Great guns: 100 years of field artillery might
September 8, 2011
FORT SILL, Okla. -- As the Fires Center of Excellence celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Field Artillery School, the Cannoneer newspaper, through the expertise of Dr. Boyd Dastrup, FA historian, looks at some of the significant artillery pieces of the Army's previous 100 years.
The series opens with the French 75 mm Field Gun, model 1897. Though it may sound like a gun relegated to the dusty halls of history or fouled as a favorite resting place for pigeons, it continues to announce its booming report daily at Fort Sill during afternoon retreat ceremonies. Clearly, this weapon is an example of long ago ingenuity, but, technological improvements, that prominent change agent, will also show up throughout this series of how technology influenced advances in artillery.
The gun is a flat-trajectory weapon, meaning it fires shot and shrapnel with severely limited elevation. Artillerymen typically sighted down the barrel at the enemy to strike their enemy's positions. Its chief improvement from earlier artillery pieces happened once the gun was fired. A system absorbed the weapon's recoil within the carriage instead of the counter-force sending the entire carriage rolling backward.
It was the weapon of choice for artillerymen when the Field Artillery School first opened. However, the roots of its story extend far back into the 19th century. As early as 1830, European militaries sought to solve the recoil problem. As the size of guns increased, the recoil naturally grew too, propelling guns further backward. To fire the weapon again, gun crews had to haul the piece back into battery and aim anew on the enemy. This was, of course, exhausting and time consuming.
Though breakthroughs in artillery design and use waited until the final few years of the Victorian Era, another social force held firing techniques in check. Beliefs in honor, manhood and proper etiquette in war kept armies fighting on open ground as adversaries faced off in direct view of each other. Being one instrument of a larger army that helped keep morale high just by their immediate presence, field artillerymen fought alongside infantry, sighted down the barrels of their mighty guns and poured direct fire into their enemies.
However, even as artillery improvements lagged, technology changed the lethality of small arms fire. Gone were the days of armies firing far less accurate smooth bore muskets at close range. The introduction of rifled barrels enabled infantrymen to fire their weapons with much higher accuracy, and punish opposing infantry and artillery crews alike. Best of all, a rifleman could pour withering fire at a gun crew without fear of the big guns reaching their positions. Dastrup said this first became evident in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 when field artillery's range of slightly more than 1,000 yards was exceeded by infantry with rifles.
Enemy ammunition and supplies depot locations also affected the effectiveness of artillery. By locating these crucial stores on the reverse side of hills, direct-fire artillery couldn't destroy them.
Because of these two factors, military experts concluded artillery would have to fight from concealed positions and fire indirectly. This would require artillery crews to computer the angle of fire to drop shells down on the enemy to maintain effectiveness on the battlefield.
The only way that would happen with the 75 mm French gun was to point it up an incline and secure it in place or drop the trails into a pit to raise the barrel.
Yes, it did absorb the recoil on its carriage, but the improvement was built into an obsolete direct-fire gun, said Dastrup. To its credit, the weapon could fire up to 30 rounds a minute in an emergency and had a range around 9,500 yards for solid shot and nearly 7,500 yards for shrapnel.
Military engagements continued to show direct fire was no longer viable in war. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 was yet another example. Despite practicing and refining indirect fire techniques, the Russian army employed its artillery in a vulnerable location as directed by a general officer. The Japanese countered this with indirect fire techniques they learned from the Germans and laid waste to the Russian artillery.
About this time the United States rolled out its model 1902 3-inch gun, a direct-fire weapon. Later, with American industry unable to produce enough cannons, the Army purchased the 75 mm French gun as the U.S. entered World War I. Dastrup said the Americans were "kind of out of touch with reality" as the Army still spoke of open warfare, even though this form of combat ground to a halt in the trenches. Adapting to this change in warfare, artillery crews dug pits and positioned their guns in such a way to provide elevation for the weapon to loft shell and shot in arcs that rained down into enemy fortifications.
The 75 mm French stayed in the U.S. inventory even as it entered World War II. However, the next significant gun, the self-propelled Priest, made itself known in 1943. This weapon is the focus of part two of this series.