It is the most awesome fieldpiece to ever face an enemy, a monstrous weapon designed to annihilate advancing hoards of saber wielding troops. The mere sight of it was enough to give an attacking commander second thoughts. The bronze beast of Moscow has guarded the city since the 16th century, and as one of the centerpieces of Kremlin history, it continues to impress artillerymen even today.
The colossal cannon was cast in 1586 at the Moscow Cannon Yard by Russia’s most renowned bronze worker of the era, Andrei Chokov. Commissioned to be built by Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich (son of Ivan the Great) to protect Moscow’s most vulnerable positions, it protected the famed Spasky Gate on Red Square until 1591 when it was repositioned at Kitai-Gorod (Moscow’s Chinatown) to dissuade the advancing army of Kaza-Girei.
The cannonball belching behemoth weighs an amazing 40 tons, is 17.5 feet long, and with a 35-inch (890mm) barrel that several sources claim is the largest caliber cannon in the world.
Dubbed the “Russian Shotgun” by its early users due to plans for using case-shot against advancing columns (although it was designed to hurl 1,800-pound stone balls), its ornately decorated barrel depicting Tsar Fyodor Ivanovich earned it the moniker “Tsar Cannon” by which it is still known today.
An inscription next to the likeness of the Tsar holding a scepter and mounted on a horse reads, “By divine mercy Grand Duke and Tsar of all Russia Fyodor Ivanovich.”
After threat of invasion diminished the gun was moved to the yard of the arsenal inside the Kremlin walls. The cannon’s original wooden carriage was demolished by retreating French troops when they burned arsenal in 1812, but the practically indestructible gun survived French attempts to destroy Russia’s weaponry during their hasty withdrawal.
Today the arsenal’s replacement is ringed by 800 guns captured during the Napoleonic era, testament of Russia’s ability to triumph over invading armies. The Tsar Cannon sat unsupported until 1835 when famed designer A.P. Brullov of St. Petersburg forged an elaborate cast-iron carriage. The cannon sits atop the exquisite carriage today, next to four one-ton hollow cannonballs also manufactured in St. Petersburg.
With wheels back under it, from 1843 the Tsar Cannon stood proudly in front of the State Armory along with captured artillery until 1960 when the armory was razed to make room for the Soviet seat of power, the Kremlin Congress Palace. It was moved to a fitting place within the Kremlin; Ivan Square, named after the family that commissioned its casting.
Ironically, this mammoth weapon of war’s final resting place is in front of the Church of the Twelve Apostles, one of Moscow’s most famous places of worship. Perhaps even more ironic is that this gigantic killing machine, designed to protect Moscow through its most turbulent periods of history by mowing down hundreds of enemy soldiers, throughout four centuries of existence, has never fired a shot.
About the Author: Thomas Lohr is a 24-year Navy veteran whose experience in cannon include the 127mm dual purpose gun on Adams Class destroyers, 76mm rapid fire Italian built Oto-Melara naval gun on Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates (as well as many international warships), and the 20mm Phalanx Close in Weapon System.