The Change into
Modern Artillery

With Rodman's gun, the muzzle-loading smoothbore was at the apex of its development. Through the years great progress had been made in mobility, organization, and tactics. Now a new era was beginning, wherein artillery surpassed even the decisive role it had under Gustavus Adolphus and Napoleon. In spite of new infantry weapons that forced cannon ever farther to the rear, artillery was to become so deadly that its fire caused over 75 percent of the battlefield casualties in World War I.

Many of the vital changes took place during the latter years of the 1800's, as rifles replaced the smoothbores. Steel came into universal use for gun founding; breech and recoil mechanisms were perfected; smokeless powder and high explosives came into the picture. Hardly less important was the invention of more efficient sighting and laying mechanisms.

The changes did not come overnight. In Britain, after breechloaders had been in use almost a decade, the ordnance men went back to muzzle-loading rifles; faulty breech mechanisms caused too many accidents. Not until one of H.M.S. Thunderer's guns was inadvertently double-loaded did the British return to an improved breechloader.

The steel breechloaders of the Prussians, firing two rounds a minute with a percussion shell that broke into about 30 fragments, did much to defeat the French (1870-71). At Sedan, the greatest artillery battle fought prior to 1914, the Prussians used 600 guns to smother the French army. So thoroughly did these guns do their work that the Germans annihilated the enemy at the cost of only 5 percent casualties. It was a demonstration of using great masses of guns, bringing them quickly into action to destroy the hostile artillery, then thoroughly "softening up" enemy resistance in preparation for the infantry attack. While the technical progress of the Prussian artillery was considerable, it was offset in large degree by the counter-development of field entrenchment.

As the technique of forging large masses of steel improved, most nations adopted built-up (reinforcing hoops over a steel tube) or wire-wrapped steel construction for their cannon. With the advent of the metal cartridge case and smokeless powder, rapid-fire guns came into use. The new powder, first used in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), did away with the thick white curtain of smoke that plagued the gunner's aim, and thus opened the way for production of mechanisms to absorb recoil and return the gun automatically to firing position. Now, gunners did not have to lay the piece after every shot, and the rate of fire increased. Shields appeared on the gun—protection that would have been of little value in the days when gunners had to stand clear of a back-moving carriage.

During the early 1880's the United States began work on a modern system of seacoast armament. An 8-inch breech-loading rifle was built in 1883, and the disappearing carriage, giving more protection to both gun and crew, was adopted in 1886. Only a limited number of the 8-, 10-, and 12-inch rifles mounted en barbette or on disappearing carriages were installed by 1898; but fortunately the overwhelming naval superiority of the United States helped bring the War with Spain to a quick close.

ranges of guns
FIGURE 15—Ranges.

During this war, United States forces were equipped with a number of British 2.95-inch mountain rifles, which, incidentally, served as late as World War II in the pack artillery of the Philippine Scouts. Within the next few years the antiquated pieces such as the 3-inch wrought-iron rifle, the 30-pounder Parrott, converted Rodmans, and the 15-inch Rodman smoothbore were finally pushed out of the picture by new steel guns. There were small-caliber rapid-fire guns of different types, a Hotchkiss 1.65-inch mountain rifle, and Hotchkiss and Gatling machine guns. The basic Pieces in field artillery were 3.2- and 3.6-inch guns and a 3.6-inch mortar. Siege artillery included a 5-inch gun, 7-inch howitzers, and mortars. In seacoast batteries were 8-, 10-, 12-, 14-, and 16-inch guns and 12-inch mortars of the primary armament; intermediate rapid-fire guns of 3-, 4.72-, 5-, and 6-inch calibers; and 6- and 15-pounder rapid-fire guns in the secondary armament.

The Japanese showed the value of the French system of indirect laying (aiming at a target not visible to the gunner) during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Meanwhile, the French 75-mm. gun of 1897, firing 6,000 yards, made all other field artillery cannon obsolete. In essence, artillery had assumed the modern form. The next changes were wrought by startling advances in motor transport. signal communications, chemical warfare, tanks, aviation, and mass production.


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