With the U.S. Air Force's 75th birthday this week, we salute the servicemembers who ply the "Wild Blue Yonder."

While Ben Franklin theorized using airships to deliver troops to battle behind enemy lines as early as 1783 and the Union Army fielded a balloon service in the Civil War, today's Air Force traces its origin to the heavier-than-air machines of the U.S. Army's Aeronautical Division, founded in 1907-- just four years after the Wright brothers first flew. After service in Army green during both World Wars, the Air Force became an independent branch of the military in 1947 with the first Secretary of the Air Force named on Sept. 18 and its first Chief of Staff named on Sept. 26. 

Machine guns and aerial cannons as large as 75mm guns were a facet of Army Air Force planes going back to 1912 when Captain Charles deForest Chandler fired a Lewis gun from a Wright Brother's Flyer. 

 

Captain Charles de Forest Chandler seated in the passenger seat of a Wright Model B Flyer holding a Lewis machine gun
Captain Charles de Forest Chandler seated in the passenger seat of a Wright Model B Flyer holding a Lewis machine gun. Lt. Roy C. Kirtland is in the pilot seat. Chandler fired the gun in flight on June 7 and 8, 1912-- the first firing of a machine gun from an airplane in flight, not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world. 

 

The most popular guns in Great War aircraft were Vickers guns synchronized to fire through the props of the biplane fighters of the day. 

 

Eddie Rickenbacker,
Eddie Rickenbacker, the top-scoring American fighter ace of the Great War and one of the best dogfighters in history, standing in his SPAD S.XIII at Rembercourt, France, in October 1918. Note the pair of synchronized Vickers hood ornaments, arranged to fire through the prop. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps via the National Archives)

 

Meanwhile, during World War II, the .50 caliber Browning M2/AN became almost universally standard with the USAAF's P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang carrying as many as eight such guns mounted in the wings. With a combined rate of fire of 850 671-grain bullets per minute, the eight forward-firing .50 caliber Brownings of the P-47 could deliver almost 11 ounces of incendiary tracer per second on a target. 

 

Armorers servicing the wing-mounted .50 caliber guns of a P-47 on Saipan in 1945
Armorers servicing the wing-mounted .50 caliber guns of a P-47 on Saipan in 1945. A common trope was that the linked .50 cal would stretch 27 feet in length, thus if a pilot were able to fire all his ammo at a target, he was said to have given them "the full nine yards," although this is subject to some debate. (Photo: National Archives)

 

Long-range heavy bombers such as the B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress could carry even more machine guns than fighters in addition to their bread-and-butter load of high explosives. The B-17G model mounted a baker's dozen .50 cals including two in a powered Bendix chin turret and two pairs in Sperry turrets in the belly and roof of the bomber. 

 

Waist gunner of a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 303rd Bomb Group "somewhere over Europe" in 1943
Waist gunner of a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 303rd Bomb Group "somewhere over Europe" in 1943 manning a flexible M2 .50 cal mounting.  (Photo: National Archives)

 

We caught up to a working Sperry belly turret from a B-17 a couple of years ago at the Big Sandy Shoot in Arizona. 

 

 

Clark Gable WWII
Actor Clark Gable, age 42, signed up during the war not to sell bonds or make USO tours but to get behind the spade grips of an M2 and flew combat missions on a B-17 during 1943. He wasn't the only actor who spent time on WWII bombers. Charles Dennis Buchinsky, the future Charlie Bronson, flew 25 combat missions as a tail gunner on a B-29 Superfortress during the war. (Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive) 

 

Meanwhile, the B-25 bomber was versatile enough to mount as many as 15 machine guns or leave some behind in place of a forward-firing 75mm howitzer capable of sinking a ship. 

 

Japanese ship being sunk by B-25 cannon fire
"A Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific receives a battering from a 75 mm cannon-firing B-25 Mitchell Bomber, manufactured by North American Aviation Inc., Arrow points to damage caused by a cannon shell." (Photo: National Archives).

 

The USAAF planned to field a plane that was essentially a flying gun, the XA-38 Grizzly. 

 

M10 Grizzly cannon
Built around the 780-pound M10 75mm autoloading cannon, shown, the Grizzly came too late in the war and was canceled. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

 

Besides aircraft-mounted guns, aircrews carried a mix of either .38 caliber revolvers or .45 caliber M1911A1 pistols for use in the event they had to bail out over unfriendly territory. 

 

Pilots with M1911s
Watch that trigger discipline, guys! "Captain Robert Paullin, from Springfield, Illinois, is the first pilot of a B-24 Liberator bomber. With him (right) is Lt. Patterson. They are examining their Army pistols." (Photo: National Archives).

 

Meanwhile, WWII gunners both assigned to base defense and tasked with manning the .50 cals on bombers would learn their trade with shotguns and sporting clays, then graduate to blasting RC target planes before getting to know their machine guns. The Army acquired almost 50,000 commercial 12 gauges from Ithaca, Remington, Stevens, and Winchester during the war, largely to help train these men. The gunnery school at Tyndall Field during 1943 alone burned through no less than 56 million rounds of .30-caliber ammunition, and 12 million rounds of .50-caliber ammo in addition to pallets of shotgun shells.

 

Winchester gifted Army Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold a special Model 12
Winchester gifted Army Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold a special Model 12 in 1943, SN 1,000,000, to salute the type's use in training aerial gunners. It is now at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

 

Guns are even in the very first verse of Air Force Anthem, a song first written as an ode to the old Army Air Corps during WWII: 

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,
Climbing high into the sun.
Here they come zooming to meet our thunder,
At ‘em now, Give 'em the gun!

Korea

 

With the Air Force now a separate military branch, and the jet age a reality, it still stuck to its guns. The service's jet fighters deployed to Korea in the 1950s still used Browning .50 cals as their primary weapon with the P-80 Shooting Star and early F-86 Sabre variants each carrying six of the guns. Further, they put them to effective use. 

 

MIG shoot down
"This unusual sequence of photos, taken by gun camera film of a U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabre jet fighter-interceptor, shows a Communist MIG-15 pilot abandoning his aircraft after it has been hit by the Sabre's gunfire, May 4, 1953." (Photo: National Archives).

 

Likewise, the M1911 was still riding along with aircrew. 

 

A B-29 Superfortress radio operator over Korea, with his trusty M1911
A B-29 Superfortress radio operator over Korea, with his trusty M1911. (Photo: USAF Museum)

Cold War

 

The Air Force in the 1950s and 60s, with its own R&D money, put a lot of thought into small arms that were vastly different from those used by the rest of the U.S. military. New to the arsenal were the M4 Survival Rifle-- a four-shot .22 Hornet caliber bolt-action rifle with a 14-inch barrel and collapsible buttstock made by H&R-- and M6 Air Crew Survival Weapon– a double-barrel break action .410 shotgun over a .22 Hornet– were included in the bailout kits on several aircraft.

 

M6 Survival rifle
A Cold War-era M6 on display at the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

 

Armalite’s AR-5, a floating semi-auto rimfire rifle that could be stowed inside its buttstock, was adopted as the M1A but never put into production, leading the company to produce it for the commercial market as the AR-7. Likewise, the M6 has also gone on to be produced commercially in various configurations. Other experimental survival guns brainstormed by the USAF in the late 1960s included a .221 Fireball chambered Remington XP100 with a forward grip and no furniture and a Colt "arm pistol" in the same caliber. 

 

Cold War-era Colt survival gun prototype
A Cold War-era Colt survival gun prototype on display at the USAF Armament Museum (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)
Remington XP-100 survival gun
The Remington XP-100 survival gun concept. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)
Bushmaster Arm Pistol in 5.56mm
The Bushmaster Arm Pistol in 5.56mm was another planned Air Force survival gun that made it about as high as a lead balloon. Bushmaster did, however, put it in limited commercial production. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

 

At the same time, the Air Force remained very old school, with Gen. Curtis LeMay picking the S&W .38-caliber Model 15 K-38 Combat Masterpiece as the standard sidearm of the Air Force Police, a force that later became today's USAF Security Forces. Colt even made a special (but unsuccessful) all-aluminum .38 snub nose for bomber crews who might have to hit the silk over Siberia. 

For high-profile details at Strategic Air Force installations-- the ones related to nuclear warfare-- LeMay formed the SAC Elite Guard. 

 

SAC Elite Guard
The SAC Elite Guard wore blue uniforms with a white scarf, white boot laces in black, highly polished combat boots, and a white aiguillette. Their sidearm? Stag-gripped S&W .38s in an open-topped cross-draw holster. (Photo: USAF) 

 

The Air Force would continue to use the Model 15 up until very recently, including service in the Middle East.

 

K38 revolver Desert Storm
"Sgt. Dave Gendron records the serial number on a .38-caliber revolver as he mans an armory during Operation Desert Shield, 1991." (Photo: National Archives)

 

Phasing out traditional machine guns and cannons for air-to-air combat due to the adoption of guided missiles, the USAF upgraded its airborne gun armament in 1954 with the M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling gun on the F-104 Starfighter. 

 

The F-104, in service with the USAF through 1975, was the first to carry the M61 Vulcan gun but is far from the last. Since then, the F-105 Thunderchief, F-106 Delta Dart, later models of the F-4 Phantom, F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning have all carried improved versions of the gun. (Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum)

 

Capable of a rate of fire as much as 6,000 rounds per minute-- capable of exhausting the magazine of a fighter carrying it in seconds-- the Vulcan is a joy to behold. We caught up with one a few years ago on the ground at Big Sandy. 

 

 

Vietnam

 

Faced with the very real threat posed by Viet Cong sappers infiltrating USAF bases in Vietnam and sabotaging multi-million dollar aircraft with grenades and satchel charges, the Air Force's Security Police beefed up for war. This included an order for the first AR-15 Model 01s made by the U.S. military. Personally championed by LeMay himself, the first contract for Eugene Stoner's 5.56 caliber black rifle was issued to Colt Firearms in May 1962, three years before the Army took interest in the handy new carbine. The service even experimented with the Oxford gunsight, one of the earliest active-laser red dots. 

 

U.S. Air Force Air Police in South Vietnam in 1966
U.S. Air Force Air Police in South Vietnam in 1966. Note the early AR-15. (Image courtesy of the Security Forces Museum).
U.S. Air Force Air Police in South Vietnam
Security Police team with a dog on an early morning reconnaissance patrol near Phu Cat Air Base, South Vietnam, in 1967. (Photo: USAF Museum)
USAF Security Policeman guarding an F-101 Voodoo aircraft
"Close-up view of a USAF Security Policeman guarding an F-101 Voodoo aircraft in a hangar, January 1978." Note that he has an early "pre-A1" M16 variant without the forward assist, brass deflector, or fence around the magazine release, possibly a Colt 604. (Photo: National Archives)

 

The Air Force likewise in 1967 adopted the GAU-5/A, the branch's designation for the Colt 610 XM177/E1 style "submachine guns" that were essentially just shortened M16s with 10-inch barrels and redesigned furniture. The GAU-5 would famously be used by Army Special Forces in the Son Tay POW camp raid.

 

U.S. Air Force dog handlers and others in Vietnam used a shortened version of the M16, the GAU-5/A.
U.S. Air Force dog handlers and others in Vietnam used a shortened version of the M16, the GAU-5/A. Note the long 3.5-inch moderator muzzle device. (Photo: USAF Museum)

 

Of note, Vietnam-era USAF Security Police that went on to contribute substantially to gun culture include Carlos "Chuck" Ray Norris, who walked a beat in South Korea where he took an interest in martial arts, and well-known gun writer Leroy Thompson

Besides lots of gun use on the ground in Vietnam, at the same time, pilots and aircrew still carried .38s and .45s. 

 

Colonel Robin Olds preflights his F-4C Phantom in 1967
Legendary Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Robin Olds preflights his F-4C Phantom in 1967. Besides his survival vest and knife, on his right is a .38 caliber revolver. (Photo: USAF Museum)

 

And, to help support isolated bases and hammer infiltration along the Ho Chi Min Trail, the USAF built a series of flying gunships. Known variously as "Puff the Magic Dragon," "Dragonships," or just "Spooky," the AC-47 gunship, a converted transport with its broadside battery of three General Electric GAU-2/M134 miniguns, was a sight to behold. Capable of firing up to 6,000 rounds of 7.62 NATO in a minute as it lazily circled a target, these aircraft made lots of friends. 

 

AC-47 gun ship
“Spooky” mockup on display at the Air Force Armament Museum in Florida. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

 

The Air Force saw the value in a gunship fleet and by 1968 was upgrading C-130 transports to AC-130 Specter gunships, complete with 20mm Gatling guns and a 40mm Bofors cannon. Later variants included a 105mm howitzer in place of the Bofors. 

 

Post-Vietnam

 

The 1980s and 1990s saw upgraded small arms including the M9 Beretta taking the place of WWII-era .45s in the USAF's armories while the M16A1 models were replaced by the newer M16A2s. 

 

"A security policeman patrols an airstrip where several F-15 Eagle fighter aircraft are parked, June 1984." Note the A2 compensator muzzle device on his M16. (Photo: National Archives)
U.S. security policeman takes aim during the combat handgun exercise
"A U.S. security policeman takes aim during the combat handgun exercise which was one of the many events during the annual RODEO '94 competition at McChord AFB, Washington, June 1994." (Photo: National Archives)

 

This came as the force was preparing, literally, for World War III. 

Termed "Base Ground Defense," Air Force Security Police had to be able to contend with unannounced assaults by North Korean commandos or Soviet paratroopers in the hours before an all-out war. This meant lots of training on small arms up to .50 cal and 40mm machine guns while 90mm recoilless rifles and light mortars were added to the armory as well. 

 

USAF Security policeman SSGT Robert Carrier fires an M-67 90mm recoilless rifle
"USAF Security policeman SSGT Robert Carrier fires an M-67 90mm recoilless rifle during heavy weapons training at Rodriquez Range, April 1980." (Photo: National Archives)

 

Besides standard base defense and security missions, the Air Force established a "15 in 5" standard in the 1970s that required a 24/7 ability to respond to any incursion at a site containing nuclear weapons-- be it an ICBM silo or an air base with nuclear bombs, cruise missiles or alert aircraft-- with at least 15 well-armed men in under 5 minutes.

This increase in training led to the USAF turning to several different enhanced devices such as MILES (think laser tag but way more expensive), Firearms Training System (FATS), and the Engagement Skills Trainer, the last two incorporating air compressors, lasers, and video simulations in an indoor environment with no brass or ammo. 

 

USAF with MILES gear
"USAF Security policemen pose with rifles, equipped with part of the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), during training, November 1981." Note the weapons include a shotgun, an M60 machine gun, an M16A1, and a GAU-5/A. (Photo: National Archives)
USAF Firearms Training System (FATS) Small Arms Trainer,
"USAF SSGT Justin Carlton, 100th Security Forces Squadron, assists USAF General Gregory S. Martin in the Firearms Training System (FATS) Small Arms Trainer, during his tour at RAF) Mildenhall, United Kingdom," July 2002. (Photo: National Archives)

 

However, the venerable Model 15 K-38 remained very much in service throughout this time, especially with military working dog teams. 

 

USAF dog handler with Model 15 S&W
"Staff Sergeant Carinae Samsel of the 31st Security Forces Squadron fires a .38 Caliber revolver during Weapon Recognition Training with her partner Nico at Aviano Air Base, Italy, December 2004." (Photo: USAF)

 

And GAU-5/As continued to pop up as well. 

 

Air Force security policeman Desert Storm GAU-5
An Air Force security policeman during a live-fire demonstration, part of Operation Desert Shield. Note the "chocolate chip" desert camo and Buddy Holly BCGs. (Photo: National Archives)

 

As before, the M61 Vulcan remained in front-line use.

 

"A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft from the 510th Fighter Squadron, Aviano AB Italy, delivers a burst from its 20mm cannon, during a strafing run over the Bardenas Range near Zaragoza AB, Spain, Feb. 2002." (Photo: USAF)

 

While, in an answer to 50,000 Soviet tanks, the Air Force introduced the flying 30mm GAU-8 Avenger cannon mounted to the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a plane so homely it is best just known as the Warthog. As the expression goes, though, she may not be pretty, but she sure can cook. 

The 1990s also saw the last fixed-wing aircraft in the USAF's inventory with .50 caliber Brownings hang up its guns. In 1995 the B-52G Stratofortress had its four-gun remote-operated tail gun system removed, although the B-52 would endure long past that time. It was the first time the Air Force was without the .50 cal on fixed-winged combat aircraft since the 1930s. 

 

B-52 tail guns
"Sgt. Brian D. Land checks a .50-caliber tail turret gun on a B-52G Stratofortress aircraft during Operation Desert Shield. 1992." (Photo: National Archives)

 

21st Century

 

Soaring into the present, the Air Force remains very "gun" oriented with its Security Forces still engaged in its traditional missions and special operations Air Commando units such as Pararescue, Combat Control, Tactical Air Control Party, and the grey berets of the Special Reconnaissance teams very much on the sharp end of things. They saw lots of service in Iraq and Afghanistan and continue to be engaged around the globe. 

 

 USAF Pararescueman
"A USAF Pararescueman assigned to the 304th Rescue Squadron (RQS), armed with a 5.56mm M4 carbine, pulls rear security as other members of his unit conduct a walk-through rescue training scenario using their MH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter at Tallil Air Base, Iraq, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, April 2003." (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
aircraft security for C-130 Hercules
"BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Left to right, Staff Sgt. Tony Rivera, Senior Airmen Jason Bauer, and Darryll Morley, with Staff Sgt. Jason Sawyers, at the rear of aircraft, provide dedicated aircraft security for this C-130 Hercules." (Photo: U.S. Air Force)
USAF convoy security team
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- (From left) Tech. Sgt. Andrew Morin and Staff Sgts. Jeremy Garcia and Frank Stibler keep an eye on how the 181st Transportation Battalion's convoy security team prepares their convoy escort platforms and rehearse a "snatch and grab" procedure. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

 

The service has also continued to update its small arms. Gone are the M60s and M16A2s, replaced by M240 series GPMGS and M4 models.

Meanwhile, the USAF in 2020 moved to acquire some 125,000 new M18 series Modular Handguns from SIG Sauer for $22.1 million. Based on the P320 platform, the M18 will replace the Air Force's M9 Berettas, smaller numbers of the M11-- which is a version of the all-metal SIG Sauer P228 used by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations-- and the long-serving .38-caliber Smith & Wesson M15 K-frame revolver, which is used in training military working dogs. 

 

 

Last year, the service moved to order 3,015 modification kits to upgrade some M18s to essentially mirror SIG Sauer's P320 XCompacts. The kits include a 3.6-inch barrel and its accompanying slide, complete with X-Ray day/night sights and an optics plate, as well as the XSeries grip module and matching 15-round flush-fit magazines.

The service has also ordered a small quantity of B&T USA's APC9K PRO platform, a compact 9mm blowback action three-position select-fire SMG that fires from a closed bolt at a cyclic rate of 1,080 rounds-per-minute. 

Other new small arms contracts for the USAF include almost 1,500 new M110A1 Squad Designated Marksman Rifles, a variant of HK’s 7.62 NATO G28/HK417 rifle. The SDMR includes offset backup sights, a Geissele mount, an OSS suppressor, Harris bipod, and Sig Sauer’s 1-6x24mm Tango6 optic. 

 

Squad Designated Marksmanship Rifle (SDMR) on a range at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., April 13, 2022.
The Squad Designated Marksmanship Rifle (SDMR) on a range at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., April 13, 2022. Approximately 1,464 SDMRs have been purchased and will be distributed across the service for a variety of uses. (Photo: Shaun Ferguson/U.S. Air Force)


The Air Force is using the SDMR to replace the legacy bolt-action Remington M24 Sniper Weapon Systems in use with base ground security forces. Additionally, it will replace the Knights M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper Systems rifle with the service's elite pararescuemen and Guardian Angel recovery teams, reportedly shedding 5 pounds in gear while on missions. Finally, it will replace older platforms used by explosive ordnance disposal Airmen for what is termed standoff munitions disruption.

Finally, the Air Force is also building a new generation of "bailout" guns for its aviators. Dubbed the Aircrew Self Defense Weapon, it is designed to stow inside a 16x14x 3.5-inch ejection seat compartment. The ASDW gets that small due to the use of an M4 style collapsible stock, flip-up backup iron sights, an Israeli FAB Defense AGF-43S folding pistol grip, and a Cry Havoc Tactical Quick Release Barrel (QRB) kit. 

 

The Aircrew Self Defense Weapon
Based on the M4, the Aircrew Self Defense Weapon has a folding pistol grip and a quick-detach barrel/handguard. The guns can be quickly assembled and are packed with four, 30-round 5.56mm magazines. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

 

Although missiles and lasers are in vogue today, the Air Force is still very much in the gun business and, we bet, will be for at least the next 75 years or so.

revolver barrel loading graphic

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