The Russian Rikhter-23M Kartech Autoloading Space Cannon

The Three Stooges can be a fascinating metric to determine a person’s basic personality traits.

You can deduce a great deal about a person’s character by asking who their favorite member of The Three Stooges comedy troupe might be. In my experience, women find The Three Stooges to be uniformly ridiculous. Guys, by contrast, can prattle on for ages regarding the Stooges’ sundry nuances.

Larry was always my favorite Stooge.

Curly Howard (Jerome Horwitz) was a clown pure and simple. Curly acolytes are typically fun-loving party types. Curly’s real-life brother Moe (Moses Horwitz) was a control freak. Moe fans can indeed be dominating and obnoxious. I myself gravitate more toward Larry (Louis Feinberg). Longsuffering and sincere, I always felt Larry was the Thinking Man’s stooge.

Even debilitated and at the end of his life, Larry Fine still made time for his fans. This picture was taken about nine months before his death.

On Friday, January 24, 1975, the world lost Larry Fine. Larry died of a stroke at age 72 in the Motion Picture Country House, a nursing home for aging actors in Woodland Hills, California. On the same day that Larry died, far above the earth’s surface, the Soviet Union conducted humanity’s first and last test of an orbital space cannon. The tale of how the species got to that point is simply fascinating.

Details

The Salyut space stations were launched into orbit via massive Russian Proton rockets.

The covert Soviet space station Salyut 3 was one of six launched into earth orbit between 1971 and 1986. Four were orbited as part of publicized scientific research efforts. Salyut 3 was one of two military reconnaissance stations that were part of the classified Almaz (“Diamond”) program. Two other Salyut stations were destroyed in launch accidents.

Almaz stations were armed orbital reconnaissance platforms.

Of the half dozen operational Salyut vehicles, the Almaz stations were unique. These vehicles were equipped with highly sophisticated photographic and electronic eavesdropping systems. They also featured fearsome onboard counter-satellite weapons systems.

The Rikhter R-23M Kartech autocannon was a fearsome weapon in the vacuum of space.

After 213 days in space the Salyut 3 station, now unmanned, was in the process of an intentional de-orbit to bring it down safely over the ocean. Before the station was maneuvered into the atmosphere to incinerate itself Russian engineers oriented the 40,000-pound spy station remotely, released the safety interlocks, and fired off a series of bursts from the station’s integral Rikhter-23M 23mm automatic revolving cannon. This represented the only example of an armed spacecraft unlimbering its weapon systems in earth orbit.

Disco Star Wars

Fashion trends have evolved considerably since the 1970s. Not sure this flight attendant uniform would go over so well today.

The 1970s was a fascinating decade. America was indelicately extricating itself from Vietnam, and the resulting social and cultural upheaval threatened to tear the country apart. Fashions were so utterly garish as to foment blindness if gazed upon unduly. NASA had made spaceflight and moon missions seem almost routine. Meanwhile, high tech space vehicles silently waged the Cold War high above in earth orbit.

Putting men on the moon pretty much trumped every other aspect of the Space Race.

The Space Race represented a breathtakingly expensive tit-for-tat wherein two disparate ideologies strived mightily to establish their ascendency. Communism and capitalism spent their best and brightest to earn orbital bragging rights. Sputnik sparked the war, but Apollo and its half dozen live moon missions was the decisive turning point. The US launched Skylab in May of 1973 and manned it for an aggregate of 24 weeks.

The Cold War saw simply breathtaking military spending on both sides.

This era was characterized by suspicion, animosity, duplicity, and subterfuge. These two major ideologies stared at each other over the sights of tens of thousands of Main Battle Tanks, missile launchers, and combat aircraft. Both sides also viewed orbiting spacecraft as critical national assets and legitimate military targets. It was therefore inevitable that some thought might be invested in how best to weaponize such things.

The Concept

Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion govern the way all things move and interact.

Space is a weird, terrifying, unforgiving place. In the absence of an atmosphere, the Physics get fairly surreal. Newton told us that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction. Any kid who has been conned into touching off a 12-gauge from the shoulder becomes intimately familiar with this particular component of Sir Isaac’s immutable dicta. In the case of cannons on space stations, the recoil must be counteracted lest firing the gun render the platform uncontrollable.

A zero-G condition in earth orbit is more accurately described as a state of perpetually falling. The esteemed physicist Stephen Hawking once gave it a whirl.

Orbital spacecraft are not technically in neutral gravity as might be the case during an interplanetary Mars mission. Astronauts in orbit are more accurately constantly falling around the earth such that the force of gravity is counteracted by the track of the spacecraft. The end result is the same zero-G state.

The cast of the movie Apollo 13 endured some 400 parabolic flights into weightlessness to film the movie.

Vomit Comet is the colloquial term for a specially-modified aircraft designed to simulate weightlessness. NASA’s most popular reduced-gravity aircraft were two converted KC-135 tankers that flew parabolic flight profiles. These maneuvers offered astronauts about 25 seconds of comparable perceived weightlessness in anticipation of actual space flight. One of these planes was used to film the weightless scenes in the movie Apollo 13.

Myrian technical problems had to be solved before Soviet engineers could fire a gas-operated autoloading cannon in space.

When Soviet engineers were designing a defensive cannon system for their orbital space stations there were scads of otherworldly variables like these that had to be taken into account. Gunpowder includes its own oxidizers so getting the rounds to light off in a vacuum was not a challenge. When fired in space without any air resistance the projectiles would never decelerate and would theoretically continue ad infinitum until they encountered a gravity well or another physical object. The real technical challenge, however, was always counteracting recoil.

The Gun

In 1975, two years before the release of the first Star Wars movie, the Russians bodged together their own version of the Death Star.

The Russians purportedly settled on the 23mm Rikhter-23M Kartech aircraft autocannon to arm their prickly orbital DIY Death Star.

The R-23M Kartech cannon was designed as armament for high-performance jet aircraft.

This gun was developed in the 1950s by Aron Rikhter as armament for high-performance jet aircraft. In an effort at minimizing drag at high Mach numbers, the gun was designed to be as short as possible. The R-23 still holds the record for the fastest-firing single-barrel production aircraft gun ever built. At its maximum cyclic rate, the R-23 fired at about 2,600 rounds per minute.

Ammunition for the R-23M was a telescoped design. Here you can see how the front edge of the case extends all the way to the tip of the projectile.

The R-23 was a fascinating design. The weapon’s action consisted of four revolving chambers driven by a gas-operated mechanism and fed belted ammunition. Where most conventional guns load from the rear, the R-23 fed and loaded from the front. This made for some mighty weird-looking ammunition.

The base of the R-23’s case is tapered as is shown here. This allowed each round to be fed into the gun backwards from the front. The top bit shown here is the primer.

The 200-gram 23mm high explosive rounds telescoped back into a case that featured a tapered base without a conventional rim. Cases were formed from galvanized steel, and the rounds were electrically primed. A heavy crimp held the HE projectile in place. The case ends at the tip of the projectile.

The R-23 saw active service as a tail gun in the Tu-22 Blinder strategic bomber. So help me this thing looks like some kind of freakish cartoon character.

Three separate gas systems drove the R-23 mechanism. One chambered a round, the second drove the revolving cylinder and feed mechanism, and the third ejected spent cases and links. This odd gun was mounted as tail armament in Tupelov Tu-22 strategic bombers. During terrestrial test firings, the gun purportedly penetrated an empty fuel drum at 1,600 meters.

Adapting the R-23M to a spacecraft demanded an entirely new mounting system.

This weird rotary design meant that there was no way to clear a stoppage. As a result, the R-23M included a pair of pyrotechnic charges that could be remotely fired to penetrate the case wall of a defective round. These small clearance charges would ignite the round’s propellant and fire it manually. The adaptation of the R-23M for use in space involved fabricating a unique mount and interfacing it all with the spacecraft.

The Space Station

Salyut means “Salute” or “Fireworks.” These manned orbital space stations were the first spacecraft designed for long-term habitation.

The Salyut space station was ostensibly designed for civilian research purposes. Published mission goals included research on the physiological and psychological effects of protracted exposure to weightlessness and space flight. The militarized Salyut stations, however, were intended solely as intelligence-gathering platforms. The primary concern was that US assets might be maneuvering nearby to gain information on the nature and capabilities of the station.

Aiming the R-23M autocannon involved reorienting the entire 40,000-pound station.

If the Soviet crew perceived a viable threat and decided to employ the R-23 they would use the station’s positioning thrusters to orient the entire 20-ton habitat to aim the fixed gun. There was an optical sight mounted in the station that could be used for this purpose. As the gun was to be fired in a vacuum range and bullet drop could essentially be ignored. The rounds from the R-23 would go exactly where they were pointed. The orbital gun’s magazine held 32 rounds.

Bringing the Rain

These guys did not want to be anywhere close by when they touched this puppy off, so the gun was fired remotely.

Nobody was completely certain what would happen once you lit up this fast-firing autocannon in the emptiness of space. The vibration was expected to be apocalyptic. The test was therefore conducted after the station’s crew had departed for the last time and just before the vessel was intentionally de-orbited. When it was time to fire ground controllers ignited the station’s thrusters in a crude effort to counteract recoil.

This is the Salyut 3 space station during assembly. Verifying the effectiveness of its cannon would be a difficult task.

The Almaz program was heavily classified, and the details remain sketchy today. According to various sources, Salyut 3 fired 20 of its available 32 rounds over three test firings. The gun is rumored to have destroyed a target satellite during the test. However, such claims seem tough to verify as the station was unmanned at the time and in the process of destructive re-entry.

The fraternity of humans who have left the earth’s atmosphere is a fairly elite mob.

In the history of manned spaceflight, some 550 human beings have ventured past the Karman Line, the accepted definition of extra-atmospheric operations.

These three unfortunate cosmonauts are the only humans to have lost their lives in space. They asphyxiated when a valve failed and vented their capsule during reentry more than 100 miles above the earth.

Of these 550, three cosmonauts, part of the Soyuz 11 mission, have died in space. Thankfully the Cold War remained cold, and mankind did not devolve into an actual shooting war in the cold void of space. Had we done so, however, the Russians were ready.

The interior of the Salyut space stations was cramped and confining. Firing an automatic cannon in such an environment would be undoubtedly terrifying.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and mankind never actually went to war in space.  

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Mike in a Truck January 4, 2021, 1:43 pm

    Paul and Big Al’s information is way above may paygrade – a simple cannon cocker. I would have been the space monkey left behind to fire the dam thing after everyone else evacuated and been left with a parachute and “good luck comrade” as consolation.

    • Big Al 45 January 8, 2021, 10:51 am

      LOL!! Now that’s funny!!

    • Ej harbet January 14, 2021, 6:11 pm

      udachi tovarisch lol

  • Paul January 4, 2021, 10:29 am

    Actually, the projectile will not necessarily go where it is pointed. It is in orbit after all and its circular orbit of approximately 18,000 mph will be altered by its firing velocity ( both speed and direction). Meaning it’s radius of orbit ( height if flight) may increase or decrease as example. In which case, aiming directly at another orbiting object will induce an orbital altitude miss.

  • Big Al 45 January 4, 2021, 10:05 am

    As with ANY object in orbit, there is indeed ‘drop’ (Gravitational Force) to be counteracted,
    So, unless the rounds of the gun were traveling at sufficient speed to escape orbit, the GF would effect the flight path enough to cause ‘drop’, in layman’s terms.
    In addition, the ‘direction’ of fire would have much to do with it,
    For example, if the line of fire were in line with an earth orbit, as opposed to say, directly away from earth, the effect of GF would cause the round to delineate from line of sight to the bore, much as it does on the surface.
    Directly away would effect it’s speed somewhat too.
    All this depends on projectile speed and mass, as well as direction of flight of course, as to just how much influence GF would have.
    But it IS there.

    • Zupglick January 4, 2021, 3:17 pm

      Glad to see someone has studied Newtonian Physics.

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