What is a Ball Turret?

Mary McMahon

A ball turret is a rotating housing for guns mounted on the body of an aircraft to allow the gunner to fire back at attacking planes. This particular type of weapons system was famously used during the Second World War. Modern aircraft usually employ remote weapons systems, eliminating the need for a housing big enough to accommodate a gun and its operator.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The ball turret is designed to rotate, allowing the gunner to shift position to hit approaching planes. It operates essentially like a large, hollow, ball bearing. In some aircraft designs, it is retracted when not in use, while in others, it is permanently fixed in place. The most famous design of the Second World War was probably the Sperry ball turret. The spherical shape was barely large enough to support the gun, ammunition, and gunner, with gunners being forced into a fetal position to fire the gun. Even more inconveniently, rotating could leave the gunner upside down while managing the gun and ammunition.

Serving in a ball turret was difficult and unpleasant work. It was isolated from the rest of the crew and communication was sometimes difficult. The exposed position made the gun's operator vulnerable to targeting by the enemy, raising fears of being injured or killed while the rest of the plane's crew survived. While pilots were statistically in the most danger, the idea that the gunner's position was the most dangerous persisted on many airfields.

Standalone replicas of ball turrets can be seen on display at some military museums, for people who are interested in seeing what they looked like. Complete aircraft with ball turrets in place are also available for view in some areas. Some of these aircraft have been carefully restored and cared for to mimic the conditions of the 1940s as precisely as possible. As people who have an opportunity to sit in one will find, the quarters are cramped and there's limited cushioning for comfort.

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A famous poem published in 1945, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” highlights the isolation and hazards of serving as the gunner. The poet's author, Randall Jarrell, summed up the experience in only five lines, concluding “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” The poem has been widely reprinted and discussed in school curricula, and like many authors who become famous for only one of their pieces, Jarrell sometimes lamented the popularity of this particular work.

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Discussion Comments


@Rotergirl -- The other problem was the B-17 Flying Fortress was a big plane, and even though it could take a fair amount of punishment, it wasn't very maneuverable. It was just too big.

It's amazing anyone survived the ball turret gunner's job.

One very, very good movie about the B-17 and the various jobs on board the plane is "Memphis Belle." It's not completely historically accurate, of course, but it is a very watchable movie, and really captures the flavor of what it must have been like to fly those bombing missions over Germany.


I remember reading "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" in high school. It definitely affected me greatly. I thought about that one for a long time after I read it.

The problem with the ball turret was it was on the belly of the plane, which is why the gunners felt so vulnerable. It was just too easy for an attacking fighter to pick off the ball turret gunner, especially if the bomber squadron's fighter escort was otherwise occupied.

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