There are now more than three hundred million guns in the United States of America alone. At the end of World War II in 1945, the Soviet army was shelling Berlin with 43,000 artillery pieces. So whatever your opinion on how they should be regulated in America, guns have been a gigantic part of human history and sometimes gigantic in general. But since they’re made to be cheap with interchangeable parts, they are almost by design boring and kind of “samey”.
Still, some guns have fascinating stories connected to them that make them historical centerpieces. Some guns were objects of affection for familiar figures in history. Most of all, some guns were so unique and ambitious that they basically became pieces of art. Deadly, deadly art.
Already one of the most famous frontier figures from American history before he was killed at the Alamo Siege, Davy Crockett was in a great position to make any name he gave to his personal possessions famous. In 1803, at the age of 17 he settled on naming his first firearm, a .48 caliber flintlock rifle, “Betsy” after his favorite sister. It was such a deluxe model by the standards of the time that it cost him about three months’ salary. Apparently deciding to brand his guns, Crockett reused that name for the rest of his life. When the Tennessee State Assembly gave him the gift of a .40 caliber flintlock rifle in 1822 for his services to the state, he named that one “Old Betsy.” Later, the Whig Society of Pennsylvania gave him another and he called that one “Pretty Betsy.” This third one is locked away by one of Crockett’s descendants, so it’s not even known for sure what type it is.
This nickname became so pervasive among gun owners that it became something of a cliche. Even at least one artillery piece decades after Crockett died was named Betsy, during the 1900 Chinese Boxer Rebellion. At least one gun magazine writer was known to lament that he wished he never saw another gun with that name.
9. Mannlicher-Carcano Rifle
It’s the gun near the center of a conspiracy theory that’s still popular half a century after Lee Harvey Oswald used it to kill John F. Kennedy. Even in October of 2015, it was an international news story that a photo surfaced that showed Oswald holding the 1891 Italian rifle prior to Kennedy’s assassination, since it shot holes in the theory that the rifle had been planted at the book depository by some agency to frame him. The reason it’s so famous is that so many people insist the gun was an old piece of junk that he shouldn’t have been able to fire accurately enough to hit Kennedy twice, and which supposedly would have been just as likely to explode in his face.
The fact of the matter was that the much-maligned rifle was an 1891 model because it was an effective enough gun that there had never been enough reason for the Italian military to update it. During a test conducted by the Infantry Weapons Evaluation Branch of the Department of the Army, Oswald’s rifle was used forty-seven times and judged it to be as accurate as a standard issue M-14 of the time. The weapon was described as being in fair condition. It was hardly the piece of garbage it got dismissed as by people who wanted to shift the blame from Oswald to anyone else.
8. Mons Meg
A gigantic siege cannon is truly the gift that keeps on giving, though few would want to get the gifts that it gives. This particular six-ton weapon was a gift given to Scotland’s King James II by the Duke of Burgundy (Eastern France) in 1454. For the next hundred years it was put into active service with targets that included Norham Castle, which it failed to subjugate, and then it became effectively Scotland’s ceremonial gun. To this day it’s enough of a tourist trap that it draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.
Even though it’s big and solid enough that, in its heyday, the gun could fire 300 thirty pound cannonballs over two miles, it’s actually a fairly delicate piece of work, as evidenced by when part of it exploded in 1681. For decades the only maintenance anyone seemed to give it was to paint and repaint over it, which both hid the degraded quality of the metal and made it harder to preserve properly. In recent years, there’s been a dispute about whether Edinburgh Castle or Dumbarton Castle should be allowed to keep this historic weapon on site. After all, there are potentially millions of tourist dollars on the line.
7. Ferdinand Cohen-Blind’s Pistol
In the 19th century, Otto “Iron Chancellor” von Bismarck was one of the people most responsible for making Germany the most powerful nation in Europe by the 20th century. One person determined to stop that from happening was agriculture student Ferdinand Cohen-Blind, who attempted to assassinate him on May 7, 1866. He fired five shots when he confronted the chancellor near the Russian Embassy, two of them with the barrel pressed against the chancellor’s chest. Two went wild and three hit, but only bruised his ribs because he had on a bulletproof vest. Bismarck and others then overpowered the shooter. Cohen-Blind committed suicide in prison shortly after, and for the next generation of German nihilists and anti-imperialists became basically a martyr.
Bismarck became paranoid after the event, especially after a second attempt on his life in 1874. He collected Cohen-Blind’s and the second assassin’s gun as mementos and kept both loaded. At one point in 1874 during a parliamentary get together, a guest inspecting the gun accidentally fired the last bullet. Not many guns get a second chance to kill a major political figure.
6. Buffalo Bill’s Rifle
Although the American attempts to drive buffalo practically to extinction is definitely not one of the prouder moments of its history, it certainly drove the notorious William “Buffalo Bill” Cody to fame and fortune. He estimated that he personally killed 4,280 buffalo with his famous rifle, though more conservative 20th century estimates still put the number at over 2,900. In a single day during the competition with William Comstock that made him famous, he supposedly killed 68 buffalo.
Yet Buffalo Bill was no artless brute. He named his Springfield .50 caliber trapdoor rifle Lucretia Borgia, of all things. The assumed reason was in reference to a play by Victor Hugo about the woman that Buffalo Bill saw. It’s a curious naming error since the 15th century noblewoman’s first name was “Lucrezia” and it’s said the way it’s spelled. Whatever the reason, according to legend, one of the many animals that Lucretia was used to kill got a small amount of revenge on the gun. During one elk hunt, Buffalo Bill only wounded one of his quarry. To finish it off, he walked over and bashed it in the head with his Lucretia and in the process fractured the rifle stock. Another version of the story was that Duke Alexis of Russia went on a hunt with him, bagged a buffalo and then threw the rifle into the air in his excitement, and his horse stepped on it. Whatever the real version, the rifle at the Buffalo Bill Museum was left broken.
5. Project Babylon
Of all the insane plans of Saddam Hussein’s regime, one of the maddest and most backward would have to be the notion of making a gigantic cannon for the purpose of shelling countries from afar, considering how much more reliable air forces and missiles would have been by that point. But then, the idea actually wasn’t originally an Iraqi one so much as it came from 62 year-old Canadian Dr. Gerald Bull. The extremely ambitious gun was designed to be 130 feet long in the barrel and would have an estimated range of 600 miles, nearly the largest artillery piece in human history. Considering that Gerald Bull had already developed weapons for Iraq like the Al Fao, then the most powerful artillery piece in the world with a range of 35 miles with a 109 pound shells, it seems his calculations would have been more than mere pipe dreams.
However, the parts of the notorious supergun were never even smuggled into Iraq, let alone assembled and used to destroy anything. In August of 1990 the crates containing the eight parts that would comprise the immense barrel of the gun were seized in Teesport Docks in Yorkshire, UK of all places. Bull himself did little better. Two weeks before that, he had been found dead in his apartment. It was suspected by his family and intelligence experts that Israel’s Mossad had gotten to him.
4. Big Bertha
Bertha Krupp was the owner of the Krupp arms company, the leading German weapons manufacturer, from 1902 to 1943. It’s in her “honor” that the four gigantic cannons used in the German invasion of Belgium at the start of World War I were named, though the original German name was “Dickie Bertha” which translates to the even less flattering “Fat Bertha.” It fired 800 kilogram (nine tenths of a ton) shells as far as eight miles.
Even though only 12 of them were ever used during the entire War to End All Wars, these cannons were aside from maybe the maxim machine gun the most important weapons in shaping that conflict. It was extremely effective at destroying the Belgian forts at places like Liege, particularly Fort Loncin which a shell completely destroyed when it hit the ammo dump. This allowed the German army to move quickly through Belgium into France and come very close to conquering Paris, thus ensuring that the majority of the war on the Western front would be fought on French soil. But their prominence was short-lived, since by 1916 the Allies had started reinforcing their concrete fortifications with steel and those shells couldn’t tear through that so well.
3. The Paris Gun
Even the Big Bertha, which seemed like a wonder weapon in 1914, was totally eclipsed by this 1918 German weapon. It was positioned seventy-five miles away from Paris, France and yet was able to shell the city with payloads that weighed 264 pounds. Its barrel was a full 131 feet long. It was an unthinkable threat that the Allies never came anywhere near capturing or neutralizing despite a concerted effort.
For all that, in pretty much every regard it was a dismal failure. It was massively inefficient, since it required 400 pounds in powder to fire once, and took so much effort to reload that it could only fire three times a day and needed to be heavily fixed every twenty shots. During 1918 it fired 367 shells at civilian targets and killed 256 people, many of them from a single church service – which must have done wonders for the international image of the German army. Curiously, at the end of the war, it was disassembled in such secrecy that even in the 1940s the Third Reich wasn’t able to rebuild it exactly.
Speaking of World War II…
2. Gustav Schwerer
Although it never fired a shell as far as the Paris Gun, this 140 foot weapon definitely outdid it in all the other ways. It was built in 1940 with the expectation that it would be used on France’s Maginot Line but the Germans won that war too quickly. Instead its 500 person crew took it over to the Soviet Union in 1941 to fire its seven ton shells as many as twenty-nine miles over at Sevastopol. It was then intended to be fired at Leningrad before the German lines were pushed too far back, and then in 1944 it fired on Warsaw to squish the uprising.
It also got way more done than the Paris Gun did. It took only six shots for it to destroy Fort Stalin outside Sevastopol, seven to destroy a bunch of coastal guns, and six to destroy Fort Molotov, and then seven more which blew up an underground ammunition dump. It certainly wasn’t a practical weapon, but you can understand why it didn’t take long for the city to surrender after it showed up.
1. Quaker GunBecause we have our soft side here at Toptenz, let’s end this on a particularly clever weapon that was as nonviolent as the name implies. During the American Revolutionary War and well into the American Civil War there was a practice of making phony guns out of logs painted and set up to look like conventional cannons. During the Revolutionary War in 1780, an entire command of British loyalists surrendered under threat of being fired upon by them. During the Civil War both the Northern and Southern armies were using them to trick invading armies or to hold off their opponents during retreats.
The practice became so widespread that even civilians in Frankfort, Kentucky set up a defensive array of fake cannons and prevented a Southern cavalry unit from raiding them made of empty beer kegs. Imagine how many soldiers and families there have been throughout history that would have wanted all cannons to be phony.