Actor Arnold Schwartzenegger starred as a cyborg assassin in the movie Terminator 2 and used the M134 Minigun during one of his epic rampages. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
If you’re a fan of action films, chances are you’ll recognize the M134 Minigun. Over the years, the M134 has appeared in such Hollywood blockbusters as Predator, Terminator 2, and Black Hawk Down, to name a few. As a movie gun, it is typically used to obliterate large groups of nameless combatants, like a hapless police unit trying in vain to put an end to the Terminator’s rampage or throngs of rebel fighters on the mean streets of Mogadishu.
Given the M134’s ubiquity in the action film universe, it may come as a surprise to some that this six-barreled, death-spewing war machine is not a figment of Hollywood’s imagination. The M134 Minigun is, in fact, an actual, legitimate weapon system. First developed during the Vietnam War, it has been a constant companion of American warfighters through many conflicts and remains an important part of the US arsenal to this day.
So if Ridley Scott didn’t invent the M134 Minigun, who did? And is it really as badass as the movies make it seem? If these are the sorts of questions that keep you up at night, keep reading. Here is everything you need to know about the M134 Minigun.
A Gatling Gun from the US Cavalry Museum in Fort Riley, Kansas. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Like all rotary cannons, the M134 Minigun is a direct descendant of the Gatling gun invented by Dr. Richard Gatling in 1862. The hand-crank-operated Gatling gun, which could fire approximately 200 rounds per minute, was first wielded in battle during the American Civil War. According to a letter he penned in 1877, Gatling believed that his invention would not only “enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred,” but eventually “supersede the necessity of large armies.”
At the turn of the 20th century, warfare began to assume new dimensions with the advent of military aircraft. Now, ground troops also had to contend with ordnance being dropped on them from the sky. Then came the arrival of fighter planes, and with them a new mode of combat: dogfighting.
During World War I, machine guns were fitted to the front of single-engine aircraft so that pilots could fire bullets at enemy targets while in flight. Later, in World War II, American fighter planes were equipped with M2 Browning machine guns. The .50-caliber rounds fired by the M2 could not only penetrate the wooden airframes of wars past but also aluminum armor.
Eventually, as fighter planes evolved to become faster and more agile, the US military realized the need for an aircraft-mounted weapon with a more concentrated shot density than the M2. In 1946, General Electric accepted a contract from the United States Army labeled “Project Vulcan.” According to the terms of the contract, GE would develop a six-barreled electrically driven rotary cannon capable of firing 6,000 20mm rounds per minute.
An M61 Vulcan on display at the Avalon Australian International Airshow in 2013. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Project Vulcan ultimately yielded the M61 Vulcan, a cannon with a Gatling-style rotating barrel, which first saw combat in the Vietnam War as a primary weapon of the supersonic fighter-bomber F-105 Thunderchief. The M61 was later adapted to fit the F-15, F-16, and F-22.
During the Vietnam War, American helicopters, troop transport vehicles, and riverine patrol boats were frequently ambushed by concealed enemy troops. To fight back, gunners largely had to rely on single-barrel machine guns that were prone to overheating and other malfunctions — in other words, on weapons that were very unreliable. So, once again, the US military turned to the private sector for a solution.
General Dynamics, the armament sector of General Electrics, accepted the task. The GD team scaled down the M61 Vulcan and modified it to create a smaller rotary cannon, which they called the M134 Minigun. Since each barrel fires just once per revolution, rotary guns are less susceptible to overheating and erosion than single-barreled machine guns. And unlike the M61, which weighed more than 600 pounds, the M134 was light and compact enough to be mounted on small aircraft and ground vehicles.
In the years since Vietnam, the M134 has been tweaked and modified to accommodate various military platforms. For example, during the Global War on Terror, the M134 was mounted to UH-60 Black Hawk and MH-47 Chinook helicopters, giving door gunners ample firepower to repel enemy forces during troop insertions and extractions. US Navy Special Warfare combatant craft crewmen, or SWCC operators, also mounted miniguns on their watercraft for fending off enemies during amphibious operations.
A US Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewman (SWCC) on a SOC-R firing a Minigun at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, August 2009. Wikimedia Commons photo.
According to Guns.com, the term minigun has popularly been ascribed to the M134 to distinguish it from other, similar weapon systems designed by GE — namely, the M61. The M61 and M134 both use the six-barreled rotary firing mechanism, but as we’ve already noted, the M134 is a more compact machine. The M61 Vulcan has a bigger barrel and fires larger rounds than the M134. Since the M134 is a miniature version of the M61, it is called a “minigun.” The M61 Vulcan is referred to as a rotary cannon.
Notably, the M134 Minigun is known by several different monikers within the US Armed Forces. The Army versions are designated M134 and XM196, the Air Force calls it the GAU-2B/A, and in the Navy it is referred to as the GAU-17/A.
US Marine Corps Cpl. Walter Hix, a crew chief with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Forces Reserve, fires a GAU-17 minigun during close air support drills as part of exercise Unitas LXIII at Santa Cruz Air Force Base, Rio de Janeiro, Sept. 9, 2022. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Colton Garrett.
According to Dillon Aero, one of four firearms manufacturers that supply M134s to the US military, the minigun has a 4,000-round magazine and fires 7.62x51mm NATO cartridges. These bullets are also the standard ammunition for smaller American weapons, such as the M14 marksman rifle, the M60 machine gun, and the M40 sniper rifle.
Staff Sgt. Eric Barrios, a dog handler with the 36th Security Forces Squadron, received a Combat Action Medal for his actions during an ambush on his patrol team while deployed in Afghanistan with US Army Special Forces, 3rd Special Forces Group, Operational Detachment Alpha. Barrios, whose efforts contributed to 22 enemies killed in action, poses alongside a minigun mounted on a gun truck, July 29, 2009. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The M134 Minigun’s fire rate is 3,000 rounds per minute (or 50 rounds per second). According to Dillon Aero, the company’s latest version of the Minigun — the M134D — fires four rounds in the same time it takes an M240 machine gun to fire just one. The extremely high rate of fire makes the M134 Minigun an ideal weapon for dealing suppressive fire, especially against groups of concealed targets.
Black Rifle Coffee co-owners, Mat Best, left, and Richard Ryan, right, on top of a Prius with a mounted M61 Vulcan cannon. Black Rifle Coffee photo.
The answer may surprise you: Fuck yeah!
According to the National Firearms Act, any fully automatic weapon made before 1986 is available to purchase for US citizens. However, whether a civilian can legally possess a Minigun depends on other factors. For example, according to Massachusetts state laws, one must possess a specially issued machine-gun license to own an M134. The only people eligible for such a license are firearms instructors certified by the municipal police training committee and legitimate firearms collectors who have the required firearms licenses.
So while it might not be easy to get your hands on an M134, it’s possible. Which brings us to this question: What the fuck would a civilian do with all that firepower? Well, here’s one possibility ...
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.