Good old General Electric produces everything, and I mean everything from microwaves to miniguns. The subject of today’s article is, of course, the latter. If you want to learn about microwaves, comment below, and I’ll help you out. Is there a more visceral 7.62mm weapon than the M134 Minigun? I saw them here and there when we worked with the Marine Corps helicopters, but it wasn’t until a major training exercise I saw what one could do.

Mojave Viper, 2009, was to be our last training exercise before our deployment to Afghanistan. Part of that is a massive combined arms attack that includes tanks, infantry, helicopters, tracks, combat engineers, and more. I was in the prime seat beneath a helicopter as it flew in and lit up a target. The Minigun sounded like the rapture arrived, and I watched as what appeared to be a laser beam of tracers struck the burnt-out hulls that had designated targets.

M134 Minigun

In Afghanistan, we’d ride in Vietnam-era Huey’s fitted with M2 50 caliber machine guns on one side and M134 Miniguns on the other. The little dust off crews was well-armed, but we were not well-armored. The Huey’s carried an assload of firepower, but sadly I never got to see it used.

 

The M134 Minigun in Living Color

The M134 Mingun is a multibarrel, rotary machine gun chambered in the 7.62 x 51mm NATO cartridge. The Minigun utilizes an electric motor to power the system, feed the gun, and rotate the barrels.

The term minigun seems odd for such a big weapon, so where did the minigun name come from? Well, size is relative, right? The Minigun isn’t the first rotary barrel machine gun, and the name minigun comes from its relatively small size when compared to the 20mm M61 Vulcan rotary machine gun. The 20mm Vulcan is an autocannon and overshadows the M134 enough for it to gain the name Minigun.

firing minigun from plane

The M134 Minigun utilizes an electric motor that rotates the weapon within its housing. We also have a rotating firing pin assembly and a rotary chamber. The purpose of the six barrels is to drive the firing rate sky high and help prevent overheating. As a single barrel fires, two other barrels are in the process of shell extraction, with three other barrels being loaded. This allows the gun to continuously fire without overheating.

The rate of fire is measured in the thousands of rounds per minute. The rate of fire is variable from 2,000-6,000 rounds per minute. Most in military use seemed to be tuned for 3,000 rounds per minute. Aiming is often done by a set of rudimentary sights and tracers when man-fired and by targeting systems when operated independently. This high fire rate also produces a recoil force of roughly 190 pounds, which has to be iconsidered when mounted to aircraft.

 

The Not-So Minigun

The idea of a multibarrel, rapid-fire weapon comes from the 1860s and the mind of Richard Gatling. The Gatling gun was a rotary weapon that used a hand crank mechanism. While the hand crank variant was the most popular, Gatling did produce an electric-powered Gatling gun that could fire 3,000 rounds per minute! Imagine that in the 1860s!

As you’d imagine, that wasn’t practical at the time, especially with the feeding mechanisms available. In World War 1 the Germans developed the Fokker-Leimberge. This was an externally powered 12-barrel rotary gun that utilized the 7.92mm Mauser round. However, the system proved unreliable.

minigun

The M134 saw success in Vietnam. That was the first time a rotary barrel, electrically driven machine gun saw success. War in the jungle in which helicopters featured prominently demanded more firepower than the M0 and similar machine guns could offer. General Electic scaled down the M61, and thus the M134 Minigun was born.

GAU-19 Gatling .50 Cal

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The military purchased 10,000 miniguns and equipped them with helicopters, the Dragonfly, the Skyraider, and the famed AC 47 “puff the magic dragon.” They proved to be successful and could deliver thousands of rounds and chew through the jungle with absolute ease. This allowed air resources the quickly deliver overwhelming fire onto an enemy force and devastate them. The guns were massively successful.

firing minigun

Yet, they weren’t perfect. Dillon Aero acquired a ton of the guns from a foreign user and began fixing common problems. They streamlined the firearms and introduced new concepts to make the weapons more reliable and give them a longer lifespan. This included a delinker. The Dillon Aero minigun quickly became the Minigun of choice and became the M134D.

 

On the Ground and in the Water

As we mentioned, these were primarily designed to function with aircraft, but as we know, war evolves. The Minigun soon found itself being the weapon of choice for SWCC boats. These extraction crews needed that same overwhelming firepower in boat form, and the Minigun offered it. The Navy also adopted the M134 Minigun for use on ships for anti-swarm protection.

Beyond that, special operations forces would mount the gun to humvees and MRAPs for operations in Iraq. The mount could be automated and aimed within the vehicle, but classic designs used them in turret configurations. These guns proved so successful that Green Berets driving minigun equipped tricks weren’t getting shot at anymore. This frustrated fighting men, and they began disguising the miniguns hoping to get shot at again.

SWCC
(Photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Kathryn Whittenberger/U.S. Navy)

Regardless of what Jesse Ventura would have you believe in the 1980’s film Predator the Minigun was never used as a handheld weapon. Outside of the weight, the recoil would make it impossible to control. Plus, good luck packing enough ammo to feed it for more than 5 seconds. However, old Painless sure as hell looks cool.

The M134 Minigun is a fascinating weapon. It’s a brilliant piece of engineering that really highlights our ability to kill each other. When you absolutely, positively, need to kill everything in the rice paddy, turn to the M134 Minigun.