JOSEPH STALIN CALLED ARTILLERY the “god of war.” Marshal Henri Petain is frequently quoted as having said, “The artillery conquers, the infantry occupies.” Louis XIV ordered Ultima ratio regum (the final argument of kings) inscribed on all French cannons, while a medieval pope reportedly issued a blanket excommunication for all gunners as servants of the devil. Anyone who has ever been subjected to sustained artillery fire would most likely concur.
At its most basic level, an artillery piece is a crew-served weapon that throws a relatively large projectile great distances. All modern artillery is directly descended from the ancient engines of war, described in such Bible passages as 2 Chronicles 26:15: “devices invented for use on the towers and on the corner defenses so that soldiers could shoot arrows and hurl large stones from the walls.” Artillery pieces of the pre-gunpowder era included the ballista, essentially a huge crossbow that threw its projectile in a relatively flat trajectory, and the catapult and the trebuchet, which flung missiles in a more arched trajectory, making it possible to engage targets behind walls and hills.
These older weapons used mechanical force as a means of launching solid, deadweight projectiles. Modern artillery uses explosive chemical power and launches rounds that can carry explosive, smoke, and illumination charges; antitank mines; radar-jamming devices; and laser- and satellite-controlled terminal guidance systems.
One of the earliest descriptions of gunpowder in the West was written by Roger Bacon in 1245. Sometime shortly thereafter, weapons began to appear that used the explosive power of gunpowder to expel a projectile from a tube of some sort (the word cannon derives from the Latin canna, meaning a reed or hollow tube). Early cannons were made from either cast metal or wooden staves. Until well into the 17th century, artillery seldom played any battlefield role apart from siege operations.
For the past 400 years there have been three basic categories of tube artillery. Guns, much like the ancient ballista, are artillery pieces that fire projectiles at a very high velocity and a relatively flat trajectory. Mortars deliver relatively light exploding projectiles at short ranges, and only at high angles of fire—that is, the angle of elevation of their tubes is always more than 45 degrees. Howitzers are extremely versatile weapons capable of firing at low angles, like a gun, or at high angles, like the mortar and the earlier catapult and trebuchet. The howitzer’s muzzle velocity and range are less than those of a gun of comparable size, but its accuracy is greater. The early howitzers of the 17th through mid-19th centuries were capable of firing either solid shot or exploding shell.
Most field artillery pieces in use since the end of World War II are howitzers, although some field guns do exist. All tanks are armed with guns, and their crews use the direct-fire technique, aiming straight at a target. Although technically artillery pieces, modern mortars are classified as infantry weapons in most of today’s armies.
The following are among the most technologically and tactically significant artillery pieces of the last 550 years.
The main problem with early cannons was the procurement of ammunition. Cannonballs were carved out of solid stone and were difficult to size correctly. The solution to that problem was the bombard. Introduced in China about the 13th century, the weapon had a slightly conical bore, narrower at the rear and widening toward the muzzle. Balls of varying sizes could be put into the bore, and at some point along its length the projectile would seat snugly. Of course, the widening of the bore allowed much of the expanding gas from the ignited powder in the breech to escape as the ball traveled, which reduced the power behind the projectile.
Gun makers compensated by building ever larger and more powerful bombards. By the late 15th century some bombards weighed as much as 20 tons and fired a 25-inch ball weighing some 800 pounds, making them history’s first super-guns. They were castle killers, and their appearance marked the beginning of the end of the castle as a militarily significant fortification—and the demise of the entire feudal system.
Ottoman sultan Mehmet II was history’s first great gunner. In 1453 he used some of the largest bombards ever constructed to batter down the defenses of Constantinople, bringing the Byzantine Empire to an end. One of Mehmet’s greatest innovations was the casting of bombards in two pieces that screwed together. That made them easier to transport and quicker and easier to load and fire.
Gustavus Adolphus’s Leather Field Gun
King Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden (1594–1632) was the first military commander to organize his artillery into two distinct branches—field and siege. Now for the first time artillery accompanied forces maneuvering on an open battlefield. But weight and mobility were still a problem. The typical regimental support gun of the early 17th century was a relatively small 4-pounder (that is, it fired a solid shot weighing four pounds), but its cast-iron tube alone could weigh as much as 1,500 pounds.
The so-called leather gun, a 2.6-pounder introduced by Gustavus during the Polish-Swedish War of 1626–1629, was the world’s first light and highly mobile field gun. The tube was made of cast copper, reinforced with iron bands and tightly wrapped rope bindings covered in leather. It weighed only about 90 pounds. Mounted on a two-wheeled carriage, the gun could be moved by one horse and positioned by just two men. Of course, the leather gun had shorter range and was less accurate or powerful than conventional cast-iron guns, but its ability to be moved quickly to critical points on the battlefield made up for its shortcomings. Its greatest drawback was sensitivity to the heat from firing; after only 10 to 12 rounds the tube had to be removed from the carriage to cool. Though technologically a dead end, the leather gun facilitated tactical innovations that were the first steps toward the modern concept of combined arms.
Frederick the Great’s Horse Artillery
Like Gustavus, King Friedrich II of Prussia (1712–1786)—Frederick the Great—assigned guns to accompany his infantry regiments, usually two 3-pounders or occasionally 6-pounders to each battalion. But his introduction of horse artillery in 1759 was a quantum leap in firepower mobility, and for the next 30 years Prussia had Europe’s only horse artillery.
Frederick mounted all his gunners, either on the leaders of the four-horse teams or on the gun carriages. For the first time artillery was mobile enough to accompany the cavalry. The improved speed introduced another tactical problem: getting the gun, the gunners, and the ammunition to the same place at the same time. That problem was solved by the limber, a two-wheeled wagon mounting a chest that carried the section’s ready ammunition. The horses were hitched directly to the limber, and the gun hitched onto a towing hook at the back of the limber. The top of the ammunition chest also provided a place for two gunners to ride. The caisson came next. Something like a double limber, it had two ammunition chests mounted on a two-wheeled carriage.
In 1853 France under Napoleon III introduced to the battlefield the Canon-obusier de 12, a smoothbore, muzzle-loading 12-pounder capable of firing both shot and shell. The U.S. Army adopted the Napoleon 12-pounder in 1857, and it was the standard field gun for both sides during the Civil War. It remained in service until nearly the end of the 19th century, when the advent of rifling and breech-loading technologies brought the muzzle-loading era to a close.
The Napoleon fired three basic variations of solid shot. The 12-pound solid iron ball was deadly out to 1,500 meters against the tightly packed infantry formations of the day. A canister round was essentially a tin can packed with musket balls, turning the gun into a huge shotgun. The gun crews switched to canister as the attacking enemy infantry closed to within 300 meters. Grape shot was a variation on canister, with usually a dozen 1.5-inch iron balls. Grape was especially effective against cavalry out to ranges of 600 meters.
A later variation, spherical case shot, was a cross between a canister round and an explosive shell: A hollow sphere packed with musketlike balls and an explosive charge triggered by a powder-burning time fuze, spherical case exploded in the air over the heads of exposed troops out to 1,000 meters. It was invented in the 1780s by Royal Artillery officer Henry Shrapnel, whose name became synonymous with fragmented shell shot.
In the early 1860s U.S. Army Captain Thomas J. Rodman developed the gun that would become the high point of smoothbore, muzzle-loading artillery. By that time bronze had replaced cast iron in gun bores because the latter was too brittle to withstand the shock produced by the more rapidly burning black powders that had been developed. In the usual methods of casting, an iron barrel cooled from the outside in, shrinking unevenly and producing flaws and cavities that caused structural weakness. Rodman devised a method to make stronger tubes by casting iron around a water-cooled core, so that the barrel cooled from the inside out, making the inside material more dense and the tube much stronger overall. The standard Rodman calibers were 8, 10, 15, and 20 inches, the last being the largest caliber gun ever cast in the United States. Although the Rodman guns were generally too heavy for fieldpieces, they were widely used as siege, garrison, and seacoast guns by both sides in the Civil War and remained in service until the end of the century.
Just a few years before Rodman started casting his stronger iron guns, British engineer Sir William Armstrong developed the world’s first practical breech-loading cannon, manufactured in Britain from 1855. The barrel of the Armstrong gun was constructed from wrought iron, built up by shrinking successive layers of metal on top of each other. The result was a stronger and more reliable tube than one of conventional cast iron, and being harder than bronze, it made rifling more practical. Rifled artillery, introduced several years earlier, improved range and accuracy.
Armstrong’s breech-loading system consisted of a vent piece held tightly in position by a hollow screw mechanism at the breech end of the barrel. The vent piece was the forerunner of the modern sliding-wedge breechblock. The British used Armstrong guns until 1920.
French M-1897 75mm Field Gun
By the middle of the 19th century European gun makers were experimenting with steel, though it was a difficult material to manufacture in uniform quantities. In 1856 German industrialist Alfred Krupp introduced the first reliable steel gun, and by the 1890s all cannon tubes were being made of steel.
The steel Canon de 75 modèle 1897, universally known as the French 75, was the world’s first modern artillery piece. Developed and manufactured at French government arsenals, it instantly made every other gun in the world obsolete, and all modern field artillery is descended directly from it. Weighing only 2,700 pounds in action, it was towed by a team of six horses and fired a 75mm round weighing 15.8 pounds out to a range of 6,850 meters. Its seven-man gun crew could fire six to 15 rounds per minute.
The gun’s most important innovation was its revolutionary hydro-pneumatic recoil system that allowed the tube of a firing gun to move to the rear while the carriage remained firmly in position on the ground. After the tube recoiled, the system then returned it forward. The great tactical advantage of this system was that the gun did not have to be re-aimed every time it fired.
Other innovations introduced with the French 75 included a rapid-acting, screw-type breech mechanism; a fixed round of ammunition (projectile, propellant charge, and fuze all in one prepackaged unit) that could be loaded in a single movement; an optical line-of-sight, gun-laying system; and steel shields to protect the gun crews from enemy small arms fire.
With World War I, machine gun fire forced all artillery to move back off the front lines. The French 75, like all light artillery, lacked the higher trajectory necessary for indirect fire, especially in rougher terrain.
Big Bertha 420mm Siege Howitzer
Officially designated the 42cm Mörser L/14, the heavy siege howitzer better known by its nickname Dicke Bertha (Big Bertha) was designed by Krupp’s managing director, the brilliant ordnance engineer Professor Fritz Rausenberger. Introduced in 1914, Big Bertha weighed 93,720 pounds in action. It was transported in five pieces and assembled on site using a crane carried by a prime-mover tractor. It was capable of firing a 420mm round weighing 1,719 pounds out to a range of 9,500 meters with a high degree of accuracy. Its projectile had a hardened conical nose with the fuze at the base of the round, making it particularly effective for penetrating reinforced ferro-concrete fortifications.
About 10 Big Berthas were fielded by the German army in World War I. Contrary to popular belief, they were not the guns that shelled Paris from a distance of 75 miles in 1918.
Also designed by Krupp’s Rausenberger, the officially designated Wilhelmgeschütz (Kaiser Wilhelm Gun) was one of the most remarkable artillery pieces ever built. Its maximum range of 126,000 meters far exceeded that of any gun built before. Or since. The Germans used three of them against Paris between March and July 1918, earning them the name Paris Guns. Very few conventional artillery pieces fired in war have been able to achieve even half their range.
The Paris Gun was constructed by inserting a 210mm liner tube into a bored-out 380mm naval gun barrel. The liner extended some 39 feet beyond the muzzle of the base barrel. A 19-foot smoothbore extension was then added to the front of the extended liner, giving the composite barrel a length of 130 feet. The entire composite barrel required an external truss system to keep it straight.
Virtually all artillery pieces achieve their maximum range when the barrel is elevated to an angle of 45 degrees. Anything over 45 degrees is classified as high-angle fire, and as the elevation increases the range decreases. The Paris Gun, however, appeared to defy the normal laws of ballistics by achieving its maximum range at an elevation of 50 degrees. The reason was that at 50 degrees the round from the Paris Gun went significantly higher into the stratosphere than at a 45-degree elevation. The reduced air density at the higher altitudes caused far less drag on the body of the projectile, which resulted in the greater horizontal range.
By the end of the 19th century most of the world’s armies considered the mortar obsolete. Capable of firing only at high angles and relatively short ranges, the mortar had always been a heavy and immobile weapon, ill suited for maneuver warfare. During the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1912–1913, however, German military observers realized that the mortar was still tactically useful in static situations and in compartmentalized terrain. The Germans, therefore, started World War I with far more mortars than any other army. With the advent of trench warfare, the mortar proved to be the ideal close-support weapon. Firing at high angles, it did not need a recoil system because the impact of firing was directed straight into the ground. Since it was compact, it could be emplaced in forward trenches. But German mortars were still heavy, complex weapons that bore little resemblance to today’s modern mortars.
In early 1915 British engineer Sir Wilfred Stokes invented the forerunner to today’s “stovepipe” mortar. Stokes’s simple 3-inch smoothbore steel tube weighed only 100 pounds and had a fixed firing pin at the bottom. It fired a gravity-fed shell that had a primer in its base and a propellant charge packed in bags around its rear stabilizing fins. The round had a range of 700 meters, a bursting radius of five to 10 meters, and an impressive maximum rate of fire of 25 rounds per minute.
Designed and built at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in 1925, the Birch gun was the world’s first practical self-propelled artillery piece. It was named for General Sir Noel Birch, one of the most distinguished British gunners of World War I and Master-General of Ordnance after the war.
The Birch gun was a standard British 18-pounder (83.8mm) field gun mounted on the modified chassis of a Vickers medium tank. It had an open firing platform and a seven-man crew. All modern self-propelled artillery is descended directly from the Birch gun.
The most famous gun of World War II, the German 88mm manufactured by Krupp, was actually a family of devastatingly effective guns that included an antiaircraft gun, a tank gun, an antitank gun, and in a pinch a field artillery piece. Mounted on a wide variety of towed and self-propelled carriages, the 88 required different ammunition and different fire-control equipment for its various missions. It was upgraded throughout the war as the Flak 36, Flak 37, and Flak 41.
A true gun rather than a howitzer, the 88 had the flat trajectory and very high muzzle velocity that made it an effective and much feared antiaircraft and antitank gun.
American Towed M-2A1/M-101A1 105mm
The M-2A1 towed 105mm howitzer and its slightly updated variant, the M-101A1, were the mainstays of American divisional direct-support artillery from World War II through the Vietnam War. In service with more than 50 different armies, they were the most widely used field artillery pieces in history.
The towed M-2A1 was a GI’s dream. Everyone who ever served on it fell in love with it. It was simple to operate, easy to maintain, and almost indestructible. It fired a 33-pound highexplosive projectile to a maximum range of 11,270 meters, and its eight-man crew could pump out a maximum of 10 rounds per minute and three rounds per minute of sustained fire. In 1962 it was upgraded slightly and redesignated the M-101A1. While the last M-101A1 was withdrawn from American service in the 1990s, it still remains in service in many other parts of the world, and American arsenals continue to manufacture repair parts for foreign sale.
After the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945, development work started almost immediately on nuclear artillery projectiles and guns capable of firing them. Designed late in World War II, the super-heavy American 280mm M-65 cannon was never put into production as originally intended. In 1953 it entered service, redesigned specifically to fire the 803-pound T-124 projectile with a W-9 nuclear warhead. Nicknamed Atomic Annie, the M-65 also could fire a conventional 598-pound high-explosive round out to a range of 28,700 meters. Transported by two specially designed tractors, the gun weighed 93,800 pounds in battery and fired from a box-trail carriage.
The first and only actual cannon firing of a nuclear round occurred on May 25, 1953, at Frenchman’s Flats, Nevada. Fired to a range of 10,000 meters and detonated 160 meters above the ground, the exploded round produced a yield of 15 kilotons. The M-65 remained in service only a little more than 10 years, but it proved the technical feasibility—although not necessarily the basic common sense—of tactical nuclear weapons.
American M-1/M-110 8-inch Howitzer
The American 8-inch howitzer has the reputation of being history’s most accurate artillery piece. First in service in 1940 as the M-1 towed howitzer, it fired a 200-pound high-explosive projectile to a maximum range of 16,800 meters. Its extremely small circular probable error made it an ideal weapon for destructive fire against hardened targets. It was also capable of firing a chemical projectile that carried Sarin nerve gas and a nuclear projectile with a W-33 warhead and a yield of 40 kilotons. In 1963 the gun and its carriage were mounted on a tracked chassis and designated the M-110 self-propelled howitzer.
In the 1970s the 8-inch was upgraded with a longer barrel and redesignated the M-110A1; it was further modernized a few years later as the M-110A2. The M-110 was phased out of U.S. Army service immediately following the First Gulf War, a move many artillerymen still consider a serious mistake. It was used by more than 20 armies and remains in service with a few to this day.
American Self-Propelled M-109 Howitzers
The M-109s, a family of 155mm howitzers, are the most widely used self-propelled artillery pieces in history. Since they were first introduced in 1963, they have been in service with 33 armies and remain so with most of them today. Unlike the M-110 8-inch, the M-109 has a lightly armored, enclosed turret around its firing platform, providing greater protection for the gun crew. Its appearance causes many people to mistake it for a light tank, albeit one with a very large gun.
The original model had a relatively short barrel, which fired a 97-pound high-explosive projectile to a maximum range of 14,600 meters. All M-109s were capable of firing chemical and nuclear projectiles, though both projectiles were eliminated from the U.S. arsenal during the 1990s. At that same time, the current version, the M-109A6 Paladin, was introduced. With its automated loading system, the Paladin requires a crew of only four, and its sophisticated navigational and automatic fire-control systems give it the ability to halt and fire within 30 seconds.
Canadian GC-45/South African G-5
The Canadian GC-45 155mm towed howitzer and its South African G-5 variant signaled a radical advance in artillery ballistics technology. The GC-45 was designed in the 1970s by the brilliant but controversial Canadian ordnance engineer Dr. Gerald Bull. An admirer and serious student of the work of Krupp’s Rausenberger, Bull was recruited by Saddam Hussein with the lure of almost unlimited funding to design and build Project Babylon, a 350mm supergun with a range of 1,000 kilometers. Bull was assassinated in a Brussels hotel room in March 1990; Israel’s Mossad remains the prime suspect.
Bull’s great innovation was the development of the extendedrange, full-bore projectile and the accompanying cannon-bore technology capable of firing such ammunition. The GC-45 howitzer reversed the normal rifling concept by firing a shell with small fins that rode in the grooves in the bore, as opposed to using a slightly oversize projectile that was forced into the lands between the grooves. The result was a significant increase in muzzle velocity and range. Variations based on the GC-45 were used by the Iraqis in the First and Second Gulf Wars, and they outranged all guns in the Allied coalition arsenal.
Entering service in 1998, Germany’s 155mm armored howitzer, the PzH 2000, is the most technologically advanced tube artillery piece in service today. A tracked self-propelled system with a fully enclosed armored turret, the PzH 2000 has replaced the M-109A6 Paladin in some of the world’s armies. With an automated ammunition feed and loading system and state-of-the-art GPS onboard fire control, the PzH 2000 has a high rate of fire, capable of firing a burst mode of three rounds in nine seconds and 10 rounds in 56 seconds. It has a sustained rate of fire of 10 to 13 rounds per minute. The maximum range is 30,000 meters for conventional high-explosive rounds, and 40,000 for rocket-assisted-projectile rounds.
The PzH 2000 was first fired in combat by the Dutch army in August 2006, against Taliban targets in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
Major General David T. Zabecki (U.S. Army ret.) is the chief military historian for the World History Group. He holds a doctorate in military history from Britain’s Royal Military College of Science and has taught at the U.S. Naval Academy. As a captain, he commanded an M-101A battery.