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The Paris Gun

The Krupp arms-making dynasty was founded in Essen upon the fortune amassed by Arndt Krupp, who settled in that city in 1587. His son Anton expanded the family’s endeavors into making firearms during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, and the family progressively expanded its operations over the ensuing decades. In 1811, Friedrich Krupp (1787-1826) established a steel casting facility, and, although he successfully began casting steel in 1816, he expended considerable funds in the process. His son, Alfried (1812- 1887), continued his father’s work and eventually re-established the family fortune. By its nature steel was very difficult to cast, and internal faults were often impossible to detect through existing testing procedures. Defective cast steel pieces were also much more dangerous to crews than iron cannons, as the softer iron tended to split or burst with less energy than the harder steel, which more often ruptured with deadly violence. The Krupp firm’s success in casting steel was considered one of the major metallurgical achievements of its day.

Beginning in 1844, Alfried Krupp began experimenting in machining guns from solid cast steel blanks and in 1847 produced his first steel cannon. That same year he presented a steel gun to the King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm IV (1795-1861)-an act of entrepreneurial generosity that later won an order for 300 field guns. He went on to display a 6-pounder muzzleloading gun at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and began experiments in developing breechloading weapons. In 1856, Krupp introduced a 90mm field gun fitted with a transverse sliding breechblock that fit through a corresponding slot in the rear of the barrel.

Germany subsequently made the transition to rifled breechloaders during the 1860s, a move that gave it a distinct artillery advantage during the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War. Shortly after the war it adopted 78.5mm guns for its horse artillery and 88mm pieces for field use. The logistical difficulties associated with supplying two sizes of ammunition in the field and recent advances in metallurgy and gun design then led to the Model 73/88 system, which used the 88mm caliber for both horse artillery and field use and the later Model 73/91 system, utilizing nickel steel barrels. The Model 73/91 was finally superseded by Germany’s answer to the French 75-the Model 96 or Feldkanone 96 neur Art.

The development of specialized antiaircraft artillery also intensified during the war. The first documented use of antiaircraft artillery occurred as early as the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. At Paris, the Prussian commander von Moltke ordered weapons from Krupp in order to shoot down balloons in which the French were trying to sail over the Prussian lines. Krupp eventually delivered a number of single-shot, caliber 1-inch rifles that were mounted on pedestals bolted to the beds of two-horse wagons; they theoretically could follow the balloons on the ground while maintaining a steady firing rate. The Krupp pieces were relatively ineffective, yet at least one French balloon was apparently downed by their fire.

The rapid proliferation of powered military aircraft at the turn of the century, however, spurred an equally dedicated effort to neutralize the threat of air attacks. During the 1909 Frankfurt International Exhibition, Krupp unveiled three antiaircraft guns in a bid to monopolize the emerging market. These included a caliber 65mm 9-pounder and a 75mm 12-pounder. Krupp claimed that the largest, a pedestal-mounted 105mm gun intended for shipboard use, achieved a maximum ceiling of 37,730 feet. The caliber 65mm gun had an 18,700-foot range, could elevate 75 degrees, and its carriage had unique hinged axles that allowed the wheels to be pivoted to a position perpendicular to their traveling position. With the trail spade acting as its axis, this arrangement enabled the crew to traverse the piece 360 degrees to track enemy aircraft. With a claimed maximum ceiling of 21,326 feet, the caliber 75mm gun was mounted on a truck bed, thus giving it a high degree of mobility. Not to be outdone, Erhardt, Krupp’s closest domestic competitor, also exhibited a 50mm quick-firing antiaircraft gun mounted in an armored car’s turret.

The period also witnessed considerable experimentation in antiaircraft shells and fuses. Krupp introduced a high-explosive shell for its 3-pounder equipped with a “smoke-trail” fuse, an early tracer round that both aided the crews in sighting and was an effective incendiary against the hydrogen-filled airships of the period.

During World War I the Germans continued to experiment in antiaircraft weaponry, beginning in 1914 with the 77mm Ballonen-AK. The Ballonen-AK was then, in turn, followed in 1915 by the 77mm Luftkanone, a basic 77mm field cannon barrel mounted on a rotating scaffolding. The more effective Krupp 88mm FlaK entered service in 1918 and eventually became the inspiration for the famous World War II German “Eighty-Eight.”

Popularly named after Alfred Krupp’s daughter, the 41.3-ton, 420mm “Big Bertha” had a horizontal sliding block and fired a 1,719-pound shell up to 10,253 yards. Big Bertha required five tractors to transport its components, and it had to be assembled on site. In conjunction with a number of Austrian Skoda 305mm howitzers, the L/14 was first used with devastating effect against Liege in August 1914; it saw other action on both the Western and Eastern fronts. Owing to its relatively short range and vulnerability to Allied fire, Big Bertha was obsolete by 1917. Another heavy piece, the 211mm Mörser was adopted in 1916. It weighed 14,727 pounds and fired a 250-pound shell up to 12,139 yards.

Designed by Krupp engineers and adopted in 1918, the Paris Gun used the basic 380mm Max railroad gun barrel fitted with a barrel liner and lengthened 20 feet. The 210mm Paris Gun weighed 1,653,470 pounds and mounted a 2,550-inch barrel with a horizontal sliding block. It fired a 264-pound shell up to 82 miles. Crewed by naval personnel, the Paris Gun was so powerful that it fired its shells into the stratosphere, where the thinner atmosphere exerted less resistance, allowing such long ranges. The stress on the bore, however, wore the barrel significantly, and each succeeding projectile had to have progressively larger driving bands and heavier powder charges to compensate for the increasing windage. Although hugely inefficient in the final analysis, the Paris Gun’s greatest value lay in its use as a propaganda tool rather than an artillery piece.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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