"I am glad that I'm behing the M134 Minigun and not one in front of it" - Richard "Mack" Machowicz
In the 1960s, the US Military began exploring modern variants of the electric-powered, rotating barrel Gatling gun-style weapons for use in the Vietnam War. The US forces in Vietnam, which used helicopters as one of the primary means of transporting soldiers and equipment through the dense jungle, found that the thin-skinned helicopters were very vulnerable to small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks when they slowed down to land. Although helicopters had mounted single-barrel machine guns, using single-barrel machine guns to repel attackers hidden in the dense jungle foliage often led to barrels overheating or cartridge jams.
In order to develop a weapon with a more reliable, higher rate of fire, General Electric designers scaled down the rotating-barrel 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon for 7.62 x 51 mm NATO ammunition. The resulting weapon, designated XM134 and known popularly as the Minigun, could fire up to 4,000 rounds per minute without overheating. (Originally, the gun was specified at 6,000 rpm, but this was later lowered to 4,000.) The Minigun was mounted on OH-6 Cayuse and OH-58 Kiowa side pods, in the turret and wing pods on AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, on door, pylon and pod mounts on UH-1 "Huey" Iroquois transport helicopters, and on many other helicopters including the H-53 (MH-53 Pave Low) and the common H-60 family (UH-60 Black Hawk, HH-60 Pave Hawk, etc).
Several larger aircraft were outfitted with miniguns specifically for close air support: the A-37 Dragonfly with an internal gun and with pods on wing hardpoints, and the A-1 Skyraider also with pods on wing hardpoints. Other famous gunship airplanes were the AC-47 Spooky, AC-119 gunship, and the AC-130 gunship.
A U.S. Army Special Forces soldier holds familiarization training on the MK-44 Mini Gun during Operation Iraqi Freedom
The basic weapon is a 6-barrel, air-cooled, and electrically driven machine gun. The electric drive rotates the weapon within its housing, with a rotating firing pin assembly and rotary chamber. The minigun's multibarrel design helps prevent overheating, but also serves other functions. Multiple barrels allow for a greater capacity for a high firing rate, since the serial process of firing/extraction/loading is taking place in all barrels simultaneously. Thus, as one barrel fires, two others are in different stages of shell extraction and another three are being loaded. The minigun is composed of multiple closed-bolt rifle barrels arranged in a circular housing. The barrels are rotated by an external power source: usually electric, pneumatic, or hydraulic. Other rotating-barrel cannons are powered by the gas pressure or recoil energy of fired cartridges. A gas-operated variant, designated the XM133, was also developed, but was not put into production.
G.E.'s Minigun is in use in several branches of the US military, under a number of designations. The basic fixed armament version was given the designation M134 by the U.S. Army, while the exact same weapon was designated GAU-2/A by the U.S. Air Force. The USAF weapon has three subvariants, while the U.S. Army weapon appears to have incorporated any new improvements without a change in designation. Available sources show a relation between both M134 and GAU-2/A and M134 and GAU-2B/A. A separate variant, designated XM196, with an added ejection sprocket was developed specifically for the XM53 Armament Subsystem on the AH-56 Cheyenne helicopter. Another variant was developed by the U.S. Air Force specifically for flexible installations, at the time primarily for the UH-1N helicopter, as the GAU-17/A. The primary end users of the GAU-17/A have been the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, who mount them as defensive armament on a number of helicopters and surface ships. The weapon is part of both the A/A49E-11 armament system on the UH-1N and A/A49E-13 armament subsystem on the HH-60H aircraft. The weapons on these systems feature a selectable fire rate of either 2,000 or 4,000 rpm. There is mention of a possible GAUSE-17 designation (GAU-Shipboard Equipment-17), in reference to the system when mounted on surface ships, though this would not follow the official ASETDS designation system's format.
Other manufacturers in the United States also produce Miniguns with various refinements of their own, including Dillon Aerospace (the "M134D"), and Garwood Industries (the "M134G").
The GAU-8 Gatling gun of an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Osan Air Base, South Korea.
One of the main reasons for the resurgence of the Gatling gun-style design is the weapon's tolerance for continuous high rates of fire. For example, if 500 rounds were fired per minute from a conventional single-barrel weapon, this would likely result in the barrel overheating (distorting in extreme cases) or a weapon jam. In contrast, a five-barreled Gatling gun-style weapon firing 500 rounds per minute, only fires 100 rounds per barrel per minute, an acceptable rate of fire. Ultimately the limiting factor is the rate at which loading and extraction can occur. In a single barrel design these tasks must alternate, a multiple barrel design on the other hand lets them occur simultaneously, with different barrels at different points in the cycle. Their high rate of fire also makes them useful in systems that have little time to engage their targets, such as CIWS which defend against fast-moving anti-ship missiles.
The M61 Vulcan 20 mm cannon is the most prolific member of a family of weapons designed by General Electric and currently manufactured by General Dynamics. It is a six-barreled rotary cannon capable of more than 6,000 rounds per minute. Similar systems are available ranging from 5.56 mm to 30 mm (there was even a 37 mm Gatling on the prototype T249 Vigilante AA platform); the rate-of-fire being somewhat inversely-proportional to the size and mass of the ammunition (which also determines the size and mass of the barrels). Another Gatling design well-known among aviation enthusiasts is the GAU-8 Avenger 30 mm cannon, carried on the A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog) attack aircraft, a heavily-armored close air-support aircraft. It is a seven-barreled cannon designed for tank-killing and is currently the largest bore Gatling weapon active in the U.S. arsenal.
During the Vietnam War, the 7.62 mm caliber M134 Minigun was created as a helicopter weapon. Able to fire 6,000 rounds per minute from a 4,000-round linked belt, the Minigun proved to be one of the most effective non-explosive projectile weapons ever built and is still used in helicopters today. They are also used on USAF AC-47, AC-119 and Lockheed AC-130 gunships, their original high-capacity cargo airframes able to house the items needed for sustained operation. With sophisticated navigation and target identification tools, Miniguns can be used effectively even against concealed targets. The crew's ability to concentrate the Gatling's fire very tightly produces the appearance of the 'Red Tornado' from the light of the tracers, as the gun platform circles a target at night.
A-10 Gatling Gun Test
Shooting minigun from Huey Helicopter
Mythbusters can a machine gun chop off a tree MINIGUN