to ever enter the stratosphere. The height of these projectiles was so enormous that the Coriolis effect—the rotation of the earth—was taken into account while calculating where the shells would land.
When the Germans began their first bombardment of Paris, the Parisians thought they were being attacked by a high-altitude Zeppelin. This is because they could hear neither the sound of airplanes nor cannons, just chaos raining from the skies.
Indeed, the main objective of the Germans was to attack the morale of the Parisians, not destroy them. Thus, the Paris Gun did a great job as a psychological weapon.
By the end of its service, the Paris Gun had fired at least 320 shells at a max rate of 20 shells per day. It caused significant damage to properties in Paris and had about 870 casualties—250 dead and 620 wounded. Its largest casualty count came on March 29, 1918, when it hit the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church, killing 91 people and injuring 16.
Nobody knows the whereabouts of these guns after the war. It is believed that the Germans had destroyed them along with their construction plans just as the war drew to an end.
The 39-ton “Tsar Cannon” holds the Guinness World Record for the largest bombard cannon in the world, based on caliber size.
Crafted in 1586 in Moscow, Russia, during the reign of Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich, the Tsar Cannon was made of bronze.
With its barrel measuring a massive 890mm (35 in), Tsar Cannon sits among the top 3 biggest guns in history by caliber size. But for all its ‘massiveness,’ it was never fired in anger.
This is, perhaps, because it was mostly built as a symbol of Russian power and not for warfare.
A few studies have, however, discovered gunpowder residue in its barrel, indicating that it had been fired at least once.
The gun was sometimes called the Russian Shotgun, owing to the fact that it was meant to shoot around 800 kg (0ver 1700 lb) of stone grapeshots rather than actual cannonballs.
Tsar Cannon is currently located in Ivanovskaya Square, the largest square in the Kremlin in Moscow. It is also located close to the Tsar Bell, which is the largest bell in the world (fun fact: it has never been rung!)
Little David is an American 914-mm (36 in) caliber mortar used during the Second World War.
While its name is quite ironic, no gun in history has ever surpassed its caliber size.
Developed in May 1857, this super-sized heavy mortar is only challenged by the British Mallet’s Mortar, which has the same caliber size.
Weighing over 78000 kg (173,000 lb), the monstrous mortar can fire 3,650-pound shells across 9.7 km (6 mi) with a muzzle velocity of 381 m/s.
Little David easily surpassed Germany’s monster, Schwerer Gustav, which had a caliber size of 800mm. Also, it was ready to be fired in 12 hours, as opposed to the more lethal Schwerer Gustav. The Schwerer Gustav could fire heavier shells over longer distances with more accuracy, but it took about three weeks to get into firing position.
Indeed, Little David was originally used for test-firing aerial bombs at a US Army facility in Aberdeen.
However, by 1944, the American forces had laid out plans to invade the Japanese mainland and were expecting extremely tough fortifications. As such, the Army required a heavy-duty weapon to combat them.
This weapon would have to be larger than the 410-mm (16.14 in) guns found on the Iowa-class battleships whose 2700-pound shells proved ineffective against Japanese bunkers at Iwo Jima.
Ultimately, the Army decided to turn Little David into a ginormous siege mortar.
However, before Little David could get the chance to prove its worth with its first real shot, the Japanese surrendered, bringing war hostilities to an end.
I hope you had a blast running through this mini list of history’s biggest guns. There are several other guns that deserve to be mentioned, but we can’t cover them all at once. One such gun is called the Schwerer Gustav. If you’d like to learn more about that well I’ve got a full video dedicated to it on my other channel Megaprojects, which you should definitely check out, link below.