Guns are smaller now than they’ve ever been. Very impressive killing machines can fit right into your pocket or the palm of your hand. If Stuart Little needed to ice some rats, he’d have no problem. The science is there.
Back in my day, though, guns were huge. It used to be they took up an entire room. Nowadays, a gun jamming is just a figure of speech, but back then, the phrase was forged when one of MIT’s gun technicians accidentally left a jar of actual jam inside the firing chamber.
…that’s bullshit, but they really are small now, compared to, like, cannons.
It’s almost counterproductive – how do I let the people of Target know I’m a death-dealing dominator when they can’t tell I’m carrying from six aisles away?
Historically, the concept went “the bigger the gun, the bigger the boom”. The person with the biggest gun thereby has the biggest boom. When normal peasant gunsmiths were building standard war cannons, Russia built the Tsar Cannon, the biggest boy of the cannon world designed to shoot one-ton cannonballs at high speed. The mega-gun was a catastrophically destructive force in every battle and every army that unveiled it, which is to say, never. The Russians didn’t actually deploy the Tsar Cannon. But, like, imagine if they had.
The Tsar Cannon was big, but like most field cannons, its primary method of conveyance from one place to another was a set of attached wheels that allowed it to be pushed at will. The problem with building an even bigger gun is that moving it from Point A to Point B is tough because guns this big are heavy. That’s where railway guns came in handy (ish). Built primarily between the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries, these artillery behemoths relied on existing rail infrastructure to support their grotesquely-powerful payloads, which was handy in that is could utilize available transit tools to reach its destination but less than handy in that anyone skilled in railroad dismantling was effectively equally skilled in railway gun dismantling. As railroads started to disappear in favor of asphalt, so too did the railway gun.
For a while, big guns sorta fell out of vogue. Artillery cannons were useful against airplanes, and warships kept their big boomsticks, but if the aim of the game is creating as much civilian-adjacent destruction as possible, rocket propulsion and dropping bombs from above are safer bets.
As the world turns the corner on the 20th century, big historical improvements in spacefaring technology join military development as symbols of advancement and technological power. The United States gets some help from its Nazi homies (shout-out Wernher and the boys!) and starts developing rockets designed to go up and then keep going up instead of turning around, coming back down, and exploding real big. They build rockets so good at this that they can put people on them and when the people climb out of the rockets, they’re in space. Sick prank, NASA.
The United States and the Soviet Union are putting more machines, people, and garbage in space now than ever before, which isn’t that hard given that before them, no one was putting anything in space. The Ancient Greeks and Egyptians had gods of the sun, but, believe it or not, they’d never actually been there.
But despite the increasing popularity of shooting explosive space cars into orbit, it’s not as easy as it looks, and it’s expensive. Obviously, building a rocket (very impressive death trap) and paying highly educated people to sit inside it when it’s at its most explosive is expensive, but so is the launch process. The fuel it takes to launch a modern NASA rocket – all 835,958 gallons, costs approximately $1.38 million. Per launch.
In most launches, the energy required to get past the atmosphere and into space is supplied by supplemental bonus rockets that burn up all their fuel and then detach when they’ve done their job, lightening the load and allowing the protagonist rocket to make it to space alone, happy to leave its very helpful friends behind. So in order to make it from the ground to the cooler side of the atmosphere, a rocket needs enough fuel to propel whatever we’re trying to put into space, like dead sex lizards or a fucking car, but also enough to support the weight of that fuel itself and the rockets carrying it.
We’ve established that it’s very expensive to take things not in outer space and put them there, because rockets are expensive to fuel and launch. But rockets are the only reasonable way to propel things through the atmosphere, so it’s a cost we have to deal with unless we develop Superman-style fist propulsion.
Or we could use a gun.
The words “space gun” are funny to me. Launching something into space by shooting it from a cannon sounds stupid. But scientifically, the process is relatively sound. If a small gun can shoot a bullet as far as it can, a larger gun should be able to shoot even further. That was the logic behind the railroad guns and massive artillery cannons like the Paris Gun that the German Army used in World War II to shoot government buildings in Paris from 75 miles away. Ultimately, these weapons were considered unfit for military use, but what if we applied the basics of their design, magnified, to the science sector as a rocket-free method of launching satellites and other space vehicles into orbit?
The idea wasn’t super popular in scientific circles. The tech was experimental, and rockets were working fine. But those who were interested, like Canadian engineer Gerald Bull, who in the 1960s worked on the High Altitude Research Project (HARP), a joint U.S.-Canadian mission to build a supergun on Barbados. The resulting machine, 36 meters long, is still today the largest gun ever assembled. When fired, Bull claimed it had the capability to shoot a 200-pound projectile up to 2,500 miles away. To put that in perspective, if you put a 200 pound man in the HARP gun in New York City facing west, he’d explode as he hit the Hollywood Sign at high speed. But what a trip!
Bull was all in on space guns. HARP was great, but his ambitions were bigger. He was going to use a gun to put a satellite in space. Shortly after the HARP gun was completed, though, he ran into a problem: the United States and Canada did not want to use a gun to put a satellite in space. Canada was put off by the whole “building a very massive weapon in the off chance the United States agrees to use it for good” thing, and the United States was fully invested in already-successful rockets and had no time for non-military guns.
Bull, as it so happened, also no longer had time for non-military guns. Not long after the closure of the HARP program, the Canadian scientist founded a number of fun small businesses dedicated to selling explosive weapons to the apartheid government of South Africa among other clients.
It was an honest living, exempting the fact that the United Nations had enacted a weapons embargo on South Africa and the under-the-table deal to allow the country to produce one of Bull’s superguns was, appropriately, super illegal. Bull was charged with violating the embargo and pleaded guilty, going on to serve 6 months in a United States prison. Imagine if the guns had been loaded with marijuana instead of explosive rounds. That’s life in UDX Florence, pal.
When he was released from his life behind bars, Bull emerged a changed man. “Changed” in that he knew it was time to get the fuck out of this ungrateful continent. He set up shop in Brussels and revived production of his GC-45 artillery gun, a weapon significantly smaller than the HARP prototype but built for military use.
Building weapons for South Africa was old hat and uninteresting at this point, so Bull searched for new sales marks. He didn’t have to search long, though; over in the Middle East, Iraq had noticed that its neighbor, Iran, had something of a revolution going on and decided it’d be a nice time to beat the shit out of them. They ran into some logistics problems early on, such as the quirk that Iran is much larger than Iraq, mountainous, and three times as populous. To supplement the difference, Iraq turned to its massive defense budget to buy Western armaments, the sort Gerald Bull was eager to provide.
Here, Bull ran into a familiar snag: the guns were being built in Austria, a country participating in an embargo on weapons shipments to Iraq. He’d have to give up and try again next war.
Or, his company could sell the guns to Jordan, an ally of Iraq, for “their military 😉” and definitely not Iraq’s. According to the New York Times, Austria was super aware of the trickery, but decided to let it slide in the humanitarian interest of making mondo bucks.
The guns made it to Iraq and worked great. Unfortunately for them, the invasion of Iran did not work great, and the conflict came to a close without an exchange of territory. Both sides say they won.
Bull made it out even greater. A few years later in 1988, he received a call from a prospective employer: the Iraqi Department of Defense. They wanted to fund his dream project: a gun capable of putting a satellite in space.
Bull’s official project, Project Babylon, was a multimillion dollar mission to produce three guns, two superguns and one mini supergun for the Iraqi government. Despite being hired by Iraq to build weapons used exclusively by Iraq, the construction of the weapons was limited to a series of dedicated facilities across Europe. The forging of the guns’ massive barrels was undertaken at two foundries in the United Kingdom.
Nosy inquirers asking about the purpose of these very gun-like constructions were told they were petroleum-extraction mechanisms built for Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals, a government department that did not and does not exist. The given phone number was attached to the Ministry of Defense.
The alarm had been raised relatively early: the people involved in building this supposed oil pipeline knew they weren’t building oil pipes, because they didn’t look like oil pipes. Reports to the British government were escalated to the authorities most fit to ignore them.
Business was booming: Iraq was getting their supergun, and European industries were getting paid. Bull was hopeful that Iraq would let him use his big gun to put a satellite in space, and Iraq was looking forward to not doing that and using it to shoot its neighbors instead. But given their ability to have that weapon relied on Bull’s continued support of the project, and understanding that a new and vicious arms race with Israel was fully underway, the Iraqi government had motivation to keep the situation going.
Likewise, Israel had motivation to put it to a stop. In March of 1990, as Bull made a rare return to his apartment in a suburb of Brussels, a gunman fired several shots into him and left him dead on his floor. A suspect was never named or apprehended, but the existence of $20,000 in cash on Bull’s body killed a robber narrative, and nothing in the house had been stolen. No one has proven it was the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, but they’re usually cited as the most likely culprit.
By the time the British finally ordered an intervention and the seizure of a shipment of parts in 1990, the New York Times claims 44 of 52 contracted pieces had already shipped. The smaller of the guns, the adorably-named Baby Babylon, had been constructed and test fired in Iraq.
The United Kingdom’s seizure of the gun parts at its docks didn’t occur until two weeks after Bull’s death. With the pieces held abroad and the designer dead, Project Babylon officially collapsed. Baby Babylon was built and operational, and the two remaining guns were technically completable, but Iraq fucked it all up by invading Kuwait in 1991. After Hussein’s government came out on the losing side of that war, he
peacefully brought his soldiers home rained absolute hellfire on the Kuwaiti oil industry in a “if I can’t have it, no one can” tantrum and returned to business as usual. As part of the post-war peace agreement, Iraq admitted to the existence of the Babylon guns and allowed them to be disassembled and destroyed.
Project Babylon was no more, but Gerald Bull’s dream wasn’t dead yet. In the early 2000s, a project called Quicklaunch sought to finally realize the goal of sending a satellite to space with a gun, a feat they finally accomplished never. The organization fell apart before breaching the atmosphere, and as yet, no successor has risen. Maybe part of the reason is that space guns have a sordid legacy of illegal arms dealing and uncomfortable international intrigue. More likely it’s that, with the development of reusable rocket stages by SpaceX, the downsides of the existing staging system are lessened. If space guns weren’t an attractive option before, they’re even less of one now.
Gerald Bull wanted to be the first man to shoot a satellite into space with a gun at any cost. In the end, it was he who flew too close to the sun.
- The Bizarre Story of Saddam Hussein’s Failed “Supergun” by Kat Eschner for Smithsonian Magazine
- The Man Behind Iraq’s Supergun by Kevin Toolis for The New York Times Magazine
- The tragic tale of Saddam Hussein’s ‘supergun’ by William Park for BBC Future
- Who Murdered Gerald Bull? by William Scott Malone and David H. Halevy for The Washington Post