Soviet Artillery – Cold War 1970-89




While the tank became the public and political symbol of an army’s military prowess, overshadowing other battlefield weapons systems, within armies the importance of the artillery arm remained undiminished and, despite the advent of missiles and rockets, the gun remained the weapon of choice in the tactical battle.fn1 Provided targets were within range, guns were capable of producing extremely accurate and very destructive fire at virtually any spot selected by battlefield commanders. Further, artillery command-and-control systems enabled the guns to switch targets quickly and to increase the weight of fire by bringing additional batteries into action as required.

Artillery was of great importance in the Second World War, and this continued in the many smaller wars between 1945 and 1990, when the tactical value of artillery was demonstrated repeatedly, although never more convincingly than at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indo-China War. During that prolonged siege, which lasted from December 1953 to May 1954, Viet Minh artillery occupied the hills overlooking the French base and from there they totally dominated the battlefield, closed the airfield, cut off supplies, and eventually bludgeoned the garrison into defeat.

In the early 1950s there were only a small number of self-propelled guns, all in open mounts on converted tank chassis, which supported armoured divisions in some armies (e.g. the British and US). The great majority of guns were wheeled pieces, towed either by a specially designed artillery tractor or, in some cases, by an ordinary general-purpose truck. At a US army conference held in Washington in January 1952 it was decided that the speed of modern warfare was increasing to such an extent, particularly with the infantry planning to be mounted entirely in armoured personnel carriers, that wheeled guns would no longer be able to keep up with the speed of movement. Also, the threat of nuclear weapons made it necessary to place the crews inside closed gun-houses (turrets) for protection. Furthermore, tracked vehicles were more capable of moving into temporary fire positions, getting into and out of action quickly, since there was no need to separate the gun from its tractor and set it on a base-plate. Then, after firing, they could move out rapidly – the so-called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactic – before enemy artillery could determine the source of the rounds and fire a counter-battery mission.

Soviet artillery had established an awesome reputation during the Second World War, but for the next two decades it experienced a conservatism unusual in the Soviet armed forces, which not only adhered to towed artillery, but also invariably deployed it in rows of six guns in uncamouflaged fire positions. Well-established Second World War guns therefore remained in service throughout the 1950s, and their replacements in the 1960s were also towed. It was only in the 1970s that self-propelled guns came into service, in which existing tracked chassis were matched to modified versions of existing guns, producing systems of 122 mm, 152 mm and 203 mm calibre. Although long overdue, these proved to be of excellent quality, with the usual Soviet combination of practical design, simplicity and long range, and caused considerable alarm in the West.

Czechoslovakia made a notable contribution to artillery design with its DANA system, which entered service in 1981. This featured a 152 mm gun in a split turret mounted on a modified 8 × 8-wheeled truck chassis. Although the wheels reduced its cross-country capability in comparison with a tracked vehicle, its performance was more than adequate for service in central Europe with its excellent road systems, and any tactical disadvantages were offset by its high road speed, long road range, considerably reduced capital cost, and ease of maintenance.

As with tankmen, gunners pursued the goal of first-round accuracy. Accuracy on target depended upon knowing the precise location of the guns, and manual methods of surveying gun positions gave way to much faster and more accurate electronic systems. In addition, movements became so frequent and time in any one position so brief that the traditional method of ascertaining meteorological conditions by visual and manual methods was no longer adequate and fully automated systems were introduced.

The introduction of SP guns with the crew housed in a turret meant that visual methods of control on the gun position were superseded by radio. Ever-expanding artillery communication systems also enabled artillery commanders to exercise much greater co-ordination and control of their units, and to respond much more rapidly to requests for fire support. Many national artillery arms were also quick to latch on to the potential of computerized fire-control systems.

Counter-Battery fire

Every military system inevitably preys on its own, and, as artillery became more effective, so too did the duel between artillery systems (known as ‘counter-battery’ fire) intensify. In the early 1950s there were two, fairly primitive, methods of locating enemy artillery. One used analysis of craters to estimate the direction and range of the gun. The other, called ‘sound ranging’, used sensitive microphones placed along a line (the ‘sound base’) and connected by radio; the sound of gunfire was detected by operators, who used the time of detection at the different microphones to compute the point of origin.

In the 1970s, however, the scale and efficiency of Soviet artillery systems, coupled with the ever shorter time spent in any one position, forced NATO to develop more accurate, more rapid and less manpower-intensive systems, such as the US army’s Firefinder, which consisted of two radars: one to detect mortars, the other to detect guns and missile launchers. On detecting a projectile, the radars tracked it briefly and then used the trajectory to compute the point of origin, presenting the precise location of the launch site to the operator before the incoming projectile had hit the ground. The operator then passed the co-ordinates of the enemy position to the fire-direction centre, for it to be included in the counter-battery fire plan.

Artillery: NATO and Warsaw Pact



Soviet Tactical Nuclear Surface-To-Surface Missiles




Like those of the USA, the Soviet Union’s first post-war missile was a development of the German A-4; this led to the SS-1A (NATO = ‘Scunner’) with a range of 300 km and a 750 kg high-explosive warhead. The first nuclear battlefield missile to enter service (in 1957) was the Scud-A, which was mounted on a converted JS-3 heavy-tank chassis and carried a 50 kT warhead over a range of some 150 km. This was later supplemented by the Scud-B system, which carried a 70 kT warhead over a range of 300 km. Although Scuds were supplied to many other countries, nuclear warheads were only ever issued to the Soviet army and the system served throughout the Cold War, as plans to replace it with the SS-23 were cancelled as part of the INF Treaty.

The SS-12 (‘Scaleboard’) was a road-mobile, solid-fuelled ballistic missile, which was first fielded in 1962, followed by a modified version, the SS-12B (initially designated SS-22), in 1979. The missile had a maximum range of 900 km and a CEP of 30 m, carrying either a high-explosive or a 500 kT nuclear warhead, and system reaction time was estimated at sixty minutes. The SS-12B was withdrawn under the terms of the INF Treaty, and all missiles were destroyed.

One of the significant features of both the SS-1 and the SS-12 was that later versions were transported by 8 × 8-wheel TELs. These were highly mobile for off-road driving, were air-conditioned, accommodated the full crew and all necessary equipment, and even had an automatic tyre-pressure-regulation system. All these features enabled the missile detachment to move into a new location, set up the missile quickly, launch, and then move to a resupply point – the so-called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactic.

All Warsaw Pact exercises made use of battlefield nuclear weapons in support of attacks. A typical scenario, used some 233 weapons in the first strike, followed by 294 in the second strike. As used in these exercises, the intended purpose was to eliminate NATO forward troops – Area B, for example, coincided with the North German Plain. Following such a strike, the Warsaw Pact tank and motor-rifle units would have been able to advance rapidly into NATO rear areas.

The Soviet equivalent of the Honest John was known to NATO as the FROG (for Free Rocket Over Ground). The last model, the FROG-7, had HE, chemical, and nuclear warheads and a range of 42 miles. The SS-1C, known to NATO as the SCUD-B, was a guided missile with a range of 180 miles. During the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi-made crude versions of the SCUD proved widely inaccurate but were a tremendous nuisance to the Coalition, especially when Iraq fired them at Israel in a failed attempt to broaden the conflict. The Soviet SS-21 guided missile was a divisional-level system with a range of only 60 miles.

The SS-23 was an army-level system with a range of 300 miles. The SS-12 was a theater-level system with a range of 540 miles. All these Soviet systems carried nuclear warheads. Under the provisions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States agreed to eliminate the Pershing and the Soviets agreed to eliminate the SS-12 and SS-23.

Summit meeting between U. S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held in Moscow during 29 May–2 June 1988. It was the fourth such meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev since 1985. For Reagan, the conference coincided with congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra Affair. Because of this, some critics speculated that the president was trying to divert attention from the scandal by creating a newsworthy achievement at the meeting. The major accomplishment of the summit was the signing of the already-ratified 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on 1 June 1988. It did not represent a breakthrough in arms control.

From the Soviet perspective, the 1988 summit greatly enhanced Gorbachev’s domestic and international prestige. This was because of the obvious close relationship between the two leaders and Reagan’s international reputation as an anticommunist hard-liner. Gorbachev’s heightened prestige gave him important political capital, which was needed as he continued to move forward with his perestroika and glasnost reforms.

The meeting was carefully crafted to focus on the INF Treaty. The treaty had been forged at the December 1987 Washington summit meeting between the two leaders and was approved by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders in March 1988 and by the U. S. Senate on 29 May 1988. The treaty called for the destruction of 2,611 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with flight ranges of 300–3,400 miles. Included in the treaty were U. S. Pershing II missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles as well as Soviet SS-4, SS-12, SS-20, and SS-23 missiles. It also specified very detailed on-site inspection and verification procedures. In accordance with the treaty, by 1991 both countries would have eliminated all intermediate- range nuclear missiles.

Verdun: The Mill on the Meuse I






The German plans for Verdun appear to have entirely abandoned the idea of a breakthrough, Falkenhayn himself describing such a full-scale assault as a ‘doubtful operation … which is beyond our forces’ and which might lead to German forces being trapped in untenable salients that could be pounded from both flanks. Verdun was chosen as the objective since it was perceived both as a base from which the French could launch a potentially decisive offensive and because it had acquired an almost mystical significance during the Franco-Prussian War. Ironically, the Germans underrated their own fascination for the fortress city. The ever-aggressive General Charles Mangin noted that ‘Verdun has always exercised a singular fascination upon the German imagination, and its capture, which seemed relatively easy, could in itself be celebrated as a great victory in Germany and in neutral countries.’

On the French side the success of German heavy artillery in 1914 had convinced GQG’s theorists that fortresses were potential death-traps which might enable the enemy to isolate and capture large numbers of men. The capitulation of forts on the Eastern Front in 1915 appeared to further confirm the lessons of 1870 and Joffre had ordered the remaining forts to be stripped of their guns in late 1914 to reinforce the army artillery. The theory was that fortresses supported the defensive system but were too fragile to function as a strong-point upon which the entire system could succeed or fail. Placing valuable artillery in a position that the enemy could easily target seemed akin to placing too many eggs in one basket. General Herr protested that there was a difference between an isolated fortress and a fort in a defensive system but his memoranda were ignored. Herr’s problem was exacerbated by the relative inactivity seen in the Verdun sector since the Marne. With major assaults being planned elsewhere and the rumours of an attack assumed to presage a limited assault, GQG assigned Verdun territorial units and concentrated on offensive planning.

Oblivious to their unintended assistance from GQG, the Germans deployed vast quantities of equipment and ammunition and began to construct bomb-proof stollen (shelters) for the assault troops being moved into the line. Infantry units were given strict instructions not to push out ‘parallels of departure’ or Russian saps that might give away the on-going preparations for the offensive. Artillery units were moved forwards and carefully concealed. Most batteries were under orders to hold their fire until Operation Gericht had commenced so that the French would be surprised by the 306 field guns, 542 heavy guns and 152 minenwerfer directly behind the assault units and the 400 additional guns supporting the offensive on the flank. Entirely fooled by the German deception plan, the French artillery was outnumbered by a ratio of 4:1 and French military intelligence had identified only 70 gun emplacements before the battle. Most dangerously, they totally missed the larger guns assigned to smash the forts, including the 420mm and 380mm heavy howitzers; the latter could drop 40 shells a day on almost any target in the Verdun sector.

In General Schnabel’s fire-plan, the 210mm batteries were assigned to pulverise the front line then place a curtain barrage to block any potential counter-attack as the leading assault units consolidated their hard-won objectives. Strong-points would be reduced by both the heavy guns and minenwerfers and the 150mm batteries would then be assigned to both counter-battery missions and to interdict the supply network and rear areas. ‘No line is to remain unbounded and no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel safe.’ The 150mm batteries assigned to counter-battery work would use zone-fire, deluging entire areas instead of trying to hit individual targets, adjusting rapidly with the aid of air observers, instead of relying on more precise methods of adjustment. This required substantially more ammunition but the use of asphyxiating and lachrymatory agents delivered by gas shell successfully enabled the German gunners to neutralise the French batteries. The lighter guns would move forwards as soon as the assault began so that the heavy guns could be shifted to new positions capable of covering the new front line. The Germans stocked 2. 5 million rounds alongside the batteries, and intended to fire the bulk of them in only 9½ hours on a 22-kilometre stretch of front before an infantry attack only 7 kilometres wide. It would be an unprecedented demonstration of the power of modern artillery.

The bombardment was delayed by poor weather but finally began on 21 February. It was initially general, with batteries concentrating on key objectives only after the French defensive communication system was judged to have been sufficiently disrupted. In the final stages of the fire-plan, patrols were filtered into the gaps between the main target zones to assess the remaining defences. A horrified French air observer saw no evidence of a gap in the carnage and reported that ‘there are gun batteries everywhere. They follow each other non-stop; the flames from their shells form an unbroken sheet.’ Another described the fire as ‘a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, where it is raining nothing but paving stones’. Fire jumped to the second line and continued on into the rear areas and out on to the flanks as the infantry advanced and the Germans surged forwards, only to halt as soon as they reached their primary objectives. They had been instructed not to push beyond these locations and new units moved forwards methodically to assault the second line; the General Staff had seen the effect of artillery barrages on attacks that were unsupported by counter-batteries and were wary of repeating what they saw as Gallic over-enthusiasm. ‘The mission of infantry units is generally as follows: to seize a part of the hostile fortified system on a front and to a depth which has been delimited in advance; and then to hold it against intense artillery fire, and resist hostile counter attacks.’ A note written by a staff officer in the same division (the 20th Bavarian Brigade) summarised the official view on initiative:

It is possible that the enemy situation may be such as to permit the attack to be continued beyond the line that has been designated, and to capture certain points which the subordinate may consider of secondary importance. Do not forget that our artillery will not be in condition, if progress is made beyond the designated line, to immediately execute a new preparation and to quickly support the operation … The decision made by a subordinate commander to extend the attack beyond the objective is a very serious one and should be the exception. Furthermore, the responsibility of the leader is affected, if a position which has been taken be retaken by the enemy, even though the adversary thus gains only a moral success.

The highly regulated approach to securing the first line of objectives (although this theoretically abandoned any chance of a coup de main) enabled the Germans to exploit along the flanks of the initial penetration of the defensive system. German units that secured the initial objectives instinctively sought out opportunities to assist other units still struggling on their flanks. The French defensive system was severely ruptured but the combination of inflexible assault timetables and the leadership and defensive innovation displayed by the redoubtable if doomed Colonel Driant, in the section of the line dominated by the Bois-de-Caures, bought the French enough time to stabilise the front line before the Germans could realise how close they had come to a breakthrough. Driant’s simple but effective tactic was to scatter his men among the shell-holes so that the German lifting barrage, designed to ‘lift’ just before the assault infantry swarmed over the defences, fell on his empty trench line and not on the men of his beleaguered command.

During the first stage of the Verdun offensive General Fayolle noted:

The Boches have captured the front-line trench and the support trench. How do they do it: all their attacks succeed … they knock over everything with a horrifying bombardment after concentrating superior means. Thereby they suppress the trenches, the supporting defences and the machine guns. But how do they cross the barrage? Probably their infantry infiltrate, and since there is no one left in the fire trenches they get in, and when they are there to get them out we need to have the same artillery superiority.

The effect of the German heavy bombardment, involving a rate of fire that the French simply could not match, soon earned the mordant nickname trommelfeuer (drumfire). An officer of the 243rd Infantry was stunned by the destruction: ‘by three o’clock in the afternoon, the section of the wood which we occupied which, in the morning, was completely covered in bushes, looked like the timber-yard of a sawmill; a little later, I had lost most of my men.’ Kronprinz Wilhelm was delighted by the apparent destruction but was quick to note the relatively low casualties inflicted during the bombardment:

The enemy, surprised by the annihilating volume of our fire, only shelled a few villages at random. At 5 p. m. our barrage jumped on to his second line, and the skirmishers and shock troops of all corps left their trenches. The material effect of our bombardment had been, as we discovered later, rather below our expectations, as the hostile defences in the wooded country were in many cases too well concealed; the moral effect was immense.

Mangin was rather less impressed with their initial moves in the battle:

The offensive of 21st February was both terrible and stingy at the same time; it was staged on too narrow a front, which while it widened out slightly, again contracted, in spite of the great array of artillery with which it was provided, and the limitless use of infantry in deep formations, it advanced only with great effort and did not know how to profit by the gaps which were in front of it on certain days. When it was decided to extend it to the left bank of the Meuse, it was too late; the defence had got a new hold on itself and had been organised.

As Mangin had noted, the first assaults were focused on the right bank of the Meuse and ignored the defensive positions on the left bank; for planning purposes, it was assumed that the counter-battery artillery would deal with any batteries flanking the main assault. Considering that the German plan was intended to maximise French casualties by retaining complete air and artillery dominance of the battlefield, the decision to leave the French batteries on the left bank almost completely unmolested by infantry seems to have been a major error in the planning for the first phase of the operation. As successive assaults went in, the obsolete but cunningly emplaced 155mm batteries on the left bank shrugged off the increasingly desperate attempts to silence them and poured fire into General von Zwehl’s VII Korps every time they recommenced their advance. In spite of a spirited defence and an overly methodical fire-plan, the Germans still drove deep. Their overwhelming superiority in both guns and tactics enabled them to consolidate most of their initial objectives but as soon as the French threw in reserves, they launched vigorous counter-attacks and casualties on both sides began to mount. What Mangin bitterly described as the age of ‘mechanical’ battle had begun.

After the under-garrisoned and ill-armed Fort Douaumont fell, isolated by a near-constant barrage that gradually drove the supporting units to positions from where they were unable to cover the entrances to the fort, the Germans commenced a series of remorseless assaults on positions on both banks of the Meuse. Stunned by the initial reverses, Joffre sacked all the officers he saw as responsible for the débâcle and assigned Pétain to command the sector. Colonel Driant’s tactical success with dispersed defences in the Bois-de-Caures during the first day of fighting was extended into a broader operational concept based upon ‘an advanced line of resistance’ consisting of forward outposts and observation positions backed up by ‘a principal line of resistance’ where localised reserves could gather and retake any lost positions with the assistance of attached artillery units. The concept of the easily identified defensive line was being aban-doned in the face of increasing firepower. Counter-battery and curtain barrages by the heavy artillery units delayed the enemy while creeping barrages supported counter-attacks.

Pétain, ably assisted by the slippery but brilliant Nivelle and the implacable Mangin, stabilised the Verdun sector by creating a position de barrage behind the front line, then using the old forts as armoured bastions in a defensive system that served as a protective zone in which the reserves could gather and launch counter-attacks. Unsurprisingly the artillery was seen as the key to this enhanced system and Pétain demanded additional artillery. The continuing carnage forced Joffre to confront the consequences of years of mismanagement at GQG. The French artillery was still outclassed and outranged by the Germans, giving Kronprinz Wilhelm a priceless advantage in a battle where artillery was the key to victory. The evidence was conclusive enough to convince Joffre, who demanded that 960 medium and 440 heavy guns should be produced as quickly as possible. Even with better weapons, French supplies were being brought along a narrow-gauge railway and the one forlorn, wreckage-strewn road into the salient and Army Group Centre could not hope to equal the near-continuous German barrage even if they wanted to. An American, working as a volunteer ambulance driver, asked about the rumble of thunder he heard as they approached the city and wondered if there was a storm coming. The driver shook his head in despair. ‘If it were thunder the noise would stop occasionally. The noise is constant. It’s Verdun.’

Verdun: The Mill on the Meuse II




Pétain and his staff drafted a new artillery programme and it was disseminated in May 1916. The roles assigned to each type of artillery and their proportions were adjusted in recognition of the new realities revealed by the battles around Verdun. Divisions gained additional medium howitzers while all the 155mm howitzers and heavier, bunker-busting mortars went into the corps and army artillery groupes. Once again it was the Second Army’s training pamphlet that was circulated to the entire army as accepted doctrine, outlining advances in support, counter-preparation, communications, liaison, counter-battery techniques and the rapid concentration of fire from dispersed batteries. Pétain also set up a Centre of Artillery Studies to coordinate research into new technologies, techniques and doctrines and to disseminate the most effective approaches to artillery operations. The new programme changed production schedules and increased the French artillery regiments from 115 to 247: a radical increase in dedicated manpower at the very point at which the French were beginning to run out of fresh reserves.

Pétain took a personal interest in the activities of his hard-pressed gunners and often started meetings by asking corps liaison officers ‘What have your batteries being doing? We’ll discuss other points later.’ Coordination was to be their new watchword and they were instructed to ‘give the infantry the impression that [the artillery] is supporting them and that it is not dominated’. Such a policy increased artillery casualties but heartened the infantry, who were increasingly seeing the artillerymen as rear-area troops who had found a way to avoid genuine combat. One of the key innovations was the artillery offensive, a series of coordinated artillery raids on rear areas designed to disrupt movement and cause casualties. The Germans quickly noted the effectiveness of such tactics, observing that the French ‘began the flanking fire on the ravines and roads north of Douaumont that was to cause us such severe casualties’.

Even antiquated guns could make an impression if properly sited and, as noted above, the obsolete 155s placed to flank any German assault on the right bank of the Meuse inflicted horrific casualties during VII Korps’ attempts to breach that sector during March. The French guns were concealed among the fortress lines on the Bois Bourrus ridge and there was nothing that General von Zwehl’s gunners could do to prevent the French from slaughtering his men. The wounded streaming back to their start lines were described as ‘a vision of hell’ by one commander while another officer shouted ‘What … battalion? Is there such a thing!’

The next series of attacks focused on the left bank of the Meuse, centring on the grim slopes of the all-too-appropriately-named hill, Le Morte Homme. The terrain gave the attacking infantry considerable cover but the complex topography also favoured aggressive counter-attacks and the entire region was soon covered with blackened craters – one airman described the Verdun sector as appearing like ‘the humid skin of a monstrous toad’. The German preparatory bombardments were horrifying and one description of an attack on Côte 304 creates a strong impression of both the improvements to artillery preparation being made by the Germans and the stubborn tenacity of their Gallic opponents:

The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced its like during the whole campaign. The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trench no longer existed; it had been filled up with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood. It really was a living hell. How could one ever survive such moments? We were deafened, dizzy and sick at heart. It is hard to imagine the torture we endured: our parched throats burned, we were thirsty, and the bombardment seemed endless …

Pétain’s new system was based upon building up a detailed record of all enemy artillery missions and battery locations and then centrally co-ordinating his forces to maximise his own guns’ disruption and destruction. Petain ensured that units spent only a few days in the front line before being relieved, the noria system, and this combination of fire-power and a realistic understanding of what the infantry could withstand gave the French the edge they needed. The army buckled but it did not collapse, even after the Germans launched eight frontal attacks on the defensive system around the heroic stronghold of Fort Vaux, finally taking its exhausted and parched garrison on 7 June. Undaunted, the Germans experimented with creating artillery corridors for assaults and the French found these extremely frustrating as it was difficult to predict the objective and resist the concentration of firepower. As Pétain noted, ‘In effect, ignorant of the points threatened by attack, the defenders are obliged to be strong everywhere and to place in the front line increased numbers of personnel who must be replaced often.’ While the new tactic was successful in increasing French casualties, it could not win the battle without forming part of a wider operational plan; it proved to be yet another example of the Germans’ inability to use their advanced tactics to achieve strategic objectives. In contrast, they ignored French logistics and throughout the battle ammunition and reinforcements flowed up the road from Bar-le–Duc to Verdun, endless lines of soldiers and 2, 000 tonnes of ammunition a day moving towards ‘the everlasting rumble of the guns’. For reasons that are still difficult to understand, neither the German artillery batteries nor the Luftstreitkräfte made a concerted effort to cut this vital artery and thus doomed both sides to a level of attrition that drained the fighting power of both armies.

Pétain, ‘the master of scientific tactics’, was promoted to command Army Group Centre in June and Robert Nivelle took over the defence of Verdun, ‘the kingdom of the guns’. A new German offensive, led by the elite Alpenkorps and supported by a three-day bombardment that utilised large quantities of phosgene (a new asphyxiating gas), understandably described by Mangin as ‘the most important and most massive attack that Verdun had to withstand’, greeted Nivelle’s appointment but the French artillery had reorganised and restructured since February. The precise German timetable of fire-missions and assaults that had worked so effectively in February fell apart in the face of a devastating series of counter-barrages that enabled French counter-attacks to retake all the key points. Another offensive in July ran straight into Mangin’s veteran gunners and was pushed back to its start line by a series of savage counter-attacks. Verdun had become an open ulcer that threatened to swallow Germans as fast as it slaughtered Frenchmen. The German phase of the battle had ground to a halt and now the French could demonstrate what they had learned in the first six months of fighting.

It would take time to fully reorganise the French army to suit Pétain’s vision of total war but most of the key concepts would be in place when their primary creator was placed in supreme command. The proof came when Nivelle and Mangin finally launched a successful attack to retake Fort Douaumont, after a number of costly but instructive failures, overwhelming the battered fortress with relentless fire from super-heavy guns – including two 400mm pieces which Joffre brusquely dismissed as being ‘chiefly for the diversion of the public and the press’. Nivelle dedicated enormous resources to the assault and a number of innovations helped the advancing French infantry. Every unit was thoroughly briefed on their objectives, a creeping barrage was used to keep the defenders under cover until the assault was on top of them and all communication wires were laid in 6-ft deep trenches to ensure continuous communications. The barrage moved 100 yards every 4 minutes, the 75s firing a hail of shrapnel only 70 yards ahead of the advancing infantry and the 400 heavy guns methodically pulverising the line with high explosive another 80 yards further forwards.

The supremely confident Mangin, described by one observer as literally licking his lips in anticipation, even briefed Allied journalists on the morning of the attack:

My 75s will engage the Boche trenches and I have an abundance of large calibre shells to smash every shelter … At H-hour, in two hours, the infantry will leave their own trenches and take the trenches before them; preceding them, at a distance of 70 or 80 metres, will be a blanket of 75 shells … When the creeping barrage catches up with it, the heavies will shift targets and hammer the reserves … We will continue towards the [German] reserves using the same method and they will be beaten by our troops … It will be an affair of at most a few hours …

One officer saw the lines of guns being deployed and understandably snarled at the belated arrival of France’s full military potential: ‘If only we had been thus provided at the beginning of the war, we should not now be fighting in France.’

Mangin ordered a continuous preparatory bombardment to prevent the Germans from improving their defences, a process he gleefully described as ‘not burying the hatchet’ and the Germans assumed that the French intended a series of localised attacks. One French unit even withdrew to avoid being hit by any shorts from their own side during the massive barrage and some audacious Mecklenburgers on the other side of no-man’s-land had the audacity to dash over and take cover in the abandoned French front line! The larger guns focused on Douaumont itself and as the 400mm shells began to smash into the fort’s already shattered carapace, the German garrison withdrew to the interior – then, after the water was exhausted, all but a few men abandoned the fortress entirely.

The bombardment started on 15 December and lasted three days; when the French guns at last fell silent the Germans emerged from their stollen and dashed to their assigned positions just as their own guns commenced counter-preparatory fire. To the amazement of the front-line infantry, there were no enemy troops in sight – but then Nivelle’s reserve of heavy guns commenced counter-battery fire against the freshly unmasked German batteries. The French 155mm guns pounded the German positions for an additional 36 hours, silencing or destroying 68 of the 158 batteries, before the creeping barrage began its relentless progress towards the main French objectives. The stunned Germans were completely over-whelmed as the French emerged from the morning mist and poured across the shell-scarred landscape, seizing positions that both sides had bitterly contested for months. In the foggy chaos Mangin and his staff soon lost contact with the assault regiments – a foretaste of disasters to come – but the key objectives were taken. French casualties were higher than hoped but the defenders suffered an even greater mauling and the Verdun sector was finally deemed to be secure.

Joffre’s influence faded during the battle for Verdun. His aggressive prewar doctrine had simply collapsed in a battle where superior artillery played the decisive role. Heavier guns, indirect fire and greater range gave the Germans a valuable advantage but their strategic errors allowed the French to survive, a victory of sorts. With Papa Joffre politely kicked upstairs, the Young Turks were dispersed to field commands and the artillery was finally able to take full advantage of the increasing numbers of heavy pieces being supplied. Planning began to focus around the artillery instead of the furia francese. The problem with such revolutions is that they occasionally lead to grand assumptions about the utility of the technical innovations forged during the collapse of the old system and tend to forget that the enemy has an even greater reason to monitor such changes.

China and Firearms I



Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun Collector’s Edition

In China the transmission of early firearms seems to have followed a similarly meandering and haphazard route. “European” weaponry appears in China with the Portuguese breech-loading culverins presented at the Ming court in 1522 (calledfolangii or “Frankish machines”) whose use to fight the Mongols was advocated in 1530 by Wang Hong. These small cannons, similar to culverins, , however, were not the first to reach China, as there is evidence that the Chinese were already making a similar cannon before 1522. In the southeastern province of Fujian the presence of a folangii is documented already in 1510; that is, even before the Portuguese reached Malacca in 1511. It is therefore possible that cannons known asfolangfi may have reached China, through a separate route. According to Pelliot the Chinesefolanji may have translated not “Franks” but the Turkish term farangi which the Moghul emperor Babur used shortly after 1500 to refer to those European cannons. Therefore, a cannon by that name may have reached China through anonymous carriers possibly from Malaya, before the Portuguese themselves (Pelliot 1948, 199207). There is also some evidence that the Muslim principalities of Hami and Turfan during the rebellion against the Ming in 1513 used Ottoman (R&ni) muskets, and one cannot lightly dismiss the possibility that the old “Silk Road” played an important role in the transmission of firearm technology to China, especially since during the first half of the sixteenth century there were several Ottoman diplomatic missions to the Chinese court. By the end of the sixteenth century, Ottoman muskets were copied and described in detail in Chinese military literature (Needham 1986, 441-9). Whether by sea or by land, the role played by the Ottoman empire seems to have been relevant to the diffusions of firearms in China.

In the sixteenth century the Ming began to deploy consistently firearms on the northern frontier, along the Great Wall, as a defence against the Mongols, but the actual effectiveness of fire power against nomads at this time is questionable. Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), possibly the most brilliant Ming general and strategist of the time, devised a way of usingfolangii cannons mounted on twowheel carts which worked as mobile artillery platforms. The se”battle wagons” included also protective screens to be raised as the battle started. Twenty soldiers were assigned to each battlewagon, ten of whom were in charge of the artillery pieces placed on the wagon, while the other ten – four armed with muskets – stayed on foot near the wagon. Tactically, the wagons were lined up next to each other to defend the army against cavalry charges. Heavier artillery pieces could also be used, such as the “generalissimo” cannon, which weighed more than 1300 pounds, but these were often found to be too cumbersome to be effective. The combined action of infantry and artillery theorized by Qi to counter Mongol cavalry assaults was never put into practice because the Mongol tribes bordering on the territory under Qi’s military jurisdiction reached a diplomatic agreement with the Ming court that brought hostilities to a halt (Huang 1981, 179-8 1). It is quite interesting to see that the concept of the battle-wagon, that is, a heavy wagon with cannon and arquebuses mounted on it, and the concept of chaining wagons together to form a barrier around the army was in use among the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, and by the sixteenth had been adopted by Babur via Turkish specialists in his employment (Inalcik 1975, 204). Was the battle-wagon developed by Qi also based on a Western Asian prototype? At present this question cannot be answered but the similarities raise doubts as to the originality of Qi’s tactical invention.

Finally, we should consider the development of firearms in Japan and their influence on China. In his writings Qi Jiguang, who was also involved for years in the protection of the south China coasts against the attacks of Japanese pirates, states that the Japanese introduced the musket known as niaochong (fowling piece) to China,(Huang 1981, 165; Needham 1986, 429) in the mid sixteenth century. The Japanese musket was made by copying Portuguese matchlocks, but soon Japanese gun-makers attained a high level of proficiency. Moreover, the Japanese adoption of the tactical use of firearms – the volley and the use of regular units of musketeers were already a reality in the sixteenth century – may have also influenced the wider indigenous use of these weapons in East Asia. Therefore, even if the earliest muskets might have been of Turkish origin, there is not doubt that the Japanese attacks along the southern coasts of China and other forms of contacts between the two countries also contributed to the circulation of muskets.

From these preliminary notes we can see that there were multiple routes in the transmission of firearms to China, whose departing points were western Europe and the Ottoman empire, and important intermediaries were Japan, and possibly also Malaya, India, and Central Asia. Therefore, the diffusion of firearms in Asia cannot be understood as the linear outcome of increased European mobility resulting from their progress in oceanic navigation. In order to model correctly the phenomenon of the spread of military technology it is necessary to keep into due account the parallel diffusion that was taking place across Muslim territories, and the genuine contribution that early on China and Japan made towards the improvement of firearms, both technically and tactically. Another observation concerns the specific use that firearms were intended for in the sixteenth century. While the efficacy of muskets was criticised in the fight against Japanese pirates in South China, their use was advocated by Chinese strategists for the defence of the northern frontier against Mongol incursions. Besides the aforementioned Wang Hong and Qi Jiguang, in 1541 the Governor-general of Shensi, Liu Tianhe, recommended that towers on the frontier be equipped with firearms (Serruys 1982, 32). Although the Ming government was often unresponsive or inefficient in dealing with these requests, the development of “fighting towers” on the northern frontier proves that the use of several kinds of fire-arms, from folangii to heavier cannons and muskets, were appreciated for in the defence of static fortifications.

Effectiveness of Chinese artillery against the Manchus

In 1583 the Jurchen chieftain Nurhaci’ began his political rise by affirming himself as a shrewd commercial operator and a fearless military leader. For thirty-three years he fought a long sequence of tribal wars, which led to the construction of a strongly centralized tribal confederation with the Aisin Gioro (i. e., Nurhaci’s) clan at its heart. In 1616 he moved to a new capital, called Hetu Ala (Flat Hill), and declared the founding of the Later Jin dynasty, so named after the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125-1234), of which he felt he was the political heir. Two years later he pronounced the “Seven Grievances” against the Ming, a political declaration tantamount to an official declaration of war. This act of defiance towards the Ming dynasty, of which he had been till then a subordinate frontier chieftain, finally persuaded the Ming to send a massive expeditionary army to punish Nurhaci and annihilate the Manchu tbreat on the northeastern frontier. The opposite armies met in 1619 at Mount ~arhu, and the ensuing Manchu victory marked the true beginning of the ascent of Manchu power. On the plain at the foot of Mt. ~arhu, today at the bottom of an artificial water reservoir, Nurhaci defeated a mixed force of Chinese, Korean, and recalcitrant Manchurian tribes. Although the Ming army enjoyed superiority in terms of numbers and armament, the Manchus destroyed it thanks to their rapidity of movement,

1. Nurhaci belonged to the Jianzhou tribal confederation of the Jurchen people. The term “Manchu”was substituted to Jurchen when referring to the native people of Manchuria by imperial decree in 1635. For the sake of convenience I will use the term Manchu-to refer also to the people of Manchuria before 1635, even though, strictly speaking, this is anachronistic. brilliant tactical manoeuvring, and sheer bravery. Chinese and Korean troops carried light firearms and artillery pieces; in particular a Korean force of four hundred cannoneers was sent from P’yongyang (von Mende 1996, 115). These artillery pieces seem to have been used mainly to pin down Manchu cavalry in fortified areas and disrupt their movement (von Mende, 12 1). These tactics, however, proved ineffective in the context of a campaign that required high mobility and excellent coordination among the four columns into which the Ming army had been divided. According to the account of a Korean eyewitness, the Manchus also fired some artillery shots with Chinese cannons they had captured (von Mende, 123), which may indicate that Nurhaci had already obtained by then some firearms and might have used them to fortify his positions. However, if that is the case, artillery did not yet play an important role in the Manchu army, and firearms do not seem to have played a decisive role on either side.

After smashing the Ming army at ~arhu, Nurhaci launched a campaign to invade Liaodong, the prosperous northeastern province inhabited by Chinese agri cultural settlers, with a view to expanding its kingdom and giving it a more solid economic basis. The problem, from the military viewpoint, was that the cities of Liaodong were heavily fortified, and that their thick ramparts were protected with an extensive array of firearms. In De Bello Tartarico, an almost contemporary account of the Manchu conquest, the Italian Jesuit Martino Martini explained the tactics used by the Manchus when storming a city:

[The Manchus] were very afraid of muskets and bullets, in the face of which, however, they were able to find a strategy. They divided the army into three columns: the first column was armed with wooden shields and sent to the attack; the second was armed with ladders for scaling the city walls and the third consisted of cavalry. With such an array the Tartar king surrounds the city on all four sides. First the wall of wood advances against the volleys of the artillery, and in the blink of an eye, instantly the soldiers with the ladders have already climbed to the top of the walls, without it being possible for a soldier to fire a second time [ … ] The tartars are quick and violent, agile like no other people, and this is their great advantage,. They have the advantage to advance and retreat in the blink of an eye. In this type of attack the use of weapons by the Chinese soldiers has no great importance: they do not have time to open fire a second time and the Tartars, have already scaled and entered, and as [the Chinese] come out from all four sides they meet the fast cavalry. (Ma Chujian 1994, 3 10)

If we are to believe Martino Martini, then, the Manchu technique consisted in charging behind the protection of wooden screens, then quickly scaling the walls before fire-arms could be recharged and shot again. Once engaged in hand-to-hand combat the Manchu soldiers must have been superior fighters, since the Chinese troops, overwhelmed, attempted to flee the city, only to find the Manchu cavalry waiting for them outside the city walls. We should also recall that ever since the beginning of his military rise Nurhaci had devoted much effort to strengthening the Manchu military potential, and that Manchu armament, both armour and weapons, was made of iron and steel, and not inferior to the Chinese. At any rate, it was the Manchu quickness in charging and scaling the walls, and the slow rate of Chinese fire that accounted for the victories the Manchus obtained in Liaodong, where several cities fell one after the other. Thus Nurhaci temporarily overcame the disadvantage of having a cavalry army ill-suited to siege warfare.

In Liaodong the Manchus started to equip part of their army with firearms. The following decree was issued in 1622:

Ile Chinese officers in charge of four thousand people must produce 200 soldiers; ten large firearms (cannon) and eighty long firearms (muskets) must be prepared for one hundred of them; the other hundred can be employed as they wish. Those in charge of three thousand people, must produce 150 soldiers and equip [seventy-five soldiers] with eight cannons and fifty-four muskets; the other seventy-five can be used as they wish. Those in charge of two thousand people must raise 100 soldiers and equip [fifty soldiers] with five cannons and forty muskets; the other fifty can be used as they wish. The Jurchen [i. e., Manchu] officers in charge of 2,700 people must raise 135 soldiers; of them 67 should be made to handle 6 cannon and 45 muskets; the other 67 can be employed at leisure. Those [Jurchen commanders] in charge of 1,700 people should raise 85 soldiers and distribute four cannons and 36 muskets to 44 of them, while the remaining 41 soldiers can be employed as they wish. Those [Jurchen commanders] in charge of 1,000 people should raise 50 soldiers, of whom 25 must be equipped with two cannons and twenty muskets, while the other fifty can be used as they wish. Those in charge of 500 people should raise 25 soldiers; ten must be equipped with a cannon and eight muskets and the rest used as they please. (MBRT 11, 474-5)

From this edict we can see that a fairly extensive campaign was launched to raise troops armed with fire-arms. This edict referred to the newly conquered population of Liaodong, which had been placed under Chinese commanders who had defected to the Manchus or Manchu commanders put in charge of the occupied areas. It is quite remarkable that half of the troops recruited from Liaodong were supposed to carry firearms. Allowing a degree of latitude for the computational errors that can be found in the text quoted above, in general two men were assigned to each “large firearm”, which therefore might have beenfolanjis (culverins), while the “long firearms” were individual weapons, obviously muskets. According to a Chinese historian, the term dagilambi, which means “to prepare” in the text above refers to guns that had been captured from the Chinese and were being distributed among the troops.’ The implication is that at this time it is generally believed that the Manchus did not have a capacity to produce firearms (Hu 1986, 49). Given the quantity of weapons involved, however, one wonders whether local foundries had not been involved in the “preparation” of firearms.

There is no doubt that the incorporation of Chinese troops in larger numbers after the conquest of Liadong promoted a greater differentiation of military specializations, and therefore greater flexibility. At any rate, regardless of the edict he issued, it is uncertain to what an extent Nurhaci could invest in the production of firearms. The general consensus is that Manchu troops at this stage were only equipped with weapons taken from the Chinese arsenals in the cities they had conquered, while still lacking the capacity to manufacture firearms themselves.

On the Chinese side, however, efforts were being made to strengthen the defences of the cities that had not yet fallen. It is this connection that the work of European gunners acquires special importance. European intervention in the war against the Manchus was the result of pressures exerted by influential Chinese converted to Christianity, who sponsored Western military technology as a means to contain the Manchu threat. Around 1600 the Ming became acquainted with a much larger and more powerful cannon, first brought by the Dutch in 1604 and called by the Chinese the “hong-yi [Red (-haired) Barbarian] cannon” (Needham, 392). Larger guns of the same type were produced by the Portuguese in Macao in foundries operated by Chinese blacksmiths under the direction of European technicians. These cast-bronze cannon were approximately 20-feet long, 1800 kg. heavy, and were particularly effective in siege warfare, both offensively and defensively.



After countless unsuccessful experiments, lethal accidents and ineffective trials, firearms research and techniques gradually improved, and chroniclers report many types of guns—mainly used in siege warfare—with numerous names such as veuglaire, pot-de-fer, bombard, vasii, petara and so on. In the second half of the 14th century, firearms became more efficient, and it seemed obvious that cannons were the weapons of the future. Venice successfully utilized cannons against Genoa in 1378. During the Hussite war from 1415 to 1436, the Czech Hussite rebels employed firearms in combination with a mobile tactic of armored carts (wagenburg) enabling them to defeat German knights. Firearms contributed to the end of the Hundred Years’ War and allowed the French king Charles VII to defeat the English in Auray in 1385, Rouen in 1418 and Orleans in 1429. Normandy was reconquered in 1449 and Guyenne in 1451. Finally, the battle of Chatillon in 1453 was won by the French artillery. This marked the end of the Hundred Years’ War; the English, divided by the Wars of the Roses, were driven out of France, keeping only Calais. The same year saw the Turks taking Constantinople, which provoked consternation, agitation and excitement in the whole Christian world.

In that siege and seizure of the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, cannon and gunpowder achieved spectacular success. To breach the city walls, the Turks utilized heavy cannons which, if we believe the chronicler Critobulos of Imbros, shot projectiles weighing about 500 kg. Even if this is exaggerated, big cannons certainly did exist by that time and were more common in the East than in the West, doubtless because the mighty potentates of the East could better afford them. Such monsters included the Ghent bombard, called “Dulle Griet”; the large cannon “Mons Berg” which is today in Edinburgh; and the Great Gun of Mohammed II, exhibited today in London. The latter, cast in 1464 by Sultan Munir Ali, weighed 18 tons and could shoot a 300 kg stone ball to a range of one kilometer.

A certain number of technical improvements took place in the 15th century. One major step was the amelioration of powder quality. Invented about 1425, corned powder involved mixing saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur into a soggy paste, then sieving and drying it, so that each individual grain or corn contained the same and correct proportion of ingredients. The process obviated the need for mixing in the field. It also resulted in more efficient combustion, thus improving safety, power, range and accuracy.

Another important step was the development of foundries, allowing cannons to be cast in one piece in iron and bronze (copper alloyed with tin). In spite of its expense, casting was the best method to produce practical and resilient weapons with lighter weight and higher muzzle velocity. In about 1460, guns were fitted with trunnions. These were cast on both sides of the barrel and made sufficiently strong to carry the weight and bear the shock of discharge, and permit the piece to rest on a two-wheeled wooden carriage. Trunnions and wheeled mounting not only made for easier transportation and better maneuverability but also allowed the gunners to raise and lower the barrels of their pieces.

One major improvement was the introduction in about 1418 of a very efficient projectile: the solid iron shot. Coming into use gradually, the solid iron cannonball could destroy medieval crenellation, ram castle-gates, and collapse towers and masonry walls. It broke through roofs, made its way through several stories and crushed to pieces all it fell upon. One single well-aimed projectile could mow down a whole row of soldiers or cut down a splendid armored knight.

About 1460, mortars were invented. A mortar is a specific kind of gun whose projectile is shot with a high, curved trajectory, between 45° and 75°, called plunging fire. Allowing gunners to lob projectiles over high walls and reach concealed objectives or targets protected behind fortifications, mortars were particularly useful in sieges. In the Middle Ages they were characterized by a short and fat bore and two big trunnions. They rested on massive timber-framed carriages without wheels, which helped them withstand the shock of firing; the recoil force was passed directly to the ground by means of the carriage. Owing to such ameliorations, artillery progressively gained dominance, particularly in siege warfare.

Individual guns, essentially scaled down artillery pieces fitted with handles for the firer, appeared after the middle of the 14th century. Various models of portable small arms were developed, such as the clopi or scopette, bombardelle, baton-de-feu, handgun, and firestick, to mention just a few.

In purely military terms, these early handguns were more of a hindrance than an asset on the battlefield, for they were expensive to produce, inaccurate, heavy, and time-consuming to load; during loading the firer was virtually defenseless. However, even as rudimentary weapons with poor range, they were effective in their way, as much for attackers as for soldiers defending a fortress.


The harquebus was a portable gun fitted with a hook that absorbed the recoil force when firing from a battlement. It was generally operated by two men, one aiming and the other igniting the propelling charge. This weapon evolved in the Renaissance to become the matchlock musket in which the fire mechanism consisted of a pivoting S-shaped arm. The upper part of the arm gripped a length of rope impregnated with a combustible substance and kept alight at one end, called the match. The lower end of the arm served as a trigger: When pressed it brought the glowing tip of the match into contact with a small quantity of gunpowder, which lay in a horizontal pan fixed beneath a small vent in the side of the barrel at its breech. When this priming ignited, its flash passed through the vent and ignited the main charge in the barrel, expelling the spherical lead bullet.

The wheel lock pistol was a small harquebus taking its name from the city Pistoia in Tuscany where the weapon was first built in the 15th century. The wheel lock system, working on the principle of a modern cigarette lighter, was reliable and easy to handle, especially for a combatant on horseback. But its mechanism was complicated and therefore expensive, and so its use was reserved for wealthy civilian hunters, rich soldiers and certain mounted troops.

Portable cannons, handguns, harquebuses and pistols were muzzle-loading and shot projectiles that could easily penetrate any armor. Because of the power of firearms, traditional Middle Age weaponry become obsolete; gradually, lances, shields and armor for both men and horses were abandoned.

The destructive power of gunpowder allowed the use of mines in siege warfare. The role of artillery and small firearms become progressively larger; the new weapons changed the nature of naval and siege warfare and transformed the physiognomy of the battlefield. This change was not a sudden revolution, however, but a slow process. Many years elapsed before firearms became widespread, and many traditional medieval weapons were still used in the 16th century.

One factor militating against artillery’s advancement in the 15th century was the amount of expensive material necessary to equip an army. Cannons and powder were very costly items and also demanded a retinue of expensive attendant specialists for design, transport and operation. Consequently firearms had to be produced in peacetime, and since the Middle Ages had rudimentary ideas of economics and fiscal science, only a few kings, dukes and high prelates possessed the financial resources to build, purchase, transport, maintain and use such expensive equipment in numbers that would have an appreciable impression in war.

Conflicts with firearms became an economic business involving qualified personnel backed up by traders, financiers and bankers as well as the creation of comprehensive industrial structures. The development of firearms meant the gradual end of feudalism. Firearms also brought about a change in the mentality of combat because they created a physical and mental distance between warriors. Traditional mounted knights, fighting each other at close range within the rules of a certain code, were progressively replaced by professional infantrymen who were anonymous targets for one another, while local rebellious castles collapsed under royal artillery’s fire. Expensive artillery helped to hasten the process by which central authority was restored.

American Civil War Rifled Artillery



Armstrong 12-Pounder Breechloader—Cutaway Views


The breechblock or ventpiece was held in place by a powerful screw in the rear of the gun. This screw was hollow, and was a prolongation of the bore. When the screw was turned out, the ventpiece was lifted out by its handle, leaving the bore clear for loading. To ensure the tight turning up of the screw, and also to help in releasing it when getting ready to reload, a weighted, free-swinging handle was attached to the rear of the breech. A half turn on this acted almost like a blow from a sledge and was sufficient to drive the screw well home or to start it from the closed position. Although a spare ventpiece was usually provided with each gun, there was considerable trouble with the ventpieces fracturing, or blowing out, especially in the guns of large caliber. Structurally, the built-up Armstrong gun tubes were very strong, and the multi-grooved system of rifling is in use today.



The Whitworth breechloader, with its peculiar hexagonal bore, used a device resembling a hinged screw cap. The cartridge was in a hexagonally-shaped tin container which assisted in preventing the escape of gas from the breech. A lubricating wad (tallow and wax was used) was inserted behind the projectile.

The projectile was a mechanical fit and did not rely on expansion to make a tight fit in the bore. Because of this, and because there was no chamber, by closing the breech and using a copper disc as a gas check, the guns could be (and often were) used as muzzle-loaders. This could not be done in the Armstrong, with its lead-coated shell and powder chamber larger than bore size.



Although there were two schools of thought as to the effectiveness of rifled versus smoothbore guns, there was no question as to the greater accuracy of the rifle. There was also a marked increase in efficiency. A 12-pounder James, for instance, weighed less than a 12-pounder Napoleon and attained greater range and accuracy with a much smaller powder charge. Part of this was due to the reduction of windage.

Windage (the difference between the diameter of the shot and that of the bore) was allowed to take care of rust, the straps on the sabot, the expansion of the shot, and for ease in loading in a foul bore. It amounted to one-tenth of an inch in a 12-pounder smoothbore, and resulted in loss of accuracy as well as loss of velocity, since much of the force of the explosion of the charge was wasted.

In wooded country, the 12-pounder smoothbores had an advantage. Their accuracy was of secondary importance, and at close range their larger bores could inflict more damage than the 3-inch rifles. As the Napoleons used fixed ammunition and the rifles, semi-fixed—that is, the projectile and the charge were loaded separately—the smoothbore had a higher rate of fire. The 3-inch canister was fixed, however, with forty-nine .96 caliber iron balls in a tinned iron case, although it was claimed that, being long and thin, the load did not perform as well as that of the 12-pounder.

Of the many types of rifled pieces used in the war, the 3-inch Ordnance and the 10-pounder, 3-inch Parrott were the most popular. Originally the Parrott had been made in 2.9 caliber, but it was later changed so that the same ammunition might be used in both pieces. The Ordnance gun was of wrought iron while the Parrott had a cast-iron tube, reinforced at the breech by a wrought-iron hoop.


Few breechloaders were used in the Civil War (for their breech mechanisms were relatively clumsy and complicated), but the two that did see service—the Armstrong and the Whitworth—were a great deal more accurate than any of the muzzle-loading smoothbore field pieces. The Armstrong is reported to have been more than fifty times as accurate as the standard British smoothbore field piece at one thousand yards. The Whitworth was every bit as accurate. Both had considerable range with low elevation, which meant a larger “danger space.” But long range (the Whitworth 12-pounder could send a bolt nearly six miles) was not of much advantage in the days of imperfect means of observation and poor fire control, and small-caliber shells with comparatively weak bursting charges.

Neither of these breechloaders had any great advantage over muzzle-loaders in rapidity of fire (for one thing, neither used fixed ammunition). A light rifle and shrapnel-proof gun shield, as used in more modern field pieces, might have increased their value, as the gun crews could have been partially protected from musketry. But this did not come into being until the development of a workable recoil mechanism.