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GUNSHIPS: The Story of Spooky, Shadow, Stinger and Spectre

By Terry Miesle - © 2009

Type: Hardbound, 204pp, 101 b/w and 245 color photos with 7 illustrations, ISBN: 1580071236, by Wayne Mutza
MSRP: $34.95 USD (~$39.69 CAN/€ 25.21 EUR) in hardcover available from Specialty Press
Overall Rating: 9 - a treasure trove of visual reference

The very term Gunship is somewhat more controversial than I previously thought. Mr. Mutza asks an important question in his introduction - what is a gunship? For the purpose of this discussion it's an aircraft designed to fire guns while orbiting a position. This precludes aircraft which attack via strafing or diving, like the A-1 Skyraider.

This book focuses on fixed-wing aircraft, so helicopters are out. Presumably, that’s another book waiting to be published. Gunship tends to be a designation rather than a type of aircraft, though they all share one key attribute: gunships are heavy-hitters.

Side-firing weapons date back farther than you may think. The concept is simple, mount weapons along the fuselage or wingline and fire them while performing a simple pylon turn. For the uninitiated, a pylon turn is where a pilot “points” the wing at a point on the ground and orbits, maintaining that alignment. The tighter the turn, the steeper the angle must be. The key difference between this and a strafe is the ability to keep weapons trained on a target with relentless efficiency. A strafing run may allow heavier weapons to be deployed like rockets or bombs, but for sheer constant attacking a pylon turn is best. In the 1920s and 1930s numerous nations air combat arms experimented with this concept, but it never moved past experimentation.

The American move to develop modern gunships started with an executive order in 1961 to develop weapons and tactics useful for counter-insurgency (COIN) efforts. Randal Terry would emerge as the most significant force behind this development. He is the inspiration behind Terry and the Pirates, and he would live up to this with a mix of evangelism, showmanship and technology. That much of the hardware and development was “borrowed” from other programs served to enhance his profile. Terry developed three C-47 gunships, and the early chapter of this book is a real trove of photos and information about that process. When the Ben Hoa Air Base was attacked by Viet Cong mortars, General Curtis LeMay was livid. After Terry’s briefing LeMay ordered these prototypes sent to Vietnam for real-world evaluation.

What You Get

The book provides a brief but very detailed history on these aircraft and weapon development. New equipment and techniques were employed, and the planes quickly became popular with the US Army and South Vietnamese Army. Night demonstrations were particularly popular, of course, with the stunning volume of tracer ammunition three miniguns can deliver.

Soon, of course, the C-47s proved too slow and vunerable to ground fire. This escalation was in part, the Spooky’s making – the VC needed a counter, which in turn required a counter. That aircraft was the AC-119 Shadow. The AC-119 had a more spacious fuselage, with a flat bottom and more room for crew. Upgraded electronics and aiming gear helped, but eventually the Shadow itself was outclassed. The AC-119K kept the AC-119’s 3 miniguns, IR and visible spotlights and added 2 20mm vulcans. During the AC-119K development a flurry of UFO sightings were reported in Ohio and Indiana.

The book continues to detail AD-130 Spectre development into its modern incarnation. The adoption of the AC-130 was an obvious choice; its size, endurance, upgradability and flexibility all made it the modern-day equivalent of the original gunship, the AC-47. Armament included 20mm Vulcans, 40mm Bofors cannon and eventually a 105mm Howitzer. Also included is a discussion of non-US users of these gunships such as Colombia’s turboprop-powered AC-47Ts used beginning in the early 1990s.

So, what’s here for the science fiction modeler? On one level not a whole lot, but on another level there’s a fair amount. The prototype process and the development process both hold interesting ideas and insights. The process is straightforward: converting a large, stable platform into a fully realized and specialized weapon. I can foresee this sort of development process being used with SF-based ships. I started a gunship conversion from a new-series Galactica a while ago, and now I’m re-thinking my process. We see gunships in the new Star Wars movies, and I think they could have been done much differently. An authentic look should be much easier when examining how the real gunships were developed.


As usual with Specialty Press books, this one is big and thorough. What I didn’t know about US cargo-platform gunships has literally filled a book. It’s not hard to open to pretty much any page and begin reading, becoming engaged in the text and photographs. I recommend this book, if you have any interest at all in this subject. I have yet to be disappointed in a Specialty Press publication, and Mr. Mutza does not disappoint here.

Many thanks to the folks at Specialty Press for the review sample.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the reviewer.
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This page copyright © 2009 Starship Modeler™. First posted on 18 June 2009.