Weaponry and Wartime Experience


Innovations in Artillery

During the 19th century the artillery piece underwent developments comparable to those of the rifle. At the beginning of the century, the classic bronze, muzzle-loading, smooth-bored field gun fired bullets or round shells at a distance varying from 450 to 750 m, depending on the calibre. At that time, calibre was expressed by projectile weight, and the most common guns were the 42-, 32-, 24-, 19-, 9-, 6-, 4 and 3-pounders. Their accuracy left much to be desired, since each shot would send the gun recoiling back a metre or two and sometimes more, depending on ground conditions, which meant the gunners had to put it back in position and re-aim. This operation negatively affected the rate of fire, as did the necessity of cleaning the powder and priming fuse residues in the barrel with a brush after each shot.

In the 1850s, just as with the rifle, came the development of the rifled breech-loading gun that marked the start of a series of technological innovations. The bronze gun gave way to the iron one, and the bullet yielded to the cylindro-ogival shell; new chemical products made it possible for the explosive charge to ignite after percussion; the invention of cartridge ammunition - a single piece containing the shell, thruster, cartridge and primer - increased the firing rate; the invention of cordite produced a greatly improved range; and the appearance of the hydraulic and then the hydropneumatic brake appreciably reduced the recoil effect. The same period saw significant improvement in ammunition: a considerable increase in shell weight, which enhanced the destructive effect, and the introduction of new types of projectiles like the segment shell, the common or explosive shell, the canister shell and the armour piercing shell.

Until the end of the 19th century, however, field guns were still fired "by sight." They therefore had to be deployed on cleared ground, usually in front of the infantry. Yet the more powerful rifles now made field guns and gunners increasingly vulnerable. In the Boer War it was noted that sight firing had become almost suicidal, and this resulted in the development of indirect or concealed f re. To hit a concealed target, the gunner aimed his gun according to instructions provided by an observer far away with a clear view of the target.