What may not be known to many is that the M61 Vulcan—a six-barrel, air-cooled, electrically fired Gatling-style rotary cannon that can fire 20mm rounds at an extremely high rate—has had a long and winding history.
It was way back in 1946 when General Electric initiated “Project Vulcan” to develop the 20mm rotary cannon that we see today. The weapon would be capable of firing more than seven thousand rounds per sixty seconds—and by utilizing multiple barrels, it minimized the chance of erosion and capped heat generation.
In the end, it became an efficient killing machine that could be relied upon for years.
The M61 Vulcan saw its first real action in 1965 in Vietnam. At that time, it was employed on a F-105 Thunderchief and was also seen on the F-15, F-16, and F-22. It was also known to be used on side-firing installations on the Fairchild AC-11 and the Lockheed AC-130 gunships.
Today, with General Dynamics now running operations, the company now produces the improved versions of M61A1 and M61A2, among others, which are considered lighter and more practical for current warfare.
“Armed forces typically use Gatling guns to saturate a target zone with machine gun bullets or cannon rounds. Helicopter-mounted Gatling guns are extremely good at suppressing enemy defenses; a mere second’s worth of firing will send scores of rounds downrange, resulting in the suppression of a larger area than a conventional machine gun,” an expert on Popular Mechanics recently wrote.
“Navies use ship-mounted Gatling guns, meanwhile, as a defense against low-flying aircraft and cruise missiles. The U.S. Navy’s Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS), mounted in guided missile cruisers and destroyers, is designed to fill the sky in the path of an incoming missile with twenty-millimeter rounds, increasing the probability of hit and saving the warship,” he added.
Next-Gen Gatling Guns
However, other countries are already looking to supplant the long-running success of the M61 Vulcan. For example, it was reported that a new gun system under development in China features a mind-bending twenty barrels, “making it one of the most powerful—and weirdest—Gatling guns ever.”
The expert continued: “China is likely designing the gun to counter the threat of drone swarms, throwing up a wall of lead as a defense against dozens, or even hundreds, of armed drones. … While the twenty-barrel Gatling gun isn’t as elegant of an anti-drone solution as those used in many western countries, such as jamming or the use of lasers, an instant wall of lead would certainly do the job.”
He went on to note that “most Gatling guns top out at six or seven barrels, with the Dutch Goalkeeper ship defense system and the Chinese Type 730 utilizing seven barrels.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Washington state-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.