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Late-19th Century Artillery

In 1855, England's Lord Armstrong designed a rifled, breech-loading cannon which meant the beginning of the end for the old, cast iron, round-shot, muzzle-loading cannon. This particular design was the first to use a cast tube with exterior hoops shrunk on over the tube to reinforce the metal, thus permitting longer ranges from lighter weapons.

During the American Civil War, Capt. T.J. Rodman, US Army Ordnance, perfected a method of casting barrels which was the greatest "breakthrough" for muzzle-loading artillery in over 700 years. Basically, his method was to pour molten cast iron around a water-cooled core. The inner walls of the bore solidified first and were compressed by the contraction of the outer metal, which cooled down more slowly. This resulted in a tube which had much greater strength to resist explosion of the charge. It was also during the Civil War that a newly designed rifle (Parrott's gun) startled the world with its range and accuracy.

The massive growth in the size of armies that began with the French Revolution coupled with changes in the means of war — advances in transportation and in weaponry — led to changes in how armies fought. As the range of weaponry increased to the point that the enemy could be engaged as soon as his forces became visible, a critical change in the pace of battle emerged. Commanders saw the disappearance of the pause between the approach march and the battle. The two were now merged. An example of this can be seen in the Prussian defeat of the Austrians at Königgrätz in 1866. There was no interval between the Prussian approach march and their attack on the Austrians. The battle and the march were parts of an organic whole, with the needs of the battle dictating the organization and conduct of the march.

In the great war of 1866 (Bohemia), guns were present on both sides in great numbers, the average for both sides being three guns per 1000 men. Artillery, however, played but a small part in the Prussian attacks, this being due to the inadequate training then afforded, and also to the mixture of rifled guns and smooth-bores in their armament. In Prussia, however, the exertions of General v. Hindersin, the improvement of the materiel, and above all the better tactical training of the batteries, were rewarded four years later by success on the battlefield almost as decisive as Napoleon’s.

In 1870 the French artillery was invariably defeated by that of the Germans, who were then free to turn their attention to the hostile infantry. At first, indeed, the German infantry was too impatient to wait until the victorious artillery had prepared the way for them by disintegrating the opposing line of rifiemen. Thus the attack of the Prussian Guards at St Privat (August 18, 1870) melted away before the unbroken fire-power of the French, as had that of the Federals at Fredericksburg and that of the Confederates at Gettysburg.

But such experiences taught the German infantry commanders the necessity of patience, and at Sedan the French army was enveloped by the fire of nearly 600 guns, which did their work so thoroughly that the Germans annihilated the Imperial army at the cost of only 5% of casualties.

The tactical lessons of the war, so far as field artillery is concerned, may be briefly summarized as (a) employment of great masses of guns; (b) forward position of guns in the order of march, in order to bring them into action as quickly as possible; (c) the so-called “artillery duel,” in which the assailant subdues the enemy’s artillery fire ; and (d) when this is achieved, and not before, the thorough preparation of all infantry attacks by artillery bombardment.

This theory of field artillery action had not, even with the almost revolutionary improvements of the later period, entirely lost its value, and it may be studied in detail in the well-known work of von Schell, Taktik der Feldartillerie (1877), later translated into English by Major-General Sir A.E.Turner (Tactics of Field Artillery, 1900).

In one important matter, however, the precepts of Schell and his contemporaries no longer held good. “It is absolutely necessary that the object of the infantry’s attack should be cannonaded before it advances. To accomplish this, sufficient time should be given to the artillery, and on no account should the infantry be ordered to advance until the fire of the guns has produced the desired effect.” This, the direct outcome of the slaughter at St Privat, represents the best possibilities of breechloading guns with common shell — no more than a slow disintegration of the enemy’s power of resistance by a thorough and lengthy “artillery preparation.”

Against troops sheltered behind works (as in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877—78) the common shell usually failed to give satisfactory results, if for no other reason, because the “preparation” consumed an inordinate time, and in any case the hostile artillery had first of all to be subdued in the artillery duel.

Page last modified: 01-05-2019 18:51:29 Zulu