Myth of the Zero fighter?

4/23/2012 • Ask Mr. History

Dear Mr. History,

Hello, I’m a long-time subscriber.  You do a fantastic job, I love and look forward to every single issue, and I read every single thing cover-to-cover!

Your "Weapons Manual" in the March/April 2012 issue [of World War II magazine] aroused a pet peeve of mine.  I would like to dispel once and for all with the myth of the Zero fighter!  My contention is, the Zero was a fantastic AIR-plane, but a terrible WAR-plane.  Its many weaknesses precluded it from being a war-winning weapon, even by early 1942.  

First, its propensity to burn is well-known.  Every plane has a weak point, but almost the entire airframe on the Zero was a weak point!  The wings, the cockpit, the engine, the stabilizers … If just 2-3 bullets, a lucky shot, really, hitting any of those areas stand a good chance of killing your ride, it’s not an effective combat weapon.

Second, what doesn’t get a lot of attention is how small the control surfaces were for the wing loading and the sheer physical strength that was required to maneuver it at speed.  This was done to control weight, but the effect was to make it difficult to move the controls or make them work at 250 knots; very hard at 300 knots, impossible for many pilots as a matter of fact; and if you were in a dive at 350+mph you couldn’t pull out of it even if you were The Hulk—because the control surfaces were too small for the forces being exerted on them.  When every Allied fighter of the time could dive at 400+ knots and pull out, this was a terrible weakness of the Zero, and easily countered.

Third, its armament was very light.  The machine guns were basically worthless, and the low muzzle velocity, low cyclic rate and above all the shortage of ammunition (again, to keep the weight down) for the 20mm cannon meant they were not very effective for long.  Yes, capable of doing damage if they hit you, but no where near as good overall as the weapons used in most Allied planes.

Lastly, the Japanese Navy pilots in late 1941 were the best and most-experienced naval aviators in the world.  Most of their early successes were against poorly trained and poorly led Allied pilots.  But once the proper tactics to counter the Zero’s weaknesses were emplaced in March/April 1942, even novice pilots were at almost equal odds.  If a superior pilot can just as easily be shot down by a novice pilot, then the weakness must be the airframe, right?

Counter that with especially the contemporary American fighters of the day:  they were rugged, had armor protecting the pilot, self-sealing fuel tanks, heavy armament, adequate control surfaces to maneuver at speed, and most of all the ability to push the nose down and get away.  Now THOSE were weapons of war!

So let’s be honest:  as a WAR-plane, the Zero was obsolete by the Spring of 1942.  Still capable of doing some damage obviously, but nothing like it’s made out to be.  I’d take my chances v. a Zero in a Wildcat or P40, even in late-1941 or early 1942!

If you would like to publish my letter, I’m from Amherst, NY.  I would be interested in a reply at the least.  I know mine isn’t a popular position, but simple, fair analysis of kill ratios will prove I’m right.   (-: 

Thank you,

Matt Deck

? ? ?

Dear Mr. Deck, 

Thanks for your comments on the Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero. Your points are all quite sound, though in equal truth there is little residual myth about the Zero left to bust. 

Indisputably the Zero had inherent flaws that were initially canceled out by the skill of its pilots and the ignorance of its opponents. No argument, either, that by midway through the Guadalcanal campaign the bogey had been laid, even before a new generation of American fighters arrived to take the sky from it—including the Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat, a plane specifically designed to do just that on behalf of U.S. Navy carrier air power. 

We are also certainly aware that there were greater kill-to-loss ratios among most of the American fighters (though some of them are exaggerated against actual enemy losses, just as were those attributed to the Zero pilots even in their heyday). If that was the sole criterion, though, then the war’s all-time fighter champ would be the Brewster F2A-1 Buffalo, a plane that Zeros used to eat for breakfast. Lightened by the removal of its naval equipment, however, the export Brewster B-239, as flown by the Finns, was credited with 496 Soviet aircraft for the loss of 19 (a kill-to-loss ratio 26-to-1), on top of which the recent Russian release of its actual wartime plane losses has revealed the Finnish Ilmavoimat to have been the only air force in World War II that slightly under-claimed. 

Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Zero, however short its reign, was the first carrier-based fighter capable of besting land-based opponents. More critically, that moment of supremacy occurred at the right time for it to spearhead a remarkable carrier-borne rampage over about a third of the earth’s circumference in less than half a year.  And on occasion, even as late as 1945, outdated, outmatched A6M5 Zeros could—and did—shoot down Allied aircraft and kill Allied airmen. Our intention was not to promulgate any long-squelched myth, but merely to give credit where credit was due. 

Again, we appreciate the loyalty to the magazine that motivates your feedback, and hope to keep things equally interesting in issues to come 



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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