Artillery of the Boer War

Royal Field Artillery 15 pounder gun team in Home Service uniform: Battle of Modder River on 28th November 1899 in the Boer War.

The 75mm Cruesot had an innovative new recoil system which tended to be problematic at times, and gunners complained that the ammunition did not always perform as desired. Nevertheless, it had important advantages and presented valuable service.

Artillery, Boer

The Boer artillery units in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal republic were composed of professional soldiers with a significant number of experienced German officers who were able to train their men to a high degree of efficiency. The Transvaal was enriched by tax revenues from the healthy mining industry and, under the direction of Lieutenant-colonel Trichardt, made considerable expenditures to acquire the newest and best weapons. When the war broke out they were significantly better equipped than the British.

The modern guns the Boers had were the 155mm Creusot, known by the British as the Long Tom (of which there were four), the 120mm Krupp howitzer (four), 75mm Krupp and Creusot QFs, i.e. quick-firing guns (twenty-eight) and the 37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt, known as the Pom-Pom (twenty-two). The latter was not considered to be an artillery piece by the British. Quick-firing guns had the propellant charge in a cartridge case, rather than a separate bag, which increased the speed of reloading. Still greater rates of fire were achieved with a recoil-absorbing device on the Creusot which enabled the gun-carriage to stay still and thus removed the requirement to re-lay (aim) the gun after every shot. The Transvaal, being the richer state, had the most modern weapons. There were also forty-one other guns of various calibres and vintages, and the Boers naturally made use of any British guns they could capture.

The Long Toms were used in the sieges of Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking to bombard the towns. It was not possible to limit their fire to purely military targets, but neither side appears to have thought it irregular to kill civilians in the process. The howitzers, usually considered short-range weapons for accurate shelling of defensive works, actually out-ranged the older British field and horse artillery. Indeed, it was generally the case that the Boer guns out-ranged British guns of similar calibre and type, demonstrating that French and German manufacture was superior to that of the British at this time.

The 75mm guns were used to defend Boer positions and as support weapons in attack. They could fire both shrapnel and common shell (that is, high explosive in a steel case). The Pom-Pom was a large calibre machine-gun that fired one-pound (0.45kg) explosive shells. It used smokeless powder, and thus its position could not be detected from a distance, but the effect of the shells’ explosions was fairly trivial. It was useful for the destruction of morale induced by the relentless repetition of its fire – pom, pom, pom, pom – and for range-finding by noting the fall of shot.

The usefulness of artillery to the Boers declined as the war went on. After the action at Bothaville Chief-commandant Christiaan De Wet made little of the loss of his artillery, both because ammunition was running low and because mobility and low visibility had become greater assets than artillery.

75mm Creusot QF: Weight of shell: common – 11.5lb/5.2kg; shrapnel – 14lb/6.4kg. Range – 6,800 yards/6,200m.

75mm Krupp QF: Weight of shell: common – 13.5lb/6.1kg; shrapnel – 11lb/5kg. Range: time fuse – 3,850 yards/3,520m; percussion – 6,600 yards/6,035m.

120mm Krupp Howitzer: Weight of shell – 35lb/15.9kg. Range – 6,300 yards/5,750m.

155mm Creusot Long Tom: Weight of shell – 94lb/43kg. Range – 11,000 yards/10,060m.

37mm Maxim-Nordenfelt Pom-Pom: Weight of shell – 1lb/0.45kg. Range – 3,000 yards/2,740m.

Artillery, British, Field and Naval

British artillery of the time was less sophisticated and less powerful than that of the Boers. Comparable Boer guns also had longer ranges as is shown by a comparison of the performance characteristics given above and below. In the case of the modern rifle and machine-gun, the sophistication of weaponry in enemy hands was a new experience for the British from which it took some time to recover.

At the outbreak of the war the British army had some 100 guns available of which only twenty-seven were standard field artillery pieces of a reasonably modern design. The Royal Navy was able to contribute seven 12-pounders carried for use ashore. The rest had to be improvised and, as a result of the resourcefulness of Captain Percy Scott, shipboard 12-pounders, known as Long 12s, and 4.7-inch guns were given emergency carriages or mounts and rushed to the front. The defence of Ladysmith thus became possible. In the course of the war the Royal Field Artillery’s 15-pounders were augmented by another 322 guns, fifty Pom-Poms, eighteen 5-inch breech-loaders, thirty-nine 5-inch howitzers and twelve 6-inch guns. The Royal Horse Artillery brought out seventy-eight 12-pounders. Almost all these were out-ranged by Boer weapons of similar type. Furthermore, the British use of field artillery had to undergo a radical revision from the approved tactics that lost the guns at the Battle of Colenso to the fire-from-concealment approach that proved effective at the Battle of Magersfontein. In addition, new methods of coordinating artillery support and infantry movement had to be developed.

The Field Artillery manual, in its 1896 version, laid down that the role of the artillery was to “support other arms by fire establishing such a fire supremacy in the battle area that the enemy can neither interfere with operations nor develop his own effectively”. When coming into action it was laid down that the guns would be some 200 yards (183m) forward of the limbers (ammunition wagons) and wagons with the reserve ammunition, on a line with twenty-yard (18.3m) intervals between them and with an ammunition wagon just to the rear of each gun. The guns were to be placed on firm ground with a clear view of the target. This was all well and good unless the enemy had comparable or superior guns. When the British Horse Artillery, operating according to very similar rules, came into action at the Battle of Magersfontein, firm ground for the guns could not be found and the recoil of their fire pushed them back down the little hill on which they were standing, into cover from Boer fire. They were thus able to operate efficiently with an observer taking sight of the fall of shell and giving orders to improve the aim. The commander was reprimanded for this unconventional behaviour, though it was later adopted as routine.

12-pounder: Weight of shell – 12.5lb/5.67kg. Range: time fuse – 3,700 yards/3,380m; percussion – 5,400 yards/4,940m.

15-pounder: Weight of shell – 14lb/6.35kg. Range: time fuse – 4,100 yards/3,750m; percussion – 5,600 yards/5,120m.

5-inch Howitzer: Weight of shell – 50lb/22.68kg. Range – 4,900 yards/4,480m. 5-inch gun: Weight of shell – 50lb/22.68kg. Range: time fuse – 5,400 yards/4,940m; percussion – 10,500 yards/9,600m.

12-pounder (Long 12) Naval gun: Weight of shell: common – 12.5lb/5.7kg; shrapnel – 14lb/6.4kg. Range: time fuse – 4,500 yards/4,110m; percussion – 9,000 yards/8,230m.

4.7-inch Naval gun: Weight of shell – 45lb/20.4kg. Range: time fuse – 6,500 yards/5,940m; percussion – 9,800 yards/8,960m. Range at 24 degree elevation – 12,000 yards/10,973m.

6-inch Naval gun (rail truck mounted): Weight of shell – 100lb/45.4kg. Range – 15,000 yards/13,750m.

Artillery Shells

Three types of shell were used in the war: common, case and shrapnel. Common shell was a steel case filled with high explosive for use against defensive positions set off by impact with the target. Case shot was a cylinder or case filled with metal balls. The case broke open on leaving the barrel and sprayed the shot at random at anything or anyone in front of the gun. Shrapnel was a shell filled with shot-like musket balls which was thrown forward by an explosive charge ignited by a time fuse.

Common shell was used by howitzers and the larger guns. The British used Lyddite in them, a new explosive which was not very satisfactory, and which was replaced with TNT after the war, when the shells became known as High Explosive shells. The design of shell cases led to their remaining either largely intact or breaking into a few big pieces. Therefore a few, slow-moving fragments were created which did minimal damage but made a lot of noise. More modern shells break into innumerable fragments that move fast and far. The howitzers hurled their shell high in the air to drop on the enemy while 155mm and 75mm guns fired in a flatter trajectory. The former were, therefore, of greater use against entrenched positions provided the aim was good.

Case shot was recorded as having been used four times by the British and just once by the Boers throughout the war.

Shrapnel was the invention of Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery in 1784 and it was first used by the British against the Dutch in Surinam in 1804. The shell has a time fuse at the nose which is set at what is calculated to be the interval between firing and the arrival of the shell some twenty feet (6m) short of the target. A charge at the foot of the shell goes off and the balls within are thrown forward in an expanding cone of bullets. Assuming the time fuse has been correctly set, it is very effective against troops in the open, but not very useful if they are entrenched or under cover behind rocks.


Hall, Darrell, ed. Fransjohan Pretorius and Gilbert Torlage, The Hall Handbook of the Anglo-Boer War (Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 1999).

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