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 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 offered reliability superior to a gas operated weapon. With multiple barrels, the rate of fire per barrel could be lower than a single-barrel revolver cannon while still giving a superior total 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 era, as Richard Jordan Gatling himself had done just that in 1893, with a patent he filed. The Army issued General Electric the contract in 1946 for "Project Vulcan", a six-barrel weapon capable of firing 7,200 rounds per minute (rpm). Although European designers were moving towards heavier 30 mm weapons for better hitting power, the U.S. initially concentrated on a powerful .60 caliber (15.24 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 .60 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 .60 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 various offspring. Description[edit source | editbeta]
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 long 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 electrical current from a firing lead passes through the firing pin to the primer as each round is rotated into the firing position. 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 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. 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 also uses this version.