From the days of catapults and trebuchets, military men have dreamed of the ultimate weapon that could smash an enemy's wall, castle, or defensive stronghold. For a span of eighty-five years, that weapon was the railroad gun, large enough to do substantial damage but also movable to wherever railroad tracks could go.
Railroad guns had a shorter life span than other practical military technologies spawned during the American Civil War, such as submarines, repeating rifles, and machine guns. Yet from 1862 to 1945, they earned a reputation as a bunker buster without equal, and terrorized civilians by firing on cities from afar, without warning.
That the railroad gun's reputation did not always comport with reality was not universally recognized at the time. Germany in particular spent considerable time and expense well into the twentieth century developing varied railroad guns that, while record-setting in size, range, and ordnance, consumed resources in the service of missions that could have been more efficiently and effectively accomplished by other means. The Germans were not alone in this pursuit, but in the end, the railroad gun's usefulness did not live up to its reputation.
The "railroad battery" was first used in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan's Peninsula campaign in 1862. Confederates bolted a 32-pounder Brooke naval rifle to a flatcar protected by an iron casemate, the finished car looking much like a land version of the ironclad CSS Virginia. It engaged in artillery duels before the Battle of Fair Oaks.The Union used similar railroad mountings during the 1864 siege of Petersburg. The most famous of these was Dictator, a thirteen-inch seacoast mortar on an eight-wheeled flatcar. Lobbing 218-pound shells as far as forty-two hundred yards, this behemoth bombarded Southern batteries and bombproofs with telling effect.
Apart from experiments conducted by the French during the siege of Paris in 1870 and by the British Royal Navy's Capt. John Fisher (of Dreadnought fame) in 1881 and 1882, there were few advancements in railroad guns until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when French firms experimented with mounting large artillery pieces—originally designed as the main armament of warships—on large railroad carriages. The French so emplaced not only 320mm guns and 200mm howitzers but even pieces as small as 155mm howitzers. During the war to come, naval or coast artillery crews would man many such railroad guns.
The German and Austro-Hungarian militaries were also experimenting, in greatest secrecy, on mammoth siege guns—Krupp's 420mm Dicke Bertha (Big Bertha) and Skoda's 305mm Schlanke Emma (Skinny Emma) howitzers—which were later deployed with admirable accuracy and power against Belgian and French fortifications. The limitations of Europe's road networks, coupled with the French experiments in railroad guns, may have encouraged Germany to combine the technical strengths of Krupp's artillery bureau with those of the Eisenbahnpioniere, perhaps the most impressive and professional military rail service in Europe at the time.
By 1915, Krupp's Professor Fritz Rausenberger had successfully mated several modified naval gun designs with railroad mountings to develop the first in a series of long-range railroad guns. Two of these 380mm Max E guns were deployed as part of the enormous artillery forces (over 1,220 guns) arrayed against Verdun. These pieces heralded the German offensive on February 21, 1916. One opened fire on the city of Verdun from twenty miles away; its first shell hit part of the Bishop's Palace. Its sister's first salvos were far more effective. According to author William G. Dooly Jr., "after a few shots, the rails of the marshalling yard were standing in the air like twisted fragments of wire."
At Verdun, both sides deployed railroad guns for rear-area bombardments and to destroy both fortifications and deep tunnel and bunker complexes. France's gigantic 400mm Schneider railroad guns were used to support the retaking of Fort Douaumont. At Third Ypres, two British fourteen-inch railway guns named Boche-Buster and Scene-Shifter carried out similar long-range interdiction bombardments.
Five American fourteen-inch guns—developed for U.S. Navy superdreadnoughts and featuring fully enclosed, armored mounts built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works—were fielded with navy crews under gunnery expert Capt. C. P. Plunkett. The only American-designed heavy artillery used by the American Expeditionary Force, Plunkett guns had a maximum range of twenty-four miles. Beginning in September 1918, they were used to preempt German troop movements and bomb logistics facilities.
By the end of World War I, railroads were regarded as the preeminent method for fielding super-heavy artillery. By Armistice Day, the U.S. Coast Artillery had deployed seventy-one railroad guns in ten regiments in Europe. They ranged in size from fourteen-inch weapons to the 190mm. Almost all were made in France.
The pinnacle of railroad artillery's long-range role was the Pariskanone, or Paris gun. Misidentified as "Big Bertha" by Parisians, it was officially named the Wilhelmgeschütz in the kaiser's honor. Actually a series of replaceable gun tubes, the Paris guns were developed by Rausenberger's team in cooperation with the German navy. With a 280mm naval gun as a base, each barrel was sleeved down to 210mm or, later, using reconditioned barrels, to 240mm. The modified tubes were then extended and heavily braced. Each tube could fire only twenty to fifty shells before its rifling and accuracy deteriorated substantially.
As a terror weapon, however, the Pariskanone is best viewed as a progenitor of the V-weapons of World War II. Originally placed in the Forest of St. Gobain in March 1918, the Paris guns fired relatively light projectiles some sixty-eight miles into the City of Light. Its most infamous achievement was on March 29, 1918—Good Friday—when a single shell struck the Church of St. Gervais and killed eighty-eight people. Impressive though they were, however, the Paris guns achieved little of military significance. As strict attention to barrel wear was not maintained, one of the Paris guns' tubes burst, and the Allied counteroffensives of August 1918 forced the Germans to abandon their last gun. Despite firing some 350 shells, the Paris guns' bombardments caused only 876 casualties and 256 deaths, largely to civilians.
Major powers continued to maintain super-heavy railroad guns in the interwar period in spite of the threats posed by early bomber aircraft. The Americans largely viewed railroad guns as a supplement to fixed coast defense artillery. Likewise, the British looked to such weapons to fill gaps along the Channel coast, particularly once they were faced with the threat of Operation Sealion (the planned invasion of Britain by the Nazis). The Soviets used railroad guns against the Finns, and later, the Germans. Although the Treaty of Versailles prohibited German offensive weaponry and heavy artillery, the Reichswehr explored the capabilities of railroad guns in secret. When Hitler renounced the treaty's limitations, Krupp resumed construction of such artillery for the Wehrmacht.
During World War II, Germany was the premier builder and user of super-heavy railroad guns. Allied intelligence identified some twelve different types of German-made railway artillery, ranging from 150mm to 800mm, by 1945. Captured Czech and French pieces were also widely used. Germans based 280mm guns on Cap Griz Nez, on the northern coast of France, in 1940 to batter the English coast and provide cover for the abortive Operation Sealion. Because such weapons were impossible to camouflage well, the Nazis' Organisation Todt built gigantic, igloo-shaped bunkers to protect the guns, which still stand. In spite of the Red Army's advance into Poland, the Germans continued to deploy railroad guns and Karl-series caterpillar-tracked mortars to pummel Warsaw during the Uprising of late summer 1944.
Perhaps the most successful German railroad artillery was the 280mm K5(E) series of rail guns, of which some twenty-five units were built. Two of these 218-ton mammoths, Robert and Leopold (known to the Allies as "Anzio Express" and "Anzio Annie," respectively), achieved infamy during the 1944 battles for Anzio. Firing 550-pound shells to a range of over thirty miles, these K5(E)s played havoc with beachhead operations but were only fired sporadically in the daylight, taking advantage of concealment in railway tunnels. Despite intelligence as to their positions, Allied air power never neutralized either gun and only occasionally interrupted ammunition supply trains.
 Twenty-two U.S. Seventh Army servicemen pose on a 274mm railroad gun captured near Rentwershausen, Germany, on April 10, 1945. National Archives.Germany fielded the largest railroad guns—in fact, the largest land artillery pieces—of all time. Intended to defeat the Maginot Line, Krupp's 800mm Schwere Gustav and Dora guns weighed 1,350 tons, fired 4-ton shells from a 90-foot barrel up to 29 miles, and required a crew of 1,420 commanded by a major general. Gustav was only used once in combat; Dora, never. Gustav's first and apparently only action was when it fired fewer than fifty projectiles against Sevastopol's fortifications in 1942. Its cumbersome size, paired with the complicated logistics required to bring it into action—the gun required two parallel rail tracks (four rails total) to be laid for it to be brought into position—drastically curtailed its role from the outset. As Germany lost air supremacy, Gustav was dismantled, and Dora was relegated to a Wehrmacht testing range, where American forces found it in spring 1945. Even in the war's waning days, the Germans still used their remaining railroad guns: one pummeled units of the American 101st Airborne at Hagenau, France, in February 1945, while others fired rocket-propelled "arrow" projectiles toward Maastricht and Belgium.
Before the rise of bombers, missiles, and precision munitions, investments in railroad guns were perhaps justified. In World War I, the guns frequently proved to be fort-cracking artillery par excellence, and superb for long-range bombardment. By the 1930s, their days were numbered: armed forces turned to air power to shatter fortresses (and the guns themselves); to drop paratroops behind fortified lines; and to sever rail links, the guns' umbilical cord. Ponderous size, camouflage difficulties, and logistical constraints all made the guns vulnerable to air attack. While a viable role remained for cannon artillery on many battlefields into the early twenty-first century, World War II's end rang the death knell for super-heavy artillery, of which the railroad gun marked the apotheosis.
The surviving Plunkett gun can be found at the Washington Navy Yard, and several 305mm Soviet railway guns may be found in Russian museums. Leopold, one of the K5(E)s used at Anzio, is permanently displayed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and another K5(E) can be found at Batterie Todt near the Pas de Calais. MHQ
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.  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.  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’.
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.  Each round weighed 1,700 lbs.  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.  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.
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.  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. 
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.  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.  To see a film of the Little David fired, click here.
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.  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).  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.  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.  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.
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.  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.  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.  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.  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.
While both the British Mk. 1 and the Japanese Type 94 are often cited as the largest sea borne artillery in history.  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.  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.
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.  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.  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.  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.  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.  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.
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.  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.  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.  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.
88mm Gun (eighty-eight)Edit
The 88 mm gun was used by the Germans as an anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and artillery gun during World War II. The IWM photo on the left shows the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division moving past a damaged eighty-eight in Belgium, September 1944.
This stand-alone artillery piece usually had a large cruciform mount when used as an anti-aircraft gun, allowing the eighty-eight to be fired in any direction. The cruciform mount is partially visible in the photo above, ri. Other types of artillery pieces typically had V-shaped bases which allowed them to fire in the forward direction only. Later in WWII, the 88s were also mounted on the Panzer IV tank chassis to create mobile artillery.
Wheels were available for the cruciform mount when moving the gun. The front and back legs of the cruciform would be attached to these wheels so that it could be towed like a trailer. The side legs could be folded up while traveling.
The 88 was unusual in that it could also be fired from the wheel mount in an emergency. The side legs could be lowered to the ground for stabilization if it were necessary to fire while the gun was still on the wheels.
The illustration to the right shows the 88mm gun with cruciform mount both on and off the wheels. In the top portion of the illustration, the cruciform mount is attached to the wheels with the nearer of the side legs in the down position and the farther leg is folded up. Also note the shield that was added to the later model 88s to provide a minimal amount of protection from small arms fire. In most cases, the wheels would have been removed when the gun reached its destination, as shown in the lower part of the illustration.
A muzzle break could be fitted on the end of the 88mm gun barrel as shown in the U.S. Army photo to the right. Muzzle brakes were used to help counteract the gun's recoil by redirecting the blast to the sides and also to help prevent the muzzle from rising during firing.
The U.S. Army photo on the left shows a captured German 88 being towed by what appears to be an U.S. M-4 high speed tractor.
Although the 88mm gun was not the largest or most powerful of the German guns, it was more mobile, had a more rapid rate of fire, could be accurately aimed, and there were no Allied tanks that could withstand a direct hit from its shell. The larger German artillery pieces such the railroad siege gun required considerable set up time in preparation to fire and it was necessary to build a special emplacement or it.
The 88 came to be feared by the Allied forces after suffering unacceptably high lessees such as happened during Operation Battleaxe. During the operation (in Egypt near the border of Libya), the Germans used 88mm guns as tank weapons against the British at Halfaya Pass.
Due in large part to the effectiveness of the German 88mm gun, "Operation Battleaxe cost the British about 90 tanks...almost 1,000 men and the chance to restore morale through a desert victory," Richard Collier, The War in the Desert, (pg71). These German guns were produced in large numbers. Over 18,000 (including all variants) were built during World War II.