Tail guns on jet bombers --- why?

Long gone are the days of fighter aircraft swooping into bomber formations to pound them with machine guns and cannon. Nowadays, if a fighter is to engage a bomber, it usually takes place beyond visual range, which is understandable, since the speed of these engagements is well beyond what even the best-trained pilots can reasonably be expected to fight at.

So, why do many bombers produced from that period have tail guns? The B-52 had ‘em, a lot of Soviet bombers had them, hell, even the frickin’ B-58 had 'em, and it was meant to fly at high altitude at Mach 2! What would have been the point? Defense during low-altitude, low-speed regimes of flight, like take-off and landing? Or were the designers of these aircraft seriously envisioning MiGs coming up behind the B-52s and perforating them with cannon? What use are tail guns in relatively modern bombers?

Psychological for morale, like always, I expect. As I understand it, even back in WW II guns were not only useless, but were known to decrease the bomber’s survivability by slowing it down; they were kept there in order to make the bomber crew feel better. They weren’t told that of course.

Same reason the F4 Phantom was retro fitted with a cannon I suppose. It was discovered in Vietnam that current generation air to air missiles were not good enough to be relied upon as the sole weapon on a fighter. So they had guns so they could get in close and squirt some lead. Which means that the targets need to be able to squirt lead back.

You’re committing, with respect, a fundamental logical fallacy. Superior attacking weaponry is used to overcome inferior defences. If you drop the inferior defences on the basis that they are no longer effective against expected superior attacking weaonry, you become vulnerable to inferior but usually cheaper and simpler weaponry.

If you turn off your personal forcefield because I have developed a gee whiz energy weapon capable of penetrating it, I’ll turn off my energy weapon and whack you over the head with a stick.

B-52 rear guns shoot down at least two MiG Vietnamese interceptors during the Vietnam war.
So not absolutely useless, at least back then.

It’s also worth considering that while US technology has improved almost unimaginably since the day when tail guns were regularly used ('Nam, according to posters here. Ale, I’m not disbelieving you but do you have a cite? Or you, Der Trihs?), a lot of the rest of the world is still flying our surplus Vietnam equipment. Besides, even our new F-22 carries guns, and they if they run out of ammunition (or an enemy bomber is stealthy enough to avoid a missile), they’re going to have that in reserve. Bombers will probably carry tailgunners until fighters no longer carry guns.

B52 and Hustler originated from late 40’s design requirements, there was often a substantial gap between requirements and construction - and some russian designs were stolen US ones to boot, increasing the delay.

It wasnt exactly the age of Sidewinders and the like at that point, guns still played a fairly significant role in aerial combat. Makes me wonder what the last bomber designed with a gun turret for defense was.

Hustler also had a radar aimed Vulcan as its defence, not exactly your classic WW2 tailgun.


Here you go, scroll to the middle:

As for what Der Trhis said, that´s mostly true, specially for British bombers that carried the night bombing campaing against Germany, the gunners couldn´t see anything most of the time. I don´t have a cite at hand and my memory is not sharp on this details, but the number of German fighters shot down at night by bombers is very, very low.

Day bombing was another thing altogether and the concentrated firepower of a USAAF formation was a strong deterrent for interceptors, you don´t even need to shoot down the attacking fighters, simply scaring the hell out of the pilot to make his aiming worse and shorter is good enough. You have better chances of hitting something if you can take your time to aim and keep the target on your sights while you pump bullets into it, hard to do when a dozen B-17 turrets are hosing you down like (exactly like) their lives depended on it.

That being said lighter (unnarmed) bomber can fly faster and higher reducing the chances of interception by a fighter.
For example the famous De Havilland Mosquito was a hugely succesfull light bomber in good part because it wasn´t hindered by defensive armament, it could out run most fighters it encountered. The RAF at first insisted on having at least one turret with guns on it for defense, they made a prototype and it was a disaster, it was slowed down so much by it that now fighters could catch up with the Mosquito.
I don´t know you but I like the first scenary better, defenseless but untouchable versus some sort of defense for a sitting duck.

Unfortunately, not a strong enough deterrent to prevent the interceptors massacring the USAAF formations - hence the need for escort fighters.

There were all sorts of oddnesses going on in the forties and fifties as people tried to figure out exactly how the whole gun/missile/plane thing would work. On the one extreme you had the soviets working on 100mm aircraft cannon to knock down B29s from a kilometre away, on the other you had the Brits deciding that manned aircraft were obsolete in 1957, and the US building many missile-only aircraft. In the end the consensus seems to have developed that forward-firing guns were still useful, rearward-firing guns weren’t, and that piloted planes would still be useful for a good while.

The soviets also used 23mm tail turrets on e.g. their sixties-vintage Blackjack, Cub etc - I have read speculation that they were used to fire chaff to distract radar-homing missiles, which sounds plausible but may not be true.

If you are able to get on the enemy’s 6, the relative speed is all that matters. If the bomber is moving at 700kt. and the fighter at 710 kt. the fighter pilot has lots of time to line up his shot.

Last place I recall reading it was in Freeman Dyson’s autobiography Disturbing the Universe, when he wrote about his WWII experiences. He’s quoted in his Wiki article.

I could be wrong but I believe Max Hasting’s Armageddon mentions what Der Trihs has talked about. I don’t have my copy so I cannot check.

In addition to having to shoot at night, the British had useless .303 calibre machine guns, while the B-17’s had .50 Calibre.

I think Der Trihs’ statement applies to Britsih bombers, not to American bombers. At the beginning of WW2, I believe the American strategists genuinely believed the B-17 could fight it out with interceptors and win. Obviously this turned out to be false.

You’d assume so given they increased the number of defensive guns on the B17 over versions from 5 to as many as 13.

If it was largely just for morale they wouldnt have bothered to keep trying to ‘fix’ the defenses in that kind of way.


No “relatively modern bombers” have tailguns. They were still being put on bomber design from the 50’s sure, but they have not been added to any modern bomber design since fighters could easily “engage a bomber beyond visual range”.

The B-52 was first put out for bids in 1946, and the early prototype few in 1952. Back then, tailguns weren’t such a silly idea.

If dropping the weight could have allowed them more bombload the RAF would have done it in an instant.

It’s unlikely not having guns would have made enough of a difference in speed to matter; German interceptors generally tried to catch bombers on the way in, when they were wighed down with bombs, which vastly exceeded the weight and effect of guns.

History also does not support your contention that guns had no effect. It’s worth noting that experience forced the USAF to add forward-facing guns to the B-17 (the version with the “chin turret” was the B-17G) to prevent German fighters from attacking from the front, a tactic they had adopted in response to the fact that the B-17 was better armed in back than in front. This change worked; the Germans stopped attacking from in front. Defensive armaments certainly did not stop fighters from shooting down bombers, but they unquestionably made it a tougher assignment.

We’re also vastly underestimating the fundamental conservatism of militaries. Air forces honestly believed in 1939 that heavily armed bombers could defend themselves and the simple truth is they continued arming bombers, for the most part, because they refused to believe it wasn’t true. The military has ALWAYS resisted the truth whenever a prevailing doctrine is proven false. Navies adamantly refused to believe that planes could attain maritime supremacy. Armies were skeptical of the value of tanks and obsessed with holding on to cavalry well into the 20th century. Hell, noblemen for generations refused to accept that mounted knights were obsolete by about 1400.

Ah, but take into consideration that the fighter is squirting lead into a 710kt headwind, but the bomber is shooting with a 700kt tailwind.

At some unspecified range between the two aircraft the fighter’s bullets may be slowed down to such a degree that they may simply bounce off the fuselage, but the bomber’s bullets still pack lethal punch.

“No “relatively modern bombers” have tailguns. They were still being put on bomber design from the 50’s sure, but they have not been added to any modern bomber design since fighters could easily “engage a bomber beyond visual range”.”

Tu-22M Backfire entered service in 1972 and had a rear turret with cannon in it, which was retained even up to the M3 variant which entered service in 1983.

The Russians seem to have held on to them much longer than other countries.


Well, if by “useless” you mean “good enough for a Sunderland flying boat to fight off eight Ju88 heavy fighters, downing six” (see June 2, 1943), yes.

Yes, many fighters were shot down or damaged by defensive gun turrets. Yes, the USAAF and RAF were wedded to their turrets and tried to beef them up whenever possible. However, this does not detract from the fact that guns on bombers were generally much less effective than the same guns on fighters, and that self-defending bombers were very much a second-rate solution driven by the lack of adequately long-range fighters.

I suspect if you were to ask fighter pilots whether they’d prefer to attack a formation of heavily armed but unescorted bombers, or a formation of gunless bombers with a strong fighter escort, you’d get a majority willing to brave the turrets. Whether bomber crews were more attached to their ‘little friends’ or their own machine guns I wouldn’t like to speculate, but rationally the fighter escort would be the best bet.

Obviously, if you can have both the first-rate AND the second-rate solution, why not? But when it got to the point where bombers were needing to carry 20mm or larger cannon to damage fighters, in power turrets to be able to hit them, then the belt and braces approach just wasn’t practical anymore.
Even in WW2, if a .50 MG plus ammo weighs 85lb, then later B17s were carting 1100lb of guns & ammo (plus the weight of turrets/mounts) all the way to target and back, but only dropping 6000lb of bombs. I’m not sure that made a lot of sense, once adequate escort fighters were available.