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Thomas LeeApr 26, 2022 (0)

A-10 Gatling Gun GAU-8 Avenger

Extending aggressively from the front of the Warthog is the tool of its trade, the GAU-8 Avenger (correctly referred to as the A/A 49E-6 Gun System) rotating autocannon. It is a Gatling gun, or sort of: the reason the barrels spin is not to put them all to use simultaneously, but simply to cool the barrels, like the air over the engine of a Volkswagen Beetle. And like a Beetle, they have a sound that once heard is never forgotten. It is not the sound of a standard machine gun, the classic rat-a-tat-tat so beloved of comic book inkers, but almost a buzz, or a braaap sound, to be onomatopoeic. The sound is unmistakable, and that is true whether you are on the receiving end or the, um, beneficiary of the cannon's noise. The one A-10C pilot I know well tells me it isn't easy to hear when you are the guy pulling the trigger. The combination of adrenaline, speed and concentration on the target, as well as the growl of the turbofans, create a mélange of noise that makes the sound of the cannon difficult to distinguish. Anyway, the sound isn't what matters, to the pilot, or to anyone else: it is the wholesale destruction that is being inflicted. Imagine: the seven barrels are capable of firing 3,900 30mm rounds per minute, and there is about a minute's worth of firing time in the ammunition magazine (more would weigh too much and take up too much space). Since proper usage of the gun is achieved by firing brief, accurate bursts, held on target by an optical gunsight projected upwards onto the canopy – a “heads-up display” – 18 seconds' worth of firing, in judicious, accurate two- or three-second bursts can create a tremendous amount of destruction.

Arms have a quality that almost no other piece of technology shares: they have a long, long life. Some of the ships of the line, or ‘first rates' employed by the Royal Navy during the time of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) were 100 years old. By the time we retire the B-52 bomber, it too will be a century old. Of course, a 1954 B-52 is a far cry from one used now, re-engined and with new avionics, as well as a battery of computer systems that were only a twinkle in Turing's eye when the first ones rolled off the line in Seattle.

Just like an old M-16 gripped by the soon forever desk-dutied Secret Service agents in the car behind President Kennedy's, so old that it has wooden furniture, the outline and the general function are very clearly the elder brethren of the modern black rifles, cult objects that they have unfortunately become.

Consider an even more striking example: the original government .45, called the Colt 1911,  altered very slightly in 1924 and called the 1911A1, is virtually unchanged since then. The most elite units in the world carry them, and many the pistol shooter believes that old John Browning's design will never be improved upon.

It stands to reason that a machine gun that fires - very fast - is desirable; after all, the purpose of the machine gun is to send a virtual hail of bullets towards the enemy. Yet in fact, controlling the bullets fired per minute – the cyclic rate, as it is known – is of paramount importance. A smaller, hand-held machine gun works well at a rate around 600 rpm – rounds per minute. Recall that the magazine they carry contains 20 or 30 rounds, meaning that with a three- or four-second burst, you're dry and need to do a potentially lethal (to you!) magazine switch. So keeping it down means you have longer firing time, the weapon is more controllable, and still enough lead is going downrange to destroy more or less whatever one hits. With a belt-fed, crew-served machine gun, there Is no problem with a slightly higher cyclic rate: the weapon is mounted on a tripod or a bipod, and is fed by belted rounds, so ammunition expenditure is not the problem that it represents if a soldier is carrying heavy rounds in heavy magazines.

On a historical note, during the Second World War the Germans, ahead of the game as usual, used the MG 39 and MG 42 machine guns. Predecessors of modern light machine guns, instead of being usable only from a heavy, unwieldy tripod, were rifle-styled and essentially early forms of what we use today. If one was firing at you, you would be hard pressed to raise your head and dismiss it as an 80-year-old weapon: you would be too busy ducking. The MG-39, in particular, possessed an unmistakable sound; an old US Army training video says, in that hearty avuncular voice typical of the training movies of that era, “Its bark is worse than its bite.” However, its bite was pretty bad, too: it had a high cyclic rate, was controllable, accurate and fired a deadly, hard-hitting 7.92 mm bullet, and was feared by allied servicemen. Bad bark, bad bite.

But the Avenger, designed specifically for the A-10, is perhaps the deadliest machine gun in existence. There are other rotary cannons, but I have heard guys described the Avenger as “a laser beam” in that the stream of bullets is so rapid it seems unbroken. And each 30mm bullet is a little bit of flying hell itself:

                “…PGU-14/B Armor Piercing Incendiary, with a projectile weight of about 14.0 oz (395 grams or 6,096 grains) and PGU-13/B High Explosive Incendiary (HEI) rounds, with a projectile weight of about 13.3 oz (378 grams or 5,833 grains).[10] The PGU-14/B's projectile incorporates a lightweight aluminum body, cast around a smaller caliber depleted uranium penetrating core; each round measures 11.4 inches and weighs 1.69 pounds or more.”


Now imagine 250 or so of them flying at you as you sit in the enclosed confines of your tank.

The Avenger has been used in another capacity that shows off its lethality: air to ship missile defense, in the form of the Goalkeeper CIWS system. If a surface hugging missile is rushing towards a destroyer, this is what opens fire (again, laser-beam like) to destroy it. And generally it does: the cannons mounted on destroyers have a much higher than 90 percent success ratio in tests when trying to destroy anti-ship missiles -and these missiles are moving at sometimes hypersonic speeds. Many navies, including the Royal Navy, use them, although it is transitioning to a similar system called the Phalanx.

In fact, it is not unreasonable to think of the A-10 as a platform for this gun; the gun was designed just for the plane, and makes up a substantial part of its weight: 16% of the A-10's weight is accounted for by the system. It is so heavy that if it is removed for service, the rear of the aircraft has to be supported.

It has proven to be superior to other systems such as the Vulcan cannon, the minigun (called ‘mini' for unfathomable reasons, but hey, see ‘military intelligence' in the oxymoron section of the library), and even systems spawned from it, like the 25mm version used on Harriers. The Avenger is more accurate, loses less muzzle velocity and hits harder than practically anything else. And like the A-10, it is projected to serve, if political concerns don't get in the way, for another 20 or 30 years.

Like the warships of old, the 1911A1 beloved of pistol shooters, or the venerable M-2 (‘Ma Deuce' .50 caliber machine gun, going on 100 years old) the oldest military and workingman's maxim applies: it ain't broke, so don't fix it.

A-10's are the farthest thing from broken. They break other things, and do so effectively and inexpensively, and pretty much always bring their pilot home. The tide is wavering in Ukraine. I am there and I see it. It is almost never that a single weapon turns the tide of a war, but in a tank-heavy army like the Russian army, the A-10's sure could make a difference. 

Send them. Send them now.

The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to


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