FWS is back from vacation with a blogpost all about one of the most iconic modern firearms. These death dealing machines go by many names, rotary cannon, Gatling gun, miniguns, but they talking about the same thing...badass whirling machines of death and destruction that spit out brass at an amazing rate of fire. Since the Vietnam War, modern miniguns have been on the battlefield, but it was the 1987's PREDATOR that the world of video games, anime, and science fiction as a whole have been populated with the handheld variety. But what really are they and how do the modern military use them? More over, can they be used in the fashion seen in popular media? FWS is here with the answers...because Old Painless is back baby!
What is the difference between Rotary Cannons and Miniguns?
In this case...size does matters, because that is the many difference between the rotary cannon and the minigun, and their uses in the military. Miniguns typically fire an assault rifle sized cartridge, 7.62x51mm is the most popular, and are electrically powered, like the iconic GE M134. These type of weapons trace their roots back to the original Galting gun, and are used in suppression fire of infantry and smaller targets. While the larger rotary cannons, like those in the nose of the A-10 Warthog use shells in the 30mm or 20mm variety, and are designed for taking down larger targets, like hostile aircraft. Another name for a minigun that pops in works like DOOM is a chaingun. Chainguns are auto-cannons or machine guns that use an external power source to fuel the action of the weapon rather than recoil energy to cycle the bolt.
History of Rotary Cannons/Miniguns
It is a common belief that multi-barreled machine gun type weapons began in the 1860's with the invention of the Gatling Gun by Dr. Richard J. Gatling. However, multiple barrels firearms have been seen has the tactical solution since the 14th century. Weapons like the Middle Ages 'Ribauldequin' were primitive firearms with stacked tubes for volley fire that worked for the ballistic technology of the day. It was only really until the American Civil War that the modern minigun took shape with the Gatling gun. In a queer twist of logic, Dr. Gatling envisioned his repeater to so effective, it could end future wars...yeah, that didn't happen. Even after the Union Army got a demonstration, they were unimpressed despite the current situation with the Civil War, and that nothing existed like the Gatling Gun at that time.
Examples of Current Military Rotary Cannons and MiniGuns
The 30mm GAU-8 Avenger Rotary Cannon
The 7.62mm M134D Minigun
Original developed for airborne fire suppression when exfil'ing troops from the hot LZs of Vietnam by General Electric and fires the same round has the M60 general purpose machine gun (7.62x51mm) at a rate of 3000 to 40000 rounds per minute at a range of about 1,1000 yards through six barrels powered a DC electric motor.
Their early usage of the first generation of the electrical powered Gatling guns were mounted on the C47 cargo plane gunships, that became known has the Puff-the-Magic-Dragon. Due to their success, the M134 minigun became a staple of the US Military through today, by the Arizona-based Dillon Aero company via the Air Force GAU 2B/A and the Army's M134D that weed out the issue of jamming with the old GE M134 units.
These are found being mounted on UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to the US Navy SOC-R speedboats and even some black Secret Service SUVs, for defensive suppression fire. The same is true of their use on US Navy ships for protection against pirates, hostile boarding craft, and underwater aliens. In an offensive role, the M134D is mounted on the AH-6 Little Birds and some Humvees in service with Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 20mm Phalanx CIWS Naval Rotary Cannon
The 20mm M197 Rotary Cannon
The 20mm M61 'Vulcan' Rotary Cannon
The 12.7mm Yak-B Rotary Cannon
The Advantages of Rotary Cannons/Miniguns
Extremely High Rounds-per-Minute
Less Thermal Buildup
The Disadvantages of Rotary Cannons
Rotary cannons and miniguns nose-bleed high rounds-per-minute fire rate are both a blessing and curse. If the operate of the weapon lays on the trigger, the ammunition could be gone in a few seconds. To prevent this, some miniguns are fitted with burst triggers, but still, a few squeezes, and the damn thing is dry. For example, the A-10 Warthog for the GAU-8 is about 1,150 rounds, and is fired in two-second bursts due to the 4,000 RPM capability making for less than one minute of continuous fire. The same is true of other vehicle mounted miniguns, the RPM outstrips the supply of bullets that the vehicle can carry, causing the operator of the weapon to be cautious of not firing off all of the ammo before the battle is over.
It is surprising how simple, mechanically speaking, a modern machine gun is, and how it doesn't need gasoline or electric to fire, but that is not true of the rotary cannon/minigun. Due to their high rate of fire, the barrels and motor components needed to be replaced more often than a standard machine gun. This level of maintenance would prevent a minigun being in a infantry LMG role.
Could you realistically use a handheld Minigun?
About a year ago, the host of FPSRussia, Kyle, traveled half way across the world to fire a handheld minigun that could be a GE M134 that was hooked up to several car batteries. From the video feed, it appears Kyle used only a strap to hold up the weapon, and was able to handle the recoil...but after all, he is a professional Russian. Then there is the issue of bulk, you couldn't perform CQB with one of these, nor most of the tactics common in real-world combat situations. Imagine taking fire, and trying to take cover with one of these things! Then what role would these things have? Waves of charging infantry are rare in modern warfare, humping them on patrols would royally suck, and a LMG would be a better fit.The only way for a minigun to be somewhat 'practical' in infantry battlefield conditions would be mounted to an armored power suit!
Future Military Application of Rotary Cannons
The Progenitor: "Old Painless" from PREDATOR (1987)
Nicknamed "Old Painless", a hand-held M134 Minigun is the main weapon carried by Blain (Jesse Ventura). It has been modded for handheld use with an M60 handguard assembly (installed backwards) and a rear pistol grip which is taken from normal (at the time) Minigun spade grips. The grips are attached to the weapon by a custom Y-frame with an M16-style carry handle that mounts to the weapon's recoil absorbers. The weapon was powered by an electric cable hidden off camera and fired blank rounds to ease the recoil force; in addition, the rate of fire is substantially decreased from the normal 6,000 RPM to 1,250 RPM. There are several reasons for this; to ease recoil, save on ammunition, and because director John McTiernan wanted the barrels to be visibly turning rather than a blur. It is believed in real life a similar weapon was tested by US special forces in the 1970s but found to be impractical.
Some sources claim the weapon is an XM214 Gatling gun, part of the "Six-Pak" system which fires the smaller 5.56mm NATO rounds. The XM214 never made it beyond testing and the film weapon is clearly the larger M134 as evidenced by the non-tapered barrels, and the four-disc barrel clamp. On the subject of the weapon's caliber the film's technical adviser Kevin Dockery had the following to say:
"The Predator gun is an M-134. It was never a Microgun (XM-214). That story has been rattling around the Internet and elsewhere for years, that the Predator gun was a 5.56, it wasn't. Ventura had a hand in putting together the harness that held the gun, after all, he had to carry and handle the darn thing, and told me a bunch about it. When Dan had the gun (past tense I believe) he contacted me to see if Ventura wanted to buy the weapon. I'm going to do a writeup on the XM-214 including pictures of me holding one. It isn't a big deal to pick the microgun up and hold it cradled in one arm. Maybe when people see just how small the 5.56mm gun is, this story will start going away. The pack in the movie held all of four seconds worth of ammo and no batteries. In the first scene when Ventura fires the gun, you can see the cable for it in the dirt behind him. And the trigger didn't work. The special effects man handled powering the gun for several reasons, including safety. Something about them not wanting the actors injured if the gun was dropped and the trigger pulled."
The gun is also operated in the film by Mac shortly after Blain's death and Mac uses it to chop down half the forest in an attempt to kill the Predator. The ammo pack for the weapon uses an M23 armament system ammo box and cover assembly attached to an ALICE pack frame. These ammunition canisters hold approximately 550 rounds when filled; at the confirmed rate of fire (1,250 RPM) when the weapon was sold, the minigun had a maximum of 25 seconds of ammo.
For the firing scenes the box is oriented correctly with the feed chute attaching to the upper left corner of the box and oriented on the weapon so the window is facing upward. During the non-firing scenes the ammo box is positioned up and down with the chute turned upside down, hiding the fact that there is no ammunition present. Also for non-firing scenes, the weapon is not hooked up to a power supply, as the pack only contained ammunition, not batteries. This allowed the actor to move freely during these scenes. During the firing scenes, the batteries were just off camera and the weapon was shot so the cables would not be visible; the cables are trailed along the ground and then routed up the actor's trouser leg and through their clothing to the gun.
Science Fiction and the Rotary Cannons
M579 'Daisy-Cutter' APC from ALIENS: Colonial Marine Technical Manual
In the pages of the Colonial Marine Technical Manual, there is a variant to the M577 APS, the M579 'Daisycutter'. Much like the M113 APC mounting a 20mm M61 Vulcan rotary cannon, the M579 uses a base M577 APC chassis, but in place of the standard DEW turret there is a quad 20mm Gatling cannons assemble for an air defense artillery role. Basically the M579 fills the sky with massive amount of different munition types of 20mm shells (it is unknown if the rotary cannons are caseless) to threats 1,500 meters out. Building upon the M579 design, there is M270 plasma and M820 particle variants. It is also used in an fire support anti-infantry role as well.
The Z-6 Rotary Blaster Cannon from Star Wars: Clone Wars
This weapon is also referenced to in some other Star Wars works has a chaingun.
The M648 'Vulcan' Rotary Cannon from Starship Troopers 3: Marauder
Harkonnen Trooper Minigun rifle from DUNE (1984)
One of the best shots in the film to see the Harkonnen minigun rifle is the scene when Mentat Piter de Vries arrives on to Giedi Prime. However when it comes to any hard information on this oddball weapon, internet searches come up dry on why the prop-master built these far-future rifles based on a minigun barrel system. My only guess is that David Lynch wanted the Harkonnen troopers to be menacing on every level, and nothing says that like a mini-gun wielded by black clad shocktroopers! The theme of minigun rifles for the Harkonnen spilled over in the video games for years. Another minigun type weapon seen in the 1984 film were the 'heavy' weirding modules used by the Fremen to destroy spice harvester and during final battle over Arrakeen. I've been unable to dig up any images, but the sound emitters were shaped in a minigun fashion. Very odd design for a sonic weapon.
This weapon popped back up with the line of oddball LJN tie-in film toys, which I had a few. If you bought the Rabban figure, came with the Harkonnen trooper helmet and minigun rifle. This toy gun gives us some of the clearest visuals on the weapon. It seems that there is a heavy duty top-rail brace, and the weapon is feed from a box-shaped magazine holding some type of projectile. From this, it could be assumed that DUNE minigun fires slow projectiles designed to penetrate body shields, but the box magazine seems too small to feed a minigun for more than one second of fire.
The Hughes GU-11 55mm three-barreled Rotary Cannon from ROBOTECH: Macross
The REF GU-XX 35mm three-barreled Rotary Cannon from ROBOTECH: The New Generation
The Chain-Guns from the DOOM Universe
How could you have a game of endless slaughter and computer-generated blood without a handheld minigun? That was what ID Software thought when they developed both DOOM and Wolfenstein's BFG. In the original DOOM games, the chaingun uses the same ammo has the pistol, making the chaingun a 9mm death-dealer most likely. During the more graphic advanced DOOM 3, the chaingun became the UAC Weapons Division Mach-II chaingun that was man-portable, but is feed for a 'belt' of sixty rounds. Unlike the original DOOM chaingun, this one fires an specialized designed .30 caliber round. Most gamers in their thirties have fond memories of unleash a hail of CGI bullets on demons will playing DOOM...I'll admit, I sang "Long Tall Sally' while shooting it.
The Imperial Assault Bolter Cannon from Warhammer 40K
Gatling Gauss Cannons from Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda
Twin Rotary Tail Cannons from BSG: Blood and Chrome
In the new BSG miniseries about William Adama's experiences during the Cylon Wars, he first pilots a Raptor, which is very different that the ones we saw in BSG. These slow-moving vehicles are equipped with air-to-air missiles, no FTL drives, and a pilot-operated tail-gun. The tail-gun are twin rotary cannons with a limited ammo can that most likely fire the same 30mm round found in the Viper Mark IIs.
The Tau Burst-Gun from Warhammer 40,000
I've always enjoyed the Tau race from the Warhammer 40K universe, and their use of DEW Gatling guns style pulse weapons. According to their Codex, the Tau burst cannons use their DEW pulse technology in the form of a four-barreled short-ranged weapon designed mostly for use on vehicles and battlesuits. A longer barreled burst cannon is fitted to aerial vehicles, and are used for offensive and defensive roles. A handheld burst cannon was featured in the 2002 PS2 FPS game, Fire Warrior.
The UD-4L Cheyenne Dropship 25mm caseless GAU-113/B Rotary Cannon from ALIENS
M1-L1 triple-pulse rifle from Deep Rising (1998)
The Minigun Rifle from Split Second (1992)
This is one of the really terrible films I watched in high school on HBO really, really late at night. This 1992 B-movie stars Rutger Hauer as a detective hunting a satanic serial killer in the post-global warming London flooded streets. This film tried and failed to mine BLADE RUNNER and ALIEN for style points, and attempts to excite the audience with brief nudity and a minigun rifle used to kill the mutant beast at the end of this piece of shit film. What I can remember is that minigun rifle was part of the metro London police force's armory, but only used on special events, and was loaded from a box-like magazine. This were never refered to by name, only by 'big fucking gun'. Of course, our twin heroes manage to lose their advanced BFGs shortly after fighting this thing...typical.
Bregna Shock Trooper Rifle from Aeon Flux (2005)
In the 2005 live-action adoption of the American animation Aeon Flux, more minigun rifles show up in the hands of the Bregna city-state shock troopers. This is yet another shitty sci-fi film that attempts to jazz up with some tacticool weaponry and gun-fu in place of something close to a good script. The Begna Shock Trooper rifle miniguns were completely prop weapon and not based on any real-steel gun. In addition, these guns had their spinning minigun barrels and muzzle-flash added in during post-production SFX.
Military Channel's M134 Segment
Future Weapons on the Dillion Aero M134D
FPSRussian's Minigun Episode