EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLISH SMOOTHBORE ARTILLERY

David Morier, the British artillery train at the camp of Roermond (Flanders) in 1748. Lt. – Gen. Albert Borgard, 1st Col. – Commandant of the Royal Artillery, in Holland – centre.

The successes of Gustavus Adolphus ‘s field artillery in the seventeenth century exerted a profound effect throughout Europe. The British army responded by differentiating between its large caliber siege and coastal “heavy equipments” and its “light equipments” for field use. The light equipments were of bronze or brass and incorporated guns as heavy as 12-pounders and howitzers up to 24-pounders. As early field carriages were heavy, ponderous affairs, English field artillery of the period was typically deployed in more or less static positions as “Artillery of the Park,” to provide covering fire for infantry and cavalry units.

During the latter seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth centuries, the British army began detaching two light field pieces per infantry battalion and cavalry regiment. The remaining, typically heavier, artillery stayed centralized in the Artillery of the Park. Although that arrangement occasionally provided a tactical edge on the battlefield, the army ultimately found it organizationally impractical. As a result, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain abandoned the earlier system in favor of an autonomous Artillery of the Park arrangement.

English as well as most other European smoothbore cannons were made of both iron and bronze, and in England they were classified into four major types: guns, mortars, howitzers, and carronades. The small swivel gun also saw extensive use during the period as well. The trunnions of early English field pieces were typically mounted somewhat below the barrel’s centerline.

Britain’s progress from the jumble of various earlier artillery types to a rational organization mirrored that of other European powers. The various calibers, established during the Elizabethan period, included 6-, 9-, 12-, 18-, 24-, 32-, and 42-pounders-sizes that remained in British service through the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth centuries. The country began the century fielding a cannon design known as the “Rose and Crown” after the raised decorative motif cast into the upper face of its second reinforce. Later cannons were decorated with the raised royal cipher of the individual monarch, the name of the founder, and the date of manufacture. In use from 1650 through the end of Queen Anne’s reign in 1714, most if not all Rose and Crown pieces were of iron and exhibited a long, graceful profile with the trunnions situated below the tube’s centerline and a rather plain, unadorned cascabel.

Despite his country’s attempts at standardization, when General John Armstrong investigated Britain’s ordnance inventories in the 1730s he found six sizes of 24-pounders then in service, ranging from 8 to 10.5 feet in length. After a series of tests, Armstrong attempted to correct the situation with what has come to be known as the Armstrong System, consisting of the optimal lengths of brass (bronze) and iron guns. Still, the situation was little better in 1764; Board of Ordnance records indicated, for example, three lengths of bronze 6-pounders and seven of iron. The board’s official listings of recognized cannons of that year illustrate a dizzying array of artillery pieces then in British service.

However well intentioned, Armstrong’s reforms proved short-lived as other theorists stepped into the debate. Chief among them was John Müller, the master gunner of Woolwich. Author of Treatise of Artillery (1768) and Elements of the Science of War (1811), Müller exerted considerable influence over European and U. S. artillery development and theory during the latter half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Müller’s main concern was to increase the efficiency of British cannons by eliminating all unnecessary weight without sacrificing their effectiveness or compromising their crews’ safety.

He subsequently reduced barrel lengths and the amount of metal used in their construction. Whereas the shortening of the cannon barrels was a rather straightforward proposal, the limiting of actual gunmetal used in the tube presented a number of more complex issues. To ensure safety, earlier guns had often been overengineered, being cast in the form of a series of “reinforces” that stepped the outside diameter of the barrel downward from breech to muzzle. Müller favored a smoother exterior profile yet did somewhat reluctantly agree to allow the addition of more or less decorative bands around the tubes, at least to suggest added strength. He also reduced the windage in British guns, making them more efficient in harnessing the explosive power of the charge and thus reducing the actual powder needed.

By midcentury British guns were relatively consistent in style, with a cleaner exterior profile; they were distinguished by a raised band around the center of the cascabel. As the century progressed minor changes occurred, including a flattening of the surface of the breech face, straight rather than tapered trunnions, and the addition of rimbases to the trunnions. On bronze guns, a connecting ring at the breech for the elevating screw was added. Although iron was much less expensive and the most common metal for artillery, Müller also advocated the use of the more flexible and hence less brittle bronze for seacoast and shipboard use. To this argument he also added bronze’s advantage in that it does not rust-a considerable problem for iron guns used near saltwater or sea air.

THE BRITISH LIGHT EQUIPMENTS

As the century progressed, the British leadership gradually grew to appreciate the advantage of mobile artillery in the field. During the 1701-1713 War of the Spanish Succession, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722), proved a pioneer in the tactical use of field artillery against the forces of Louis XIV. At the 13 August 1704 Battle of Blenheim, Marlborough, after four unsuccessful attacks, detached a number of pieces from the Artillery of the Park and ordered them forward with his infantry. Their added firepower at the pivotal moment of the battle proved a decisive factor in breaking the French lines. At the 11 September 1709 Battle of Malplaquet, Marlborough again proved himself when he moved his forty-gun Grand Battery forward with his infantry. Their fire devastated the French cavalry waiting in reserve and contributed to the French withdrawal from the field. A half-century later, at the 1759 Battle of Minden during the Seven Years’ War, the Royal Artillery placed a 12-pounder battery in position to enfilade the French positions and then moved it forward with the infantry to provide fire support. Experience during the Napoleonic Wars prompted the Royal Artillery to refine its field artillery equipment and tactics still further.

As the gun drill was virtually identical for all British field pieces of the period, artillery companies were assigned the appropriate ordnance to suit the needs of individual campaigns. The standard field pieces included the light 3-pounder gun, the 6-pounder, 9 – pounder, and 12-pounder guns, and the 4.4-inch and 5.5-inch howitzers. Of those weapons, the 9-pounder gun seems to have fallen in and out of favor before making a comeback in 1808 during the Peninsular Campaigns. Introduced in 1719, the excellent brass 9-pounder proved itself on numerous battlefields and saw extensive service during the Seven Years ‘ War. It was, however, not included in the official lists of ordnance in 1753 and seems to have been dropped in favor of the 6- and 12-pounder guns and the howitzers.

The situation reversed itself when, in preparing for the Peninsular Campaigns, British artillery commanders deemed the 12-pounder gun too cumbersome to negotiate Spain’s rough terrain and primitive roads. As a result, the 6-pounder was the heaviest British field gun at the beginning of the campaign. Unfortunately, however, having sacrificed firepower for mobility, British crews soon found themselves outgunned by the French, who fielded both 8- and 12-pounders. Significantly more powerful than the 6-pounder and lighter than the 12-pounders, the 9-pounder thus presented a logical compromise and was soon reintroduced into the British artillery train. To compensate for the 9-pounders’ weight, their horse teams were increased from the normal six horses to eight. The 9-pounders went on to render such outstanding service that Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), ordered that the majority of his horse artillery and later his field batteries be issued large numbers of the guns. Prior to the duke’s decision, the British Royal Horse Artillery went through a number of ordnance types in search of the ideal combination of mobility and firepower. As originally organized in 1793, each troop fielded two light 12-pounder guns, two 6-pounder guns, and two light 5.5-inch howitzers. Having proved too heavy, the 12- pounder was dropped by the end of the decade, and from about 1800 troops were issued five 6-pounder guns and one light 5.5-inch howitzer. Wellington’s reform then altered the mix to five 9-pounder guns and one 5.5-inch howitzer.

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