After a long design process, beginning with the XF4F-1 biplane of 1936, Grumman finally produced an effective fighter in the F4F-3 Wildcat. In March 1939 the French placed an order for 100 of the new aircraft, followed by the US Navy, who ordered 78 on 8 August 1939. The F4F Wildcat would become the standard US Carrier fighter aircraft until 1943, when the F6F began to replace it.
The production F4F-3 was a big winged, stubby aircraft, but the fuselage was well streamlined. It was fast, reaching a maximum speed of 331 mph. The first two test aircraft carried the same guns as the prototype XF4F-3, but after that the armament was changed to four .50 calibre machine guns (Browning M2s), two in each wing. It was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 engine, capable of providing 1,200 hp. Later in the production run this was changed to the similar but more reliable R-1830-86 engine.
The first F4F-3 flew in February 1940. The first squadron to receive them was VF-4, the fighter squadron for the U.S.S. Ranger (CV-4). They got their new fighters in November and December 1940. Over the next year the Wildcat replaced the Brewster F2A in Navy service. Only two squadrons were still using the F2A at the end of 1941.
The F4F-3 had a short combat life. A small number were present at Pearl Harbor, where they suffered the same fate as most other American aircraft based there, being destroyed on the ground. Five Wildcats became famous in the days that followed as the only fighter aircraft left on Wake Island. These early combat experiences revealed one flaw with the Wildcat. It had not been tested in true combat experience, and when it was the Browning machine guns frequently jammed. A minor modification fixed the problem, but it clearly demonstrated the advantage of experience the Japanese had early in the war.
The XF4F-6 was built to test the Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90 engine. This engine had a one stage supercharger, instead of the more complex two stage supercharger used in the F4F-3. There was some concern that the two staged engines might be in short supply as pre-war production increased. The test aircraft flew on 11 October 1940. Performance was found to be relatively unaffected by the change at lower altitudes, although the service ceiling fell to 34,000 feet and high altitude performance was lower. The Navy placed an order for a production version of this aircraft, designated as the F4F-3A.
The first thirty F4F-3As were built for the Greek air force. However, Greece fell before they arrived, and so they were taken over by the Royal Navy, as Martlet Mk IIIs. Another 65 were built in 1941 for the U.S. Navy. They served with the Marine Corps (in squadron VMF-111), and on several carriers, including the Enterprise. However, they had been replaced by the time of the Doolittle raid on Japan. The F4F-3A was present at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Four F4F-3As of VF-6 were destroyed during the Japanese raid.
17 F4F-3s and one F4F-3A were converted for use as short range reconnaissance aircraft. They had their reserve fuel tank removed, and a Fairchild F-56 camera added behind the main fuel tank. These eighteen aircraft saw service during the fighting in the Solomon Islands, especially on Guadalcanal.
The F4F-3S was designed as an answer to the float plane version of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. This aircraft, given the allied code name “Zeke”, was first encountered in the autumn of 1942 in the Solomon Islands and Aleutian Islands. It was used in areas where the Japanese had yet to build a suitable airbase for their land fighters. The US Navy decided to construct their own float plane fighter, and ordered Grumman to modify a F4F-3 for the new role. They did that by fitting twin floats to a standard F4F-3. This aircraft first flew on 28 February 1943. Performance was understandably poor, with the maximum speed reduced to 266 mph, and worse handling. After some modifications, an order was placed for 100 F4F-3S “Wildcatfish”, replacing an order for 100 F4F-7 long range fighters. However, the need for float planes quickly disappeared when the Navy Construction Battalions (the Seabees) proved able to build airstrips on captured islands much more quickly than the Japanese, and these hundred aircraft were eventually finished as standard F4F-3s, and used as training aircraft.