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WW II supergun Schwerer Gustav

A supergun is an extraordinarily large cannon with an extremely high muzzle velocity and large bore. They are used to bombard an enemy from extremely long range and destroy heavy fortifications.


Late Middle Ages

Wrought-iron cannon Dulle Griet (ball diameter: 64 cm) from the early 15th century

In the context of late medieval siege warfare the term superguns applies to stone-firing bombards with a ball diameter of more than 50 cm.[1] These superguns were either manufactured by forging together longitudinal iron bars, held in place by iron rings, or cast in bronze with techniques generally similar to bell-founding.[2] Known examples include the Pumhart von Steyr, Dulle Griet and Mons Meg (all iron) as well as the cast-bronze Faule Mette, Faule Grete and Dardanelles Gun.

The Pumhart von Steyr, the largest known iron bombard by caliber (ball diameter: 80 cm)[3]

At the beginning of the development of superguns was the desire to increase the effect of the projectiles. To this end, master gunners first simply used larger powder loads. These, however, exerted larger pressure on the existing cannon and could make it burst, causing the death of the irreplaceable gunner with his crew (and even kings). In addition, it was observed that, due to their higher velocity, stone balls were shattered by the impact on the walls rather than smashing them. Thus, the mass of the cannon balls and, consequently, of the ordnance too continually increased, finally culminating in giant cannon like the Pumhart von Steyr which fired a 690 kg ball. Apart from the anticipated improvement in penetrating power, other factors such as prestige and a potential deterrent effect also played an important role.[4]

The Tsar Cannon from 1586 served as a show-piece and was never used in combat

For all their manufacturing quality the superguns were only moderately successful. Their military effectiveness turned out to be out of all proportion to their overwhelming logistical demands and financial costs. For the cost of a single supergun, two or three large bombards with a reasonably smaller caliber (in German Hauptbüchse) could be produced whose firepower was enough to shatter any medieval wall, in particular when it was concentrated in a battery. Due to their less bulky dimensions and higher rate of fire, these artillery pieces could be more flexibly deployed and caused more destruction in any given length of time. Furthermore, the transition from stone to smaller, but much more devastating iron balls meant that super-sized bores became unnecessary.[5] The caliber of a 50 pound ball, for example, could be reduced from 28 to 18 cm when using an iron projectile instead.[6]

Thus, as early as the second half of the 15th century, further development in siege technology concentrated on the Hauptbüchse,[7] and bombards largely disappeared from the leading artillery arsenal of the dukes of Burgundy.[8]

World Wars

German Big Bertha howitzer

The World War I German military were especially interested in the development of these superweapons due to the need for the Schlieffen plan to march past a line of Belgian fortifications constructed specifically to stop such an invasion route. During the opening phases of the war, the Germans employed a 420 mm Krupp howitzer (the Big Bertha) and two 305 mm Skoda Mörser M. 11 mortars to reduce the famous fortresses of Liège and Namur. Their low overland mobility made them arrive later than the infantry at Liège, so several infantry assaults were made with heavy loss of life and generally little success. The guns arrived a few days later and reduced the fortresses at Liège one-by-one over a short period of a few days.

Larger artillery after this opening period was generally limited to railway guns, which had much greater mobility, or naval monitors (two of the British Lord Clive class monitors were fitted with an 18 inch (457 mm) gun, and HMS General Wolfe fired 33 km at a railway bridge in Belgium). All of the major powers involved employed such weapons in limited numbers, typically between 280 and 305 mm (11 to 12 inches) although some larger weapons were also used. The largest of the railway guns deployed in World War I was the Paris Gun, which was used to bombard Paris from a distance of over 130 kilometres (80 miles).

Development continued during the inter-war era, although at a more limited pace as aircraft were expected to take over in the long-range bombardment role. Nevertheless the Germans built a handful of powerful Krupp K5's and the great 800 mm Schwerer Gustav (and Dora). The latter had been designed specifically to defeat the Maginot Line, firing a 7 ton shell to a range of 37 km. Although their original role proved unnecessary, Gustav was used successfully to demolish several heavy fortifications, most notably those at Sevastopol. Dora was readied for combat at Stalingrad, but was withdrawn before it could be used. Gustav and Dora were the largest artillery pieces (by caliber) ever used in combat. Development may have ended there but for the ever-increasing Allied air power, which limited Hitler's options in terms of re-opening bombing attacks on London. This led to the development of the V-3 "London Gun" or "Hochdruckpumpe", fired from a site in the Pas de Calais, about 95 miles (153 km) away. Two attempts to build underground bunkers for the huge weapons were thwarted by massive Royal Air Force bombing raids, which made further attempts futile. Two smaller prototype version of the gun were used during the Battle of the Bulge.

Modern developments

A section of the Iraqi supergun from Imperial War Museum Duxford

Canadian-born engineer Gerald Bull later became interested in the possibility of using superguns in place of rockets to insert payloads into orbit. He started Project HARP to investigate this concept. HARP was later cancelled, and Bull turned to military designs, eventually developing the GC-45 howitzer. Some years later, Bull interested Saddam Hussein in funding Project Babylon. The objective of this project is not certain, but it is thought to have been intended to develop a gun capable of firing an object into orbit, from where it could then drop onto any place on the Earth. Gerald Bull was assassinated, allegedly by Israeli Mossad, terminating development, and the parts were confiscated by British customs after the Gulf War.

See also


  1. ^ Schmidtchen 1977a, p. 153
  2. ^ Schmidtchen 1977a, p. 157
  3. ^ Schmidtchen 1977a, p. 162
  4. ^ Schmidtchen 1977b, pp. 228-230
  5. ^ Schmidtchen 1977b, pp. 229-230
  6. ^ Eschelbach 1972, p. 276
  7. ^ Schmidtchen 1977b, p. 230
  8. ^ Smith & DeVries 2005, p. 205


  • Eschelbach, Rudolf (1972), "Das Feuergeschütz des Mittelalters (1350–1550)", Technikgeschichte 39 (4): 257–279  
  • Schmidtchen, Volker (1977a), "Riesengeschütze des 15. Jahrhunderts. Technische Höchstleistungen ihrer Zeit", Technikgeschichte 44 (2): 153–173  
  • Schmidtchen, Volker (1977b), "Riesengeschütze des 15. Jahrhunderts. Technische Höchstleistungen ihrer Zeit", Technikgeschichte 44 (3): 213–237  
  • Smith, Robert Douglas; DeVries, Kelly (2005), The artillery of the Dukes of Burgundy, 1363-1477, Boydell Press, ISBN 9781843831624  

Further reading

  • Gerald V. Bull, Charles H. Murphy, Paris Kanonen: The Paris Guns (Wilhelmgeschutze) and Project HARP, E. S. Mittler, Herford, 1988


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