Artillery, 1862

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ARTILLERY followed as an inevitable lemma from the discovery of gunpowder, which later researches show to have probably originated accidentally, and at an extremely remote period, in Asia, where cannon seem to have been actually employed, while yet the arblast and battering-ram alone were known in Europe. The knowledge of gunpowder and of artillery appear not to have been rediscovered in Europe, as in the commonly received notion, but to have travelled westward with returning pilgrims and churchmen from the East; and western literature affords no earlier notice of either than that of our own Roger Bacon of Oxford, about the year 1270; although the Moors employed cannon in the south of Europe before that date.

Artillery has had four marked epochs of improvement, in its European history, each dependent upon the nature of the projectile. The first or earliest, was that of stone balls – the stone of the ancient catapult transferred to a new agent of propulsion. The artillery prepared for throwing these was of great calibre, sometimes as much as 2 feet, and was either formed of forged iron staves and rings shrunk on them hot, as in the Bombard of Ghent, Mons Meg at Edinburgh Castle, &c, or cast in bronze, as in the Kammerlichs of the Dardanelles. The second epoch was marked by the substitution of lead or iron shot for those of stone, which it had been found would not, unshattered, stand

“ ’Gainst castle wall,
The heavy brunt of cannon ball.”

The great increase of density of these metallic projectiles over those of stone, at once admitted and compelled, a large reduction of calibre and increase of thickness, and cannon were now chiefly cast, and of bronze. Guns cast in iron, do not date before the latter part of the fifteenth century.

The third marked epoch was that of the invention of vertical fire, and of hollow explosive or incendiary projectiles, the earliest notices of which occur at the conclusion of the fifteenth and early in the sixteenth century. These involved, a return to large calibres, and to the construction of the mortar.

The fourth and last epoch is of our own day, and its progress yet unfulfilled. It consists in carrying out the prediction of Robins, made more than a hundred years ago (in 1747, in his “New Principles of Gunnery”), that “whatever state should thoroughly comprehend the nature and use of rifled barrelled pieces, and having facilitated and completed their construction, should introduce into their armies their general use,” would thereby acquire a superiority, relatively almost as great, as that obtained by the first introduction of firearms.

Robins proposed elongated projectiles for rifled guns, and was fully aware of the increased range, as well as exactness of fire, that would result from rifled artillery. His knowledge, however, was in advance both of the requirements and of the arts of his time; rifled cannon, in fact, have only become possible in virtue of the metallurgic skill and exact machine workmanship developed within the last fifty years.

Within the few pages that are allotted here to our subject, we must almost confine our notices to rifled artillery, the newest, in some respects the most important, and the chief, display of ordnance at the Exhibition of 1862: for simple as is the fundamental problem of the artillerist – merely to blow a mass out of a tube – the practical conditions superadded by the requirements of warfare, at sea and on land, are in a high degree complicated; and to treat with anything approaching system and completeness the artillery and ordnance appliances, which are so remarkable a feature of this Exhibition, would require, not eight or ten pages, but an octavo volume.

The invention of the rifle in its early applications to small arms, dates from a very remote period, and appears to have originated in central Europe. Long before Robins wrote, attempts had been made early in the seventeenth century to enlarge its use and adapt it to artillery; even the elongated projectile in various forms was long anterior to Robins’ day. Cavalli, Wahrendorf, and several others, had produced rifled cannon, embracing breech loading and elongated projectiles, but without complete success, a good while before those events, that have concentrated popular attention upon the subject to the extent now observable.

The success and full adoption of rifled small arms with elongated projectiles in the armies of France, Prussia, and other Continental powers, and directly after in our own, seem to have first given the new impulse to the attempts to extend like projectiles to artillery.

Mr. Whitworth had been at work, aided by Government, in experimenting upon small-arm rifles, and had made some attempts at rifled cannon, when Mr. (now Sir William) Armstrong produced a completed rifled fieldpiece, which he had gradually matured in private, and presented it for trial. The results, though no more than science could have predicted, were received with mixed astonishment and admiration. The vast extension of range and increase of accuracy over anything previously obtained with round shot, rivetted attention thenceforth upon the new system. Whatever may be the defects in detail of the Armstrong gun, this admiration was not misplaced on the whole; for, as originally presented, it combined and brought to practical form in gun and in projectile a greater amount of the conditions necessary to perfection than any one had done before. Mr. Lancaster had been before him, and had brought the oval-bored rifle gun to a form of practical utility, but the cast-iron guns employed were of the old forms, and were deficient in resistance, and his oval shells, the production of which in wrought-iron was yet a novelty at Woolwich, were imperfectly manufactured; and while his method was as yet inchoate, the Armstrong gun appeared, and all antecedent to it was summarily dismissed. In this Lancaster was unfortunate for the time. We believe, however, that the last has not been seen of the oval bored gun.

Mr. Whitworth has been in point of time, the third great star in the English sky, and has unquestionably achieved some most remarkable results, by fine material and exact workmanship. These will be referred to in describing the objects he has exhibited.

The elongated rifled shot, in order that it shall receive rotation from the spirals of the gun (however these may be formed), must fit the latter with small or with no windage. This closeness of fit, the larger mass of the projectile due to its elongated form, and upon which mass, greater than that of the spherical ball though with only the same cross section of resistance in flight, the increase of range of the rifle mainly depends; these and the resistances involved in giving it the rotation or spin, together involve a serious increase of distress upon the gun. To withstand this, in large calibres at least, the old forms of solid cast-iron or bronze guns were inadequate. Two methods suggested themselves to strengthen them:-

The gun might be made of a stronger material – of wrought-iron or of tough steel, for example – or the material might be better disposed; it might be so arranged that all parts of the thickness of the cylinder should be strained as nearly as possible alike, which is not the case in any gun formed in one mass.

This is the system of superimposed hoops with initial tension, falsely attributed to Captain Blakely as its inventor, or the first discoverer of its laws. The true history of the invention, and of the discovery of its laws, may be found in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. vii., part xi., pp. 316-332, 1860. To Dr. Hart, of the University of Dublin, we owe the first mathematical investigation of these laws.

Armstrong adopted and from the outset combined both these modes of obtaining the strongest possible gun. Whitworth adopted until very lately the better material only. Armstrong superadded breech-loading, that portion of his ordnance, in which he has been least successful.