The Armstrong Gun
Part 5: British revert to Muzzle Loading
Despite its undoubted superiority over the smooth-bore muzzle-loaders it superseded, the Armstrong had one or two inherent shortcomings; rather to be expected in an equipment so advanced for its time. They were not too serious and were soon rectified, but both Royal Artillery and Royal Navy officers soon began making loud noises about its 'evils' and about breech-loading in general. So persistent were they that by 1865 an Ordnance Select Committee was advocating a return to muzzle-loading.
Now in 1980, all servicemen, no matter what their rank, welcome a new gun which gives them an advantage over a potential enemy. They well know what happens to a country which allows itself to lag behind in military preparedness. Might has always been right and still is. Therefore they do not condemn a gun out of hand simply because at first it gives birth to a few 'bugs'. They get to work and fix it.
However, in 1860 attitudes were quite different. To comprehend the retrograde step the Committee advocated and which the Services eventually took, we need to know something of the lives and times of the officers who perpetrated it. We shall also look at the other ranks (Note 1) they commanded.
In Great Britain during the Victorian era a young man desiring a commission in the army had to be the son of an officer, of a private gentleman (Note 2) or of a member of the nobility. If he had the misfortune to be born into any other class his chances were slim indeed; but say his father was a wealthy merchant who knew people in high places, he might just succeed. Ability unaccompanied by wealth did not count.
Being thus duly 'qualified' he could be accepted as a 'Gentleman Cadet' by the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, for the 'Scientific Corps' (Artillery or Engineers), or by the Royal Military College, Sandhurst (Note 3), for other corps. In either case his parents paid a stiff fee.
In Sandhurst a cadet who passed his tests and otherwise satisfied his examiners received a free commission. If he did not pass he could purchase it. Thus many officers who took up appointments were totally unfitted for them. Witness the startling incompetence shown in the Crimea and some later campaigns.
At Woolwich after satisfactorily completing a two-year course of drill and 'scientific education' a cadet was comissioned and posted to a unit in the corps of his choice - if there was a vacancy. If not he could wait for one (on cadet's pay), or accept a commission in the other scientific corps or in a regiment of the line.
If he failed his course he could stay on at the RMA and try again. A second failure brought dismissal unless his parents used their 'influence' among senior officers. Often the examiners were 'prevailed upon to reconsider'.
First commissions could not be bought in the Royal Artillery or Royal Engineers as they could for other corps but the end result was the same. No officer could afford to live on his service pay unless he was posted to India (Note 4). Hence the need for a private income was an effective substitute for the system of purchase. Either way officers came from the wealthy upper classes.
Although the RMA and RMC were intended to turn out 'officers and gentlemen' they were really only militarised 'public schools'; they placed much more emphasis on teaching a cadet how to be a gentleman than on training him to be an officer. Indeed, many senior military men regarded education in an officer as not only unnecessary but 'not quite nice'.
Apart from drill Woolwich taught a few military subjects. These included field sketching - because the few maps then in existence were usually inaccurate - and fortification. The inordinate amount of time spent on the latter subject probably derived from a centuries-old obsession with siege warfare as the sole means of winning campaigns. Evidence of such tactical thinking occurs in accounts of the New Zealand Wars.
Textbooks were scarce and out-dated; Dundas' "Infantry Training Manual 1790" and Muller's "Treatise of Artillery 1780" were still extant. Manuals on tactics, administration and organisation in the field did not appear until 1904 and 1909 respectively. Of new works on military subjects appearing in 1859, 50 per cent came from Germany, 25 per cent from France. England produced 1 per cent.
Cadets wasted many hours copying passages from textbooks into their notebooks or learning them by heart, or making drawings of each and every piece of ordnance where one would have sufficed. While they laboured in this manner their 'professors', who were civilians, 'rested' - or gave private tuition elsewhere to supplement their incomes.
The RMA, Woolwich, produced a type writers of the day were fond of describing as 'dashing'. A horsey man, as became his trade, he revelled in equestrian sports, spending a great deal of his time (and much of the Army's) playing polo or hunting the fox or some other unfortunate animal according to season or wherever he happened to be stationed. Any time left over he devoted to the obligatory round of balls, garden parties, mess dinners etc. Other pursuits such as private study of the professional subjects of gunnery and tactics he deemed 'unfashionable'.
He had a tremendously high opinion of himself and of his fighting prowesss in particular. In action he was brave to the point of foolhardiness - he had to be for he was a slave to tradition. His father and grandfather before him had so fought and he was bound to follow in their footsteps. If he did not he risked being branded a coward.
Like his forbears he firmly believed that what had been done in the past could be done again, i.e. battles could continue to be won by the same tactics and with the same equipment used at Waterloo. Technical advances in Europe he ignored, new ideas or inventions at home he regarded with suspicion.
Of the soldiers who sustained his reputation in the field he held an exceedingly low opionion. Their courage and fortitude he took for granted; occasionally with great condescension he might offer an encouraging word, but he had to be careful. One officer who deigned to play cricket with his men was ostracised by his fellows for weeks. He had gone too far.
Conditions of service for other ranks were harsh and penurious. A parsimonious administration whittled down their shilling (Note 5) a day to about 2½d by deductions for rations, necessaries (Note 6), etc. Some incentive was provided by good conduct pay ranging from a penny a day after three years to six pence after 28 years' exemplary service, but was forfeited upon promotion to Sergeant. Neither good conduct pay nor promotion was easy to achieve unless a man had some basic education.
Sixty per cent of recruits were illiterate and were allowed to remain in that sorry state, merely being classified 'ignorant' and therefore incapable of learning anything except drill. Most of them were unemployed and joined the Army to get a square meal and a roof over their heads. Many were 'taken in' by glowing accounts of life in the Queen's Service from recruiting sergeants gifted in the art of embellishing the truth.
Discipline was brutal, methods of training sadistic. Instructors, who were NCOs (Note 7), required but two qualifications: a bullying manner and ability to recite lengthy passages from the drill book 'parrot fashion'.
They 'encouraged' classes to remember their lessons by dispensing liberal amounts of pack drill to the stage where men collapsed from exhaustion. Both officers and NCOs spoke of 'breaking' recruits in the same way they did of horses, except they treated the horses better. An OR wishing to advance in the Service had to emulate his NCOs. There was no other way.
As if pack drill were not punishment enough, he had to endure the same heavy uncomfortable order of dress whether campaigning in a Crimean winter or an Egyptian summer. Uniform designers thought only of the spectacle their 'creations' would make on the parade ground.
Accoutrements received less attention than saddlery, as many a soldier could testify after a day's march under an ill-fitting pack grossly overloaded with everything he owned. Officers 'marched' on horseback. Their gear was carried in 'baggage wagons' provided expressly for the purpose.
'Polite society' whose battles the soldiers fought, whose empires they built and whose wealth they secured called them 'scum of the earth'. The same society successfully sought the emancipation of slaves on Victoria's accession to the throne in 1837 but condoned the flogging of soldiers until 1881, when they introduced the 'more lenient' Field Punishment Number One (Note 8). Many Imperial soldiers were flogged in New Zealand.
In the Army 'progress' was a rude word. Officers lived in an atmosphere of hidebound tradition and unreasoning resistance to change; other ranks existed in one or apathy, fear and ignorance. Such was the climate the Armstrong faced when recommended for 'special service in the field' in 1858.
Grumbling started before the first shot was fired. The gundrill book which had remained virtually unchanged for centuries had to be re-written because the gun loaded from 'the wrong end'. Officers charged with the responsibility considered it an imposition and voiced complaints about the 'inconvenience' it caused them.
They thought the gun 'so terribly complicated' they did not believe the ignorant 'rank and file' (Note 9) could possibly understand it. After all the old muzzle-loader was 'all in one bit' but the new piece had a breech mechanism with three moving parts - if the bucket-type handle for the vent piece was included! The traversing gear was rather more complicated than the breech mechanism, but the diehards did not complain specifically about that. As it was not essential for the working of the gun but merely an added refinement perhaps they felt it beneath their dignity to use it.
When the guns eventually reached Royal Artillery units, reactions were at first unexpectedly favourable. Many officers were reported to be 'delighted' with them - until they struck pro blems - but an irreconcilable 'school' remained against breech-loading on 'principle'. These hawks swooped upon any mishap or fault, real or imagined, and magnified it out of all proportion to its real significance in lurid accounts to the 'gentlemen of the Press'. These worthies took little trouble to differentiate between fact and fiction, provided profit was the result.
Some officers not rabidly anti-breech-loading felt the real test would come with active service. Conveniently enough one of Victoria's small wars, the China episode in 1860, presented the first opportunity. Some officers reported the guns stood up well but predictably many more found fault.
One had the effrontery to complain that '... after having bivouacked at Tangku in the rain the breech screws were nearly completely jammed with rust, and if we had had to renew hostilities ... the gunners would have been severely taxed in getting the guns in working order'. So much for the 'scientific education' Woolwich claimed to impart.
The battery of 12-prs Captain Mercer brought to New Zealand in 1861 performed very well although conditions were no less ardous than in China. So did others which arrived later.
Early Armstrong projectiles occasionally suffered from 'stripping', i.e. the lead coating became detached as they left the bore, and according to one complainant '... inflicted injuries on those within reach ...' He did not say what foolishness permitted people in front of a gun in action, for that is where anyone injured must have been. The stripped lead could go in one direction only - forward.
The defect was soon remedied by galvanising the projectiles before applying the lead coating, but not before the media in hypocritical 'concern' for the safety of the soldiers gave the defect a degree of adverse publicity it did not deserve. As may be expected the muzzle-loading school made good ammunition of it!
Breech mechanisms, which had not been encountered by artillerymen since the days of Henry VIII (Note 10), needed careful attention and still do. The proliferation of complaints which arose clearly show officers did not appreciate this need, or if they did, failed to see it put into effect. They complained about leakage of propellant gas as well as bending, cracking and breaking of vent pieces - some they claimed were blown bodily out of the gun.
A vent piece could only be blown out if the gun was fired with the breech partly open. No modern piece can be fired unless the breech is fully closed, but Armstrong had not yet thought of such a safeguard. However, each gun was fitted with a simple indicator designed to show whether the breech was fully closed or not, and should have been checked by the NCO in charge of the gun before he ordered it to fire. Obviously NCOs sometimes 'fell down on the job'.
Gas escaping between the copper cone of the vent piece and the breech bush did so by way of dents and scratches, because dirt or fouling prevented intimate closure, or because the breech number did not tighten the screw sufficiently. Adequate instruction in care and maintenance by qualified instructors properly supervised would have avoided this 'fault'. We are reminded of an old saying 'a bad workman always blames his tools'.
Armstrong's system of breech-loading was crude by modern standards, but in the exhaustive trials it had undergone prior to acceptance few of the 'faults' later blamed on it appeared. The reason is not hard to find. The gun detachments were properly trained by Elswick Ordnance Company (Note 11) and Royal Gun Factory staff whose approach to the job was not clouded by prejudice and ignorance. It follows that training on the regimental level lacked thoroughness.
Public confidece in the new equipments declined as the Press continued to give both rumours and authentic reports extensive coverage. Members of Parliament got into the act, questionss were asked in the House, and the inevitable enquiry ensued.
An Ordnance Select Committee sat in 1863 to '... consider the relative merits of muzzle-loading and breech-loading equipments ...' but in 1864, before they had concluded their deliberations, the Government stopped the manufacture of Armstrong guns for the British forces.
On 18 August 1865 the Committee reported thus: 'The many-groove system of rifling with its lead-coated projectiles and complicated breech-loading arrangements is far inferior for the general purpose of war to the muzzle-loading systems and has the disadvantage of being more expensive both in original cost and ammunition. Muzzle-loading guns are far superior to breech-loaders in simplicity of construction and efficiency in this respect for active service; they can be loaded and worked with perfect ease and abundant rapidity.' The diehards had won.
Whilst advocating the benefits of muzzle-loaders the Committee did deign to admit that the Armstrong system of gun construction, although expensive, was without doubt the safest, a point Sir William (Note 12) was quick to amplify. He rightly stated that while it was not uncommon for ML ordnance to burst in action, often causing death, not one Armstrong had ever done so. Admittedly there had been mishaps but not one man had been killed and few, if any, seriously hurt. Of 570 twelve-pounders manufactured only 13 had been returned to the Royal Gun Factory for attention. Ten had been repaired at no great cost, three alone declared unserviceable. No ML system could better this record.
In 1866 the Committee began further tests and actually showed they were becoming alive to the advantages of breech-loading. They submitted a comprehensive report on the subject which included remarks on two very important aspects. Breech loaders gave:
Less exposure of men to enemy fire while loading;
Unfortunately the matter of cost seemed to dominate all other factors. Having been brain-washed by a parsimonious Government the Committee were moved to announce '... the balance of advantages is in favour of muzzle-loading field guns'. Gunners' safety ran a bad second.
Yet another Committee(!) which deliberated in 1870 declared '... the majority of Royal Artillery officers were convinced that no system of breech-loading was necessary in the field'. The Director of Artillery backed up their views, and news that the breech mechanisms of 200 Krupp guns had failed during the Franco-Prussian War further hardened the opposition to breech-loading.
On the other hand the Germans did not give up so easily; they persevered with their breech- loading system and overcame its shortcomings. Their reward was a head start in the armament race about to begin.
Whatever may have been its faults the Armstrong had demonstrated in no uncertain manner the superiority of rifled ordnance over smooth-bored, but strange as it may seem many of officers still stubbornly insisted rifling was unnecessary. Some even saw it as a handicap. The following anecdotes will serve to illustrate their beliefs.
Sir Andrew Noble (Note 13) trying to convince one eminent artillery officer that rifled guns were more accurate than smooth-bored, drew a diagram showing that shot from a rifled gun fell into a much smaller area than those from a smooth-bore. 'That only proves what I have always maintained.' replied the eminent gunner. 'Our smooth-bore is the best in the world. With your newfangled gun firing at me I have only to keep outside that small area and I shan't be touched. But with the smooth-bore firing at me I'm not safe anywhere'. This argument apparently floored Sir Andrew!
Another distinguished veteran who had performed good and gallant service in the Kaffir and Crimean Wars and who had played a prominent role in supressing the Mutiny used to grumble, 'First of all they insisted on having a lot of grooves in the bore of a gun. Now they are only going to have three grooves. Please Goodness they will next have no grooves at all and we shall get back to the good old smoothbores which did all that was necessary to beat the Russians and smash the Mutiny'. Loud chorus of 'hear, hear's in the background!
The veteran's 'three grooves' was an allusion to the system of three-grooved rifling in the RML ordnance about to be adopted. The British copied it from the French who had themselves adopted it as a temporary measure in 1856 (Note 14).
The drastic reduction in the number of grooves meant they had to be deep which tended to weaken the gun. (Note 15) More grooves could not be conveniently employed owing to the design of the projectile which carried a set of brass studs to fit into each groove. Unless both muzzle velocity and twist of rifling were kept comparatively slow the studs sheared off. Here was the first curb to efficiency.
Worse was to follow. So that it could be quickly and easily loaded the projectile had to be a loose fit in the bore, thus resurrecting the evils of windage which so beset the smoothbore gunner. Most abominable of these was the loss of propellant gas over the projectile, and gas checks designed to prevent it were only partially successful. Compared with Armstrong's system the 'new' one could only be described as 'primitive'.
Having made up their minds on the form the RML system was to take the authorities next concern was to find a cheap way out, and they looked at ways of converting the large numbers of cast iron smoothbores still in stock. Major Palliser (Note 16) (who was not a gunner), proposed that certain natures be bored out and fitted with wrought iron tubes rifled on the French system. His method was approved and somee ordnance converted, but the old guns were too short to convert to anything bigger than 80-pr, and heavier natures were demanded, especially by the Navy. The Government therefore authorised the manufacture of wrought iron built-up guns using Armstrong's methods of construction.
The New Zealand Government purchased examples of both converted and built-up types for coastal defence. They were SB 8-in 65 cwt converted to RML 64-pr 71 cwt (6.3-in), and wrought iron built-up 64-pr 64 cwt and 7-in 7 ton pieces. Fortunately some of each survive.
Although they had decided to revert to muzzle-loading the British did not immediately scrap the Armstrongs; some units retained them for a number of years before being issued with RML equipments. The New Zealand Government bought a number of Armstrongs from the Royal Artillery before the latter embarked for England in the late 1860s. How they fared in the hands of the 'poor colonials' is interesting.
Strange to relate in the light of all the complaints from the regulars in the Imperial Forces the part-time soldiers in this country found their second-hand guns did all that was required of them. Instead of demanding a return to muzzle-loaders we find the Government in 1885 buying more Armstrongs; a total of eighteen 9-prs was obtained between 1885 and 1887, enough to equip three field batteries.
The 1890 Annual Report on the New Zealand Forces submitted to Parliament stated the guns bought from the Royal Artillery were becoming worn, but went on to say '... they have lasted admirably ...' A request for replacement was justified only on the grounds that stores and ammunition were becoming difficult to obtain because they were no longer being made in England. When finally replaced they were used for saluting in which role they ended their service in the 1920s.
On at least one occasion the British Army had cause to regret forsaking their Armstrongs. At the Battle of Maiwand (27 July 1880), during the Second Afghan War the British commander, in time-honoured fashion lined up his infantry in a featureless plain with their flanks unguard ed, put his guns in the centre, his cavalry in rear and awaited attack. Presumably he assumed European discipline and firepower would prevail. As it happened the Afghan Artillery equipped with Armstrongs proved superior to the British RML 9-prs, causing very heavy casualties to men, horses and equipment. Some of the 9-prs were lost.
Space does not permit a full account of the Armstrong in the Royal Navy nor is it really necessary for events and experiences closely paralleled those in the Army. A brief summary will be given.
Conditions were equally harsh in both services, methods of training and of engaging the enemy comparable. Army officers favoured the tactics of Waterloo, Navy those of Trafalgar. In either case they resolved the battle into a short-range slaughtering match in which the side best at gun drill won. Naval officers reckoned two hundred yards (183m) a suitable range at which to open fire on a hostile vessel.
The Navy struck problems similar to those experienced by the Army but on a grander scale because they employed more of the heavier 40 and 110-pounders. Armstrong himself had expressed doubts about the suitability of his system for heavy ordnance, and his doubts were soon to become reality.
Anxious to keep abreast of potential enemies on the Continent in October 1859 Navy ordered one hundred 110-pr (7-in 7-ton) Armstrong guns to be constructed before the efficacy of the design had been tested. They were subsequently installed aboard ships without trial of any kind. There they proved much less of a success than the smaller natures to the chagrin of the officers responsible for their adoption - and to the smug satisfaction of their anti-BL colleagues.
In addition to the usual Armstrong 'troubles' the weight and unwieldiness of the vent piece, which had to be lifted bodily upwards clear of the breech for loading, made the gun very hard to handle, particularly in a rough sea. For this reason the Navy found the 110-pr not entirely suitable as a broadside gun, one of the roles in which they had planned to use it. The muzzle-loading fraternity loudly demanded the return of the 68-pr (Note 17).
Suffice it to say members of the sundry Ordnance Select Committees already mentioned included officers of the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Artillery. Their findings therefore made allowances for the situation in both Land and Sea Services.
The British manufactured many RML equipments including guns up to 17.72-in (45 cm) in calibre (Note 18) until advances In breech-loading techniques both at home and abroad slowly began to show them the error of their ways, but it took a tragedy to convince them.
On 2 January 1879 one of the two 12-in 38-ton RML guns in a turret on board HMS Thunderer burst during practice in the Mediterranean, killing ten men and wounding 35 more. A misfire had gone unnoticed and the gun had been 'double shotted', i.e. loaded with double issue of both shot and cartridge. The advocates of breech-loading were quick to point out that such an accident was impossible with their system, and the authorities had to admit they were right. Once again came a change to breech-loading but this time it was permanent.
Students of military history have never ceased to wonder why officers of the Victorian era when confronted by a few 'problems' in the Armstrong took the easy way out by going back to muzzle-loaders; why they gave up a gun which so outclassed its predecessors it made them look ridiculous. Most treatises on artillery glibly state Armstrong's RBL system was dropped because the idea was ahead of its time and existing technology failed to make it work in practice, which of course is just another cover-up. The technology existed but no one deigned to use it.
Folk say history repeats itself but in the Armstrong saga it did not. You will recall that improvements in the infantryman's rifle helped to prod the Imperial Government into adopting the Armstrong in the first place. In 1865 when the Ordnance Select Committee ruled against breech-loading ordnance the most significant advance in British service small arms ever recorded was about to take place. They were about to become breech-loaders.
Approval to convert all muzzle-loading Enfield rifles by fitting Snider breech mechanisms came later the same year; they were to fire metallic cartridges with self-contained percussion primers. Why was the same principle not applied to ordnance?
A modicum of imagination might have led the Committee to adapt the Armstrong to take an enlarged version of the new cartridge. Conversion would not have been too difficult and would have solved most of the breech problems. Alternatively the immense advantages of the cartridge might have prompted them to take a fresh look at breech-loading systems altogether, but it seems they did neither. They had made up their minds to progress backwards, and that was that.
In conclusion please note the world has yet not heard the last shot from an Armstrong. At Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario, there is a 9-pr which is fired daily by the 'Fort Henry Guard' (University students dressed in period uniforms) (Note 19). The gun is identical to the 9-pr exhibited in the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand.
1. Means soldiers who are not officers. It is a short substitute for the correct (and more polite) method of address which is 'Warrant Officers, Non-commissioned Officers and Men'. Often abbreviated to 'ORs'. Return
4. In Sandhurst approximately the top thirty of a class had the option of going to India. Thus there was keen competition for these places among cadets whose private incomes tended to be too low to cover expenses in a regiment based in the U.K. Return
5. The shilling of twelve pence became ten cents in New Zealand in 1967. A civilian agreed to become a recruit in the Army when he accepted the 'Queen's shilling' proffered by a Recruiting Sergeant. Some Sergeants were alleged to resort to trickery in obtaining acceptance by 'shouting' the prospective recruit a beer then slipping a shilling into it when he wasn't looking. Glass bottomed beer tankards are said to have been designed to forestall the practice. Return
8. A man sentenced to Field Punishment No 1 was spreadeagled and lashed to a gun wheel (or any other convenient fixture such as a sign post), and left there for a specified period. Two hours a day for 28 days was a typical punishment for an offence such as drunkenness. It was abolished in 1923. Return
10. A number of guns employing a crude system of breech-loading were recovered in 1836 from the wreck of the Mary Rose, one of Henry's ships which sank in 1545. An uncharitable contemporary suggested Armstrong got the idea for his RBL system from them. Return
12. On 15 January 1859 Armstrong assigned all patents, specifications etc of his RBL system of ordnance to the Crown. As a result on 23 February 1859 he was appointed Engineer to the War Office and Superintendent, Royal Gun Factory, Woolwich. At the same time he received a CB and a Knighthood. Return
13. Sir Andrew Noble (1831-1915) joined the Royal Artillery as a Gentleman Cadet on 22 March 1847, was promoted Lieutenant 7 November 1850, 2nd Captain 2 November 1855, and became Assistant Inspector of Artillery in 1859. He served as Secretary to a number of Ordnace Select Committees (including the one which recommended adoption of the Armstrong), but resigned on 31 December 1860 to join the Elswick Ordnance Company as a partner. He contributed greatly to the progress of gunnery. Created Baronet 1902. Return
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