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Rikhter R-23: Russia Built the Only Cannon Fired in Space

Rikhter R-23
Image: Creative Commons.

Rikhter R-23, A Short History: The hit Apple+ TV series For All Man Kind is set in an alternate timeline where the Soviet Union beat the United States to the moon. As a result, the space race continues, and (spoilers) both sides end up with permanent bases on the moon. In the second season, which aired this spring, both sides “weaponized” the moon by bringing a variety of small arms.

Multiple experts have weighed in to suggest the depiction of the weapons is rather realistic. Instead of the sounds of lasers or blasters, there is silence – as sound can’t travel in a vacuum.

However, one weapon that isn’t included in the fictional series is the very real Rikhter R-23, which even today remains the only cannon to have been fired in space. By all accounts there was no grand “boom” as again, sound can’t travel in a vacuum. Yet despite the lack of noise, it still reportedly made quite an impact.

The Soviet Air Force’s Autocannon

Development of the Rikhter R-23 began in the late 1950s – before the first manned spaceflight. The aim of the program wasn’t to develop a space weapon however but rather was to create a weapon that was designed to be as short as possible to avoid any issues found on high-speed aircraft when a gun is pointed into the airstream. The 23mm automatic cannon – or autocannon – was designed as an oversized gas-operated revolver cannon that utilized the gas bled from holes in the barrel to provide the motive force.

Able to fire up to 2,600 rounds per minute, it had the highest cyclic rate of any single-barrel cannon ever introduced into service. To achieve the high rate of fire, it had three separate gas systems, one that ejected the fired cartridge from the chamber, another that would chamber a fresh round, and a final system that would drive the revolver cylinder and feed mechanism. That feed mechanism was somewhat similar to that of a Gatling-type weapon, however, ammunition was actually fed from the magazine backward into the cylinder rather than from the rear or side – and as result that placed the feed mechanism in the center of the gun, which helped shorten the overall length.

The standard terrestrial R-23 was primarily intended as a self-defense weapon for Soviet bombers, but it was only actually used on the DK-20 tail turret of the Tupolev Tu-22 (NATO reporting name: Blinder), the first supersonic bomber to enter production in the Soviet Union. What was also unique about this application was that spent cartridges were actually ejected outside the aircraft.

The existence of the R-23 remained largely a secret until the first Tu-22s were exported to Iraq and Libya in the 1970s, and according to The Drive, the first one to be recovered by the west only occurred after a Libyan Tu-22 was shot down by French forces over Chad in 1987.

The Space Cannon

Even as the weapon was developed for aircraft, the Soviets had been terrified by the prospect of American spacecraft approaching and inspecting Soviet military satellites – which, at least based on Kremlin propaganda, didn’t technically exist.

Fear of attack on spacecraft was real, and the Soviets modified the cannon – as the R-23M – for use on its military space station ALMAZ/Salyut 3/OPS-2 where it was to be employed as a self-defense weapon. Its compact design made it an obvious choice for use on a spacecraft – but whereas 500 rounds were carried on the Tu-22, only 32 rounds could be brought to space.

That was still considered an adequate amount, especially as it was unlikely any American spacecraft would be armed. At the end of a manned mission from the Salyut 3, the Rikter R-23M was tested and successfully fired. On January 24, 1975, it became the only weapon to be fired in outer space. The station’s jet thrusters had to fire to counteract the weapon’s recoil.

While it was a notable moment in space exploration, it went unreported by the world media, and it was only after the fall of the Soviet Union that Russian sources actually revealed the existence of the tests. Perhaps we’ll get to see a fictionalized version in season three of the Apple+ series.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.