Sometimes we like to think the idiom that bigger is better applies to nearly anything. In reality, this is rarely the case, and perhaps the best example of where bigger is not necessarily better is in weaponry. That’s not to say that a bigger weapon is never better, but bigger can be detrimental. But more importantly, with the natural curiosity of humans and our tendency to revere and marvel at weapons of extreme power, bigger is awe-inspiring.
Humans have crafted weapons for as long as we have been capable of making tools. In satiating our most primal of needs, sustenance, early man had to use cunning and skill to overcome the beasts of the field to take down what would become dinner for our early hunter-gatherer families. As families bonded together in creating early societies, weapons quickly became tools for defending communities and conquering others. Furthermore, the evolving technology developed by society has always been used as much to create comfort, transportation, and learning as it has been used to make bigger and better weapons. History is full of impressive and fearsome weapons of war, with many increasing in size to be powerful enough to overcome an adversary with enough fear that deploying said weapon is not even necessary. And while there are countless weapons created throughout the history of our civilization, here are eight of the largest ever built.
The largest weapon ever made using modern concepts using physics to harness natural forces unknown to earlier societies is a thermonuclear weapon once detonated by the Soviets. In the era after the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Japan during World War II, the competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. sparked a race to build the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons to ensure defense capabilities should a conflict arise. This led to a series of nuclear device tests conducted by both states throughout what would become known as the Cold War, until all atmospheric nuclear tests altogether. Before that, some mighty powerful weapons were detonated, but none so powerful as the Tsar Bomba.
Tensions were extraordinarily high between the two nations in the early 1960s, and the Soviets wanted to project strength. To that end, they created many nuclear weapons, and the largest of them all was detonated on October 30, 1961. It was a three-stage hydrogen bomb which, to simplify, uses an atomic fission bomb to begin the detonation, that, in turn, compresses the next stage and begins the fusion process that turns out a much greater yield. It yielded 50 megatons, although there were alterations made to prevent it from being more. It could have hit 100 if not for substitution of lead for uranium in parts of it as the original design called for.
GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb
Nicknamed the Mother of All Bombs, the largest conventional munition – non-nuclear – ever detonated is designated GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast. While it was never used in the conflict, the MOAB was developed to be available for the military in just over two months in 2003. Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Dynetics, it is a GPS-guided bomb carrying an 18,700-pound warhead with a total weight of 21,000 pounds. It has fins and inertial gyro for maintaining stable and controlled flight. It is also an air blast munition, which means it is meant to detonate above the ground, causing a widespread blast rather than a penetrating munition targeting one specific point.
While the MOAB was developed for the conflict in Iraq, its first usage came in 2017 in Afghanistan. When it was deployed, American forces were battling Islamic State insurgents throughout a complex of caves in the mountains near the Pakistani border. To carry out this mission, the Air Force required a cargo plane to carry the bomb as no other aircraft could handle such a huge payload. With a blast radius of up to one mile, it was deployed to destroy the network of caves in the area.
Giant weapons are not only a product of modern technology and the Industrial Revolution, Ironworkers have been making big guns for centuries, often to devastating effect. Roughly 500 years ago, the last vestiges of the Roman empire had not yet fallen. The capital had been moved long ago from Rome to Constantinople, where emperors ruled until the 15th century. But this would soon change thanks to a big gun.
At the end of the medieval period, large cannons were being made and used as siege weapons by various armies. When Sultan Mehmet II wanted to take Constantinople, he hired engineer Orban to make something that could penetrate the city’s walls. Orban proclaimed, “I can shatter to dust not only these walls with the stones from my gun but the very walls of Babylon itself.” The resulting cannon, dubbed Basilica, was 27 feet long with a 30-inch barrel with eight inch thick walls. It had to be moved in parts, requiring 60 oxen and hundreds of men. It could only shoot seven shots per day for fear of cracking. Olive oil kept it from cracking. Though it was slow and cumbersome, it helped bring the ultimate end to the Byzantine Empire, leaving the city to Ottoman rule until the end of WWI.
[Featured image by Gaius Cornelius via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 3.0]
WWII Germany had a vast industrial base to create a dizzying array of weapons of all sizes. Its leader, Adolf Hitler, had a penchant for the dramatic, and many of his plans were bizarrely outsized. For example, there were designs for the massive Volkshalle building that would have been the largest dome-topped building in the world, but it never happened. He also pushed for large weapons, including the comically large Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus tank that was built but was too large to be useful.
The Schwerer Gustav, another pet project of Hitler’s, was the largest-caliber rifled weapon ever built and deployed in combat, and it had an a106-foot long barrel and weighed more than 1,300 tons. The ammunition fired from this behemoth included armor-piercing rounds and 5-ton explosive warheads, each with a diameter of 30 inches. It had a 30 mile range, with impact resulting in devastation wherever they hit. The complicated logistics and heat buildup meant that it was firing less than 15 rounds a day. Although it had been devised as a way to cut through the defensive Maginot line in France, it was only deployed once in Ukraine during the siege of Sevastopol.
The Gustav was a monumental undertaking that required a huge amount of resources to field it. It could only be transported disassembled in rail cars and needed a dual set of parallel tracks. The effectiveness ultimately did not outweigh the cost, so it was broken up for scrap and recycled as shortages increased steel demand.
Medieval warfare was a violent affair involving much more close combat than modern soldiers could ever imagine. However, many siege weapons were also developed using then-top-of-the-line mechanical engineering. Perhaps the most effective siege weapon of this period was the trebuchet, a sort of catapult that used counterweights to launch projectiles over a great distance.
Before the Acts of Union created Great Britain, England and Scotland often fought. King Edward I of England invaded Scotland in 1296 in a conflict that would later be fictionalized in the movie “Braveheart.” In the many years of conflict, one thing that would be clear to Edward is that Scotland would not back down. Still, the English forces prevailed over Scottish territory. By 1304, most of Scotland had been conquered but Stirling Castle was a holdout. To overtake it with overwhelming force, Edward ordered a grand trebuchet built to take down its walls.
His weapon would be called Warwolf. It was over 300 feet tall and slung stones up to 300 pounds. It required 30 wagons to move its pieces. The sight of this imposing structure caused enough fear in the Scots that they surrendered before being fired upon. But records indicate Edward disregarded the surrender and smashed the walls with the Warwolf and garnering a second surrender the next day.
Rifles have been a dominant weapon ever since the invention of the gun itself. They have also come a long way from the muzzle-loading flint locks of the Renaissance period to those of today and countless iterations and sizes of rifles have come and gone along the way. When firing a rifle, a force pushes the gun back against the projectile shooting out of the barrel called recoil. The larger the ammunition, the stronger the recoil. This often limits the size of ammunition because the recoil can become so great as to make the rifle difficult and even dangerous to shoot. However, it appears that J.D. Jones, founder of arms manufacturer SSK, ignored this.
One of the largest caliber bullets on the market — one that is used for some of the more powerful weapons by the Army — is .50 caliber. But the .950 JDJ rifle uses a round nearly double that size. This is the largest caliber rifle available and possibly the largest ever made. To say it has a lot of firepower is an understatement. The recoil has been measured at 277 ft-lbs, which is about 10 times that of a 30-06 rifle, itself a powerful gun. SSK has received a sporting use exception in order to sell it to the public and remove restrictions for military use only. It can destroy cinder block walls and probably blast through several engine blocks with ease. The cost of one is $8,000 with $40 for each round, and, should you ever fire one, take extreme caution as it could break your arm and crack your skull.
Pfeifer-Zeliska .600 Nitro Express Revolver
Although little information is available about this pistol, it’s possibly the largest pistol ever made. The Pfeifer-Zeliska .600 Nitro Express Revolver sources indicate it was made by a boutique gunmaker in Austria as a one-off and not a mass-produced model. It fires a .600 Nitro Express round, which was developed for rifles in the 19th century as a round that could be used by rifle marksmen hunting big game such as elephants and tigers. It was used in WWI by British soldiers being targeted by German snipers shooting from behind steel armor plates for protection. Unable to penetrate the armor otherwise the .600 was found to be strong enough to overcome it.
The Pfeifer-Zeliska is a ridiculous gun. It is comically large and fires a round meant for taking down elephants. Its construction is typical of most revolvers, only everything is enlarged to handle the supersized rounds. Despite its impressive firepower, it is hard to imagine any practical purposes. Furthermore, the recoil is significant, and only a skilled marksman should even attempt to fire this without breaking their wrist. The cost of the gun listed on years-old web pages shows it to be around $20,000 with ammunition setting you back about $40 per round.
While hunting is as popular as ever, it was also highly popular in the Victorian age. As industrialization continued, the quality of arms increased greatly, leading to a proliferation of tools for hunting a variety of game, from elephants and lions in Africa to foxes in Great Britain. Particularly popular in England was the hunting of ducks and geese. To help hunters attain big kills while on expeditions, the punt gun was developed.
The punt gun was the largest shotgun ever made. They were also reserved for wealthy sportsmen. This gun was a 10-foot-long muzzleloading shotgun that fired an impressive amount of shot. They required a tripod or barrel mount, and hunters often mounted them in small boats to paddle out into ponds to lie in wait for flocks to enter the area looking for places to rest and eat. The sheer size allowed the shooter to take out upwards of 100 birds with a single shot.
In the U.S., the use of the punt gun was blamed for reducing waterfowl populations, which led to alarm by ecologists. As a result, most jurisdictions outlawed the use of punt guns, wishing to preserve their environments from what could be considered unsportsmanlike hunting practices. This also led to wider efforts to preserve wildlife and the passing of fish and wildlife conservation laws early in the 20th century.