When the World’s Deadliest Weapons Miss Their Targets
Bombs, shells, bullets, and torpedoes are some of the deadliest inventions our species has ever devised. By design, these munitions can cause very serious damage and, in some cases, mass casualties.
But this relies on them actually hitting their intended targets. All too often, unless precision guided in some way, these weapons will miss. During wartime, this is not often given a second thought, but the legacy of some of these missing munitions can be very serious for a very long time. Even many decades after hostilities have ended.
Here we take a look at some of the most common post-deployment and post-war fates of some of the deadliest weapons that miss their targets. Brace yourself, some examples are, frankly, quite worrying.
Where do missed bullets go?
The dogfights of old must have been very thrilling events to watch from the ground, but have you ever wondered what happened to all those bullets that missed their mark? Do they rain back down from the sky, causing serious injury to anyone unlucky enough to be directly underneath?
As it turns out, unlike generally portrayed in popular culture (like films and video games), most pilots during the age of dogfights were not constantly filling the air with high-speed lead. Most aircraft in the past, as today, have a limited supply of gun ammunition in their aircraft.
For this reason, most pilots had to be very mindful of where they were shooting to conserve this precious ammunition. In fact, some aircraft, like the famous Supermarine Spitfire, had around only 16 seconds or so worth of ammunition if fired continuously.
While most shots did miss, this was in short, sharp bursts. But what happened to these spent bullets and their casings? Well, they fell to Earth, obviously.
Depending on where the air combat action took place, and at what altitude, this falling combat debris would be either harmless or potentially very dangerous.
If low enough, any bullets fired may have enough kinetic energy to remain lethal to anyone within range. This varies widely depending on the caliber of the projectile but can be quite significant.
When a projectile leaves the barrel it begins to slow down almost immediately. This is a combination of air resistance and the constant pull of gravity on the projectile, eventually pulling it to the ground (or, rather, the center of Earth's mass).
The distance at which this happens depends entirely on the size of the projectile, and the amount of energy provided to it from its cartridge and its subsequent muzzle velocity.
To give you some idea of the distances involved, according to the National Rifle Association, a 9 mm handgun should, in theory, be able to propel a bullet 2,500 yards, or 1.2 miles (1.93 km). These ranges are based on an angle of elevation of 30 degrees.
However, this is under near perfect conditions and in a nice open space with no obstacles.
As it happens, any shots fired at angles below 45 degrees are much less influenced by gravity, so these projectiles can travel for longer at higher velocities.
But aircraft are armed with much larger guns than this. The armament of a typical WW2-era Spitfire, for example, consisted of eight or so, .303-inch (7.7mm) Browning machine guns. Though later variants also commonly came equipped with cannons.
Her nemesis, the Messerschmitt BF 109, would have more varied armaments, but would typically have at least two MG17 7.9mm machine guns and sometimes 20mm cannons on the wings.
The maximum range of these weapons is around 4,500 yards (4,155 m) with the 20mm cannon a little longer.
Like all projectiles, when fired these bullets will fly along a parabolic arc until they lose their kinetic energy and fall to the ground under the influence of gravity.
If fired vertically, small arms bullets can reach heights of around 10,000 feet (just over 3 km). At this altitude, the wind will then tend to carry the bullet in unpredictable directions. In general, a bullet shot straight up into the sky will fly upwards until its initial kinetic energy is exhausted. It will then start falling and accelerate towards the ground under the influence of gravity until it reaches its terminal velocity, which is limited by air resistance. Interestingly, bullets, or indeed shells, fired vertically will often fall nose-up or sideways back to the ground.
With regards to bullets/shells fired during aerial dogfights, depending on the altitude (anywhere up to around 40,000 feet/12.2km) that this happens, the bullet may, or may not, reach terminal velocity. This varies depending on the size of the bullet, but can reach up to 600 ft/s (180 m/s) — more than enough to penetrate the skull.
Such a velocity is much slower than a speeding bullet from a barrel but still provides the projectile with enough momentum to ruin your day. Perhaps even enter your body. If it hits your unexposed head, this could cause some serious injuries, especially if it hits softer bits like your eyes.
If the projectiles in question are high explosive, there is obviously the chance of some very serious injuries, maybe even fatal, if you happen to be in the wrong place and the wrong time.
However, this does depend on the orientation of the projectile during its fall. Projectiles that descend nose-first, being more streamlined, are able to reach higher descent velocities than those falling sideways or nose-up. In fact, during some interesting experiments made during WW1, bullets loaded upside down in their shells (called backward bullets) fell back to earth 80 percent faster!
Other factors also come into play, such as altitude. The higher up you go, the lower the air resistance as the air thins. So, bullets falling through the air on a mountain top may be more lethal than at sea level.
With regards to actual data on civilian casualties from falling projectiles from aircraft, there is scant little to find. This is for one of two main reasons.
The first is that during combat, especially air raids, people's minds are usually on other things rather than collecting stats on esoteric subjects like this. The second, and most important, is that you really want to engage enemy aircraft (especially bombers) far away from densely populated areas.
After all, by the time enemy aircraft, like bombers, have reached your city (their likely target) it is a little too late to stop them. For this reason, most dogfights will have taken place well ahead of the bombers' intended targets. Not only that, you really don't want to run the risk of friendly fire against your own aircraft from emplaced antiaircraft guns.
Another reason, especially in densely populated places like cities, is that most people would have taken shelter during air raids. Whether inside formal shelters like bunkers, or makeshift ones in their gardens or cellars or simply inside buildings, any falling projectiles wouldn't find many people out in the open to potentially hit.
Apart from the risk of injury to living things, falling bullets and casings will generally end up littering the ground (or sea) below. If they travel fast enough, projectiles will bury themselves into soft materials, like soil, or come to rest on more solid ground like exposed rocks outcrops, etc.
They may even end up lodged in things like tree trunks where they will stay until the tree dies and rots away.
If they fall into the sea, these objects will obviously sink and end up lying on the seafloor and get buried over time.
Projectiles and casings are generally made of lead, iron, steel, and brass which may break down over time, but this generally takes a very long time. Brass, for example, can remain intact in soil for a very long time indeed — we're talking a thousand years. To this very day, many spent and unfired bullets are regular finds on old battlefields of WW1 and WW2 and even older battles like those of the American Civil War.
On some very rare occasions, bullets are even preserved that have hit one another mid-flight.
Lead can be very dangerous for wildlife. Although most of this danger today comes from ingestion of lead shot expended by hunters, rather than in warfare, there are other dangers. Most lead-core rifle bullets fragment into hundreds of tiny pieces when they strike animal tissue. This lead-tainted meat may be eaten by scavengers and become part of the food chain. Some species, for example, California Condors, were brought to near extinction in part from lead ingestion. The lead can also leach into soils and water, causing longer term issues.
And don't discount the danger of celebratory gunfire fired straight up in the air. In fact, if you ever see anyone firing into the air in celebration, the best thing to do is take cover. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falling bullets can hit the ground at speeds great enough to penetrate the skull. Although they are less likely to hit someone than a bullet which is aimed, celebratory bullets fired up in the air tend to be more likely to hit the head or neck when they do hit.
What happens to shells that miss?
Bullets aside, there were other potentially very serious risks to civilians during air raids, namely antiaircraft shells (a.k.a. flak). Designed to explode at a set altitude (though some traditional artillery shells have also historically been used), the debris from these things had only one way to go after detonation — down.
During WW1, for example, near misses and fatalities from falling debris like shrapnel were quite common, often leading to serious head injuries and deaths. In the trenches, this was by design, as high explosive shells were designed to explode just above the ground and shower anyone unlucky enough to be in the blast radius at the time.
This eventually led to the convention of wearing the helmets that have become so familiar from the period. But these munitions were designed for this purpose, so can't really be classified as "missing" per se.
Antiaircraft shells, on the other hand, were primarily designed as anti-personnel munitions. However, the aftermath of these weapons, or their misses, can be very deadly.
To give you an idea of the problem, various news reports from, and about, the Second World War tells of how during air raids random pieces of shrapnel, unexploded antiaircraft shells, and even stray nose cones, would rain down on houses and streets. This debris would then either seriously injure people or create very serious other collateral damage.
One interesting example was the so-called 1942 Los Angeles air raid, or the "Battle of Los Angeles".
"By the light of day what could be put together is that at approximately 3:10 am anti-aircraft batteries that had been stationed around Southern California's defense plants began firing their 12.8-pound explosive charges and kept this up for fifty minutes, eventually launching over 1,400 of them," explain sources on the 1942 Los Angeles air raid.
"The curious thing was that not a single bomb had been dropped on the city, and not a single scrap of any aircraft was ever recovered. In fact, the only casualties were caused by the falling shrapnel and unexploded ordnance that rained in a 40-mile (64 km) arc from Santa Monica to Long Beach."
But flak shrapnel is not the only problem. Not all antiaircraft shells exploded in the air. Some fell back to earth with disastrous consequences.
"There was scattered structural damage caused by antiaircraft shells that failed to explode in [the] air but did so when they struck the ground, demolishing a garage here, a patio there, and blowing out a tire on a parked automobile," reported the L.A. Times on Feb. 24, 1992, in the same air raid.
But even this unfortunate incident pales in comparison to the events of the Blitz in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that between 1940 and 1945, somewhere in the region of 52,000 civilians were killed during the systematic bombing of British cities.
For many years, it had been assumed most of these casualties were from German bombs, but this might not be entirely true. While it is impossible to be sure, some have estimated that around half of these casualties may have actually been the result of British anti-aircraft artillery fire.
The problem was so bad, that in some places around the UK, that some believe that more civilians were killed by friendly fire than German ordnance.
This was also a problem during the First World War, when naval guns were removed from ships and coastal batteries and relocated into cities, like London, to provide antiaircraft cover. Many shells failed to explode in the air and simply rained down on the city, exploding on impact.
On one day in 1917, for example, 22 German bombers targetted London and were met with thousands of shells fired into the sky. None hit any German planes, and most of the anti-aircraft shells landed on the streets of the city, killing an estimated 10 civilians.
Other reports of the potential damage from falling shrapnel can be found in Honolulu in Hawaii. During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, various vehicles (civilian and military) ended up being peppered with falling debris from antiaircraft fire. In several cases, the occupants had been killed outright.
Other than the immediate aftermath of missed shells or their remains, this kind of ordnance doesn't just disappear after being deployed.
Old shells and shrapnel that don't present a direct risk to human health, will end up being "absorbed" by the environment. Whether by becoming buried in soil, or sunk at sea, these projectiles can survive for a very long time.
Old shrapnel, for example, is still found today in places like London, often in the most unlikely of locations. Unexploded ordnances, like shells, can be so common that they are still a massive human and environmental and safety hazard to this day.
What happens to bombs that miss?
Bombs are another deadly weapon that can, and often has, missed its target in the past. Designed to explode on impact (or after a set time), most bombs will have been destroyed even if their intended target was not hit directly.
However, not all bombs did detonate. Many so-called duds still liter the seabed, cities, and the countryside today in many countries around the world. During WW2, for example, Allied bombers released something in the order of 2.7 million tons of bombs in various locations around mainland Europe.
Over half of that total, it is estimated, were dropped over Germany alone. Of these, something like 10% did not explode, leaving thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance littering the ruined German infrastructure.
After the end of WW2, large amounts of this ordnance (as well as hand grenades, bullets, shells, etc.) needed to be found and destroyed under controlled conditions. But, the location of all missed/undetonated bombs is not exactly known.
For this reason, even today, something like 2,000 tons of unexploded WW2 munitions is still uncovered on German soil every year. The problem is still so serious that for any major construction project in Germany, official certification is required stating that the ground is clear of unexploded ordnance.
Many British and French cities were also targeted during the war with the French countryside also having been affected by the events of WW1.
In some other countries, the problem is even worse. In Laos, for example, it is estimated that more than 50,000 people have been killed by unexploded bombs since the end of the Vietnam war. Almost half have been children.
But there are some more potentially dangerous types of bombs that also "go missing" from time to time — nukes.
The loss of nuclear weapons, colloquially known as "Broken Arrows" (although Broken Arrow also includes the accidental launching, firing, detonating, or of a nuclear weapon) is, it turns out, more common than you might think, or hope for that matter.
One famous example is the loss of an atomic bomb in Greenland's Arctic ice in the 1960s. Lost when a B-52 crashed, the actual warhead of the bomb has never been recovered. According to official reports, the non-nuclear detonator of the bombs on board did detonate, raining down shrapnel and radioactive material over a wide area.
After cleaning up the mess (and reconstructing the bomb fragments), experts noted that one warhead was missing. Apparently, it had drilled its way into the ice of North Star Bay and remains there to this day. A horrific accident, and not the only one.
According to the American Defense Department, six atomic bombs have been lost over the years and are still missing. Otfried Nassauer, a German journalist and peace researcher, and the director of the Berlin Information Center for Transatlantic Security, believed there are even more of them from other countries.
"It is believed that up to 50 nuclear weapons worldwide were lost during the Cold War," he told Speigel in an interview. He believed that most of these weapons are currently lying in various locations on the seafloor.
One example is from April of 1989, when a fire broke out on a Russian Nuclear submarine, the Komsomolets, eventually leading to it sinking to a depth of 5,500 feet (1,700 meters) in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Onboard the vessel was no less than two torpedoes with nuclear warheads. A similar event occurred in the late-1960s when an American nuclear submarine, the USS Scorpion, sunk to a depth of 10,800 feet (3,300 meters) about 320 nautical miles south of the Azores.
Since both of these wrecks are very deep, official recovery operations have been made impossible. Though it was announced that Russian authorities did attempt an investigative voyage of the Komsomolez earlier this year.
However, as far as we know, these nuclear weapons are still out there. On the subject of torpedoes, what happens to them when they miss?
What happens to torpedoes when they miss?
The first modern torpedo was first invented by the English engineer Robert Whitehead in the 1860s and it would soon become one of the deadliest weapons at sea. His first iteration, the eponymous Whitehead torpedo, would lay the foundations for all that would follow.
By World War 1, torpedoes became widely used by most navies and were employed against both surface ships and submarines in large numbers and to devastating effect. The German navy, in a strategy that would be repeated in WW2, disrupted shipping supply lines to mainland Britain using its submarine assets.
But torpedoes were not only used by submarines, many surface ships also had torpedo launchers. But, guiding these weapons was not as "simple" as it is today.
Pre-guided modern torpedoes, often termed straight-running torpedoes, had to be released on courses that were a mix of luck and educated guessing. Submarine and surface ship crews would need to estimate where the enemy vessel would be by the time the torpedo would reach a set position.
Older torpedoes would have some basic guidance systems, like something called a gyro angle, that would turn the torpedo onto a preset interception course after they were fired.
This practice was obviously prone to error, and many, if not most, torpedoes launched would miss. Oftentimes, torpedoes could also be spotted in the water by a surface ship, and evasive maneuvers taken to avoid impact.
These torpedoes would effectively travel along a straight path and wouldn't stop until they either hit something and exploded, or ran out of fuel (or battery charge) and eventually come to a stop. Torpedoes, by design, are usually designed to be close to buoyancy, but slightly negative, helping them stay partially afloat along their run.
To compensate for this, the fins on a torpedo every so slightly pushes the tip of the torpedo upwards so that they can run horizontally but not break the water's surface. These work much like aircraft wings in generating lift for the torpedo.
So, what actually happened to these torpedoes when their fuel ran out? In short one of two things depending on their design.
Some, like the American Mk 14, Mk 18, and Mk 23 torpedoes came with self-destruct devices that would cause the torpedo to explode if they didn't hit anything. This was, in part, for naval navigation safety and also acted as a means of letting the firing vessel know the torpedo had, indeed, missed.
In fact, this was in part dictated by the 1907 Hague Convention VIII that demands all signatory nations never to field mines that do not become harmless after hostilities are ended or torpedos that do not become harmless when they miss their mark.
For torpedoes that lacked this feature, most would simply run out of fuel/charge and sink under their own weight. As we previously mentioned, while torpedoes are close to neutral buoyancy, they are ever so slightly less so, meaning they will inexorably sink if they stop moving.
There are many unexploded torpedoes still out there on the seafloor. Some, like various WW2 German models, also incorporated features to automatically detonate when the torpedo impacted the seafloor.
If the torpedo does survive the sinking process, it will generally just lie there.
Modern torpedoes, on the other hand, and considerably more accurate than their ancestors. Most can be guided towards their targets either by wire or through sophisticated sonar (passive and active), and increasingly use wake homing tracking systems. While they can still miss, or be intercepted, fewer of them need to be fired to hit an enemy target.
Even if they do miss, they also come with self-destruct mechanisms too.
For older torpedoes, if the water depth is great enough, the water pressure should be sufficient to effectively crush the torpedo casing, destroy its firing mechanism or even trigger an explosion in relative safety.
Now and again a fishermen will bring one up in their fishing nets.
In most cases, however, the metal casing of the torpedo will degrade over time, exposing its gubbins to seawater. Whether or not the explosives within degrade as well, so long as the detonator is destroyed, these old torpedoes should be relatively harmless.
In some very rare cases, and if combat occurs close enough to shore, the torpedo may continue its run until it impacts the coast or even beaches itself. If the latter, these obviously present a very series risk to humans and animals unless safely disposed of.
However, as many wreck divers will warn you, you should always assume older sunken ordnance is potentially very dangerous. In fact, the only safe way to dispose of these old weapons is controlled detonation.
But it is not just old torpedoes. Old war wrecks (especially warships) may also be associated with missed shells, depth charges, bombs, and old mines. All of these weapons are potentially very dangerous and, if ever discovered, should never be disturbed unless you are professionally trained and experienced.
Approaching war wrecks is, for this reason, a potentially very dangerous affair. They are also usually considered war graves, so should not be disturbed under any circumstances unless with official permission to do so.
And that, war munitions lovers, are your lot for today. The fate of spent and missed munition is an often overlooked and rarely considered phenomenon, but an important one.
For most items, like fired bullets and old shrapnel, hazards from these are relatively low, but for others that remain viable, nuclear or otherwise, great care should be taken if they are ever discovered.
If you do ever find some on your travels, you are advised to contact the relevant authorities as soon as possible so that they can be disposed of safely.