General Electric’s fast-firing Minigun has become an iconic weapon and a fixture in popular culture, along with other modern Gatling guns. But in the 1960s, one company hoped to steal the gun’s thunder.
In 1963, the Hughes Tool Company—owned by the famous and eccentric Howard Hughes, Jr.—introduced a twin-barreled machine gun called the Heligun. Hughes’ engineers designed the new weapon without any input or funding from the Pentagon.
For all its impressive features, the new gun arrived too late to bump off the Minigun.
“The performance of the Heligun … has proven that it is a major advance in state-of-the-art light machine guns,” a Hughes company brochure boasts. The new firearm “delivers more firepower per pound than any gun in its caliber.”
The weapon weighed 30 pounds and was 30 inches long. These figures put the guns in the same class as the Minigun.
But unlike its competitor, the Hughes’ machine gun didn’t require electrical power to function. A combination of gas and momentum kept the gun going.
Frank Marquardt invented the Heligun’s basic mechanics back in the late 1940s. “The Navy Department sent … Marquardt, a naval technician, to Europe to investigate German aircraft machine gun development” after World War II, according to volume three of George Chinn’s definitive The Machine Gun.
The technician became fascinated with the Nazis “revolver cannons,” which had rotating chambers to quickly load ammunition into firing position. After returning to the U.S., Marquardt quickly created a prototype of his own twin-barrel design.
In the simplest terms, in Marquardt’s arrangement a bullet shot from the lower barrel essentially drives a mechanism that in turn fires the upper round. At the same time, the gun is also moving new ammunition into position.
When the projectile leaves the top barrel, the weapon basically reloads and resets itself to go through the motions all over again.
The government contracted Hughes to help produce 20-millimeter cannons based on Marquardt’s principles. The company simply scaled that gun down to 7.62 millimeter to create its own weapon.
The Heligun’s self-powered setup was the major selling point. Even without the external power source, the new machine gun could theoretically match the Minigun’s blistering rates of fire.
Hughes also claimed the Minigun’s actual weight should take into account its 20-pound electric motor. The marketing literature is quick to point out that an aircraft could carry four extra gallons of fuel or more than 400 rounds of ammo, instead.
With these benefits, Hughes figured the Heligun would be easy to sell to the U.S. Army. The company was close to selling the ground combat branch on its Model 369 helicopter.
The sales teams pitched the gun as a perfect pairing for the new aerial scout copter. Unfortunately, the Army insisted that any Light Observation Helicopter would use the existing M-60 gun, instead.
So the new helos—which the Army renamed OH-6As—dutifully sported twin M-60s. In the end, Hughes used its connections to sell eight demonstration guns to the Navy.
But the sailing branch wasn’t interested in arming its helicopters at that time. Hughes had to ask the Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia for more time and money to try and work out the Heligun’s kinks.
The biggest problem for the Heligun was its reliability. The basic design was extremely complex. Guns frequently jammed when all the parts failed to synch up.
At first, Hughes had a hard time getting the Heliguns to fire more than 300 rounds at a time before they seized up for some reason, Chinn points out in volume five of his series.
In spite of those problems, the company representatives did manage to finagle a test flight of a Heligun on one of the Army’s OH-6s at the Marine Corps base in 29 Palms, California.
“The … tests established the compatibility of the Heligun installation in the OH-6A,” the Hughes documentation concludes. But compatibility wasn’t the problem.
Hughes also tried to get the Marines interested in its new gun. Sales reps proposed installing the weapons on the Corps’ OV-10 attack planes.
Dahlgren did extend the contract and the “remaining functional problem areas were identified and solutions proposed,” Chinn notes. But the fixes were too little, too late.
The Army and the Marine Corps remained disinterested. The OH-6s eventually got Miniguns and the the OV-10s stuck with their four M-60s.
Five years after putting the Heligun on the market, Hughes stopped working on the weapon. The gun disappeared completely from the company’s sales publications, too.
The Minigun has now cemented its place in the lexicon … and the Heligun is virtually unknown.