The closest thing to a gun with wings, the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II first flew some 50 years ago this week. 

Designed as the world's best close-air support aircraft at a time when the Soviets owned the eye-popping figure of something like 50,000 tanks, the first prototype A-10 flew at Edwards Air Force Base on May 10, 1972, a date now known as BRRRRT-Day.

Nixon was in office, Roberta Flack's "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was on the top of the charts – which is a beautiful coincidence considering the love the public has for the A-10 – and a gallon of milk cost 52 cents. 

An A-10 Thunderbolt II assigned to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., rests at Avon Park Air Force Range, Fla., during exercise Mosaic Tiger 22-1, Nov. 17, 2021
An A-10 Thunderbolt II assigned to Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, rests at Avon Park Air Force Range, Florida, during exercise Mosaic Tiger 22-1, Nov. 17, 2021. (Photo: Airman 1st Class Courtney Sebastianelli/U.S. Air Force)

The aircraft was designed from the ground up as a tank-killer, and to this day is the only aircraft to carry the massive GAU-8A Avenger cannon, a 30mm electric Gatling gun that delivers seven times the energy per round as the vaunted 20mm M61 Vulcans carried by other American aircraft. For reference, the 30mm PGU-13/14 shells for a GAU-8A weigh 12.48 ounces while a 20mm shell as used in a Vulcan runs a comparatively puny 3.52 ounces. Also, the GAU-8A can spit out shells at a withering 4,200 rounds per minute.

A-10 inboard profile
While the gun system seems offset, the firing barrel of the GAU-8A is on the exact centerline of the A-10, ensuring accuracy and directing the recoil through the aircraft's center of gravity. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Museum)
GAU-8A cannon
The GAU-8A weighs some 4,000 pounds all-up and takes up the first 19 feet of the A-10. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Museum)
In fact, it is so large, the pilot of an A-10 sits behind, over it, and in front of it all at the same time, effectively riding the gun and its 1,350 round magazine drum. To protect them from ground fire, the pilot rests inside a 1,200-pound titanium "bathtub" of armor plate. (Photos: U.S. Air Force Museum)
An inert PGU-13/B HEI shell compared to a standard 5.56 NATO M193
An inert PGU-13/B HEI shell compared to a standard 5.56 NATO M193. Of note, the 30mm shells used in the Avenger gun system utilize aluminum cases to save weight. The round is also used in the Army's Mk44 Bushmaster II cannons fitted to Stryker Dragoons and the Navy's Mk 46 Mod 2 Gun Weapon System. (Photo: Chris Eger/

A close up of how the GAU-8A works: 

While the Air Force has been trying to put the A-10 out in the boneyard for generations, it just keeps on kicking, and the service recently evaluated the endangered "Warthog" and its GAU-8A against modern tanks systems using Explosive Reactive Armor, concluding that the system is still brutally effective even a half-century after it was designed. 

"A typical A-10 gun employment uses 120 rounds, which means an A-10 is capable of employing fires on nine to ten targets before exhausting its gun munitions,” said Air Force Maj. Kyle Adkison, when speaking of the recent tests. "Against large, fielded forces, A-10 formations are capable of engaging nearly 40 armored vehicles with 30 millimeter munitions. That’s a significant amount of firepower."

With that, we'll leave you with a little Brrrt sizzle reel, because we know you love the classics.


revolver barrel loading graphic