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The Ordnance Society
was formed in June 1986 to promote, encourage and co-ordinate the study of all aspects of the history of ordnance and artillery.
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At this period there seems to have been very much the same sort of rivalry going on among the nations of Europe, as to which of them could turn out the biggest gun, as is going on at the present day. Just as kings of the nineteenth century entertain each other upon great occasions by firing off the most alarming salvoes, so among the courtesies of three hundred years ago we find Charles V. presenting Henry VIII. with the imposing gift of a piece of ordnance, which can still be seen at Dover Castle. It is 24 feet long, and has received the nickname of Queen Elizabeth’s pocket-pistol. As the art of casting in England at that time was very backward, we are perhaps justified in looking to the broad hint of superiority so naively suggested in this gift as the foundation of many improvements which followed. In the Artillery Museum at Woolwich there is a fine specimen of early ordnance of the time of Mahomet II., bearing the date 1464, which was presented to this country by the Sultan in 1868; and here and there throughout Europe there are cannon which convey a clear idea of the capabilities of the workmen at the time at which they were produced.

Of their efficiency it is difficult to speak, because the quality of the gunpowder which was used was no doubt greatly inferior to that of our own day. There is a cannon at Ehrenbreitstein of the date of 1529, about 18 inches in the bore, which is said to have required a charge of 941bs. of gunpowder, and to have thrown a ball weighing 180 lbs. It is quite clear, therefore, that, so far as the weight of these charges go, the productions of that period bear comparison with modern ordnance, and, making allowance for the limited facilities at their disposal, the men who first introduced such large cannon did marvels in the art of working iron.

When we come to consider the safety of these cannon, there are few of our readers who would care to have been standing very near them when they were discharged. There are many records of the disastrous accidents which took place from the bursting of these monsters, whose size was far in excess of the skilled workmanship of the time. One of the best known of these mishaps was that which happened at the siege of Roxburgh Castle, when James II. of Scotland was killed. A fragment struck him on the thigh, and made a wound from which he soon bled to death. A long account is given by a contemporary chronicler of a somewhat similar accident which occurred in France, but, instead of the cannon bursting from a simple overcharge, it seems to have been blown to pieces in the act of being loaded the second time, as one-half of the previous charge appears to have hung fire. We owe our present Arsenal at Woolwich to an accident that occurred in more recent times. The Government had a gun-foundry in Moorfields, where, upon one occasion, in the year 1716, a distinguished party were gathered together to witness the operation of casting a large cannon. A young foreigner, named Schalch, who seems to have been almost an entire stranger, but who was well acquainted with the details of casting, noticed that one of the moulds had been insufficiently dried, and warned the moulders against using it. They disregarded his advice, and when he saw that he could not prevail upon them to desist, he immediately put himself well out of harm’s way before the cannon was cast. A terrible explosion occurred when the molten metal rushed into the wet mould, owing to the sudden generation of steam that could find no outlet, and several persons were killed and a large number injured. It is said that search was then made for the man whose predictions had been so painfully verified, and that the Government employed him to advise about the best mode of preventing such accidents in future. The result was that Moorfields was given up as a site of a gun-foundry altogether, and upon his advice the establishment was removed to the Warren at Woolwich.

This occurred in the first quarter of last century; and it would seem that the choice of the new site was fixed upon, not only upon the general ground of its suitability, but also because the Government Laboratory, which had previously been situated at Greenwich, had been removed to Woolwich in 1695. It is difficult to realise the difference that is presented to the view of the river-voyager of one hundred years ago and that which now attracts the notice of the crowds who pass the Woolwich of to-day. A few low and insignificant buildings, breaking with their ugly outline the monotony of the low-lying river-banks, was all that existed in the early days of the establishment. Even the name, so lately as the beginning of this century, suggests nothing of the modern Arsenal. It was called “Tower Place,” or “King’s Warren.” As Woolwich has become the centre of the very important industry of the making of big guns, we shall have more to say elsewhere of what goes on there.

The connection between ordnance and the various changes that have occurred in the history of the iron trade has been uninterrupted. Before the art of casting had reached sufficient perfection to justify its being employed in the making of cannon, we find that the protracted labour of the blacksmith was the only means of obtaining ordnance strong enough to withstand the strain of exploding gunpowder. Thus the early history of the subject in England is invariably associated with improvements in the manufacture of malleable iron. In the fifteenth century, however, there were no steam-hammers to weld great masses of heated “scrap” into homogeneous lumps, and so we find that, although malleable iron has since proved to be the best of all material for the making of heavy ordnance, its application in those early times was so beset with difficulties that the alternative of cast-iron was eagerly resorted to as soon as it offered a prospect of being a reliable substitute. The manner in which the early cannon were constructed, by building together longitudinal strips of wrought iron and binding them together like the staves of a barrel, must, no doubt, have given employment to an immense number of workmen where the manufacture was carried on upon an extensive scale, but for this we must look rather to the Continent, and especially to France, where a national arsenal existed long before such an establishment was contemplated in England. No doubt, in the dockyards many large cannon were constructed, but in the main it appears that our armies and navies were dependent for many centuries upon private enterprise for the supply of their artillery. The continual demand for large weapons of destruction acted as a stimulus upon the iron-masters of those days, and added considerably to the importance of the iron industry in the small centres to which it was confined. Wherever these composite cannon were obtained it seems that cast-iron ordnance soon took their place. Peter Baude, a naturalised Frenchman, who seems to have been the Bessemer of the sixteenth century, had a foundry in Sussex, and after doing much to advance the art of casting cannon, his mantle seems to have fallen upon his covenant servant, John Johnson, whose son Thomas was living at the time at which the old chronicler Stowe was writing. He informs us that in 1595 “he made forty-two cast pieces of ordnance of iron for the Earl of Cumberland, demy cannons, weighing three tons the piece.” The same authority states that John Owen was the first man in England who cast brass ordnance, and the date he attributes to the occurrence is 1535. Peter Baude, who seems to have been the greatest master of the subject of iron-founding in that century, produced “hollow shot of cast iron, to be stuffed with firework or wild fire, whereof the bigger sort had screws of iron to receive a match to carry fire kindled, that the firework might be set on fire, for to break in small pieces the same hollow shot.” Here we have the invention of explosive shells; and it is well that some improvements in the art of making mortars had been introduced, as otherwise the list of accidents already referred to would, no doubt, have been considerably lengthened. The naturalised Frenchman must have been courageous as well as ingenious, for it is recorded that while “King Henry was minding wars with France he was casting mortars of a calibre of from eleven to nineteen inches.”

No doubt the Governments of the day were very glad to avail themselves of any private enterprise that would supply them with improved or cheaper ordnance, but there is little or no record of where it was obtained. At Carron, in Scotland, an early seat of the casting trade, the partners of that well-known foundry acquired a great reputation, and supplied the nation with so much ordnance that the cannon in the making of which they so greatly excelled acquired the name of carronades. The peculiarity in the original guns of this description was that instead of working upon trunnions they were turned upon a swivel, that rendered them peculiarly adapted to the naval warfare in which they were employed.

With the explosion at Moorfields and the establishment of an arsenal at Woolwich, the industry that had previously been scattered over the country became gradually concentrated. Every year some new invention attracted the attention of the Authorities, and rendered it more and more necessary that some great central department should assume the control of the entire subject, and so a constant accession of work ensued. Demi-culverins, Mynions, Petards, Howitzers, Carronades, all went out of date or fashion, and new engines of destruction took their place. The inventions of recent years are familiar to every one. Napoleon I., improving upon the labours of the greatest artillery officer of his time, General Gribeauval, startled Europe with the effectiveness of his field-batteries, and roused this country to fresh exertions. The names of Congreve and Shrapnel are associated with improvements in the first ten years of the present century, which were shortly followed by a host of others, and the necessity of keeping pace with other nations soon led the making of big guns to assume the position of a great industry.


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