Some are utterly impractical show ponies designed to satisfy huge, dictator-sized egos, while others are demonstrations of scarcely-believable firepower on a massive scale. The weapons of war have evolved over the centuries into some of the most technologically advanced hardware on Earth, and the contenders for the biggest gun in the world are staggering in their power.
The history of guns can be traced back to the Chinese invention of gunpowder in the ninth century. The fire lance, a bamboo tube of gunpowder attached to a spear, was invented around the eleventh century, while soon after small pieces of shrapnel were added for greater devastation.
Matchlock, wheel lock and flintlock guns were in use by the thirteenth century – and cannons perhaps a century later – as traders and explorers moved between Europe and the Far East. By the fifteenth century, muskets and the blunderbuss, the precursor to the modern shotgun, were widely used.
The nineteenth century saw the development of the modern rifle, most famously the Winchester, and around the same time, American inventor Richard Gatling developed the first viable machine gun.
The technology of firearms has moved on exponentially through the centuries, and the size, stature and firepower of the largest artillery gun or the world’s biggest cannon are truly devastating. Let’s shoot through the list and see which is the largest gun ever built, listed by calibre.
Pfeifer Zeliska .600 Nitro Express
Type: Revolver | Weight: 6kg | Length: 55cm | Calibre: 15.7mm
The Nitro Express may not be the biggest gun in the world but it is the world’s largest and most powerful handgun. In fact the gun is so big it fires .458 Winchester Magnum rifle bullets. It was designed by Austrian gun enthusiast Adolf Zeliska who wanted a handgun to take big game hunting.
45 Type 94
Type: Naval gun | Weight: 147.3 tonnes | Length: 21.1 metres | Calibre: 460mm
Mounted on two of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s biggest World War II battleships – the Yamato and the Musashi – the Type 94 naval gun was the largest ship-mounted gun to ever go to sea. One of the biggest battlefield guns, it had a maximum firing range of 42 kilometres. However, by the time they were put to use at sea, aircraft carriers had begun to eclipse battleships. The Musashi used her Type 94 as an anti-aircraft weapon but was sunk in October 1944. The Yamato was a little more effective, sinking the USS Gambier Bay, but was destroyed in April 1945 during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
Obusier de 520 modèle 1916
Type: Railway gun | Weight: 263 tonnes | Length: 30.3 metres | Calibre: 520mm
A contender for the biggest gun in the world ever constructed is the Obusier de 520, which was developed by the French during World War I. This gargantuan gun was over thirty metres long with a twelve metre barrel. It fired 1.6 tonne shells over a distance of seventeen kilometres.
Two were built, though due to a prematurely exploding shell the first gun was destroyed in 1917. The second hadn’t finished trials before the war ended so it was mothballed. When the Germans invaded France at the start of World War II they captured it. As was their penchant for huge weapons, they put it to use in November 1941 in the Siege of Leningrad. Like the first gun, it was destroyed in January 1942 when a shell exploded in the barrel.
Type: Railway gun | Weight: 1,350 tonnes | Length: 47.3 metres | Calibre: 800mm
During World War II, the Germans needed a weapon big enough to destroy the French fortifications along the Maginot Line. The result was the largest gun ever built. Made by Krupp, the Schwerer Gustav (Heavy Gustav) wasn’t ready for the Maginot Line but it was deployed on the Eastern Front in the Battle of Sevastopol.
It was so huge it required hundreds of men and three days to assemble and fire the gun, thousands more to lay tracks and dig embankments and two flak battalions to protect it from attack. It could fire a seven-ton shell a distance of thirty seven kilometres at a rate of around one every 45 minutes. The biggest battlefield gun in the world spent the latter part of the war in Russia. It was eventually destroyed by the Germans in 1945 before the Red Army could capture it.
The Tsar Cannon
Type: Bombard cannon | Weight: 40 tonnes | Length: 5.4 metres | Calibre: 890mm
Made in Russia in 1586 by famed cannon and bell caster Andrey Chockov, the Tsar Cannon is, by calibre, the world’s largest bombard cannon, designed to fire huge projectiles at enemy fortifications.
The huge cannon was called the Russian Shotgun as was designed to fire 800 kg stone grapeshot rather than solid cannonballs. Due to its size and weight, the unwieldy gun was never deployed on the battlefield, though there is scoring in the barrel which suggests it was fired at least once, perhaps as a test.
Today, the world’s biggest cannon is located on the west side of Ivanovskaya Square in the Kremlin in Moscow.
Type: Heavy mortar | Weight: 78.4 tonnes | Length: 6.7 metres | Calibre: 914mm
The joint-largest calibre gun ever built, the US Army’s Little David was designed to breach Germany’s defensive lines during World War II. The 1.6-tonne shells had a theoretical firing range of just under ten kilometres, but after they were breached by conventional forces, the idea was that it should be put to use in the Pacific theatre. However after Japan surrendered, the gun, still in its test phase, was retired. It never saw any form of combat.
Type: Siege mortar | Weight: 43 tonnes | Length: 3.4 metres | Calibre: 914mm
Alongside Little David, the biggest gun in the world by calibre was built in the 1850s for use in the Crimean War. It was designed by Irish geophysicist Robert Mallet but like its American counterpart, it was never put to use in the theatre of war.
The shells weighed up to 1.3 tonnes, but during the tests carried out in December 1857 and again in July 1858, each firing damaged the mortar. Two were built and both are in the collection of the Royal Armouries.