Once, there was no such thing as a bad weapon. Weapons were simple — clubs, spears, axes, bows and arrows, chariots, lances, pikes — and all were eventually superseded by whatever came along that was incrementally better. For example, though the crossbow lacked the power and range of an English longbow, it wasn’t a bad weapon; the longbow was just a better one.
Come the Industrial Revolution, however, technology factored in to weapon design and engineering, occasionally with disastrous results. We’ve chosen several such military missteps as examples of what can happen when the delicate balance between utility, usability and effectiveness is upset.
Review our nominees for clunkiest combat contraptions, then feel free to suggest your own.
1. The Great Panjandrum
Nevil Shute, author of On the Beach, A Town Like Alice and other popular novels, was also an aeronautical engineer who was unfortunately responsible for designing one of the silliest weapons of World War II: the Great Panjandrum. Developed under the aegis of the British Admiralty’s Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development, it comprised a pair of 10-foot wooden wheels, the axle between them containing a 2-ton drum of TNT. The Panjandrum was to be launched from the ramp of a landing craft just off a Normandy beachhead, from which (in theory anyway) it would roar up the beach at 60 mph and smash into the Atlantic Wall defenses, blowing a tank-size hole in the fortifications, as depicted above. Propelling it were 70 solid-fuel rockets around the rim of each wheel, spinning the entire affair like a crazed Catherine wheel firework.
Since the device was totally unguided, anyone could predict disaster if just one rocket failed to fire or simply put out less power than the others. And what might be the effect of a perversely sloping beach or of an errant rock in Panjandrum’s path? Film survives of a test that provides the answer: On-screen a veering, tipping, tilting runaway wheel scatters generals, admirals and stray dogs as it shoots sparks, sheds rockets and careens across an English beach, finally coming to rest on its side, where it explodes and disintegrates.
2. Heinkel He 177 Greif
Adolf Hitler himself unflatteringly compared the He 177 long-range heavy bomber to the Panther tank, which at the time was facing its own mechanical problems. “This garbage plane is, of course, the biggest piece of junk that was probably ever produced,” he said of the 177. “It’s the flying Panther, and the Panther is the crawling Heinkel.” Though the Panther developed into an excellent tank, the Heinkel’s problems plagued it for four years before it was finally declared barely fit for production, and by then there was no need for a long-range, four-engine Luftwaffe bomber. Nazi Germany’s sole heavy bomber was its aircraft industry’s most dismal failure. Factories rolled out more than 1,100 He 177s, and the entire fleet was a waste of time and material.
Much of the blame goes to Ernst Udet, the World War I German ace who championed dive-bombing. The Junkers Ju 87 Stuka was Udet’s favorite plane for that task, and he wanted the He 177 to dive-bomb, too. Unfortunately, pulling out from a 60-degree dive in an airplane with 3-ton engines on each wing requires enormous structural demands. Little surprise, then, that many He 177s fell apart in flight. The ones that did stay in one piece often caught fire. Their tightly cowled power plants—side-by-side V-12s driving a single prop through a common gearbox—leaked oil and fuel and ran as hot as blast furnaces. As a weight-saving measure they didn’t even have firewalls to protect the wing spar from the resulting 2,950-hp blowtorch.
3. (tie) Soviet Anti-Tank Dogs, U.S. Bat Bombs
The idea to strap explosives to a dog’s back and teach it to crawl beneath a German tank was not just inhumane—it wasn’t very bright. During World War II, the Soviets developed such “dog mines,” which exploded when a detonating rod hit the tank’s belly. Problem was, the Soviets used their own T-34s to train the dogs, teaching them to seek treats beneath the tanks. T-34s had diesel engines that stank of kerosene. German tanks, however, were gasoline-fueled and smelled quite different. Amid the noise and confusion of battle, the dogs often sniffed out the familiar-smelling Soviet tanks, with predictable results.
The dogs also refused to run beneath moving tanks and were often frightened off by German gunfire, only to flee back to their own trenches and foxholes, where the mines obediently detonated.
Another bizarre animal-based weapon that seemed like a good idea at the time was the “bat bomb” the United States developed for use against Japan. Each bomb—a perforated sheet metal canister—held 1,000 bats, each carrying a tiny time-delayed napalm incendiary device. Slowed by a parachute, the canister would open as it neared the ground and, presumably, the bats would swarm away, finding nesting places in the eaves of paper-and-wood Japanese houses. The bats were never used against the Japanese, but during testing they did burn to the ground a large part of New Mexico’s Carlsbad Army Airfield.
4. Mark 14 Torpedo
It’s hard to imagine anyone deliberately designing a submarine torpedo as bad as the Mark 14, but the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, R.I., managed to pull it off. This U.S. fleetwide standard torpedo ran 10 to 12 feet below what it had been set for, thanks to a misaligned depth sensor. It also failed to explode when it passed beneath a ship’s keel, as its complex Mark 6 magnetic-influence exploder had been tested in New England waters that were magnetically very different from the South Pacific. Even when the Mark 14 did manage to hit a ship, the result was often just a loud clang, as the contact-exploder would break when the 3,280-pound torpedo hit a steel hull at 46 knots.
Worst of all, NTS Newport refused to admit any flaws with its product, and the fixes that did finally correct the Mark 14’s performance were effected in the field by submariners tired of returning from patrols with expended torpedoes and nothing to show for it. The Mark 14’s overall record from the beginning of the Pacific War through August 1943 was seven misses, duds, premature explosions or circular runs (at least one sub was sunk by its own torpedo) for every 10 fired. What came to be known as the “Great Torpedo Scandal” was the result of an incompetent Navy design and development facility run by bureaucrats who refused to listen to the submariners actually using their product.
5. Double-barreled cannon
This concept dates from 1642 and Florentine gun maker Antonio Petrini. He cast the first cannon intended to fire simultaneously from side-by-side barrels two balls linked by a chain, intended to scythe down enemy soldiers like standing wheat when it reached them. The operative word, however, was “simultaneously.” For the rig to work, the powder behind each round shot had to ignite at the same instant — which, of course, rarely happened.
In 1862, Georgia dentist and mechanic John Gilleland raised money from a coterie of Confederate citizens to build the ultimate chain-shot gun. Cast in one piece, the gun featured side-by-side bores, each a little over 3 inches in diameter and splayed slightly outward so the shots would diverge and stretch the chain taut. During tests, the Gilleland cannon effectively mowed down trees, tore up a cornfield, knocked down a chimney and killed an unfortunate cow. None of the above were anywhere near the gun’s intended target.
A treatise that describes Petrini’s cannon survives in the Royal Armories of the Tower of London, while Gilleland’s gun sits on the lawn of the Athens, Ga., city hall.
6. M16 Rifle
The modern-day M16A4 is probably the deadliest and most accurate assault rifle ever produced, a point arguable perhaps only by AK-47/AKM acolytes. But during the Vietnam War, soldiers and Marines faced injury and even death due to flaws in the early model M16s. Defenders of the M16 insist, “The problem wasn’t the rifle, it was the ammunition.” But that’s a little like saying, “It was a great airplane, but the engine failed every 10th flight.”
The rifle did have faults. The M16 was designed to use ammo loaded with extruded powder, a propellant with cylindrical grains. As an economical move the Army Ordnance Corps decreed a change to ball powder, which had spherical grains and included a calcium carbonate additive to keep it from deteriorating. This allowed the Army to recycle propellant from obsolete rifle ammo and artillery rounds for M16 ammo, and since Ordnance didn’t retest the rifle after switching powders, troops in the field became the unfortunate beta testers.
The M16 had been overzealously promoted as a “self-cleaning rifle,” and troops were issued insufficient cleaning supplies. Unfortunately, the ball powder additive and other detritus fouled the gun’s chamber. The most grievous result was “failure to extract,” in which a spent cartridge case jammed inside the chamber after firing. The only way to remove it without a cleaning rod was to disassemble the weapon. Troops were found dead after firefights, their M16s lying beside them in pieces.
The early M16 also lacked a chrome-lined chamber, so it corroded in humid conditions, and its light rounds were all too easily deflected by foliage. By the late 1960s it had become so unpopular with troops that its reputation has yet to recover, despite numerous improvements to the weapon and to its ammunition.
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7. Blue Peacock Nuclear Mine
Any device with a nuclear warhead is arguably a candidate for worst weapon, given its inherent risks and often indiscriminate killing power. Nonetheless, we nominate Britain’s Blue Peacock as history’s most benighted nuclear device.
The Blue Peacock project called for the construction of ten 7.2-ton, minivan-size steel casings, each holding a plutonium weapon with a yield of 10 kilotons. The British army would bury the devices at strategic points in Germany through which Soviet tanks might rumble. If forced to retreat, the British would fall back to a distance from which each Blue Peacock could be triggered manually. Otherwise the mines were preloaded with a timer that would blow them in eight days no matter what.
In theory the blasts would not only evaporate the Soviet invaders but also leave a zone of radioactive desolation unfit for occupation. The British intended to tell the Germans the mines were nuclear power plants for use by frontline NATO troops. At least one Blue Peacock was built before the Ministry of Defence decided the weapon was a bad idea.
The buried bombs would have required an independent heat source to keep the circuitry from malfunctioning in winter temps, and the planners’ best idea was to seal a bunch of chickens and ample chickenfeed into the casings. Each hen would give off 1,000 BTU a day of body heat. A key component of that cockamamie proposal was old-fashioned feedstore chicken wire, to keep the clucks from pecking at the wiring.
8. Maginot Line
Many French insist the Maginot Line worked perfectly during the opening days of World War II, blocking traditional invasion routes into France and forcing the Germans to avoid it. Problem was, the Wehrmacht did just that, bypassing it through the Ardennes forest, and Luftwaffe aircrews went over it wherever they wished.
The French developed the Maginot Line in part because in 1918, they had fended off the Germans with fixed defenses — namely, trenches. The Maginot was a far more sophisticated complex of fortifications, obstacles and weapons, and though it was the last gasp of a timeworn concept that dated back to the days of coast artillery, forts under siege and hilltop castles, it was by no means just a fancy World War I super trench. Nor was it just a “line.” In places, the fortifications were 16 miles deep, with zone after zone of specialized gunnery, all linked by tunnels and subterranean rail lines.
But the Maginot was solely defensive. Had the Wehrmacht cooperated with the assumption the Ardennes was impassable, the best the line might have accomplished would have been to hold off the Germans long enough for the French to mobilize their smaller army and concentrate forces.
Ultimately, the French built a wall while the Germans built panzers and Stukas, and it cost France an enormous amount of energy plus 3 billion francs that could have been better spent on armored divisions and a more effective air force.
Like Vasa, the infamous Swedish warship that in 1628 keeled over and sank little over a mile into its maiden voyage, the Russian ironclad monitor Novgorod had a fatal flaw that only became fully apparent once it had been launched and entered combat on the Black Sea in the 1877–78 Russo-Turkish War.
Novgorod has been called the ugliest warship ever built. As round and clumsy as a floating soup dish, the 2,500-ton vessel had six steam engines that drove six screws. The Russians claimed Novgorod was immune to ramming, as its key components lay well inboard of the ship’s 9-inch armored beltline no matter where a rammer hit. Amidships, mounted on swiveling platforms, were two 26-ton, 11-inch muzzle-loaded cannon — big naval guns for the time.
As Novgorod’s circular hull drafted just 12 feet, far less than it would have had the vessel been designed with a conventional hull, the plan was for the monitor to cruise just offshore and bombard land targets.
Unfortunately, when either gun was fired, the ship rotated uncontrollably in the direction of the gun’s recoil. Even when gunners fired simultaneously, the hull pirouetted in response to whichever barrel had even a slightly more powerful charge, and even a partial turn required time-consuming repositioning to fire the next salvo. The shallow draft ship had no stabilizing keel to keep it in line, though it was retrofitted with a parallel array of a dozen mini-keels that didn’t help. The only remedy that did work was to anchor the ship in a fixed firing position. Eventually, Novgorod was relegated to duty not as a shoreline monitor but as a floating fort, moored in a fixed location with its big guns pointing seaward.
10. Panzer VIII Maus
Who thought a tank that could barely move and presented a target the size of a school bus was a good idea? Adolf Hitler, that’s who.
All tanks are compromises between firepower, armor and mobility, and the Führer wanted one that put the gun first and agility last. The tank carried so much armor that enemy rounds would simply bounce off. And its 150mm main gun would presumably make up for the fact that it typically operated at about 8 mph. The result was the 207-ton Maus (“Mouse”), a white elephant among the 25-ton T-34 and Panzer pygmies.
Ferdinand Porsche designed it, and it’s hard to imagine that the future engineer of lightweight performance sports cars had his heart in the job. Porsche did engineer a drive system that rendered the Maus a virtual off-the-rails diesel locomotive: a 44.5-liter, 1,200-hp inverted V12 aircraft engine drove a huge generator that provided electricity to the two motors that cranked the 3.6-foot-wide tracks. Since the Maus was too heavy for bridge crossings, it was designed to either ford streams or snorkel across rivers. The latter would have been a cumbersome operation, as the engine had to be shut down, allowing the Maus to connect to a second Maus by power cable, providing electricity from the riverbank to run its motors.
Some have suggested the Maus was never intended for combat — that it was simply a propaganda tool intended to bolster folks on the home front and terrify enemy troops who imagined facing one. None ever had to, however. By war’s end the Germans had built just two prototype Mäuse, one of which never got its turret and gun.
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