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The Armstrong Gun

Part 4: Other Armstrong Equipments in New Zealand

In Part 1 appeared a list of Armstrong guns accepted by the British Government in 1858 for service in the Army and Navy. Part II gave a detailed description of the 12-pounder because it incorporated all the features for which the Armstrongs were noted, and Part III described its introduction to active service conditions in New Zealand. We shall now examine the others.

The lightest of all the Armstrongs (excluding the 3- and 5-pr experimental pieces made in 1855), was the 6-pr (calibre 2.5-in or 63.5mm), of 3 cwt (152.3 kg). Originally intended as a mountain gun, it was considered by the Imperial Forces to be too heavy for that purpose but suitable for the colonies. In New Zealand it was employed in the field role.

The gun itself, i.e. the piece, closely resembled the 12-pr except in size. Rifling was of the same pattern, there being 32 shallow grooves with a uniform twist of one turn in 30 calibres, and the bore looked remarkably like that of a modern gun. It had no 'grip' at the muzzle; the 12-pr was the only Armstrong made with this device.

Adjustable tangent sights graduated up to 3000 yards (2769 metres) and allowing for line deflections up to 30 minutes right and left were provided, as well as fixed sights for short range work. However, the full capability of the gun was never realised owing to the design of the carriage which limited elevation of the piece to about 15, and to the difficulty in recognising and laying on targets over open sights at the longer ranges. All the Armstrongs suffered from this defect.

Effective ranges would have been significantly increased had telescopes been fitted. The idea was mooted at one stage but rejected because British tactical thinking would not depart from principles born of the smooth-bore era. Hence in New Zealand the 6-pr was seldom in action more than three or four hundred metres from the enemy.

For towing, the gun carriage was connected to a limber which consisted mainly of a frame on wheels fitted with boxes for carrying ammunition and stores. In front a pair of shafts was provided for 'single draught', i.e. one horse, and in rear a large hook to receive the trail eye. The process of hooking carriage to limber was called 'limbering up'.

Armstrong made use of carriages of the same pattern as those mounting the old smooth-bore muzzle-loading guns, modifying them where necessary. The 6-pr closely resembled the 12-pr but had no traversing gear.

Carriages were built of oak except in the wheels where timber was used for the spokes (Note 1) only. Felloes (Note 2) were of ash, naves (Note 3) of elm. Deal (Note 4) was used for the sides, tops and bottoms of axle boxes, elm for the ends. Handspikes, rammer and sponge staves known as 'sidearms', were of ash. Metal fittings were of wrought iron.

The axle boxes were mounted on the axletree, one on either side of the carriage, and contained ready-use ammunition and tools. The lids were covered with canvas to keep out the weather. Ammunition consisted of solid shot and segment shell as for the 12-pr.

The 6-pr featured in a number of actions during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, but not in some noteworthy others. To be fair, there were many occasions when it was virtually impossible to deploy field guns owing to the difficult nature of the country and the lack of adequate supply facilities. On the other hand when conditions favoured artillery, officers did not always exploit its potential to the full. An account of every action is beyond the scope of this article, but two illustrating important principles will be described.

The operation at Hairini, near Te Awamutu, on 22 Feb 1864 deserves mention as an example of intelligent handling of the artillery arm. During the attack on five or six hundred Maori dug in on Alarms Hill, three 6-prs, two Royal Artillery, one Royal Navy, fired shells into the enemy entrenchments over the heads of advancing infantry. This was a demonstration of close support of troops by neutralising fire worthy of the twentieth century. The fire kept Maori heads down or upset their aim until it stopped just before the final assault. Thus the British casualty rate during the action - three killed or died of wounds, 15 wounded - was extremely light for the numbers of enemy and own troops engaged. Being a quick action, it was all over in a day. Maori casualties were also light.

The usual form of attack invariably bore the stamp of a centuries-old obsession with siege warfare. The procedure was to blow a 'breach' in the enemy's defences, then stop the guns and send in a 'forlorn hope' to deal with the occupants. The latter of course enjoyed 'open season' on the attackers during their advance.

The Hairini action showed a refreshingly different approach to the problem, but we must not give its planners all the credit, for the technique had been tried before. One or two brave souls had already risked ridicule by doing something 'not in the book'. They had been successful too, but success did not necessarily signify approval. Departures from traditional methods were rarely looked upon with favour in those days.

Note that the attack on Hairini was spearheaded by New Zealand forces, a company of Forest Rangers and two squadrons of Colonial Defence Force Cavalry. Possibly they had something to do with the fire plan.

A little over a month later occurred the famous siege of Orakau. Here, although two 6-prs were available, they were not called upon even for the usual pre-attack breaching exercise. Not until two assaults on the pa had been repulsed did Brigadier Carey who was in command order the guns into action. The little shells made slight impression upon the earthworks made resilient with layers of fern; after all, the 6-pr was never meant to destroy field works, in the design of which the Maori was a master. During the bombardment he simply went to ground while the Royal Artillery wasted their ammunition.

On the other hand, had the gunners fired their shells into the defences while the infantry were advancing they would have kept Maori heads down or upset their aim, thus keeping the attackers' casualty rate low and their morale high. Supported in this manner the infantry probably would have succeeded with the first assault as at this stage the enemy parapet was low and unfinished.

Frustrated in their attempts to storm the pa, and finding the 6-prs were achieving nothing, the British resorted to the time-honoured but time-consuming advance by sap, at the same time affording the enemy extra time to strengthen his defences. They eventually approached close enough to lob grenades in among the defenders, and brought one of the 6-prs to the head of the sap where at less than point blank range it actually began to batter the position. Both grenades and gun inflicted heavy losses upon members of the garrison.

Outnumbered six to one, almost out of ammunition, and suffering badly from thirst they nevertheless turned down a chance to surrender. They even repulsed two more attempts to rush their outworks. Skillfully and fearlessly they evacuated Orakau and escaped through the cordon of soldiers surrounding them.

Why the tactics so effective at Hairini were not repeated at Orakau may be hard for the modern reader to understand unless he knows something of the Victorian army and the attitudes of its officers. In Part V of this article we shall investigate them.

One thing is certain. Carey committed two grave military sins at the Orakau preliminaries:

  • He underestimated the enemy.
  • He gave his infantry no artillery support.

From all accounts, Orakau did appear deceptively weak from a distance and Carey allowed himself to be deceived into thinking infantry alone could take it. A detailed reconnaissance would have revealed its true nature, and in the Rangers he had all the expertise for such a task, but there is no evidence he reconnoitred it. His men paid the price: 17 killed or died of wounds, 52 wounded.

When the Imperial troops returned to England the New Zealand Government bought a number of Armstrongs which had been used by the Royal Artillery, and after the Wars distributed them in 'penny packets' to the Armed Constabulary and various volunteer batteries throughout the country. Of the 6-prs only five or six now survive as far as the writer is aware.

All that remains to-day (1990's) of four of these priceless relics are their barrels stuck on blocks of concrete in the Monmouth Redoubt (Note 5), Tauranga, the carriages having been permitted to rot away and collapse during the early years of this century. The New Zealand Armed Constabulary, disbanded in 1886, were responsible for the Redoubt and doubtless were the last to care for them.

The Royal New Zealand Artillery who trace their origins back to the NZAC should be particularly interested in these guns. A photograph taken in 1870 in Tauranga shows an AC squad being instructed by a Royal Artillery NCO on two 6-pr Armstrongs, and there can be little doubt they are numbered among the survivors.

Fortunately a project to restore them is under way. Restoration in this case involves the building of complete new carriages and wheels. One is to he issued on long term loan to the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum, and the other three to the Tauranga District Museum. Drawings and templates to enable the work to be done have been supplied by members of the New Zealand Military Historical Society.

Brief mention will now be made of the 9-pr, the gun the British adopted for the Royal Horse Artillery (Note 6). As the first of these equipments did not arrive in New Zealand until 1886 their story really belongs to another era, and further reference will be made to them in Part V of this article.

The gun was of the same calibre as the 12-pr, i.e. 3-in, but was shorter and lighter as became its role. Carriages were of iron fitted with a more efficient elevating gear but no traversing gear. Wheels were of a later type fitted with iron naves.

9-pr ammunition could be fired from the 12-pr, but 12-pr ammunition could not be fired in the 9-pr gun as both projectile and cartridge were too long.

Coming back to the earlier Armstrongs and the New Zealand Wars we find the 40-pr employed to a limited extent. This was a 'siege' gun according to Royal Artillery definition; today it would be called a 'medium'.

The piece of 4.75-in (120.65mm) calibre was mounted on a very heavy 'travelling carriage' closely resembling that of the 12-pr except in size. Gun, carriage, and limber with its load of ammunition and other stores weighed over three tonnes. Consequently the equipment was difficult to move in operational areas where few if any roads existed.

In late October 1863 40-prs in the Whangamarino Redoubt shelled the Maori entrenchments at Meremere, near Mercer, with airburst. A contemporary account states the fuzes 'appeared rather short', i.e. the shells burst too high in the air, not close enough to the trenches to inflict significant damage upon the occupants. The Maori abandoned the position, not because of the shelling but because their line of retreat apparently became threatened.

The target was not visible from the bank of the Waikato River where the guns were first landed. As they were equipped with open sights only, the gunners had to take them to a position from which they could actually see the target in order to engage it, and the Redoubt was the most suitable place.

Having visited the precipitous feature upon which the Redoubt was situated the writer suspects that to the Royal Artillery concerned the most memorable aspect of the operation must have been the struggle getting the guns up the extremely steep access track. They took no further part in the Waikato campaign.

We do see 40-prs again, this time in Tauranga at the prelude to the Gate Pa (Note 7) Battle of 29 April 1864, but these were Naval types from HMS Esk, one of the warships which brought troops to the area. They were not mounted on 'travelling carriages' but on heavy ship's 'traversing platforms', entirely unsuitable for the field. To overcome their disadvantages 800 soldiers were made available to manhandle them to their position in action about 600 metres from the Maori defences.

Also from Esk came a 110-pr (7-in or 177.8mm) similarly mounted. This 7-tonne monster was emplaced alongside the two 40-prs, the three together forming a battery manned by sailors. The 110-pr was designed for the Naval or coast artillery role; and was never intended for use in the field.

To complete the array of ordnance lined up against the Maori were two 24-pr howitzers, two 6-pr Armstrongs, two 8-in mortars and six Coehorn mortars. The Maori had none.

Soon after daybreak on the 29th General Cameron ordered the heaviest bombardment of the war - not against a massive stockade of 40cm puriri hardwood trunks as at Ohaeawai, but a row of sticks tied up with flax and reinforced with a few posts and rails 'liberated' from a farmer's stockyard. This 'palisade' screened a system of rua and trenches.

Indeed the earthworks bore more than a passing resemblance to those so effectively penetrated by Captain Mercer's 12-prs at Te Arei three years earlier. However, on this occasion for some inexplicable reason the 12-prs plus at least two more 6-prs were left in the Durham (Note 8) and Monmouth Redoubts three kilometres away. There they were unnecessary and therefore wasted.

The Naval battery opened with a roar which impressed the assembled multitude 'no end'. The sailors uselessly expended many rounds trying to hit a flagpole actually sited on the crest some 50 metres in rear of the main defended locality. Consequently the shells either hit the ground near the pole, missed the pa altogether or grazed the crest and ricocheted away without exploding (Note 9). They displaced large quantities of dirt in a spectacular manner but did little real damage to the defences, and caused few casualties. None hit the pole.

Some of the 'overs' landed among the 68th Regiment stationed in rear of the pa, upset their plan of battle, caused three casualties, and destroyed their sense of humour. Cameron had committed the unforgiveable sin of shelling his own infantry.

All morning the performance continued, both by the Armstrongs and the twelve lesser pieces already described. In the afternoon fire was directed at the flimsy 'palisade', and at 4 p.m. '... a large portion of the fence and palisading having been destroyed and a practicable breach made in the parapet ...' Cameron sent in the 'forlorn hope'. The debacle which followed is amply related elsewhere. Suffice it to say the British troops were bloodily repulsed by an enemy virtually unharmed by the artillery 'preparation' - because the guns had been firing at the wrong places.

By 3 p.m. the 110-pr had fired 100 rounds - all that had been brought ashore. Thus it was out of the battle an hour before the attack, which says little for the officers responsible for planning. According to Maori accounts, and there is no reason to disbelieve them, it killed two or three men and blew up a hangi (Note 10). Even at the short range at which it fired the warning given by its flash enabled the Maori to 'duck' under cover before the shell arrived.

Of the 40-prs fewer details are available but as they were used in conjunction with the 110-pr, they no doubt achieved the same. The reader should not deduce from this account that the heavy Armstrongs were 'no good'. They were manned by sailors whose attempts to apply Naval tactics (Note 11) to a field problem did not work.

Their Lordships at the Admiralty would have been appalled at the sheer waste of expensive ammunition - and Armstrong ammunition was expensive compared to smooth-bore - had they been made aware of the circumstances. However, Cameron provided a good 'cover-up' for the Navy, for in his official report to Governor Grey he stated the Maori had constructed '... a formidable obstacle to an assaulting column and difficult to destroy with artillery ...'. He omitted any reference to the prolonged and futile attempt to shoot down the flagpole, but implied the gunners' efforts were directed solely toward making a breach in the 'palisade'. Nor did he say the latter was made chiefly of sticks, and was sited below and several metres in front of the trenches occupied by the enemy. These points he must have observed when he inspected its scattered remains on the 30th.

The report he further embellished when describing '... the rebel entrenchments of which I made a close reconnaissance.' Had Cameron or one or his staff in fact closely reconnoitred the pa they could not have failed to note the frail nature of the palisade which the lighter ordnance could have demolished easily, nor could they have missed the precise location of the strongpoints. With this knowledge they might have originated a more effective and economical fire plan.

There is little evidence any reconnaissance (Note 12) was carried out. Certainly there was no excuse for its neglect; fern and folds in the ground provided enough cover for a skilled man to get quite close to the defences. He would have had little to fear for the Maori had no rifles. They were armed with tupara (Note 13) or old flintlock muskets with an effective range of about 100 metres - with lots of luck!

The gun which proved most troublesome to the Maori was a 6-pr brought into action to the west of Gate Pa during the afternoon of the 29th. It completely enfiladed (Note 14) their left flank and forced them to abandon it, but through lack of coordination the success was not exploited.

After Gate Pa the 110-pr and the two 40-prs from the Esk went back to the ship and took no further part in the New Zealand Wars.

Little is known of the movements of the 40-prs which took part in the shelling of Meremere in 1863, but in reports dating from the early 1870s mention is made of two at North Head, Auckland. Probably they are the same guns.

They comprised the sole means of coastal defence in Auckland from 1871 when the dismantling of Fort Britomart began until 1885. One was damaged in an accident early in its career and so far as is known was never repaired. The other was sent to Fort Takapuna in 1893 for use as a practice gun. Its ultimate fate is unknown, but it is probably the one sent to Westport; now in the Waiouru Museum.

In England by 1865 the Armstrongs had become unpopular, and senior officers in both Army and Navy were advocating a return to muzzle-loaders. In Part V of this article we shall investigate the causes and events leading up to this amazing state of affairs.

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NOTES

1. Oak was selected for its remarkable rigidity or stiffness, as the spokes had to withstand most of the stresses encountered in a wooden wheel. Return

2. Felloes were pieces of wood shaped to the circumference of a wheel, there being six in a twelve-spoke wheel, one for every pair of spokes. Ash was used as it is very elastic, i.e. when the wheel traverses rough ground the felloe must 'give' to some extent, then return to its original shape. Return

3. Elm was used because it is tough and cross-grained and therefore unlikely to split or splinter. Return

4. 'Deal' is a trade name for Baltic Pine. Return

5. Named after the Monmouth Light Infantry (The 43rd Regiment of Foot), who constructed the Redoubt by modifying an old Maori pa originally on the site. Return

6. 'Horse artillery' were so-named because they had to keep pace with 'the horse', i.e. mounted troops. Their guns were thus lighter than those of the field artillery who moved with 'the foot' or infantry. Return

7. Gate Pa took its name from the gate in the fence running through the feature. The Maori name was Pukehinahina, from puke, a hill, and hina or hinahina which is another name for the mahoe tree, i.e. a hill with some mahoe trees on it. Return

8. Named after the Durham Light Infantry (The 68th Regiment of Foot), who constructed it. Durham Street in Tauranga commemorates it. Return

9. The range was ridiculously short for 110 and 40-prs and at the target the trajectory was virtually flat. Thus shells grazing the crest often struck shoulder first, damaging the fuze so that it failed to function. There must have been a high proportion of 'blinds' for shells damaged in the manner described still occasionally come to light. The Tauranga District Museum has such a shell, a 40-pr in very good condition - one which already having been emptied has escaped the attention of unimaginative blind disposal squads who seem determined to blow up anything they lay hands upon, whether dangerous or not - even harmless solid Armstrong shot! Powder-filled shell are easily and safely deactivated; in the United States where Civil War projectiles are still being found, a hole is made in the shell by a remotely controlled drill running in a stream of water, then a hose is inserted and the filling washed out. Armstrong shells, like the guns themselves, are valuable relics of our past and should be preserved. Return

10. A Maori oven; into a hole in the ground are placed a number of heated stones upon which the food wrapped in dampened leaves or flax mats is placed. The hole is then filled in with earth and the food left to cook. Food thus prepared retains all its natural flavours and makes excellent eating. Return

11. As the Army still practised the tactics of Waterloo so did the Navy those of Trafalgar. The Navy believed in closing with an enemy to point blank range which made it easier to knock down his masts - represented by the flagpole - and ensured penetration of the sides of ironclad ships then coming into vogue. The inherent delay in the fuzes caused the shells to burst within the deckspace where they created havoc. However, in the soft earth of Gate Pa the same shells buried themselves before bursting, and their splinters harmlessly spent themselves churning up the soil. Return

12. An axiom well-known to soldiers states: 'Time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted'. Perhaps it was not taught in the 1860s, but its efficacy should have been evident to intelligent officers. Return

13. 'Tupara' is a Maori corruption of the English 'two barrels', i.e. a double-barrel shotgun. Return

14. The term 'enfilade' means fire directed along the long axis of a defended position, i.e. from a flank. It is particularly demoralising because the parapet and/or palisade designed to withstand a frontal attack affords no protection. Return

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