Guns and Gear

Where Have The Big Guns Gone?

Harold Hutchison Freelance Writer
Font Size:

One thing that could be said about the warships of World War II – you knew they were warships. One of the ways you knew they were warships was the fact that they were bristling with guns – and some of those guns were big.

Take the Iowa-class battleships. They had nine sixteen-inch guns in three turrets, which are the best-known weapons on these ships. That only scratches the surface – these ships also were built to carry twenty five-inch guns (in ten twin mounts), plus a lot of 40mm and 20mm cannon for air-defense. Indeed, even after the aircraft carrier had become the queen of the seas, the battleships provided massive amounts of firepower. During the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, USS South Dakota shot down 26 Japanese planes while serving as an anti-air escort.

The big guns of the battleships were also very valuable in the shore bombardment mission. From USS Massachusetts (BB 59) off the North African coast in November, 1942, to a number of old – and new – battleships off Okinawa in the spring of 1945, these ships blasted shore defenses as troops stormed the beaches. Some of these battleships even bombarded coastal targets in Japan in the weeks before the atomic bomb attacks forced Japan’s surrender. Some battleships, notable Massachusetts and USS Washington (BB 56) even engaged other battleships in gunnery duels!

But now, the battleships are gone from the high seas. Eight of them, USS Texas (BB 35), USS Alabama (BB 60), USS Massachusetts, USS North Carolina (BB 55), USS Iowa (BB 61), USS New Jersey (BB 62), USS Missouri (BB 63), and USS Wisconsin (BB 64), remain as museums. The rest have been scrapped – although some lucked out and were sunk as targets.

Of course, the battleships were not the only ships with big guns. The United States had a number of heavy cruisers (usually with eight-inch guns) and light cruisers (with six-inch guns). Today, only the 19th-century’s USS Olympia (CA 15), the USS Little Rock (CL 92, later CG 4), and USS Salem (CA 139) survive as museums.

Today, missiles like the RIM-66 Standard Missile in the SM-2 Block IV version, and the new RIM-174 SM-6 handle much of the area air-defense needs. The RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles and the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles handle point-defense needs. The Tomahawk cruise missile handles the land-attack mission, while the Harpoon handles the anti-ship mission. These systems can be very precise, and are capable of homing in on their targets, but they also cost a lot more than gun rounds do.

The largest guns on a naval vessel afloat today are the 155mm guns on the Zumwalt-class destroyers. The 155mm artillery shell has become a very versatile and deadly weapon, notably with the development of precision-guided rounds like the Copperhead (which uses laser guidance) and the Excalibur (which uses GPS). The latter round has turned just about any 155mm howitzer in the American inventory into an oversized sniper rifle. OTO Melara (makers of the Mk 75 76mm gun) has even developed an infra-red guided version known as Vulcano!

The Navy did experiment with a gun, the Mk 71 Major-Caliber Lightweight Gun. This was an eight-inch gun that was once considered for the Spruance-class destroyers and a nuclear-powered strike cruiser. While that gun never saw service – the Navy chose to stick with the Mk 45 five-inch gun – the development of precision-guided artillery rounds could lead to a resurgence for larger gun calibers.

If that day does come, could we see the classic World War II lines again on warships? In some ways, we very well could – as ships can hold a lot more gun rounds than missiles. Still, the anti-ship missile is not going to go away, so missiles (and lasers) will probably still be needed on warships for air defense. That said, don’t bet against big guns just yet.

Tags : guns
Harold Hutchison