Brewster F2A Buffalo

The Brewster Buffalo was the first monoplane fighter to enter service with the U.S. Navy. It was designed in response to a U.S. Navy design contest of 1936, in which it competed against and bettered the aircraft that would eventually replace it – the Grumman F4F Wildcat!

The Buffalo was a victim of the rapid pace of aircraft development in the late 1930s and early 40s and of the failure of the Brewster Company to adapt to mass production. The version of the Buffalo that suffered such heavy losses at Midway, the F2A-3, was probably the worst version of the aircraft, as weight increased but power did not. Some pilots preferred the F2A-2 to the F4F-3 Wildcat, but the F2A-3 was totally outclassed by the Zero. The best that can be said for the F2A-3 Buffalo was that it gave many Navy pilots an invaluable introduction to monoplane fighters.


The XF2A-1 was designed in response to a 1936 Navy contest to design a replacement for the Grumman F3F biplane. Brewster’s response was a mid-wing monoplane, with an enclosed cockpit, retractable undercarriage, and all metal construction. The XF2A-1 was armed with one .30 calibre and one .50 calibre machine gun mounted in the engine cowling. Additionally one .50 calibre gun could be installed in each wing.

The prototype XF2A-1 first flew on 2 December 1937. It was based around a 950 hp Wright W 1820-22 Cyclone engine, but failed to live up to its promised performance. The competing Grumman XF4F-2 had reached 290 mph in September 1937. The Brewster design was expected to top this, but failed to do so until it had been extensively redesigned. Finally, after a series of modifications in early 1938 the XF2A-1 reached a top speed of 304 mpg at 16,000 feet and a climb rate of 2,750 feet per second. In June 1938 the U.S. Navy accepted the XF2A-1 and placed an order for 54 of the production model (only 10 of these ever entered U.S. Service, with the rest going to Finland).



Brewster F2A-1 'Buffalo' of VF-3, 1940
Brewster F2A-1 'Buffalo'
of VF-3, 1940

After tests of the XF2A-1 proved successful, the U.S. Navy placed an order for 54 of the aircraft. A series of minor changes were made, including the installation of a telescopic gun sight and an improved cockpit canopy. The same engine was used as in the final prototype. The aircraft were produced with the two gun configuration, but after exercises in the spring of 1940 the wing guns were added.

However, the Brewster Company had a serious problem. Their factory in Queens, New York, was simply not suited to mass produce aircraft. Production was split over several floors, and aircraft then had to be disassembled to be shipped to an airport. Delivery of the first Buffalos slipped from May 1939. When five were delivered in November they had several faults that meant they had to be returned. Finally, in December 1939 nine F2A-1s were assigned to VF-3 (the fighter squadron of the U.S.S. Saratoga – CV 3).

The remainder of the F2A-1s were diverted to Finland to help them in the Winter War against Russia. However, they did not arrive in time to take part in that war. Instead, they were used by the Finns when they allied with the Germans. The F2A-1s in U.S. service were phased out in October 1940


Brewster F2A-2 Buffalo of VF-3, 1940
Brewster F2A-2 Buffalo of VF-3, 1940

This was by far the best version of the Buffalo. It had a more powerful Wright R-1820-40 engine, producing 1,200 hp. This increased its top speed to 344 mph at 16,500 feet, making it quicker than the F4F Wildcat. Firepower was standardised at four .50 calibre machine guns, two in the engine cowling and two in the wings. This model did not enter U.S. Navy service until September-November 1940. Even by then it was clear that the aircraft was obsolescent. Over the course of 1941 the F2A-2 was replaced by the F2A-3. Most export versions of the Buffalo were based on the F2A-2, but none matched its performance.


Brewster F2A-3 'Buffalo'
Brewster F2A-3 'Buffalo'

Unfortunately, the F2A-3 was the most numerous version in December 1941. It was clear step backwards in production compared to the dash two. The engine remained the same, but it carried more fuel, more armour and more ammunition. While this may have increased its range, the decrease in all round performance left this version of the Buffalo at a significant disadvantage in combat. The dash three entered Navy service in August 1941, but by the end of the year it was already being replaced by the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat. The discarded Buffalos were given to the Marine Corps to train its new fighter squadrons. By the time of Pearl Harbor, only two Marine squadrons were using the aircraft in service. One of those squadrons was based on Midway Island.

Combat Record

Brewster F2A-3 'Buffalo' of VMF-212, Hawaii, 1942 Brewster F2A-3 'Buffalo' of VMF-212, Hawaii, 1942

The F2A Buffalo saw combat during the battle of Midway. Marine squadron VMF-221, based at Midway, had twenty-one F2A-3s and seven F4F Wildcats. On 4 June twenty of the Buffalos and five of the Wildcats took off to intercept an incoming Japanese bombing raid. Only seven Buffalos and three Wildcats returned. The Buffalo could hardly be blamed for this. The Marine aircraft attacked in two small waves. They faced a force of 107 Japanese aircraft, which included 36 Zeros. Despite being outnumbered by four to one they managed to shoot down at least nine Japanese aircraft, including two Zeros. Nevertheless, the Buffalo got most of the blame. After Midway the Buffalo was removed from front line service.


The Buffalo saw most success in Finish service (as the Brewster Model 239). Forty four modified F2A-1s were exported in 1939-40, to help the Finns in the Winter War against Russia. However, the war ended before the Buffalo could enter combat, and so when the Finns did finally get to use the Buffalo against the Russians it was as an ally of Germany. The Finns achieved very impressive results with the Buffalo, shooting down 496 Soviet aircraft for the loss of only nineteen Buffalos. Three things help account for this unexpectedly impressive record. First, the main Soviet air efforts were being made further south against the Germans. The Finnish front was a much lower priority. Second, the Finns and Russians were normally fighting at much lower altitudes than was common elsewhere – the Russians concentrating on low level ground attack and close support missions – and the Finns found the Buffalo to be very effective at low altitude. Finally, the Finnish pilots were veterans while many of their Soviet opponents were novices, often rushed to the front without suitable training. Most Buffalo losses came later in the war, when the Soviet air force was able to deploy much more modern aircraft against them, but some survived to take part in the final twist of the war, when the Finns turned on their German allies to chase them out of Finland.







Wright R-1820-34

Wright R-1820-40

Wright R-1820-40


950 hp

1,200 hp

1,200 hp


35 feet


35 feet


26 feet


26 feet 4 inches

Max weight

5,040 lbs


6,518 lbs

Max speed

311 mph at 18,000 feet

344 mph at 16,500

321 mph at 16,500 feet


33,300 feet


32,600 feet


1,000 miles


1,680 miles


One .30 calibre machine gun and
either one or three .050 calibre machine guns
(speed is for three guns).

Four .50 calibre machine guns

Four .50 calibre machine guns

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 June 2007), Brewster F2A Buffalo,

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