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HISTORY OF THE RIFLED CANNON

From The Missouri Democrat, Thursday, July 18, 1861. Originally published in The New York Times.

This article was republished in the Winter 1999 issue of The Artilleryman magazine.

ORIGIN OF THE RIFLED CANNON-THE CONICAL PROJECTILE-THE BREECH-LOADING GUN.

The rifled cannon is not as recent a discovery as people are generally inclined to suppose. There is now one at Berlin bearing upon its escutcheon the date of 1664 [1564?--the microfilm is unclear], the year in which it was built. It is made with forged iron, has thirteen grooves inside, and a screw at its breech. Models of the same kind and forged in the same country, are also to be seen at Munich and in other German cities. Studies on the construction of rifled cannon were not made in Germany alone, but were also the object of much attention in England and France. Writers on gunnery speak of two-pounder rifled gun, tried for the first time in England in the year 1776 for the purpose of reducing to obedience the American rebels. These small ordnance threw projectiles at the distance of 1,100 yards, with a deviation of about two feet in their range.

The invention of conical projectiles, which, combined with the rifle bore, have produced the wonderful effects we witness in our days, is still older than that of firearms. The English, who never succeeded in making their speculations, or practice in firearms prevail, but who always made a great noise about their improvements, used the conical bullet for the first time in the year 1627, at the siege of La Rochelle, a Protestant stronghold, besieged and taken by Richelieu. As to the breech loading gun, it dates as far back as the discovery of cannon itself, and fourteen guns of that description were used by the English army at the siege of Orleans, in the year 1428.

The time when this idea took a permanent hold of the mind of special men, and was successfully carried through within the space of a half a century, may be fixed to the year 1808, when Guitton de Morneau, a French chemist, proposed to substitute for the common bullet a cylindric projectile of iron, semi spheric at one of its ends, covered over with lead, so as to expel the wind from the breech. The great wars in which Napoleon I was engaged prevented that discovery to be reached with the degree of attention it deserved. It was not, however, lost sight of, and in the year 1813 some of our officers applied to our cannons elongated projectiles, which gave more accuracy and range to our fire than that of the English. These results caused the English and Hanoverian governments to make serious researches upon the improvements to be introduced in the shape of projectiles, but whatever may have been their success, we do not find in all their attempts any trace of experiment in which the conical ball and the rifled bore were combined. It is in this combination that lies the wonderful effects produced by the minie rifle and the rifled cannon.

Original Discovery of the Rifled Cannon.

These experiments, though contributing each for its part, to the stock of general knowledge, had not yet produced any material change in the system of firearms, when M. Reichenbach, a captain of artillery in Bavaria, constructed in the year 1816, a rifled bronze cannon, with seven grooves, and loaded it with conical balls. Though the deviation was very great at first, the result was nevertheless very remarkable and created a certain sensation in German military circles. Unfortunately, the moment was not auspicious for the prosecution of his discovery. Europe was just emerging from one of the bloodiest and longest wars she had ever been engaged in, and the longing for peace was such that Capt. Reichenbach's cannon was made the innocent victim of this disposition of public mind. He was besides arrested in the prosecution of his discoveries by several other reasons, the main one being the difficulty of loading the piece by the muzzle, after a certain number of rounds, and the fear of increasing the expenses of the Bavarian treasury, nearly exhausted in consequence of the war with France. He was thus compelled to discontinue his experiments, and to give up the idea of perfecting his work. This must not, however, deter us from acknowledging that the original idea of combining the rifled bore with the conical ball belongs in great part to Reichenbach.

In 1843, M. Wahrendorff, proprietor of the great iron forge at Aker (Sweden), manufactured several rifled guns, but without altering the spheric shape of the bullets, which he only covered with a leaden coat, so as to facilitate their adherence to the grooves. In 1846 M. Cavalli, a Major in the Piedmontese army, renewed the experiment made in 1816 by Reichenbach; but his cannon, instead of being loaded at the muzzle, was loaded by the breech. The results obtained by these inventors induced the French government, which, since 1851, had been actively engaged in experimenting with the rifled cannon, combined with the conical ball, at the arsenal of Vincennes, to introduce considerable change in the material of artillery.

The Present System of French Rifled Cannon.

It was in the year 1828 that Capt. Delvigne fired for the first time his breech loading gun with cylindro conic bullets. This trial was the signal of a complete revolution in the manufacture of firearms. The theories which attributed to the spheric a superiority over the conic projectile soon fell to the ground, and the elongated bullet was acknowledged as the best of the two. From this invention of Capt. Delvigne may be traced all the great reforms in gunnery which have taken place in the last thirty years.

Little was said, however, upon the improvements made in France in the construction of cannon, when the correspondent of a newspaper published in Vienna, who followed the Austrian army at the time of the Italian war, took the world by surprise by his revelations on the subject of French artillery. His letters, which were eagerly read, especially in Germany, stated that all the ordnance in the French army had been brought down to two calibers: the twelve-pounders for the besieging of strongholds, and the four pounders for field pieces. These changes had not been confined to the cannons alone; plain projectiles had been given up, and hollow and explosive one substituted in their stead. In his estimation, the twelve-pounder was going to replace all the huge cannon so much praised by military men, and as a proof of it, he mentioned an experiment in which a twenty-four pounder, old system, being pitched against a wall, side by side with a twelve-pounder, new system, the latter did the work twice quicker than the first.

The French Four Pounder.

The French four pounder weighs 784 pounds, about half the weight of the guns used at Alma, Inkerman, and Traktir, is made of bronze, and resists a protracted fire. The ball, hollow and explosive, is provided with a fuse at one of its ends, allowing to direct its explosion according to distances, and may also be used as an ordinary bullet. The range obtained with twenty ounces of powder is two-thirds of a mile. Its accuracy is such that each shot will kill a mounted man at a distance of two thousand eight hundred yards, and that whole regiments may be easily annihilated within this area. Four horses are sufficient to carry it over the highest peaks, and four other horses will carry one hundred shots and grape shot. It is loaded by the muzzle, a method criticised by the German inventors, who believe that breech loading cannon are the best. The French, on the other side, entirely deprecate the breech loading gun, pretending that they are of no value whatever, whenever the bullet weighs over sixteen pounds. The French four pounder is so light and easy to handle that it superseded cavalry at the battle of Magenta, in which the Austrians were, as everybody knows, pursued in their flight by the artillery.

Since the campaign of Italy the French army has been provided with a four pounder still lighter, throwing the same projectile at equal distance, and transportable on horseback. This cannon weighs only two hundred and thirty-three pounds, and may follow the infantry in all places and positions it may be called to occupy. The artillery trains have also been made lighter, and mobility and simplicity, essential elements of the success of armies, has been introduced in all departments.

The Best Material to Build Cannon with.

When the French government decided to employ bronze in the casting of cannon, it was not without its being aware of the existence of a superior metal to this. Sixteen years ago the cast steel cannon manufactured by M. Krupp, at Essen, Prussia, had been tried at the Arsenal of Vincennes and left no doubt as to its superiority over the bronze cannon. Three thousand successive shots were fired with M. Krupp's gun, without any sensible vibration or any degradation whatever in the bore. But the war of Italy was so sudden, that the order given to M. Krupp for supply of his cast steel could not be filled in time, and bronze was temporarily adopted in its stead. Louis Napoleon has availed himself of the present peace to order a thorough melting of the old artillery, the price of which serves to buy the cast steel he needs for the new one. Cast steel can then be looked upon as the most tenacious of all metals; it is supposed to last three or four times as long as bronze.

The great difficulty with the muzzle-loading rifled cannon consists in the cleaning of the bore. The idea of loading by the breech has not been given up, and not withstanding the objection of the French concerning the breech-loading system, they are now occupied in finding a mechanism which, without prejudice as to safety and accuracy, will allow them to load it like the Armstrong gun.

For the present, the cannon which offers the best title to public confidence is undoubtedly the French rifled cannon. We do not say here that it is not susceptible of improvement. We even believe that French artillery officers are at this moment occupied in reforming its construction, especially in what concerns the method of loading it and of cutting and distributing the grooves. But one thing is certain, notwithstanding their present imperfections, the French rifled guns have produced results which no other guns have yet given; and as the art of warfare can only be carried successfully through, not with contemplated effects, but with positive results, it follows that the preference ought to be granted to the pieces in which these qualities are the less incontestible and the more conspicuous.

 

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