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Arms & Men: Shrapnel’s Lethal Shells

By Bruce I. Gudmundsson
4/19/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Henry Shrapnel’s invention was obsolete by World War II, but its legacy of death and mutilation continues.

The British guns that wreaked havoc on the French at Waterloo fired four kinds of ammunition. Three of these— round shot, common shell, and canister—were the staple artillery projectiles of the early 19th century. The fourth, spherical case shot, was peculiar to the armed forces of the United Kingdom.

Developed at the end of the 18th century by Henry Shrapnel, a serving officer of the Royal Artillery, it combined features of the three garden-variety munitions of the day. Like round shot, it was a means of inflicting casualties at distances between 500 yards and 1,500 yards. Like common shell, it carried both a gunpowder charge and a simple time fuse. And like canister, it released a hail of projectiles that mowed down men on foot or horseback alike.

During the three decades of relative calm that followed the Napoleonic wars, most of Europe’s arsenals mastered the delicate art of making what Shrapnel called “spherical case shot.” They refined the design of hollow cast-iron shells, improved the formula for gunpowder used in the bursting charge, and found ways to control the ballistics of the released musket balls. They also perfected fuses that, when cut to the proper length, caused case shot to burst while still in the air.

Nonetheless, “Shrapnel’s shell” played but a marginal role in the field artillery tactics of the day. The long-barreled guns that accounted for three-quarters of the field pieces of most European armies had been built to fire relatively small cannonballs. Thus the shrapnel shells they could fire were small and could only carry a handful of shot. Short-barreled howitzers had large-caliber bores, and so could accommodate shrapnel shells of a respectable size. Shells filled with balls, however, were much heavier than those packed with gunpowder. When howitzers fired shrapnel shells, the resulting stress was often too much for their wooden carriages to bear.

Ironically, it was the nephew of the man who lost the Battle of Waterloo who solved this conundrum. In the intervals between his many (and ultimately successful) attempts to ascend to his uncle’s throne, Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte devoted much of his time to designing a new type of artillery piece. Neither a true gun nor a true howitzer, this hybrid weapon had much in common with the “shell guns” that several countries had recently adopted for use aboard naval vessels, in coastal fortifications, and in siege warfare.

Like those larger pieces, Bonaparte’s canon-obusier (gun-howitzer) could not fire round shot as far as a gun of the same weight class, nor could it fire a shell as large as those thrown by a comparable howitzer. What it could do, however, was fire a 12- pound shrapnel shell with enough velocity to ensure that each of the 70-odd balls released could kill or maim any man it struck.

The “Napoleon 12-pounder” (as the gun-howitzer was known in the English-speaking world) received its baptism of fire on the battlefields of the Crimean War (1854–1856), winning high marks for ease of handling, accuracy, and the deadly effect of its projectiles. Its larger cousins, the shell guns of the siege artillery, did not do as well. In particular, the spherical shells they fired failed to inflict significant damage on the Russian fortifications around the city of Sevastopol.

European weapons designers reacted to the shell guns’ poor performance by looking for something that would allow artillery pieces of a given size to fire substantially larger shells. The solution they settled upon was rifling, which, in addition to many other benefits, made possible the use of projectiles that were two to three times longer than spherical shells of the same caliber. (An elongated shell fired from a smoothbore artillery piece would have tumbled in flight and been much less accurate than a perfectly round projectile. When fired from a rifled artillery piece, however, an elongated shell spun like a well-thrown football, and, with a properly pointed nose, was even more accurate than round shot.)

Elongated artillery projectiles carried much more gunpowder, and thus packed far greater destructive power. This was particularly true of any artillery piece (whether a naval gun, coast defense gun, or siege howitzer) that was customarily employed against material targets. In the realm of field artillery, however, shrapnel shells benefited most from the advantages of rifling. When spherical case shot burst, its balls flew in all directions. Since an elongated projectile remained pointed in the same direction throughout its flight, adding a small charge at the shell’s base made a long shrapnel shell act like a flying shotgun.

When set off by the fuse, a small charge exploded, releasing the balls into the air, minimizing their tendency to fly in the wrong direction, and providing them with a little additional striking power.

The Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) was the first in which all of the field guns employed by first-line formations were rifled. Shrapnel shell fuses were in short supply, however, so most of the artillery projectiles fired in that conflict were of the explosive variety. In the 20 years that followed, ordnance engineers made many small design improvements to shrapnel shells, chemists developed fuses that burned in a highly predictable fashion, and mathematicians worked out formulas for such factors as the optimum size of the balls and the ideal height at which a shrapnel shell should release them.

During the same period, changes in infantry tactics created considerable demand for projectiles that could deal with enemies spread thinly over large areas rather than packed in dense formations like those at Waterloo.

With each improvement to shrapnel shells, more artillerymen became convinced that they were better suited to dealing with the challenge of the new “openorder” tactics than shells filled only with gunpowder. By 1890, the shrapnel shell had become the projectile of choice for most field artillery fire missions. Some armies, such as those of the British Empire, went so far as to remove all projectiles except shrapnel shells from the caissons of their field gun batteries.

As a result, artillery designers began to optimize field guns for the task of firing shrapnel shells. In particular, they sought to increase the shells’ velocity, imparting greater striking power to each ball. They gave their creations large chambers (to accommodate more powerful propellant charges), long barrels (to allow the propellant to burn completely), and narrow bores (to improve shell aerodynamics and permit using longer barrels). Within 15 years, most armies had acquired field guns of this type, the paragon of which was the 75mm gun adopted by the French army in 1897, the famous “French 75.”

At the start of World War I, the central role played by shrapnel-firing field guns in the opening battles suggested that, if anything, shrapnel shell advocates had understated their case. From Tannenberg in the east to the Marne in the west, shrapnel (rather than bolt-action rifles or machine guns) inflicted the lion’s share of casualties, paralyzed forward movement, and induced whole armies to dig in. Indeed, shrapnel was so effective that by the third month of the war it had worked itself out of a job.

With the armies of Europe protected by trenches, the explosive shells that had nearly disappeared before 1914 came back into fashion, using “high-explosive” compounds. Some artillery officers refused delivery of shrapnel shells, preferring to leave their caissons empty than to fill them with projectiles they could not use. Behind the lines, in the senior headquarters, war ministries, and ordnance offices, they debated the uselessness of shrapnel.

Even the British army, which had not issued a single round of explosive field gun ammunition in more than 20 years, briefly adopted a policy of providing field gun units with three high-explosive projectiles for each shrapnel shell they supplied.

A few months after the onset of trench warfare, enthusiasm for explosive field gun shells began to wane. As the troops dug deeper into the ground, the relatively small high-explosive projectiles became less effective. Then heavy howitzers took on the task of bombarding trenches. The smallest of these, 150mm pieces, delivered shells six times heavier than the 15-pound projectiles fired by most contemporary field guns. At the same time, however, the need to demolish barbed-wire obstacles, inhibit movement behind enemy lines, and fire “SOS barrages” in support of overrun positions gave shrapnel shells and the field guns that fired them a new lease on life.

Armies used shrapnel shells for a good 30 years after World War I. The shells even saw service in World War II, if only in units armed with obsolete artillery pieces. By the early 1930s, however, it had become clear that the shrapnel shell’s days were numbered. As the long-barreled field guns optimized to fire the shells wore out, armies tended to replace them with a new generation of gun-howitzers.

Like the Napoleon 12-pounders of the previous century, these compromise weapons fired shells that were both larger and slower than those fired by the long-barreled field guns of the early 20th century. Because of this, any shrapnel shell designed for the new artillery pieces had to have a large bursting charge.

In an era when explosive shells were being designed to maximize the number of man-killing fragments, the functional differences between shrapnel shells and state-of-the-art explosive shells were therefore minimal. An explosive shell could serve as a reasonable substitute for a purpose-built shrapnel shell, and so, one by one, the armies of the world sacrificed the shrapnel shell on the altar of simplicity.

By the mid-20th century, shrapnel shells had become so rare that the word “shrapnel” lost its original meaning. Instead of referring to shot-filled shells or the balls themselves, shrapnel was increasingly used as a synonym for shell fragments.

This definition eventually expanded to include any shard or sliver of hard material sent flying through the air by an explosion. Of late, terrorist groups have started to use ball bearings to enhance the killing power of suicide bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). So, in the first decade of the 21st century, the term shrapnel is again being applied to projectiles that bear an uncanny resemblance to the musket balls that Henry Shrapnel began to stuff into cast-iron shells more than 200 years ago.

 

Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.  

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