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Book Reviews: February 2002

By Michael McDaniel

Rapid Fire: The Development of Automatic Cannon, Heavy Machine Guns and Their Ammunition for Armies, Navies and Air Forces
By Anthony G. Williams
Airlife Publishing Ltd.
101 Longden Rd,
Shrewsbury, SY3 9EB, England
Available in the United States through
ISBN 1-84037-122-6
297 Pages

For the civilian Class 3 owner, any belt-fed machine gun is heavy ordnance, while a .50 BMG or a 40mm grenade launcher represents extraordinary firepower. To the modern military, however, these represent rather minor examples of real weapons - the automatic cannon that arm aircraft, armored fighting vehicles short of tanks, and many warships, weaponry that shoot not bullets, but beer-can sized explosive shells that will take the fight out of a multi-ton vehicle with one or two hits.

Until now, the development of these truly heavy automatic weapons has had little documentation. This has been changed with the publication of Anthony Williams’ Rapid Fire, which covers the entire subject of vehicle-mounted ordnance from the earliest days of the Gatling and Nordenfelt guns to the latest developments in armament systems.

Rapid Fire features chapters on ammunition design, gun design, land weapons, naval weapons, and air weapons. Each is lavishly illustrated with both photographs and line drawings that clearly show both the outward appearance and inward workings of the hardware. There are also 27 pages of color photographs, scale drawings showing the comparative sizes of various cannon, and tables with technical data.

The greatest strength of Rapid Fire, though, is the completeness of Williams’ research. Most authors would content themselves with covering World War II armament, and maybe the first generation of post-war arms from the United States and perhaps Britain. Williams covers everything from the Gatling and Nordenfelt guns developed in the 1880’s up to the modified Mauser BK-27 cannon planned for the Joint Strike Fighter. Better still, he covers the field with exceptional depth.

The chapter on ammunition for example, discusses fuzes, percussion and electric ignition systems, case design and projectiles. But, where most authors would content themselves with describing armor piercing and high explosive ammunition, Williams covers both relative rarities such as discarding sabot ammunition and the truly bizarre - like flare and chaff ammunition available for Russian aircraft cannon.

Likewise, the chapter on gun designs does not content itself with the usual short-recoil, rotary, and revolver guns, but covers rarities such as the Gast design. Even prototype hardware is covered - particularly Russian equipment, which have been poorly documented in unclassified sources until recently.

This depth is carried on throughout the book. The chapter on land cannon covers not only the 25 and 30mm weapons currently arming reconnaissance and infantry fighting vehicles, but the 35-40mm arms planned for the future. The section on navel guns does not content itself with discussing on the Phalanx point-defense system, but also its rivals. The chapter on air armaments devotes just as much space to Soviet and European designs as it does to the more-famous Vulcan cannon.

There are a few shortcomings in Rapid Fire. In particular, the tactical debates that led various nations to adopt different designs and especially different calibers are not well explored. For example, the United States has retained 20mm as its standard fighter gun caliber to this day, arguing that the superior rate of fire available from a smaller round offsets any lack of destructive force. The rest of the world disagrees, and has adopted cannon of 17 to 30mm. This is an important debate, but Williams failed to cover this.

Nevertheless, the shortcomings of Rapid Fire are more than offset by its strengths. This book is a tour-de-force of scholarship that fills in a long-neglected gap. Anyone with an interest in heavy automatic weapons, or fighting vehicles of any type, would do well to add Rapid Fire to their library.


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