Aircraft armament of WWI

By Rob Morgan

In a book called ‘Early Aircraft Armament,’ on the aeroplane and the gun up to 1918, Harry Woodman* provides a comprehensive, and almost overwhelmingly detailed book on the subject of guns aboard aeroplanes before and during the Great War. Essential reading for any World War I dog-fight enthusiast!

Woodman trawls the world’s powers to give an assessment of the pre-war attempts, many of them led by Colonel Lewis, of the famed Lewis gun, to arm aeroplanes. Some valuable ideas for the wargamer in this opening chapter, and of course it was not uncommon for colonial forces to use ‘bombs’ and small arms against tribesmen. Italy, France and Spain did it before WWI opened.

The vital, the core chapter, on rifle calibre guns follows, and Harry Woodman provides a splendid and thorough analysis of the weapons used in the air by the six major combatant powers of the War, and adds the USA for good measure. Well over a dozen types of indigenous gun from the French Hotchkiss, the German Spandau and American Marlin are discussed and described for the wargamer, together with the provision of how different air powers used the same guns — everyone used the Lewis gun, not surprisingly, even the Central Powers who put a premium on captured examples. It really is useful to have some sound analysis of weapons which are often known by name and reputation, but otherwise are ignored or overlooked by writers. The Italian Villar Perosa and the German Gast machine gun are examples.

The book deals with types of ammunition, problems of feeding guns competently, and with incendiary and explosive bullets which found their role in the air combats, and their effects. A short section on firing through the propeller arc follows, technically very well written. The book, incidentally, is one of the best illustrated, with photographs and line drawings and even patent plans, work on ordnance I’ve ever seen. Just about every possible method was attempted, and many failed or worked erratically — oops! He deals with gunsights too, from the amazingly basic stick-on back-sight and pin, to the night sights developed for use against Zeppelins and the big Gotha bombers. His conclusions about the effectiveness of most guns is worth some consideration too.

The chapter which really took my interest is entitled ‘Big Guns’ and Woodman means it. The many attempts to load Luftwaffe planes with big anti-tank guns in WWII are very well known, but in the First War designers and tacticians were just as keen to blast any enemy out of the air with one big shot! Some of these weapons are phenomenal. The Vickers 1pdr QF gun and the French 37mm Puteaux gun (better known aboard the FT 17 tank)  surprised me, but there were others of some potential. The British Davis recoilless cannon, in 2, 6 and 12pdr variants, as well as the Coventry COW gun intended for use as defensive armament of Handley Page bombers intrigued me, as did the anti-Zeppelin Vickers-Crayford Rocket Gun of 1917. The French tried out most smaller calibre 37mm and 47mm Hotchkiss weapons and they undertook a great deal of work with a 75mm weapon aboard a Voisin Triplane bomber. The other Allied Powers similarly attempted to add big guns to their aircraft, and the Germans even designed an enclosed nose turret for their 20mm Becker cannon.

It surprised me to learn that the Solothurn 20mm automatic cannon (and the Flak 30) were designed before the 1918 Armistice, and hidden by the Germans only to emerge as effective weapons of the Blitzkrieg in 1939! There were many attempts at placing the weapons of aeroplanes in positions which provided better opportunities for destroying enemy craft. The Germans had also developed and were about to issue the fearsome Gast gun as the war ended. Some of the ideas and projects suggested here, and actually trialled provide a good deal of thought for anyone with an inclination to take to the air.

This is a fantastic book, and an air enthusiasts dream, full of ideas and possibilities. Highly recommended.

*The book was originally published in hardback by Arms & Armour Press 1989.

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