Schwerer Gustav: The World’s Biggest Gun Ever Built

Nov 19, 2018 0 comments

Hitler sure had some grand ideas—from mass murdering Jews and conquering Europe, to rebuilding Berlin and draining the Mediterranean sea. Even when generally showing off how great Nazi Germany was, the Führer and his generals liked to do things in style. They even built what would have been the world’s biggest hotel, but the project had to be called off because there were more pressing matters at hand, such as invading France.

In the 1930s, France constructed a series of massive fortification and obstacles called the Maginot Line to protect the country against invasion from the east. These fortifications were some of the strongest in existence at the time with deep underground bunkers, state-of-the-art retractable turrets, infantry shelters, barricades, artillery and anti-tank gun emplacements and so on. Nothing the German Wehrmacht had in their armory was capable of penetrating this formidable defense. So Hitler went to munitions maker Krupp for a solution.


Adolf Hitler (second from right) and Albert Speer (right) inspecting the 800 mm Gustav railway gun in the year 1943.

Krupp engineer Erich Müller calculated that to punch through seven meters of reinforced concrete or one full meter of steel armor plate, they would require a gun with massive dimensions. The gun should have an internal diameter of more than 80 cm, and length of more than 30 meters if it were to fire shells weighing 7 tons each from a distance of more than 40 kilometers, beyond the range of French artillery. The gun itself would weight over 1,300 tons and would have to be moved on sets of railways tracks. When these figures were presented to Hitler, he approved them and forging of the enormous weapon began in 1937.

In a little more than two years, the super gun was ready. Alfried Krupp personally took Hitler to the Rügenwalde Proving Ground in early 1941 to watch the gun’s test firing. Alfried Krupp named the gun Schwerer Gustav, or “Heavy Gustav”, after his father Gustav Krupp.

Schwerer Gustav was an absolute monster of a weapon. Because it was so large and heavy the gun couldn’t be moved as a whole. Instead, the gun was broken down into several pieces and transported in 25 freight cars to the place of deployment, where it was assembled in place—a task that required 250 men nearly three days to complete. The laying of tracks and digging embankments itself involved weeks of work and required 2,500 to 4,000 men working round the clock to accomplish.


Assembling the gun took a massive effort. Here the barrel is being lowered into the carrier using two gantry cranes.


Multiple tracks resembling a station junction had to be laid wherever the gun was deployed.

Schwerer Gustav moved on a set of parallel tracks which limited its mobility. In addition, the gun barrel could only aim vertically. Horizontal aiming was locked along the direction of the tracks. This required the tracks to be laid in a curve so that whenever the horizontal aiming needed to be changed, the entire gun was moved along the curved tracks. Despite the tremendous firing power, Schwerer Gustav had no means of protecting itself. This was provided by two Flak battalions that guarded the gun from possible aerial assault.

Related: The 890 mm caliber Tsar Canon

For all the time and money spent on building the gun, it saw little action in the battlefield and absolutely none against the French for which it was originally envisioned. Germany had already invaded France in 1940, before the gun was ready. They did it by simply going around the Maginot Line rendering the complicated set of defenses useless.

Schwerer Gustav was instead deployed on the Eastern Front at Sevastopol in Russia during its siege in 1942. It took 4,000 men five weeks to get the gun ready for firing. In the next four weeks, Gustav fired 48 rounds knocking out distant forts and destroying an undersea ammunition magazine located 30 meters under the sea with at least 10 meters of concrete protection. The gun was then moved near Leningrad but the attack was cancelled.



The Gustav being loaded for firing. It took 20 to 45 minutes to reload the gun and prepare it for firing.

Krupp built another gun with the same dimensions. This one was named Dora, after the company’s chief engineer's wife.

Dora was set up west of Stalingrad in mid-August 1942, but hurriedly withdrawn in September to avoid capture. When the Germans began their long retreat back home they took Dora and Gustav with them. In 1945, with defeat imminent, the Germans blew up both Dora and Gustav to prevent the invading Allied forces from capturing them intact, thus ending the story of the great Nazi superguns.

In terms of caliber, Gustav and Dora were surpassed by only two other guns—the British Mallet's Mortar (made in 1857) and the American Little David (made during the Second World War) both of which are 914 mm. But only Gustav saw action in the battlefield. It remains the biggest gun ever deployed in war—a record that’s likely to hold for eternity, as modern missiles and precision bombing has rendered the need for big guns such as Gustav and David useless.





Allied soldiers pose in front of a captured projectile used by Gustav.


A US soldier measuring the barrel of what remains of the Gustav gun after it was blown up by the Germans.


A shell of the Gustav gun at the United States Army Ordnance Museum. Photo credit: Mark Pellegrini/Wikimedia

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