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Updated on May 16, 2010

Artillery (Old French artillerie; Italian artiglieria; Spanish artilleria). Its former meaning comprised all implements of war, and it was generally used in the plural. Then the word was used particularly to denote engines for discharging missiles, such as catapults, bows, crossbows, and slings.

In modern use the term 'artillery' denotes all projectile-firing weapons, invariably guns and missile launchers, mounted on carriages or firing platforms. Early artillery pieces were known as cannon and were described by names such as saker, robinet, falcon, culverin, minion, and serpentine. By the end of the 17th century guns were generally classed by the weight of the solid iron shot they fired, as 4-pounder, 6-pounder, 12-pounder, and so forth. Today guns are classified by their metric calibre; light artillery having a calibre of 120 mm or less, medium 121-160 mm, and heavy 161-210 mm. All types of artillery are often described by the term 'ordnance', and the science governing the use and management of artillery is known as gunnery.

Photo by Kristin Smith
Photo by Kristin Smith

Early History

In the Old Testament 'engines invented by cunning men to shoot arrows and great stones' are mentioned. Continual improvements were made, and under the names of catapulta, balister, and trebuchet such arms were used in medieval warfare.

The early history of gunpowder and the gun is cloaked in obscurity and speculation, and there is no evidence to support the popular theory that Berthold Schwarz, a German monk living in the Black Forest, conceived the idea of a cannon when the gunpowder he was experimenting with blew the lid from his apothecary's mortar. Indeed there is no evidence to suggest that the existence of Schwarz himself is anything other than a work of fiction, and all that can be said with certainty is that brass cannon were being manufactured for the defence of Florence in 1326. The English used cannon at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, and it is thought that they may also have been used at Metz in 1324 or Algeciras in 1342.

The earliest cannon were shaped like vases, and fired heavy arrows with a complete lack of accuracy. Then they were made as simple tubes from iron bars welded together and encased in wrought-iron rings. Bolts were soon replaced as projectiles by round stones and iron balls, and by the 16th century cannon were being cast in iron and brass. Most cannon were loaded via the muzzle since early breech-loaders were not a success and soon fell into disuse. At first, cannon were used predominantly as weapons of siege warfare, and it was not until the end of the 14th century that their employment as field artillery during battles was widely practised. The French led Europe in the development of artillery and towards the end of the 15th century they introduced the first true field pieces when bronze cannon were mounted on two-wheeled carriages pulled by horses.

The 16th century saw a decline in the use of artillery since it failed to achieve the mobility and range necessary to counter improved infantry tactics and weapons. The cumbersome artillery pieces could be used at the start of an engagement but the tide of battle soon left them behind. The problem was eventually solved by Gustavus Adol-phus (1594-1632) who succeeded, through improvements in casting and the manufacture of gunpowder, in reducing the weight of his guns without decreasing their range. He also introduced the highly mobile 'leather gun' which could be drawn over rough country by only one horse or two men.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The limited nature of warfare during the early 18th century did little to encourage innovation, and it was once more left to the French to introduce the next improvements in gunnery. In 1765 Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval began the process, which was to turn artillery into a decisive weapon of war under Napoleon's direction. Gribeauval reduced the weight and size of the French field pieces and standardised them as 4-, 8-, and 12-pounder guns (able to fire 1.8, 3.6, and 5.4 kg), and 6-inch (150-millimeter) howitzers. He further increased mobility by providing limbers, by harnessing draft horses in pairs instead of in single file, and by establishing a corps of trained military drivers. The rocket perfected by Sir William Congreve enjoyed a brief period of service during the Napoleonic Wars, but its inaccuracy and limited range prevented its acceptance as a permanent artillery weapon.

The artillery with which the British army fought the Crimean War differed little from the weapons it had used at Waterloo forty years earlier, and this striking anomaly in an age when engineering and manufacturing techniques were making rapid progress led a British engineer, William Armstrong, to design and build a gun worthy of contemporary knowledge. He used wrought instead of cast iron, rifled the bore with grooves to increase accuracy, and rejected muzzle-loading in favour of breech-loading. After three years of trials the Armstrong gun was accepted by both the army and navy in 1858, but due to the weakness of its breech, which prevented a shot being fired with sufficient power to penetrate the armour of the new ironclad ships, it was gradually replaced by the more powerful rifled muzzle-loading (RML) gun.

The supremacy of the RML guns was short-lived since their increasing size and the complexity of the machinery needed to load larger and larger shells into their muzzles, led to a return to improved breech-loading designs. There were still problems to be overcome. In the absence of an efficient recoil-absorbing system guns continued to hurl themselves backwards after every shot, having then to be manhandled to their original position and relaid before they could be brought to bear on the target.

Experiments using hydraulics to dampen the recoil were conducted in Britain and the USA, but the first efficient hydro-pneumatic system was developed by France in the form of the 75-millimetre 1897 Field Gun. Britain's experience in the Boer War underlined the inadequacy of its artillery, and a search began for new weapons incorporating the essential features of the quick-firing gun: recoil control, a simple but efficient breech, a protective gun shield, and an integrated cartridge, shell, and fuse. The guns selected were an 18-pounder (able to fire 8 kg), which was to play a prominent role in France during the First World War, a 45-inch (114-millimetre) howitzer, and a 13-pounder (able to fire 6 kg) for the Royal Horse Artillery.

Development in the First World War

Four years of scientific warfare in the First World War saw a consistent development in the power and influence of artillery, both in the actual battle and in all the stages which lead up to it.

Ever-increasing demands for guns were made in the first two years of the war. The only modern heavy howitzer available to the British army in 1914 was the 9-2-inch (234-millimetre) Mark I howitzer which first saw action at the battle of Neuve Chapelle. When in 1916 General Haig was calling for more guns, he selected the latest 'Marks' of existing models in order to facilitate construction and to ensure uniformity in design. At the same time he insisted that every effort should be made to increase the range and accuracy of guns, and that there should be no cessation of research and no finality of design.

The main principle on which the construction programme was based was to give a decisive fighting superiority per division over the German artillery. There was a preference for the howitzer over the gun. Its 'life' was greater, e.g., for a 6-inch (150-millimetre) gun, Mark VII, the 'life' was 1500 rounds, for a 6-inch howitzer, 10,000 rounds. The howitzer, too, was much easier to place in position in the field, and many could be sited in a comparatively restricted area, owing to the higher line of departure of the shell. Though they had less range than guns of similar shell-power, howitzers were more mobile and, fired at horizontal ranges, their accuracy was greater.

In 1914 there were in the original British expeditionary force 486 guns and howitzers, 24 of which were of medium calibre; at the Armistice there were 6437 guns and howitzers of all kinds (excluding anti-aircraft artillery and trench mortars), of which 2211 were medium and heavy artillery.

The later technical improvements in British artillery design included long-range, modern 6-, 8-, 9-2-, and 12-inch (150-, 200-, 234-, and 300-millimetre) howitzers, 6-inch Mark XIX guns on field carriages, and 9'2-, 12-, and 14-inch (234-, 300-, and 355-millimetre) Mark XIII guns on railway mountings. Other improvements were instantaneous fuses, gas, and smoke shells, stream-line shells, and incendiary and star shells.

Second World War Developments

The Second World War saw a great development of anti-aircraft and tank guns. Also various types of self-propelled guns were used for assault or close support.

The improved German 88-millimetre gun was probably the best three-purpose gun (i.e., anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and field artillery piece) developed during the war. Many new types of artillery, including very large mortars and long-range field guns, were under development or construction in Germany in the closing stages of the war. Some of them had rocket-assisted shells. Among these were a 380-millimetre howitzer and rocket 'guns' with smooth-bore barrels, 122 m long, intended for the bombardment of London. A new 120-millimetre anti-tank gun was in development. The Germans were also working on a 32-inch (813-millimetre) siege gun, with a barrel 43 m long, which fired an 8-4-tonne projectile. In the last months of the war in the Far East the Japanese also introduced some heavy mortars and heavy rockets. German recoilless guns were another notable development which had first been used on a large scale during the airborne invasion of Crete.

Post 1945 Developments

The successful use of missiles in the latter part of the Second World War led to the belief that the gun would soon be obsolete as an artillery weapon. The missile has been adopted for air defence but experience in the limited wars since 1945 has shown a continuing need for the conventional gun. Britain relies entirely on the gun for close and medium support artillery, using the 105-millimetre light gun which is air-transportable, and the Abbot and M-109 self-propelled guns. The missile regiments of the British Army of the Rhine are equipped with the US Lance surface-to-surface guided missile system which can deliver tactical nuclear warheads to a range of 120 km. Britain and other NATO countries have ordered the new Lance 'cluster' warhead which contains 836 small bombs and is capable of saturating an area 1 km in diameter.


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    • RamyMehelba profile image

      Ramy Mehelba 

      7 years ago from Egypt

      Really nice and useful article! Thanks


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