Dropping Darts From An Aeroplane

Gallagher Great War: 2nd Series Card #134 - Dropping Darts From An Aeroplane

Gallaher Great War: 2nd Series Card #134 – Dropping Darts From An Aeroplane

Above is a card issued by Gallaher Ltd., a cigarette company that issued many great tobacco cards – this one back in 1915, entitled The Great War Second Series, implying there is a First Series, and there is, also from 1915.

It had 100 cards per set depicting all aspects of WWI, from ground troops, air, water, equipment and more… and was issued as the war was going on.

If you smoked, this was an excellent way of keeping abreast of some of the more uncommon aspects of the war – even if you were there fighting in it.

Card #134 above and below depicts how both sides would drop darts – also known as flechettes – from an aeroplane.

Darts?! How evil. Can you imagine that going through someone you love?

By the way, I am sure the card’s depiction is a bit of an over-simplification, because drawn as such – in reality the pilot looks like he would fall through as well.

Still, I bet such a contraption did exist – a real bomb bay, just not exactly as shown.

The flechettes varied in size from 2.5-centimeters (1-inch) to around 15-centimeters in length (six-inches)were packed into boxes which had a special release system on it.

The pilot would then fly over enemy trenches and pull a string to release the darts, 500 at a time, over the German troops below.

As one would imagine, the darts weren’t very accurate, but then, when you are dropping 500 at a time, they don’t have to be.

But here’s the thing… British pilots really didn’t like using these darts against the Germans, saying it was very ‘unBritish’.

For the Germans in the trenches of World War One, the cry of “Pfeile!” (Arrows) would fill their troops with dread. It meant hundreds of tiny darts were going to drop on them, capable of piercing both helmet and skull.

The problem with the German warning of ‘pfeile’ however is that the Germans didn’t know they were coming until they hit someone or something – the darts were a silent but deadly killer as they dropped through the air.

According to the British war magazine, The War Illustrated, it says that the Royal Flying Corp. really didn’t like using the flechettes.

In one article, it says: “Our aviators think arrow-dropping dirty work – because the enemy cannot hear the things coming, and because they make such nasty wounds.

“Also it was not possible to drop them with sufficient accuracy.”

Up until this time, while war might still have been hell, tactics from above were still fairly ‘gentlemanly’… but the Germans began using harsher methods of warfare, and so these darts became accepted as a viable tactic against the Hun.

However, this is a case of chicken and the egg. Did the Germans begin using dirtier tactics in the war because 1) it is a war, after all, or 2) because the British were using dirty tactics like dropping darts on them?

Gallagher Great War 2nd Series 134 reverseThe card reads:

Dropping Darts from An Aeroplane.

Airmen sometimes drop darts from an aeroplane instead of bombs. The effect of these when dropped from a great height is very deadly. A thousand darts are dropped at one operation from a box, the lid of which fits into an opening on the under side of the aeroplane.

How deadly are these darts? The image above doesn’t quite do it justice. Take a look at a real one below.

world war 1 darts

A dart or flechette.

Still… since aeroplanes were still new to warfare, people were still trying to determine the best way to utilize them.

Darts were first… then hand-held bombs…

Yes, pilots would drop a bomb that they would hold over the side of the plane and release by opening up their hand – and bombs away!


Pilot dropping a hand-held bomb.

What were they used for? Primarily, they were used to burst balloons – observation hot-air balloons, as well as hydrogen-filled zeppelins that would go on raids dropping large bombs of their own.

Eventually someone decided combine the simplicity of the dart with the elegance of a bomb’s explosiveness – via the 2.2-kilogram (one-pound) 30-centimeter (12″) long steel-tipped exploding dart with four pivoting vanes at the tail.

Ranken Dart

Ranken Dart

These darts – Ranken darts – were designed to burst the canvas skin of the balloon, drop inside and when the vanes snagged the canvas, it would cause the detonator to fire – igniting the hydrogen in the zeppelin. Ka-BOOM, baby!

The Aerial Anti Zeppelin Ranken Exploding Dart was invented by Commander Francis Ranken of the British Royal Navy in 1915 and was dropped from a height of up to 213.36-meters (700-feet), but between 91.44 to 121.92-meters to  (300 to 400-feet) was later determined to be the best altitude to attack the low-flying German zeppelins.

Pilots would fly above the giant airships, lean over the cockpit side and drop these exploding Ranken darts one at a time or, if they were feeling lucky, in a cluster.

Later the Ranken darts were packed in a 24-round box angled at a 45-degree angle to the rear of the plane.

(Later still, a 2.268-kilogram [5-pound] Ranken dart was created, but saw limited action as the Germans, later in the war, felt the zeppelin as a war machine was an outdated sitting duck.)

The Ranken darts (and the hand-dropped bombs) bursting through a zeppelin would cause a very quick explosion, so the dropping pilot would have to get clear of the explosion very quickly or risk becoming a casualty of war.

Rather than shooting at the zeppelin with the plane’s guns – which was often difficult for multiple reasons, which we will look at in a later blog article – the dart (flechette) and the exploding dart (Ranken dart) was seen as a viable balloon busting method.

About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. He has written and been an editor for various industrial magazines, has scripted comic books, ghost-written blogs for business sectors galore, and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. He works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers - even though it takes him so much time to do. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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5 Responses to Dropping Darts From An Aeroplane

  1. jon smythe says:

    prusssian balloon buster of 1870 true name is preussiscles balongeshutz. 1963 one was in east berlin military museum. thanks for your photo\info very rare


  2. Iro says:

    “Preussisches Ballongeschütz”- 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Donald Hahn says:

    Hey I found this looking for Info to add to a Traveller RGP game.


  4. James Jason Wentworth says:

    “Balloon busting” is a popular–and peaceful–contest event among competitive C/L and U/C (Control Line and U-Control [which uses a single, wrist-twisted control cable], respectively) model airplane pilots. The models are often profile (flat-fuselage) models of carrier-based aircraft, which take off from and land on a “carrier deck” (laid out on the ground–or painted on pavement–and in the shape of a portion of a circle [the flight paths of C/L & U/C models]), complete with arrestor hook cables across the “deck.” Ordinary rubber or latex party balloons are inflated with air, and mounted atop thin sticks that are stuck into the ground, and:

    The objective, in order to win–which is more difficult than it may sound–is to bust the balloons with the model’s propeller, without touching the ground (the thin sticks, swaying in even gentle breezes, make the balloons quite elusive targets! (Now that electric ducted fan–EDF–powered, R/C [Radio Control] jets, even very small [and even indoor-flying–some being profile scale models] ones, are now practical, EDF-powered C/L and U/C models of carrier-based jets could also do “balloon-busting,” using a clear plastic under-fuselage strake [or two wingtip ones] to cut the balloons’ skin, since such models lack propellers.)


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