Cold War

Myasishchev M-4 – The Soviet Bomber with 4 Decades of Service

Post World War II, the race was on between the U.S. and Soviet Union to build the biggest, best and fastest bomber possible. Myasishchev offered their M-4 design. It was intended to carry nuclear payloads and huge amounts of conventional bombs. But this was the era of rapidly improving technology and aircraft were quickly becoming obsolete.

Known to the Russians as the Hammer, Bison to NATO, this large strategic bomber enjoyed almost 40 years in service, despite many other aircraft coming and going within its lifetime.

An M-4 (3MD) Bison in flight.
A 3MD Bison in flight.


M-4 / 3M Development

After nuclear weapons rained down on Japan and once the war was done, Russia was scared. The U.S. had built the B-29 Superfortress which had an extremely long range and was capable of bringing utter devastation.

A counter was needed.

During the war, America refused to give the Soviets B-29s under their lend-lease program. But four aircraft had to make emergency landings within their territory due to damage. One was totally destroyed, but three were repairable and subsequently re-engineered.

Quickly Tupolev introduced the Tu-4 in 1947, a totally new aircraft the world had not seen before…

The Tu-4 was a predecessor to the M-4
The Soviet Tu-4 looked nothing like the American B-29…

847 were built and were in service with China until 1988! But with the pace of jet engine technology evolving so fast, it was clear that the Tu-4 would not have any chance against jet fighters introduced in the 50s.

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Myasishchev was happy to put forward their new design for a long-range jet bomber. The first prototype flew in January 1953 and was handed over and put into service just two years later.

The M-4 was large at 154 feet 10 in length and a wingspan of almost 166 feet. It utilized four Mikulin AM-3A turbojets built into the wings with a somewhat DH.106 Comet-like appearance. These relatively weak engines could only push the Bison to a top speed of 588 mph.

Its bomb load was good and could it could carry up to 26.4 tons of conventional weapons. Cruise missiles could also be attached to the fuselage.

Still clinging to the ideas of conventional bombers from the war, the M-4 had several 23 mm cannons with turrets in the tail and fuselage.

The nose silhouettes of the M-4 variants.
The nose silhouettes of the main M-4 variants.

Operating this Cold War era relic took a crew of eight people. A navigator/bombardier in the nose; pilot and copilot in the cockpit; radar operator/navigator, flight engineer/gunner, radio operator/gunner, and dorsal turret gunner in a compartment behind the cockpit; and a tail gunner.

Despite the drawback of less range than other Soviet bombers, the design was considered good enough to develop further. And only two years after the Bison’s introduction it was updated and re-designated to 3M.

The 3M resolved the earlier M-4’s issue with range by replacing the engines with the RD-7s. These were 25% more efficient dramatically increasing the distance between fill-ups. The wings and fuselage also saw a redesign and an inflight refueling probe was added to the nose.

Bomber Gap

The M-4 was built in the 1950s to attack targets in North America. Ideally being able to deliver weapons to high-value areas.

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Quickly, it was realized that the M-4 was underperforming. Falling short of its intended range and not being able to get far enough into the United States as they had hoped. But the U.S. was unaware of this fact.

In May 1954, a demonstration flight showed off 18 of these large aircraft flying together. Western observers saw this as a huge threat as estimated numbers to be significantly higher. Sparking fears of a “bomber gap”.

The Bison is no longer in service and sits as a museum piece.
The M-4 had a wheel on the end of the wingtips for support. Photo credit – Mike1979 Russia CC BY-SA 3.0

It was believed that the Soviet Union had gained the advantage with their jet-powered bombers and was used as justification for the U.S. to hugely increase defense spending. Whether this was actually believed, or not, it worked. And in response, huge numbers of B-52s and other strategic bombers were built to ensure that America would come out ahead.

To further cement the idea of a bomber gap, in 1955 the Soviets pulled the wool over the West’s eyes by staging a flypast of 10 M-4s. They flew out of sight and appeared once again with a further eight bombers.

28 were counted. By 1960 the U.S. estimated that a total of 800 M-4s would be operational.

A similar tactic was used during the test flights of the Myasishchev M-50 Bounder. Every time that aircraft was flown, different numbers were painted on the nose. Any Western onlookers would believe that there were many more examples.

To combat the perceived threat, the U.S. built up a massive bomber fleet which at its peak was over 2,500 strong.

B-52s on an elephant walk.
A B-52 elephant walk as a display of the U.S. Air Force’s bombers.

Operational History

Thanks to the lack of range in the M-4, not many were put into service and quickly production moved on to the 3M ‘Bison-B’.

But even the new longer range 3M could not reach major targets within U.S. territory. It did however break world records for payload to height including 121,740 lbs to 6,600 feet. Whilst impressive, the West overestimated the capabilities and they believed the M-4 and 3M were the same aircraft.

By 1961 the illusion was broken when it was realized that the M-4 was not the fearsome aircraft it had been once believed to be.

Whilst the Bison might have not been as useful for the Soviet Air Force, the navy took advantage of all it had to offer. The 3M was used as a maritime patrol aircraft.

1963 saw the end of production for the Bison but its career was far from over. Many variants were created over the years for a large number of roles and tests. This included a tanker version, air-to-surface missile testing, as well as a cargo variant.

The Vladimir Myasishchev-Transportny was an extremely unusual modification with a huge cargo pod above the fuselage held by struts.

The M-4 Bison VM-T
The VM-T is a highly unusual transport aircraft. Photo credit – Vitaly V. Kuzmin.

Other nations amended the roles for their bomber aircraft as they grew older and less technologically advanced. The Vickers Valiant of Britain’s V bomber force was their front line bomber when introduced and eventually was modified for low-level attack after it was clear that using it for high-altitude missions was no longer viable.

This was not the case with Russia and despite never seeing combat, neither the M-4 nor the 3M was converted for this type of use.

Read More: Tupolev Tu-144 – The Soviet Concorde

Due to the versatility and adaptability of the Bison, it did remain in service until 1994.

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  • Crew: 8
  • Length: 154 ft 10 in (47.2 m)
  • Wingspan: 165 ft 8 in (50.5 m)
  • Height: 46 ft 3 in (14.1 m)
  • Max takeoff weight: 400,139 lb (181,500 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Mikulin AM-3A turbojets, 19,280 lbf (85.75 kN) thrust each
  • Maximum speed: 588 mph (947 km/h)
  • Range: 3,500 mi (5,600 km)
  • Service ceiling: 36,000 ft (11,000 m)