Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Napoleon

No, not the short little Corcisan who helped reinforce the concept that invading Russia is a bad idea. We are talking the cannon:

This is the next article on artillery evolution I am undertaking. Before diving into the "42" (aka the French 75mm), I feel it necessary to hit on some background. This is a recap of a short field trip I take my LTs on at Fort Sill to get them into the idea of innovation and how the army/military adapts to change and transformation. Before we talk French 75mm, we must talk Napoleons.

The Napoleon is a 12 pound cannon capable of shooting both round shot (aka cannonballs) and actual shells that can be set for timed explosions or point detonation (i.e. they hit the ground and go BOOM!). It is a smoothbore (no rifling) cast out of bronze (which is why it doesn't have rifling, bronze won't take the pressure a rifled shot would generate). This weapon system is horse drawn (usually 6 to 8), and has a cassion which carries its internal ammo supply of mixed types (ball, shell, grape and cannister, think shotguns). It had a crude system of elevating the tube and aiming. It had no internal recoil absorber so when it fired the gun rolled back and you had to manually reposition and aim it. Crew of 6, usually 6 guns per battery. Range varies: max with cannonball was out to 3000 yards (rarely used), usually used at 2000 yards or less. If you were less than 500 yards out you used cannister or grape. It could be fired using an open flame (if you were ghetto) or a percussion cap. It was a muzzle-loader, which meant you rammed the powder and projectile in from the front.

This gun was the high water mark for the black powder cannons, the pinnacle of black powder cannon technology for field artillery. This may be argued by some other cannon enthusiasts, but I am using a certain range for determination. It was as mobile as these systems ever got, it had decent range, reasonable reloading time (under a minute if you were quick), if was a flexible system that could shoot a variety of munitions and it was fairly dependable. It was a great example of "the box".

This is "the box". The first recorded used of black/gunpowder was in China around 800 AD. The first record of a type of firearm was dated in the 1100s. This was a type of hand cannon: metal tube, open on one end, apply flame at other, projectile blows out the other end. The point I made to my LTs is a simple one. A early user of the hand cannon could have figured out how to use a Naploeon cannon with little trouble. Boiled down, there was no massive difference in how either system worked just the overall size and range (even the most powerful black powder field artillery was still a direct fire weapon that was only used on enemies you could see). This leads to a "box" when it comes to thinking about how this type of weapon can be used. A box that was 700 years old. How do you think outside a box that is 700 years old? That is a hell of a box to try and disregard.

I bring this point up to set the stage for the arrival of what we recognize as modern artillery. The development of the French 75mm and its brethren destroyed a 700 year old box of military thought. Literally overnight, everything everyone thought they knew about how artillery worked no longer applied.

Welcome to Challenge 101.

Next post in this series will detail the French 75mm, its capabilities, and why it was different enough to literally change existance as it was know for every artilleryman on the planet (and why some of them didn't realize it).

And how everyone reacted to this.


  1. Very two quick questions.
    1) Are you going to write all this up for a Army historical publication, or has it already been done?
    2) Were there any innovations in late Medieval artillery that led to the Napoleon, or was it simply the pinnacale of a slow step-change process?

    I've just started reading your article you sent me, so I may answer some of my questions later today, but I am also very anxious to figure out what led to the 75 - improvements in materials in cannon construction, a major jump in thought, or a combination of many things.

  2. As I recall, the three main technological changes in field artillery during the end of the 19th century were barrel rifling, breach loading (which made the guns "Quick Loading") and the use of recoil systems (which made them "Quick Firing"). Many generals in the American Civil War said that they preferred the non-rifled Napoleons because they were better suited to firing grape or canister rounds, the rifling apparently disturbs the distribution of the sub-munitions, if that's what you call them. The rifling made for greater accuracy at long ranges but because there wasn't really a system for forward observation for field artillery, the guns weren't so useful at those ranges. The correct use of cannister, on the other hand, helped make the guns an important part of the increasingly effective defenses that were deployed in the Civil War.

    The introduction of breach loading and recoil systems was really the technological beginnings of modern field artilley. What was lacking was a proper forward observation method that was linked to the guns by a reliable signals system.

  3. I forgot the invention of unitary ammunition for rifled breach-loading guns. I don't remember exactly when that was introduced but it obviously made loading much quicker and easier.

  4. The other thing was that you couldn't rifle bronze. The metal wouldn't hold the rifling or if it did, the metal wasn't strong enough to keep from bursting.

    There were numerous inventions that made black powder cannons more effective, but no one put them all together until the 75mm. Each one by itself made a change, but with a trade off. Breach-loaders were quicker loading, but were iron or steel guns, which were rifled. Great for longer distance firing. But without the recoil system you lost the time saved because you still had to manually reposition and re-aim the gun. And so then the enemy got close and you then had to use cannister or grape, which in turn ripped out the rifling if you used it a lot. This is the best example of the trade offs you got, but there are plenty of others. Napoleons were popular because they had the greatest varity of munitions to use without much trouble.

  5. A couple of things will become clearer as this series goes on. The real point behind this isn't just the tech behind the changes, its the effect on the thinking and the "how do we do this". I am going to hit on that more on the next post.

  6. For Alex: no, none of this has been published (although I am thinking about it), and it was gradual over time.

  7. Wow, you'd make a good lecturer. Whodathunkit?

  8. Very should publish on the results if you can find the right journal. Thanks for the additional answers.

  9. Heh, the "correct" journal would be the FIRES Magazine. The offical journal of the FA and ADA. Used to be the FA Journal, but we combined the two when the ADA school moved to Fort Sill.

    And while not published, this was presented for my Master's final.