Behind The Weapons

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Many of the weapons and special guests featured in Sons of Guns have fascinating stories to tell, taking us back in time to explore the rich history of weapons and the men who carried them. Here's more about our favorite historical weapons and warriors:

BAZOOKA - 20th Century American Icon

A Birth in Comedy

Yes, there's the gum and the famous tube that fires anti-armor rockets, but there was another "bazooka" that was actually the first. Sometime during the 1930's, the well-known musician, comedian and entertainer, Bob Burns, popularized a wacky instrument made from two nested lengths of gas pipe and a whiskey funnel. This cross between a trombone and slide whistle (Burns had actually invented it before World War I when he was sixteen) could play about six notes that sounded to Burns like something produced by a "bazoo," a contemporary slang term for a "windy fellow." Naturally dubbed "bazooka," this comical musical contraption turned out to be popular enough for American GI's to see the similarity between its shape and the new rocket-firing weapon not long after it was issued to combat units in late 1942.

The Right Rocket

Even before the shooting stopped in 1918, World War I weapon designers were already working on a tube-fired rocket that could be used by infantry to counter the looming threat of tanks. The initial rocket technology was actually developed by the father of modern rocketry, Robert Goddard, but there was no momentum to finish the design until America entered World War II, over 20 years later. In 1942, an enterprising young Army lieutenant, Edward Uhl, successfully developed a working rocket launcher and then accidentally stumbled on the inspiration for the distinctive firing tube when he " was walking by this scrap pile, and there was a tube that ... happened to be the same size as the grenade that we were turning into a rocket. I said, That's the answer! Put the tube on a soldier's shoulder with the rocket inside, and away it goes." Uhl is rightly regarded as the "father of the Bazooka."

The bazooka's other main component, the shaped-charged explosive, had been successfully developed during the 1930s, but the amount of explosive required to defeat tank armor was unwieldy for hand-held delivery. It was Lieutenant Uhl's breakthrough with the rocket system that created the first effective portable ant-tank weapon.

African Debut

The bazooka entered combat in November 1942 when American forces first carried them in the campaign against Rommel in North Africa. Lack of training combined with the unreliability of the first rocket models seriously marred the weapon's debut, but the Germans were sufficiently impressed to use captured bazookas as the inspiration for their own anti-armor rocket system, the much superior Panzerschreck ("tank terror"). Even with subsequent improvements to the American bazooka through the course of the war, using the weapon against enemy armor — especially the larger German tanks — required an almost suicidal resolve. Bazooka team members suffered some of the highest casualty rates during World War II. Even a tough warrior like Gen. Patton admitted that "the purpose of the bazooka is not to hunt tanks offensively, but to be used as a last resort in keeping tanks from overrunning infantry. To insure this, the range should be held to around 30 yards."

Among the many who bravely distinguished themselves employing bazookas against German armored attacks were numerous Medal of Honor recipients including these two exemplary soldiers. Here are excerpts from their award citations that vividly describe the close ranges that were typically required for these weapons to be effective :

- Sgt. Van T. Barfoot

Place and Date: Near Carano, Italy, 23 May 1944

With his platoon heavily engaged during an assault against forces well entrenched on commanding ground, Sgt. Barfoot moved off alone upon the enemy left flank. He crawled to the proximity of one machine gun nest and made a direct hit on it with a hand grenade, killing 2 and wounding 3 Germans. He continued along the German defense line to another machine gun emplacement, and with his tommy gun killed 2 and captured 3 soldiers. Members of another enemy machine gun crew then abandoned their position and gave themselves up to Sgt. Barfoot. Leaving the prisoners for his support squad to pick up, he proceeded to mop up positions in the immediate area, capturing more prisoners and bringing his total count to 17. Later that day, after he had reorganized his men and consolidated the newly captured ground, the enemy launched a fierce armored counterattack directly at his platoon positions. Securing a bazooka, Sgt. Barfoot took up an exposed position directly in front of 3 advancing Panther tanks. From a distance of 75 yards his first shot destroyed the track of the leading tank, effectively disabling it, while the other 2 changed direction toward the flank. As the crew of the disabled tank dismounted, Sgt. Barfoot killed 3 of them with his tommy gun...

- Sgt. Clyde L. Choate

Place and Date: Near Bruyeres, France, 25 October 1944

Sgt. Choate commanded a tank destroyer supporting infantry positioned on a wooded hill when, at dusk, an enemy Mark IV tank and a company of infantry attacked, threatening to overrun the American position. After his tank destroyer was quickly set afire by two hits, Sgt. Choate ordered his men to abandon the destroyer. After reaching comparative safety, he returned to the burning destroyer to search for comrades possibly trapped in the vehicle... braving enemy fire which ripped his jacket and tore the helmet from his head. Completing the search and seeing the enemy tank and its supporting infantry overrunning our infantry in their shallow foxholes, he secured a bazooka and ran after the tank, dodging from tree to tree and passing through the enemy's loose skirmish line. He fired a rocket from a distance of 20 yards, immobilizing the tank but leaving it able to spray the area with cannon and machine gun fire. Running back to our infantry through vicious fire, he secured another rocket, and, advancing against a hail of machine gun and small-arms fire reached a position 10 yards from the tank. His second shot shattered the turret. With his pistol he killed 2 of the crew as they emerged from the tank; and then running to the crippled Mark IV while enemy infantry sniped at him, he dropped a grenade inside the tank and completed its destruction. With their armor gone, the enemy infantry became disorganized and was driven back...

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SWIVEL GUN - Centuries of versatile, mobile firepower

This very simple design of mounting a small cannon on a very maneuverable pivot dates back to at least the late 1400s when it was used aboard many European military and merchant vessels. The high-seas ships of the great explorers like Columbus and Magellan carried early types of these guns. Spanish and Portuguese voyages to the Far East also brought them to the attention of the great Asian powers, China and Korea. In the late 1500s, the latter used them to great effect repelling Japanese invasion forces.

Typically made of brass, a swivel gun was a powerful antipersonnel weapon. Swivel guns were commonly used on the walls of forts and sides of boats and ships to repeal attackers. They were normally loaded with a charge of powder followed by musket shot, rocks, nails or scrap metal and functioned like a giant shotgun. Countless ship-to-ship battles during the Great Age of Sail relied heavily on the devastating deck-clearing effect of swivel gun blasts.

Even as the main guns of warships grew ever larger over the next centuries, swivel guns continued to see wide service, particularly among the European colonial powers and their New World successors as they penetrated the continental interiors of the Americas. The dependence on smaller boats (gunboats, keelboats and other small craft) that could navigate the vast continental river systems and lakes ensured that swivel guns were considered essential weapons until well into the 19th century.

Historical Swivel Gun Highlights:

- The Gunboat Philadelphia

Now on display at the Smithsonian Institution, this 54-foot vessel is considered to be oldest surviving American fighting vessel. She was built in 1776 along with eight other similar vessels to defend the Champlain Valley — the northern frontier of the American colonies. In addition to three large carriage guns, the Philadelphia carried eight swivel guns that saw plenty of action before the vessel was sunk by superior British firepower during the Battle of Lake Champlain on Oct. 11, 1776. The gunboat was raised in 1935 with most of her equipment. The current Smithsonian display includes an original 18th-century swivel gun mounted on the Philadelphia's starboard gunwale.

A Lewis and Clark Celebration

On their historic journey to the Pacific Ocean, the Lewis and Clark expedition used a 55-foot keelboat to navigate up the Ohio and Missouri rivers. The boat carried a "one-pounder" swivel cannon mounted on a stand just behind the bow. Later in the journey, when the party traveled overland, they took the gun along as a vital piece of portable close-range artillery. Here's an excerpt from the history of the expedition featuring a special July 4 celebration:

"At first light on 4 July, Lewis ordered the swivel gun on the keelboat to be fired in honor of the new day. Private John Fields was bitten by a snake when the party stopped to dine at Pond's Creek sometime after 1 p.m., briefly taking everyone's mind off the Fourth of July and focusing them instead on scanning the long grass to avoid getting bit themselves. Later that afternoon, Captain Lewis directed the men to ground the keelboat for the day near a creek flowing into the river. The soldiers were sweaty and filthy from maneuvering the keelboat, so Lewis instructed First Sergeant John Ordway to have the men bathe before donning their uniforms for a simple Fourth of July commemoration he planned that evening. Lewis also authorized the distribution of an extra ration of whiskey to the Soldiers to toast the birth of their nation."

"Before sundown, Lewis gathered the Soldiers for a short speech. He commented on their considerable achievements to date while candidly noting that great trials still lay ahead. In honor of the nation's birthday, Lewis announced that the stream next to their camp site would henceforth be known as 'Independence Creek.' At the conclusion of the brief talk, he ordered the swivel gun fired once again to salute the end of a very special day."

- Boon for Whalers

The common use of swivel guns across many types of vessels soon led to a new application on whaling ships. Whalers were often frustrated by their inability to get close enough to whales for a thrown harpoon to be effective, especially in northern waters, where sea ice often blocked the approach of whale boats.

A report from the late 1700s records the first use of a swivel gun- powered harpoon in 1731:

"At the [South Sea] company's dock there had at this time [1731] been invented a new sort of gun for shooting with gunpowder the harpoons into the bodies of whales, at a greater distance than the harpoons could be thrown by hand; and the ships were accordingly provided with some of them, which were used both in this and the next year's fishery, with some success. They were chiefly adapted to a calm season, and were scarcely practicable in blowing weather, which mostly happens in the Greenland seas. And although the foreign harpooneers could not easily be brought to use them, as being out of their usual method; yet in a ship, fitted out by Mr. Elias Bird and partners, two years after, out of the three whales brought home, two of them were said to be killed by that new-invented gun."

Potent Duck Hunter

With their proven effectiveness against human targets, it was little wonder that hunters tried them out on game. In fact, over the centuries, swivel guns serving on shallow water boats where waterfowl were abundant were probably used for hunting whenever the opportunity arose.

An excerpt from a 1906 article on duck-hunting in the Chesapeake Bay recounts how many decades earlier, when the waters of the bay were "black with wild fowl," early American hunters couldn't resist the temptation to bring home birds the easy way: "The swivel gun was simply an enormous shotgun, which rotated on a pivot in the bow of a boat, thus taking up the recoil. It was used at night, when the sleeping birds were crowded closely together — "huddled" it is called — on the surface of the water; and, as it carried a full pound of shot, each discharge cut as distinct lane through the mass of ducks. Almost from the first, the swivel gun was held in disfavor; and long before its use was outlawed no man would admit the ownership of one of these guns; but scores of them were hidden away ..."

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WORLD WAR II FLAMETHROWER - Honoring an Iwo Jima hero (Episode: The Flamethrower)

The Medal of Honor recipient featured in this episode, Hershel Woodrow "Woody" Williams, joined the Marine Corps in May 1943 at the age of 19. After boot camp, he received advanced training in the use of demolitions and flamethrowers. Assigned to the 21st Marines, Cpl. Williams saw his first action during the Battle of Guam from August to October of 1944.

On Feb. 21, 1945, he landed on Iwo Jima with the second wave of Marines thrown into the bloody battle. Two days after coming ashore, Williams went "above and beyond" with his specialized training when it became apparent that a platoon of tanks could not clear a lane for an infantry advance through a well-constructed Japanese defensive network. Williams boldly went forward alone to destroy the enemy positions with both flamethrowers and demolition charges. Over the next four hours he braved intense gunfire to wipe out the enemy positions, repeatedly exposing himself to intense hostile fire as he returned to his own lines to retrieve demolition charges and flamethrowers that he then carried forward to use against hardened enemy positions. In the final tally, he used six flamethrowers to destroy seven pillboxes, each carried out single-handedly since there were no volunteers willing to help him carry flammable tanks back and forth across such a hot battlefield.

On March 6, Cpl Williams was wounded in action on Iwo Jima and later received the Purple Heart.

Woody returned to the United States in September 1945, and on Oct. 5 he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman during a White House ceremony.

Interestingly, Williams' heroic action took place on the same day-Feb. 23, 1945 — that the famous "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" photograph was taken at the summit of Mount Suribachi. There were many heroes on Iwo Jima that day.

Here is Cpl. Williams' full Medal of Honor citation:

Rank and organization: Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division. Place and date: Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Entered service at: West Virginia. Born: 2 October 1923, Quiet Dell, W. Va. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as demolition sergeant serving with the 21st Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, 23 February 1945. Quick to volunteer his services when our tanks were maneuvering vainly to open a lane for the infantry through the network of reinforced concrete pillboxes, buried mines, and black volcanic sands, Cpl. Williams daringly went forward alone to attempt the reduction of devastating machine-gun fire from the unyielding positions. Covered only by 4 riflemen, he fought desperately for 4 hours under terrific enemy small-arms fire and repeatedly returned to his own lines to prepare demolition charges and obtain serviced flamethrowers, struggling back, frequently to the rear of hostile emplacements, to wipe out 1 position after another. On one occasion, he daringly mounted a pillbox to insert the nozzle of his flamethrower through the air vent, killing the occupants and silencing the gun; on another he grimly charged enemy riflemen who attempted to stop him with bayonets and destroyed them with a burst of flame from his weapon. His unyielding determination and extraordinary heroism in the face of ruthless enemy resistance were directly instrumental in neutralizing one of the most fanatically defended Japanese strong points encountered by his regiment and aided vitally in enabling his company to reach its objective. Cpl. Williams' aggressive fighting spirit and valiant devotion to duty throughout this fiercely contested action sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

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CIVIL WAR CANNON — A rare piece of American history (Episode: Civil War Cannon)

Will Hayden may have felt a little sticker shock when he heard the $250,000 price tab on the bronze Confederate cannon, but the Red Jacket owner knows all too well how rare and desirable this artillery piece is in the world of Civil War collectibles, especially one that can handle live fire! Known as a 12-pounder Napoleon (the name comes from the weight of its standard "cannon ball" combined with the French emperor whose army developed the gun in the 1850s), this smooth-bore gun were one of the most effective weapons on Civil War battlefields.

In the "Sons of Guns" episode, the owner provides several key facts about the piece, including the manufacturer's information, "Leeds & Co. New Orleans," that is stamped on one of the gun's trunnions (the two side cylinders on the barrel that rest in the carriage). He also states that it was made in 1862 and that there were only 12 of this model produced. Additionally, he mentions that because industrial metals were so rare in the South, some of these bronze cannons were cast from church bells that had been melted down.

Let's take a look at what else is known about the history of this artillery piece. First, this gun is one of the earliest pieces produced by the Confederacy. The gun's New Orleans manufacturer, Leeds & Co., dates back to the 1820s, but before the Civil War it specialized in commercial steam engines and milling machinery. When Louisiana joined the Confederacy in 1861, Leeds quickly began experimenting with artillery production, and by the spring of 1862 the company had turned out 49 field artillery pieces, including a dozen bronze 12-pounder Napoleons (one of these is the gun featured in the show). Near the end of April 1862, however, Leeds was forced to close down its gun-manufacturing operations when New Orleans was captured by a Federal invasion force. This short production run alone guarantees the extreme rarity of these cannon barrels.

Little is known about the subsequent fate of these 12 guns, but the passing years took a heavy toll on Civil War artillery in general. One of the chief culprits in this destruction was the U.S. government's practice of melting down surplus barrels to recycle useful metals for newer weapons during wartime. Not until the latter half of the 20th century — with the expansion of both Civil War battlefield parks and the ranks of collectors — did the true value of the guns became more widely appreciated. We do know that four Leeds 12-pounder Napoleons went into action at the Battle of Shiloh, in southwestern Tennessee, on April 6, 1862 (with Robertson's Alabama Battery), but there are no further records for these guns. One 12-pdr Leeds forms part of Confederate Battery No. 5 at the Petersburg (Virginia) National Battlefield. But there is currently no trace of the other 10.

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