The Gloster Gauntlet represents a generation of RAF biplanes designed to rather un-ambitious specifications during the 1920s. Although it did not enter service until 1935, it was designed to fulfil a 1926 Air Ministry specification! The delay was caused by the lack of a suitable engine. It took until 1932 and the appearance of the 536 HP Bristol Mercury VIS nine-cylinder air-cooled radial engine for Gloster to build a suitable aircraft.
The prototype aircraft entered RAF evaluation in February 1933. It had a maximum speed of 163 mph at sea level, rising to 210 mph at 14,000 and a climb rate of 2000 feet per minute. A series of changes were made before production began on the Mk I. The engine was changed to the slightly superior Bristol Mercury VIS2, capable of producing 570 HP. The aircraft was armed with two .303 calibre Vickers Mk V machine guns, with 600 rounds per gun. A series of minor modifications led to the Mk II Gauntlet, the most common service version, with very similar performance.
228 Gauntlets entered RAF service (24 Mk Is and 204 Mk IIs). In addition Finland bought twenty five, South Africa four and Rhodesia three. However, the Gauntlet was obsolescent almost before it was built. The specification that would lead to the Gloster Gladiator was released in 1930 (F.7/30) and called for a much superior aircraft. The Gladiator would have a maximum speed of over 250 mph and carry twice the firepower of the Gauntlet (four .303 machine guns). The new aircraft entered production in 1936, after problems with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine delayed the new monoplane fighters. The Gauntlet was retired from RAF service in 1939.
The Gauntlet saw combat in Finland during the Winter War (1939-40). The Russian air force was also armed with biplanes – the Polikarpov I-15 and I-153 – both of which had seen service during the Spanish Civil. The I-15 had a similar top speed to the Gauntlet, but the I-153 could reach 279 mph, and was a much more modern aircraft. The Finns were massively outnumbered during the Winter War, and even the arrival of 30 more modern Gloster Gladiators did little to redress the balance.