M61 Vulcan

M61 Vulcan

An unmounted M61 Vulcan.
Type Rotary cannon
Place of origin United States
Service history
In service 1959–present
Used by United States, some NATO members, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and others
Wars Vietnam War
Gulf War
War in Afghanistan
Iraq War
Production history
Designed 1946
Manufacturer General Electric
Variants See below
Weight M61A1: 248 pounds (112 kg) without feed system
M61A2: 202 pounds (92 kg) without feed system
Length 71.93 in (1.827 m)

Cartridge 20×102 mm
Caliber 20 mm (0.787 in)
Barrels 6-barrel (progressive RH parabolic twist, 9 grooves)
Action Hydraulically operated, electrically fired, rotary cannon
Rate of fire M61A1: 6,000 rounds per minute
M61A2: 6,600 rounds per minute
Muzzle velocity 3,450 feet per second (1,050 m/s) with PGU-28/B round
Feed system Belt or linkless feed system

The M61 Vulcan is a hydraulically or pneumatically driven, six-barrel, air-cooled, electrically fired Gatling-style rotary cannon which fires 20 mm rounds at an extremely high rate (typically 6,000 rounds per minute). The M61 and its derivatives have been the principal cannon armament of United States military fixed-wing aircraft for fifty years.[1]

The M61 was originally produced by General Electric. After several mergers and acquisitions, it is currently produced by General Dynamics.[1]


At the end of World War II, the United States Army began to consider new directions for future military aircraft guns. The higher speeds of jet-powered fighter aircraft meant that achieving an effective number of hits would be extremely difficult without a much higher volume of fire. While captured German designs (principally the Mauser MG 213C) showed the potential of the single-barrel revolver cannon, the practical rate of fire of such a design was still limited by ammunition feed and barrel wear concerns. The Army wanted something better, combining extremely high rate of fire with exceptional reliability. In 1947, the Air Force became a separate branch of the military. The new Air Force made a request for a new aircraft gun. A lesson of World War II air combat was that German, Italian and Japanese fighters could attack American aircraft from long range with their cannon main armament. American fighters with .50 cal main armament, such as the P-51 and P-47, had to be close to the enemy in order to hit and damage enemy aircraft. The 20mm Hispano carried by the P-38, while formidable against propeller driven planes, was deemed a relatively low velocity weapon in the age of jets, while other cannons were notoriously unreliable.

In response to this requirement, the Armament Division of General Electric resurrected an old idea: the multi-barrel Gatling gun. The original Gatling gun had fallen out of favor because of the need for an external power source to rotate the barrel assembly, but the new generation of turbojet-powered fighters offered sufficient electric power to operate the gun, and electric operation was more reliable than gas-operated reloading.[2] With multiple barrels, the rate of fire per barrel could be lower than a single-barrel revolver cannon while providing a greater overall rate of fire. The idea of powering a Gatling gun from an external electric power source was not a novel idea at the end of the World War II, as Richard Jordan Gatling himself had done just that with a patent he filed in 1893 .[2]

In 1946, the Army issued General Electric a contract for "Project Vulcan", a six-barrel weapon capable of firing 7,200 rounds per minute (rpm).[3] Although European designers were moving towards heavier 30 mm weapons for better hitting power, the U.S. initially concentrated on a powerful 0.60-inch (15 mm) cartridge designed for a pre-war anti-tank rifle, expecting that the cartridge's high muzzle velocity would be beneficial for improving hit ratios on high speed targets.

The first GE prototypes of the 0.60-inch (15 mm) caliber T45 were ground-fired in 1949; it achieved 2,500 rpm, which was increased to 4,000 rpm by 1950. By the early 1950s, the USAF decided that high velocity alone might not be sufficient to ensure target destruction and tested 20 mm and 27 mm alternatives based on the 0.60-inch (15 mm) caliber cartridge. These variants of the T45 were known as the T171 and T150 respectively, and were first tested in 1952. Eventually, the 20×102 mm cartridge was determined to have the desired balance of projectile and explosive weight and muzzle velocity.

The development of the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter revealed that the T171 Vulcan (later redesignated M61) suffered problems with its linked ammunition, being prone to misfeed and presenting a foreign object damage (FOD) hazard with discarded links. A linkless ammunition feed system was developed for the upgraded M61A1, which subsequently became the standard cannon armament of U.S. fighters.

In 1993, General Electric sold its aerospace division, including GE Armament Systems along with the design and production tooling for the M61 and GE's other rotary cannon, to Martin Marietta. After Martin's merger with Lockheed, the rotary cannon became the responsibility of Lockheed Martin Armament Systems. Lockheed Martin Armament Systems was later acquired by General Dynamics, who currently produce the M61 and its variants.[1]


An M61 Vulcan and the feed system for an F-18, on a stand.

Each of the cannon's six barrels fires once in turn during each revolution of the barrel cluster. The multiple barrels provide both a very high rate of fire—around 100 rounds per second—and contribute to prolonged weapon life by minimizing barrel erosion and heat generation. Mean time between jams or failures is in excess of 10,000 rounds, making it an extremely reliable weapon. The success of the Vulcan Project and its subsequent progeny, the very-high-speed Gatling gun, has led to guns of the same configuration being referred to as "Vulcan cannon", which can sometimes confuse nomenclature on the subject.

Most aircraft versions of the M61 are hydraulically driven and electrically primed. The gun rotor, barrel assembly and ammunition feed system are rotated by a hydraulic drive motor through a system of flexible drive shafts. The round is fired by an electric priming system where an electric current from a firing lead passes through the firing pin to the primer as each round is rotated into the firing position.[4]

The self-powered version, the GAU-4 (called M130 in Army service), is gas-operated, tapping gun gas from three of the six barrels to operate the gun gas driven mechanism. The self-powered Vulcan weighs about 10 pounds (4.5 kg) more than its electric counterpart, but requires no external power source to operate, except for an electric, inertia starter to initiate gun rotation, allowing the first rounds to be chambered and fired.[4]

The initial M61 used linked, belted ammunition, but the ejection of spent links created considerable (and ultimately insuperable) problems. The original weapon was soon replaced by the M61A1, with a linkless feed system. Depending on the application, the feed system can be either single-ended (ejecting spent cases and unfired rounds) or double-ended (returning casings back to the magazine). A disadvantage of the M61 is that the bulk of the weapon, its feed system, and ammunition drum makes it difficult to fit it into a densely packed airframe.

The feed system must be custom-designed for each application, adding 300–400 lb (140–180 kg) to the complete weapon. Most aircraft installations are double-ended, because the ejection of empty cartridges can cause a foreign-object damage (FOD) hazard for jet engines and because the retention of spent cases assists in maintaining the center of gravity of the aircraft. The first aircraft to carry the M61A1 was the C model of the F-104, starting in 1959.

A lighter version of the Vulcan developed for use on the F-22 Raptor, the M61A2, is mechanically the same as the M61A1, but with thinner barrels to reduce overall weight to 202 pounds (92 kg). The rotor and housing have also been modified to remove any piece of metal not absolutely needed for operation and replaces some metal components with lighter weight materials. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet also uses this version.[5]

The Vulcan's rate of fire is typically 6,000 rounds per minute, although some versions (such as that of the AMX and the F-106 Delta Dart) are limited to a lower rate, and others (A-7 Corsair) have a selectable rate of fire of either 4,000 or 6,000 rounds per minute. The M61A2's lighter barrels allow a somewhat higher rate of fire, up to 6,600 rounds per minute.


Practically no powered rotary cannon is supplied with sufficient ammunition for a full minute of firing, due to its weight. In order to avoid using the few hundred rounds carried all at once, a burst controller is generally used to limit the number of rounds fired at each trigger pull. Bursts of from two or three up to 40 or 50 can be selected. The size of the airframe and available internal space limits the size of the ammunition drum and thus limits the ammunition capacity.

Until the late 1980s, the M61 primarily used the M50 series of ammunition in various types, typically firing a 3.5 ounces (99 g) projectile at a muzzle velocity of about 3,380 feet per second (1,030 m/s). A variety of Armor-Piercing Incendiary (API), High Explosive Incendiary (HEI), and training rounds are available. The M246 HEI-T-SD (High-Explosive Incendiary, Tracer, Self-Destroying) is the primary round for use against aerial targets.[6]

The new PGU-28/B round was developed in the mid-1980s. It is a semi-armor-piercing high-explosive incendiary (SAPHEI) round, providing improvements in range, accuracy, and power over the preceding M56A3 HEI round. [7] PGU-28/B is a "low-drag" round designed to reduce in-flight drag and deceleration, and has a slightly increased muzzle velocity of 3,450 feet per second (1,050 m/s). However, the PGU-28/B has not been without problems. A 2000 USAF safety report noted 24 premature detonation mishaps (causing serious damage in many cases) in 12 years with the SAPHEI round, compared to only two such mishaps in the entire recorded history of the M56 round. The report estimated that the current PGU-28/B had a potential failure rate 80 times higher than USAF standards permit.[8] Due to safety issues, it was limited to emergency wartime use in 2000.[9]

The main types of combat rounds and their main characteristics are listed in the table below.

Designation Type Projectile weight Bursting charge [g] Muzzle Velocity [m/s] Description
M53 API ? 4.2 g incendiary[10] 1030 6.3 mm RHA penetration at 0 degree impact angle and 1000 m range.[10]
M56A3/A4 HEI 102 g (3.6 oz)[11] 9 g HE (RDX/wax/Al) and 1.5 g incendiary[10][11] 1030 Nose fuzed round, no tracer. 2 m effective radius to produce casualties to exposed personnel.[10] Fragmentation hazard out to 20 m.[11] 12.5 mm RHA penetration at 0 degree obliquity at 100 m range.[10]
PGU-28A/B SAPHEI 102.4 g (3.61 oz)[12] 10 g[11] 1050 Multi-purpose fuzeless round with an incendiary charge in the nose setting off the HE behind it with a slight delay to maximize lethality against aircraft. No tracer or self-destruct. A zirconium pellet at the bottom of the HE cavity provides additional incendiary effect.

Applications and first combat use

Gun installation on West German Navy F-104

The Vulcan first entered aerial combat on 4 April 1965 when four North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-17s (J-5s)[13] attacked a force of 10 escorting North American F-100 Super Sabres (2 of which were assigned weather reconnaissance duties) and 48 Vulcan-armed and "bomb-laden" F-105 Thunderchiefs, shooting down two of the latter. The MiG Leader, Capt. Tran Hanh, and the only survivor from the four MiGs reported that U.S. jets had pursued them and that F-105s had shot down three of his aircraft, killing Lieutenants Pham Giay, Le Minh Huan, and Tran Nguyen Nam. Capt. Donald Kilgus piloting an F-100 received an official probable kill with his four M39 20 mm cannons during the engagement; however no other US pilot reported destroying any MiGs during the battle, leaving open the plausibility that at least two of the MiG-17s may have been downed by their own anti-aircraft fire.[14][15][16]

The first confirmed Vulcan gun kill occurred on 29 June 1966 when Major Fred Tracy, flying his F-105 Thunderchief with the 421st TFS, fired 200 rounds of 20mm into a MiG-17 that had just fired a 23mm shell through one side of his cockpit and which exited out the other side. When the NVAF MiG flew in front of him after making his pass, Maj. Tracy opened fire on him.[17][18]

The gun was installed in the Air Force's A-7D version of the LTV A-7 Corsair II where it replaced the earlier United States Navy A-7's Colt Mk 12 cannon and was adopted by the Navy on the A-7C and A-7E.[19] It was integrated into the newer F-4E Phantom II variants. The F-4 was originally designed without a cannon as it was believed that missiles had made guns obsolete. Combat experience in Vietnam showed that a gun could be more effective than guided missiles in many combat situations, and that an externally carried gun pod was less effective than an internal gun; the first generation of gun pods such as the SUU-16 were not oriented with the sights of the fighter. The improved pods were self-powered and properly synchronized to the fighters sights. The next generation of fighters built post-Vietnam incorporated the M61 gun internally.

Combat kills using M61 Vulcan in the Vietnam War 1966–72[20]
Date/Year Firing aircraft M61 Vulcan variant Aircraft downed USAF Unit/comments
29 June 1966 F-105D Thunderchief M61A1 MiG-17 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron[21]
18 August 1966 F-105D M61A1 MiG-17 34th TFS
21 September 1966 F-105D M61A1 MiG-17 333rd TFS
21 September 1966 F-105D M61A1 MiG-17 431st TFS
4 December 1966 F-105D M61A1 MiG-17 469th TFS
1967 F-105D/F-105F M61A1 (5) MiG-17s 333rd TFS
1967 F-105D M61A1 (8) MiG-17s 354th TFS
1967 F-105D/F-105F M61A1 (4) MiG-17s 357th TFS
1967 F-4C Phantom II SUU-16 gunpod (2) MiG-17s 480th TFS
13 May 1967 F-105D M61A1 MiG-17 44th TFS
3 June 1967 F-105D M61A1 MiG-17 13th TFS: Captain Ralph Kuster[22]
23 August 1967 F-105D M61A1 MiG-17 34th TFS
24 October 1967 F-4D SUU-23 gunpod MiG-21 433rd TFS
1967 F-4D SUU-23 (3) MiG-17s 435th TFS
3 January 1968 F-4D SUU-23 MiG-17 433rd TFS; Pilot, Major B J Bogoslofski, WSO, Captain Richard L Huskey[23]
14 February 1968 F-4D SUU-23 MiG-17 555th TFS
1972 F-4E M61A1 (3) MiG-21s 35th TFS; The F4E was the first Phantom II to enter the war with an internal Vulcan gun.[24]
2 June 1972 F-4E M61A1 MiG-19 58th TFS; First kill at supersonic speed (Mach 1.2); Major Phil Handley/WSO 1LT J. J. Smallwood[25]
9 September 1972 F-4E M61A1 MiG-21 555th TFS
15 October 1972 F-4E M61A1 MiG-21 307th TFS
Total MiG-17s: 32
Total MiG-19s: 1
Total MiG-21s: 6
Total: 39

The Vulcan was later fitted into the weapons bay of some Convair F-106 Delta Dart and General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark models. It was also adopted as standard in the "teen"-series air superiority fighters, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. Other aircraft include the Italian/Brazilian AMX International AMX (on Italian aircraft only), and the F-22 Raptor. It was fitted in a side-firing installation on the Fairchild AC-119, some marks of the Lockheed AC-130 gunships, and was used in the tail turrets of both the Convair B-58 Hustler and Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers. Japan's Mitsubishi F-1 carried one internally mounted JM61A1 Vulcan with 750 rounds.[19]

Two gun pod versions, the SUU-16/A (also designated M12 by the US Army) and improved SUU-23/A (US Army M25), were developed in the 1960s, often used on gunless versions of the F-4. The SUU-16/A uses the electric M61A1 with a ram-air turbine to power the motor. This proved to cause serious aerodynamic drag at higher speeds, while speeds under 400 miles per hour (640 km/h) did not provide enough airflow for the maximum rate of fire.

The subsequent SUU-23/A uses the GAU-4/A self-powered Vulcan, with an electric inertia starter to bring it up to speed. Both pods ejected empty cases and unfired rounds rather than retaining them. Both pods contained 1,200 rounds of ammunition, with a loaded weight of 1,615 and 1,720 pounds (733 and 780 kg) respectively. During service in the Vietnam War, the pods proved to be relatively inaccurate: the pylon mounting was not rigid enough to prevent deflection when firing, and repeated use would misalign the pod on its pylon, making matters worse.

A variant with much shorter barrels, designated the M195, was also developed for use on the M35 Armament Subsystem for use on the AH-1G Cobra helicopter. This variant fed from ammunition boxes fitted to the landing skid and was developed to provide the AH-1 helicopter with a longer-range suppressive fire system before the adoption of the M97 Universal Turret mounting the M197 cannon.

The M61 mounted on a US Army M163 armored vehicle.

The M61 is also the basis of the US Navy Mk 15 Phalanx Close-in weapon system and the M163 VADS Vulcan Air Defense System, using the M168 variant.

See also

Soviet Union/CIS


  1. 1 2 3 "M61 20mm cannon". Federation of American Scientists. 23 April 2000. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
  2. 1 2 "Elec key Gatling" (JPEG) (image). US: Image shack..
  3. Wahl, Paul F; Toppel, Donald R (5 Oct 2005) [Arco Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1965]. "The Gatling Gun". Aircraft Armament & Small Arms Product Support Integration Directorate. Archived from the original on 2008-09-21. Retrieved 2008-09-28.
  4. 1 2 Air Force Manual 11W1-12-4-32
  5. "F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Maritime Strike Attack Aircraft", Projects, …features new lightweight gun system is the General Dynamics M61A2, which has a switchable firing rate of 4,000 or 6,000 shots per minute and a fully integrated linkless ammunition feed system
  6. "Aviation Unit Maintenance Manual for 20-mm Automatic Gun". Headquarters, Department of the Army, 1986. Chapter 5, sections 1-2.
  7. "PGU-27A/B TP/PGU-28A/B SAPHEI/ GU-30A/B TP-T". GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved 2008-09-28.
  8. "PGU-28/B Premature Detonation in Barrel/Barrel Damage". Ammunition Active (PDF) (Report). Airborne Weapons Corrective Action Program. 30 November 2001. pp. 1–6. 14597. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 October 2004.
  9. "Jane's International Defense Review: IDR, Volume 36, Issues 1-6". Jane's Information Group, 2003. "In 2000, the newer-technology PGU-28/B ammunition for the M61 was restricted to emergency wartime use after a series of mishaps."
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 "20-Millimeter". Air cav. 12 January 2008.
  11. 1 2 3 4 "ORDATA: Ordnance Identification Tool". JMU. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008.
  12. "PGU-27A/B TP/PGU-28A/B SAPHEI/PGU-30A/B TP-T". Global Security. July 7, 2011. Retrieved 2010-01-25.
  13. Toperczer (MiG-17/MiG-19 Units) p. 65
  14. Hobson p. 17
  15. Anderton p. 71
  16. Toperczer (MiG-17/MiG-19 Units) pp. 30, 31, 88
  17. McCarthy Jr. p. 38, photo of 23mm cannon exit hole on Maj. Tracy's F-105
  18. Michel III p. 56
  19. 1 2 Chant, Christopher (1987). A Compendium of Armaments and Military Hardware. Routledge. pp. 65–70, 106, 114–15, 341–43, 363, 389, 404–5. ISBN 978-0-7102-0720-3.
  20. McCarthy Jr. pp. 148–57. Excludes combination air-to-air missile/gun kills.
  21. McCarthy Jr. p. 38
  22. Campbell & Hill p. 43/photo of his F-105 plate # 213
  23. Davies, Osprey #45, p. 86
  24. Michel III pp. 181, 267
  25. Davies, Osprey #55, pp. 37–38


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