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Breech Loading Rifled Artillery

In 1854 William Armstrong, an English hydraulic engineer, designed an entirely new type of gun. Instead of simply boring out a solid piece of metal, Armstrong forged his barrel from wrought iron (later from steel). He then forged a succession of tubes and, by heating and shrinking, assembled them over the basic barrel so as to strengthen it in the area where the greatest internal stress.

Conical Projectiles

The invention of conical projectiles, which, combined with the rifle bore, produced wonderful effects in the Civil War, is older than that of firearms. The English, who never succeeded in making their speculations, or practice in firearms prevail, but who always made a great noise about their improvements, used the conical bullet for the first time in the year 1627, at the siege of La Rochelle, a Protestant stronghold, besieged and taken by Richelieu.

In 1808 Guitton de Morneau, a French chemist, proposed to substitute for the common bullet a cylindric projectile of iron, semi spheric at one of its ends, covered over with lead, so as to expel the wind from the breech. The great wars in which Napoleon I was engaged prevented that discovery to be reached with the degree of attention it deserved. In the year 1813 some American officers applied to our cannons elongated projectiles, which gave more accuracy and range to our fire than that of the English. These results caused the English and Hanoverian governments to make serious researches upon the improvements to be introduced in the shape of projectiles

Rifled Cannon

Studies on the construction of rifled cannon were not made in Germany alone, but were also the object of much attention in England and France. Writers on gunnery speak of two-pounder rifled gun, tried for the first time in England in the year 1776 for the purpose of reducing to obedience the American rebels. These small ordnance threw projectiles at the distance of 1,100 yards, with a deviation of about two feet in their range.

M. Reichenbach, a captain of artillery in Bavaria, constructed in the year 1816, a rifled bronze cannon, with seven grooves, and loaded it with conical balls. Though the deviation was very great at first, the result was nevertheless very remarkable and created a certain sensation in German military circles. Unfortunately, the moment was not auspicious for the prosecution of his discovery. The original idea of combining the rifled bore with the conical ball belongs in great part to Reichenbach.

Cyrus Alger & Co.: Cyrus Alger, who during the War of 1812 furnished the government with shot and shell, in 1817 started South Boston Iron company which at an early date was known locally as Alger's Foundry and later became Cyrus Alger & Co. The Massachusetts firm was a leading cannon manufacturer and when Cyrus died in 1856, leadership was assumed by his son, Francis, who piloted the company until his death in 1864. He supplied the government with large numbers of cannon-balls during the war of 1812, and his works became famed for the excellent ordnance there manufactured. He was one of the best practical metallurgists of his time, and his numerous patents of improved processes show continued advance in the art practiced by him. The first gun ever rifled in America was made at his works in 1834, and the first perfect bronze cannon was made at his foundry for the United States ordnance department.

In 1843, M. Wahrendorff, proprietor of the great iron forge at Aker (Sweden), manufactured several rifled guns, but without altering the spheric shape of the bullets, which he only covered with a leaden coat, so as to facilitate their adherence to the grooves.

The superiority of rifled barrels became evident, as rifled artillery was being cast that made all smoothbore cannons obsolete. A pointed projectile could travel further and with greater accuracy, easily penetrating walls and thus making coastal forts "fortresses of the past."

Breech Loading

The breech loading gun, dates as far back as the discovery of cannon itself, and fourteen guns of that description were used by the English army at the siege of Orleans, in the year 1428. In the mid-19th century, the breech-loading rifle cannon began to replace the far less efficient muzzle loader. The breechloader represented a revolution in armaments technology. A muzzleloader is only loaded from the front, and has a solid breech plug. The breech is the part of a gun barrel at the end opposite the muzzle.

William Henson was born in 1812 in Somerset, England. He had many interests. Although he joined his father in the lacemaking industry, he also worked at developing a breech-loading cannon, an ice-making machine, and a method for waterproofing fabrics. He had patents for a safety razor, lacemaking machinery, and improvements to steam engines. He is best known for the design of his Aerial Steam Carriage, which he patented in 1843.

It was in the year 1828 that Capt. Delvigne fired for the first time his breech loading gun with cylindro conic bullets. This trial was the signal of a complete revolution in the manufacture of firearms.

In 1846 M. Cavalli, a Major in the Piedmontese army, renewed the experiment made in 1816 by Reichenbach; but his cannon, instead of being loaded at the muzzle, was loaded by the breech. The results obtained by these inventors induced the French government, which, since 1851, had been actively engaged in experimenting with the rifled cannon, combined with the conical ball, at the arsenal of Vincennes, to introduce considerable change in the material of artillery.

All the ordnance in the French army had been brought down to two calibers: the twelve-pounders for the besieging of strongholds, and the four pounders for field pieces. These changes had not been confined to the cannons alone; plain projectiles had been given up, and hollow and explosive one substituted in their stead.

The French four pounder was loaded by the muzzle, a method criticised by the German inventors, who believed that breech loading cannon are the best. The French, on the other side, entirely deprecate the breech loading gun, pretending that they are of no value whatever, whenever the bullet weighs over sixteen pounds.

In December 1854 Sir William Armstrong approached the UK Secretary of State for War with a proposition that he make a Rifled Breech Loading (RBL) 3-pr gun for trial. Later bored up to 5-pr it performed with marked success both in range and accuracy. Over the next three years he went on to develop his system of construction and adapt it to guns of heavier calibre. In the Armstrong system, guns were loaded through a hollow breech screw. The breech was closed by means of a vent piece, which was dropped into a slot or opening in the top of the breech. The vent piece was then pressed home against the chamber by means of a breech screw.

Trials were held from 1863 to 1865, between Armstrong and Whitworth guns, to find something more suitable than the Armstrong RBL system. For these trials, Armstrong produced a steel RML gun, rifled with three grooves in the shunt system. The failure of the Armstrong breech-loading guns led to the subsequent introduction of muzzle-loading cannon in lieu thereof in 1869.

The great difficulty with the muzzle-loading rifled cannon consists in the cleaning of the bore. The idea of loading by the breech was not given up, and not withstanding the objection of the French concerning the breech-loading system, by 1861 they were occupied in finding a mechanism which, without prejudice as to safety and accuracy, would allow them to load it like the Armstrong gun.

The real revolution in European killing power was brought about by Krupp's introduction of the steel breech-loading cannon in the 1860s. Early models were accident-prone but the kinks were worked out, Breech-loading steel cannon were manufactured at the works of Friedrich Krupp, at Essen in Prussia. Guns of over eight-inch bore were made up of several concentric cylinders; those of a smaller size are forged solid.

Alfred Krupp announced his technological prowess by exhibiting a few samples at the London Exhibition of 1851. By 1859 Krupp's rifled cannon had a transverse sliding steel wedge to close the breech. The sealing (obturation) of both the Armstrong and Krupp guns was performed by a soft metal ring let into the face of the vent piece or wedge that pressed tightly against the chamber mouth.

At first Krupp had difficulty persuading governments to buy his product - steel guns were expensive, and they sometimes suffered from casting flaws and fractured unexpectedly. Egypt was his first customer (1855); Prussia followed with a trial batch of 300 guns; and when the Russians placed far larger orders after 1863 breech-loading steel artillery began to displace bronze muzzle-loaders. The Krupp field-guns of 1870-71 had more in common with present-day artillery than with the bronze smooth-bores that still equipped most armies at the time. The biggest conceptual difference is the early breechloaders' lack of a hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism, an invention credited to the French a few years later.

A UK committee which deliberated in 1870 declared '... the majority of Royal Artillery Officers were convinced that no system of breech-loading artillery was necessary in the field'. The Director of Artillery backed them up, and news that the breech mechanisms of 200 Krupp guns had failed during the Franco-Prussian War further hardened the opposition to breech-loading. On the other hand the Germans did not give up so easily.

In 1870, the support accorded infantry by the new Krupp breech-loading steel cannons was crucial in storming French positions in Alsace and Lorraine. During the Centennial year of 1876, Philadelphia was host to a celebration of 100 years of American cultural and industrial progress. Officially known as the "International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine." Americans were intimidated by the breech-loading Krupp Guns from Germany.

In 1878-79 Krupp introduced a new line of larger steel artillery pieces, suitable for naval use. These were designed to take advantage of the recently been perfected slow-burning smokeless propellants. Demonstration firings proved that Krupp's new guns completely outclassed muzzle-loaders.

An accident aboard HMS Thunderer in 1879, where a 12 inch 38.5 ton Rifled Muzzle Loading (RBL) gun burst, killing two officers and eight men, and wounding ten others. The inquiry initially raised doubts about the current form of gun barrel construction but concluded that the barrel had been double loaded following a misfire. The lack of recoil had not been noticed because the guns were run in hydraulically immediately after firing (she was the first ship so fitted). This particular accident could not have happened with a breech-loader and served to sound the death knell for the muzzle-loader. The accident was one of the reasons for the eventual discarding of the RML system, and a final return to breech loading in the British service.

The saftey problems with breech-loaders were finally solved with 'interrupted screw' breech and the french-designed DeBange obturation system. The interrupted screw breech allows for the breech to close and seal in a quarter-turn, greatly speeding service of the piece. The DeBange obturator was a mushroom-shaped steel spindle in the center of the breech block. It sat on a split ring obturating pad (usually a hard, heat resistant rubber or asbestos compound) with another split ring on top of it. The compression of firing pushed the mushroom back on the split rings and obturator, which bulged to seal the breech.

The superiority of breech-loading guns - since accorded - in affording less exposure to men; reduced size of embrasures, securing greater rapidity of fire; increased length of bore, and hence greater power; and also affording greater facilities for bore examinations, and permitting an ease in loading not afforded in long-bored muzzle-loading guns; and the latter exhibiting the dangers arising from the possibilities of double charging, and the cumbersomeness and complica6tions of loading devices necessary for the use of muzzle-loading guns, more especially in the naval service, where economy of space is a matter of vital importance.


In the first half of the 19th century the effect of shore batteries on ships, and the results of battles between ships themselves, were not very terrible. The heavy shot discharged by smooth-bore guns carried for a very short distance, often missed its target, and the greater part of the damage it caused could be repaired by means at hand.

The adaptation of rifled guns, and of shells charged with high explosives, entirely changed the conditions of war. The destruction caused by a single well-aimed shell was so great that in comparison the effect of red-hot shot was but a trifle. Shells would not merely penetrate vessels, causing a puncture their own diameter in size, but destroy whole sections of the ship; annihilating every- thing around them.

With long-range guns and powerful projectiles, maritime towns could be threatened with a destruction from which they will not recover for a long time. Of the smooth-bore 12-inch mortar of the old type,the greatest range was 2500 yards; the 12-inch guns of the Canet system threw a shell weighing 986 pounds, and filled with 275 pounds of explosives,to a distance of 13 miles, so that towns may be bombarded from a considerable distance.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:40:42 ZULU