The Quick-Firing Gun [QFG]
Since the dawn of the gunpowder age, the reaction of the weapon to the launching of the projectile had to be dealt with. As the mass and energy of the propelling charge and the mass of the projectiles increased to achieve ever-greater range or effectiveness the weapon reaction also increased. Initially, the physical size of the weapon, the barrel in particular, required holding the propellant gas pressures balanced or exceeded the increase in momentum imparted to the weapon. However, by the end of the 19th century, thanks in part to barrel manufacturing technology advancements in large forgings and built-up construction methods and advancements in metal cleanliness and alloy metallurgy allowing significant reduction in wall thickness with the associated weight reduction, this was no longer the case.
In the old Navy an 11-inch pivot gun required a crew of twenty-four men, mainly to advance and train the gun. In 1869 Captain Pemberton of the Royal Navy attached a hydraulic recoil cylinder to the carriage of turret guns. This returned the gun automatically to firing position. All the gun-tackles and tacklemen then disappeared. This principle was rapidly followed, and was soon universal. At first it was operated on ships by the hydraulic control system which turned the turret and loaded the guns.
It was simplified later by sending the gun back by counter-recoil springs and absorbing the shock on pistons sliding in cylinders having rifled grooves of varying depth, which permitted varying rates of leakage past the piston. The liquid was a non-freezing mixture, 20 per cent water, 80 per cent pure glycerin, and completely filled the cylinder. The object of rifling is to prevent scoring the piston on the edges of the grooves.
No hand labor was required. The gun returned automatically to its former aim, almost instantly, through a sleeve or on a cradle. The trunnions and rimbases are no longer on the gun, but on the sleeve. The cascabel and its heavy check cable had vanished.
In 1891, a work by General Wille of the German army (The Field Gun of the Future) and in 1892 another by Colonel Langlois of the French service (Field Artillery with the other Arms) foreshadowed many revolutionary changes in materiel and tactics which were soon to take place. The new ideas spread rapidly, and the quick-firing gun came by degrees to be used in every army. The original designs have been greatly improved upon, but the principles of these designs have not undergone serious modification. These are, briefly, the mechanical absorption of the recoil, by means of brakes or buffers, and the development of “ time shrapnel” as the projectile of field artillery.
The absorption of recoil of itself permits of a higher rate of fire, since the gun does not require to be run up and relaid after every shot. Formerly such an advantage was illusory (since aim could not be taken through the thick bank of smoke produced by rapid fire), but the introduction of smokeless powder removed this objection. Artillerists, no longer handicapped, at once turned their attention to the increase of the rate of fire. At the same time a shield was applied to the gun, for the protection of the detachment. This advantage is solely the result of the non-recoiling carriage. The gunners had formerly to stand clear of the recoiling gun, and a shield was therefore of but slight value.
The French introduced the first efficient recoil mechanism in 1897, in the famours "French 75". The weapon used the hydropneumatic liquid and gas principle of checking recoil and returning the tube to battery. Recoil was checked primarily by the throttling of oil, and the tube was returned to battery by the energy of the compressed gas.
The power of modern artillery owed even more to the improvement of the projectile than to that of the gun. The French, always in the forefront of artillery progress, were the first nation to realise the new significance of the time-fuze and the shrapnel shell. Between 1860 and 1870 gunners, now convinced of the superiority of the new equipments, sought to turn to account the minute accuracy of the rifled weapons in unnecessarily fine shooting. Thus, in 1870 the French time-fuze was only graduated for two ranges, and the Germans used percussion fuzes only.
The heyday of the cast iron weapon was short-lived. With the development of the steel industry, perfection of breech and recoil mechanisms became possible. This allowed the use of smokeless powder and high explosives and marked the end of the black powder muzzle-loader. Almost as important as these developments was the invention f more efficient sighting and laying mechanisms. In essence, artillery had assumed the modem form.
General Langlois summarized the tactics of the newest field artillery in one phrase: “It results in transferring to 3000 yds. the pointblank and case-shot fire of the smooth-bore.” It is claimed for the modern gun and the modern shell that the Napoleonic method of annihilating by a rain of bullets has been revived, with the distinction that the shell, and not the gun, fires the bullets close up to the enemy. In the Boer War, Pieter’s Hill furnished a notable example of this “covering," as distinct from “preparation,” of an assault by artillery fire.