History's Failed Military Weapons
History’s Failed Military Weapons

History’s Failed Military Weapons

Khalid Elhassan - September 5, 2017

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Chauchat. Battlefield Wikia

Chauchat

The Chauchat was the French army’s light machine gun during WWI and is widely panned as one of the worst firearms to have ever gone into mass production and got inflicted upon an army as a standard-issue weapon. Introduced in 1915, the weapon immediately began presenting problems stemming from both a defective design and poor workmanship, and the defects were exacerbated by reliance on poor and low-quality metals to produce the Chauchat.

In the plus column, the Chauchat was a revolutionary weapon, being the world’s first truly light (20 lbs) portable automatic firearm that did not require a team of machine gunners and a heavy mount or tripod, but could instead be operated by a single user alone or with an assistant. It was also inexpensive to manufacture, featured a detachable magazine and a selective fire capability, could readily be carried around the battlefield by a single soldier, and was light enough to be fired from the hip during assaults in suppressive marching or walking fire to pin down enemy defenders while the attackers closed in. From that perspective, the Chauchat set the template for subsequent light machine guns, from the BAR to the SAW.

However, the battlefield conditions of WWI exposed serious defects that earned the Chauchat a reputation as one of history’s worst firearms. Among sundry problems, the worst was the detachable magazine, which was designed with one side open. That allowed entry of loose earth, mud, dirt, and grit with which the trenches of WWI abounded. The particles then made their way into the chamber, barrel, and firing mechanism, resulting in stoppages and malfunctions. The magazines were very flimsy and easily dented, resulting in jamming and stoppage. The ejection port lacked a cover, which allowed dirt and other particles to enter from there as well and cause the weapon to jam. When the Chauchat did not cease firing because it was jammed with dirt and mud, or because the magazine got dented, it ceased firing from overheating. The sights were misaligned, which wreaked havoc with aiming. The plate assemblies were secured by screws that tended to come loose and fall off when the weapon was fired. Moreover, the bipod was loose, and that, coupled with poor ergonomics, made it impossible to keep the weapon on target other than with short bursts.

The ejection port lacked a cover, which allowed dirt and other particles to enter from there as well and cause the weapon to jam. When the Chauchat did not cease firing because it was jammed with dirt and mud, or because the magazine got dented, it ceased firing from overheating. The sights were misaligned, which wreaked havoc with aiming. The plate assemblies were secured by screws that tended to come loose and fall off when the weapon was fired. Moreover, the bipod was loose, and that, coupled with poor ergonomics, made it impossible to keep the weapon on target other than with short bursts.

By 1918, only three years after its introduction and with months still to go before the war ended, the Chauchat began to be gradually withdrawn from service and replaced by the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Type 94 Nambu pistol. C&Rsenal

Type 94 Nambu Pistol

The Japanese WWII era Type 94 Nambu Pistol has garnered a reputation as one of history’s worst pistols to have ever been issued to a military. Its basic maintenance was difficult because it was overly complex and had too many parts, rendering disassembly and reassembly awkward; it was prone to firing off unintentionally if jarred; and added to the design defects were manufacturing defects stemming from poor workmanship and inadequate quality control in the production plants.

Among the Type 94’s myriad problems was that it did not have a hammer, but used a firing pin instead – and a weak firing pin at that, which broke easily when firing. When firing, accurate aiming with the sights could be impossible because the front blade atop the muzzle and the rear ‘v’ were often misaligned. The pistol had too many parts, which made cleaning and daily upkeep overly onerous.

The parts were not finely machined and did not fit well with each other, which led to frequent jamming. It had a small grip, and a correspondingly small magazine that held only 6 rounds. And the magazine, which was held in place by bolt pressure inside the pistol, was hard to reload and insert, and often disengaged and came loose if the pistol was jarred, placed on a hard surface, or simply inserted into a holster.

The biggest problem, however, which made the Type 94 one of history’s most dangerous pistols, was its tendency to discharge unintentionally. The cause was a sear bar located outside the pistol that could easily snag on the user’s holster or uniform. If that happened while a round was chambered, and the pistol was then jostled, wiggled, or placed on a hard surface in a manner that depressed the sear bar, it could discharge accidentally, even with the safety switch in the ‘on’ position.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Sticky Grenade being assembled, showing outer casing and inner bomb. Wikimedia

Sticky Grenade

The Sticky Grenade or Sticky Bomb was one of WW2’s more infamous weapons, developed in the aftermath of the Battle of France and evacuation from Dunkirk, where most of the British Army’s anti-tank weapons had been left behind. Intended for use against tanks, the Anti Tank Hand Grenade #74, AKA Sticky Bomb, was a maraca-looking device with an outer metal shell covering a bomb coated with an adhesive.

The user would pull a pin to remove the outer metal layer and expose the sticky bomb, run up to a tank, stick the bomb to it, activate a five-second fuse, then run away or dive to avoid the explosion. Alternatively, the user could throw the bomb at the tank and hope it stuck to its surface. The first problem and it was a major one, was that the Sticky Bomb‘s adhesive had trouble sticking to dusty, muddy, or wet surfaces – “a customary condition of tanks”, as Churchill’s chief military adviser could not help pointing out.

A second problem, also major, was that failing to stick to what it should, the Sticky Bomb had an unfortunate tendency to stick to what it should not: the user. In cartoon-like fashion, the adhesive had a tendency to leak and glue the bomb to its thrower’s hand or uniform. There were likely many situations that would have been funny had they not ended so tragically and gruesomely, of a Sticky Bomb user pulling the pin to arm the five-second fuse, then attempt to stick the bomb to a tank or throw it at one, only to discover to his horror that it was stuck to his hand instead, and spend his last seconds on earth frantically shaking his hand like Wile E. Coyote with a stick of TNT glued to his paw.

As recounted by a British Home Guard member: “It was while practicing that a Home Guard bomber got his sticky bomb stuck to his trouser leg and couldn’t shift it. A quick-thinking mate whipped the trousers off and got rid of them and the bomb. After the following explosion, the trousers were in a bit of a mess — though I think they were a bit of a mess prior to the explosion.”

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Mark 14 torpedo. Pacific War Online Encyclopedia

Mark 14 Torpedo

Designed in 1931, the Mark 14 Torpedo was the standard weapon of American submarines when the US entered WWII in 1941. Unlike earlier torpedoes which detonated on impact with a target ship’s hull, the Mark 14 had an advanced magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the explosive charge directly beneath the enemy’s keel and break its back – fatal damage to any ship.

The concept was good, as it meant that a single Mark 14 would theoretically suffice to sink an enemy ship, regardless of size, unlike its predecessors which frequently required multiple torpedoes holing the enemy in various spots on the hull. However, secrecy and frugality led to the live testing of only two torpedoes – and one of the two had been a failure. A 50% test failure rate however did not give the US Navy pause and prompt it to conduct further testing or stop it from approving the Mark 14 and issuing it to the US submarine fleet as its standard torpedo in 1938.

It was only after war broke out that the torpedo’s grave flaws became apparent. Within the first month of hostilities submarine commanders correctly reported that the Mark 14 had serious problems with maintaining accurate depth so as to pass within the correct distance beneath an enemy ship’s keel; with its magnetic detonator, which frequently detonated prematurely or failed to detonate at all; with its contact detonator, which failed to set off the torpedo even when it struck an enemy’s hull at a perfect angle with a loud clang that was clearly audible in the firing submarine; and worst of all, with its tendency to boomerang, missing its target and running in a wide circle to come back and strike the firing submarine.

The US Navy ignored that report, as well as numerous reports from other submarine commanders complaining about the Mark 14. In one incident, a submarine commander fired two spreads totaling a dozen torpedoes at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so that his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, then fired off 9 more Mark 14s. Not a single one detonated.

Despite a flood of reports from its submarine commanders detailing the Mark 14’s shortcomings, it took the US Navy two years from the start of hostilities to even acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist and to conduct tests to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about for two years, and remedial steps to address the problems were finally begun – two years later than should have been the case.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
How The Great Panjandrum was intended to operate, smashing into German shore defenses, as envisioned in conceptual artwork from the Bridgeman Art Library. History Net

The Great Panjandrum

Developed by the British during WWII as a means for clearing obstacles ahead of the D-Day landings, The Great Panjandrum consisted of a large drum stuffed with a ton of explosives and affixed to rocket-propelled wheels. The idea was to ignite the rockets from a platform at sea, and the angled rockets affixed to the wheels would cause them to rotate rapidly, launching the contraption at targets and obstacles onshore, blowing them up and clearing the way for follow on troops who would land hot on the Great Panjandrum’s heels.

The device was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring it as a surprise on the Germans, but testing was conducted on a beach popular with vacationers, so the trials were witnessed by huge crowds. The design’s flaw emerged at the first trial run in 1943: when the rockets were ignited and the device was launched, it made its way up the beach before rockets on one of the wheels malfunctioned, causing the Great Panjandrum to careen wildly off course. The problem persisted with additional trials, as each time it proved impossible to get the rockets on both sides to ignite simultaneously or to keep firing simultaneously.

After weeks of troubleshooting, the developers returned to the beach, this time having affixed a third wheel to the device to increase its stability. That test proved more embarrassing yet, as the device hurtled toward the beach, only to double back and turn back to sea towards the launching craft. In the meantime, some of the rockets had detached from the Great Panjandrum’s wheels to launch themselves at the observers on the beach, whistling over their heads or exploding underwater nearby.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
The Great Panjandrum veering out of control during trials. Benedante

Returning to the drawing board, the Great Panjandrum’s designers worked out the bugs, and figuring that they finally had it under control, conducted a final demonstration in front of a gathering of admirals and generals. As described in a BBC documentary:

At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge […] Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.

Unsurprisingly, the project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
A V2 rocket at the moment of launch. Wikimedia

The V2 Rocket

The German V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2“, was the world’s first ballistic missile, which carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons, inflicting relatively small damage that did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into its production, or the diversion of those resources from more effective weapons programs or other uses that could have better served the German war effort.

From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September 1944, to Germany’s surrender 9 months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at 1 ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over 9 months. By contrast, during the same period, the RAF would routinely drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single nighttime bombing raid.

The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids during the daytime. And the Allied explosive delivery tools were reusable and thus far more economical, since most of the Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times.

Moreover, during its 9 months of firing, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by the V2 killed 2754 people – most of them not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2, giving the rocket the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Scale comparison of Panzer VIII Maus (tan in rear) with Panzer III (green) and Panzer I (grey in front). Warlord Games

Panzer VIII Maus

The Panzer VIII Maus was the heaviest tank ever built, measuring about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighing nearly 200 tons. Its secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun instead of a machine gun, while its main gun was a 128 mm monster capable of destroying any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles – and that was increased at Hitler’s insistence, who thought the 128 mm looked like a toy gun on the Maus, to 150 mm.

The Maus’ huge size and heavyweight came at a correspondingly heavy price that made it nearly useless. The tank was too heavy for most bridges, so it had to resort to crossing rivers either by wading through fords where available, or driving over the river’s bottom while using a snorkel for ventilation. Additionally, simply getting the Maus moving was a problem, as it was no easy task developing an engine and drive train that was powerful enough to propel 200 tons of metal on the ground at any appreciable speed, yet small enough to fit inside the tank. In the end, the maximum speed achieved during trials was 8 m.p.h. on a hard surface.

It was intended to spearhead German attacks by smashing through any opposition and destroying all enemy armor it came across, impervious to damage from any tanks whose path it crossed. With 9.4 inches of turret armor, 8 inches of hull front armor, 7 inches of hull side armor, and 6 inches of rear armor, the Maus was largely immune from Allied tanks, whose shells would simply bounce off the behemoth. However, it was built in 1944, by which time the Allies not only had aerial superiority on both the Western and Eastern front, but well nigh complete aerial supremacy over the battlefield, and the Maus did not have sufficient armor up top to render it immune from armor-piercing bombs or rockets dropped or fired from above.

Ultimately, the Maus was symptomatic of Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and superweapons, and his indifference to or inability to understand their relative cost-effectiveness compared to other “normal” weapons that could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost, thus freeing up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort.

History’s Failed Military Weapons
Davy Crockett recoilless rifle. Gizmodo

The Davy Crockett

The Davy Crockett Weapon System was a smoothbore recoil-less rifle that fired a tactical nuclear explosive to a range of up to 1.25 with the M-28 version of the weapon, and later up to 2.5 miles with the M-29 version. Developed during the Cold War in the 1950s, over 2000 Davy Crocketts and their launch systems were deployed with US ground forces in West Germany and Korea from 1961 to 1971.

The weapon was notoriously inaccurate – although pinpoint accuracy was not a priority, considering its warhead. The Davy Crockett’s deadliness stemmed more from its radioactivity than from its explosive yield: its warhead produced an instantly lethal dose of radiation within a 500-foot radius, and an incapacitating and likely fatal dose within a quarter-mile radius. As such, the weapon was more of a broad area radiation dispenser than a surgical smart bomb.

In addition to the long term contamination hazard, the weapon was dangerous to its own users: there was always the risk that the firing team, and other NATO personnel in the vicinity, would themselves fall victim to radiation from their own side’s tactical nuclear warhead exploding 1.25 miles away from the point of firing (the maximum range of the M-28 atomic gun), to 2.5 miles distant (range of M-29 version).

The weapon’s greatest danger however was the fact that it was deployed at all, and deployed very low down the chain of command at that, placed under the complete control of three soldiers roaming the battlefield in a Jeep, who, in practice, would have been able to fire a nuclear weapon it at their own discretion. Shockingly, it took ten years before the Pentagon decided that it might be unwise to give a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a corporal, the discretion to fire the opening shot in what might quickly escalate into a global nuclear holocaust.

The West Germans in particular were enthusiastic about deploying the Davy Crockett with their ground forces, but were turned down by the US because the manner in which they proposed to incorporate the weapon into their defensive strategy would have made its use nearly automatic as soon as the war began. That was undesirable because it would have eliminated NATO’s option to fight without using nuclear weapons and risking an escalation from tactical nukes in the battlefield to nuclear armageddon.

 

Keep Reading:

Military Factory – Novgorod: Circular Monitor Ironclad Warship (1874)

Military History Matters – The Novgorod: ‘Circular Ironclad’

History Net – Japan’s ‘Suicide Gun’

The Firearm Blog – The Worst Pistol Ever: Type 94 Nambu

We Are the Mighty – Sticky Grenades Are Only Really A Thing In Video Games And Movies

Real Clear Defense – Fire One, Fire Ten: Implications of the Torpedo Scandal of World War II

Insider – The Navy’s World War II Torpedoes Were Big Pieces of Junk

BBC – The Great Panjandrum

Air Space Magazine – The First Launch of a V-2 Rocket from America

Smithsonian Magazine – Wernher von Braun’s V-2 Rocket

The Heritage England – Devastating V2 Rocket Attack on Woolworths, New Cross, London

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum – “Wonder Weapons” and Slave Labor

Soft Schools – Ballistic Missile

Hotcars – 10 Crazy Facts About the Panzer VIII Maus, The Biggest Tank Ever Built

Army History – The M28/M29 Davy Crockett Nuclear Weapon System

Task & Purpose – The Man-Portable Rocket Launcher That Could Destroy a City Block

We Are the Mighty – Here’s How US Soldiers Trained To Fire A Nuclear Round

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