The ‘Ballon Kanone’ Was the First Anti-Aircraft Gun
French balloons inspired a Prussian countermeasure
by MATTHEW MOSS
The first untethered balloon flight took place on Nov. 21, 1783, with the first military use occurring during the French Revolutionary Wars. A century later during the Franco-Prussian War, the French again deployed observation balloons — and when Prussian troops besieged Paris, they became a vital lifeline out of the encircled city.
Which is why the Prussians developed the Ballon Kanone—history’s first purpose-made anti-aircraft gun.
The Prussians cut all communications between Paris and the provincial French forces and the first balloon, Neptune, left the city on Sept. 23, 1870, with regular flights beginning three days later. These flights carried supplies, 164 passengers and mail at a cost to senders of 20 centimes per letter.
Sixty-six balloon flights carried approximately 2.5 million letters during the siege. The French established two factories in Parisian railway stations to build and maintain the city’s small armada of balloons.
In response to the French balloon flights, Alfred Krupp developed a breech-loading 37-millimeter cannon mounted on a pedestal fixed to the bed of a carriage. Some sources describe the gun as a Ballonabwehrkanone or “balloon-defense gun.”
The cannon had a stock and a folding sight that was fixed to the receiver. The weapon could rapidly deploy to open fire on balloons as they crossed Prussian lines.
It’s hard to say exactly how well the Ballon Kanone worked. Five French balloons were captured by the Prussians after they were forced to land. A further three were declared missing.
On Oct. 7, 1870, French interior minister Leon Gambetta left Paris in the balloon Armand-Barbès in order to rally troops near Tours. The last balloon took off from Paris on Jan. 28, 1871, the day of the armistice.
An example of the Ballon Kanone is in the collection of the Militarhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr in Dresden, with another at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.