Ammunition for mechanical artillery consisted of rocks, arrows, spears, javelins, bolts, quarrels, darts and nearly anything that could be thrown by these weapons. The ammunition for crossbows is called bolts or quarrels and is similar to arrows, but shorter and usually heavier gauge. Greek fire, a substance whose composition is no longer known was sometimes launched from these weapons in breakable containers. Spherical rocks were prized for their accuracy. Mechanical artillery was used for the first known instance of biological warfare. Corpses and filth could be flung from mechanical artillery and the Black Plague epidemic that swept through medieval Europe is thought to have been the result of this practice.
One of the earliest known uses of biological warfare killed more than one-third of the human and animal population of the entire continent of Europe - including England. The way that the epidemic started was that, during a siege, an army attacking a European colony launched plague victim’s corpses over the outpost’s city walls. When the plague spread to Europe, the human death toll was over 25 million people. From 1347 to 1531, bubonic plague made multiple passes through Europe killing more people each time. The Black Death, as it became known, was the result of biological warfare gone awry.
Explosively Powered Artillery
Black Powder Era
It is unclear where the first use of black powder occurred. For many years, experts believed that the Chinese were the first to develop black powder. It was also an accepted fact that they used black powder as a propellant by the 10th century. Recent research revealed inconclusively that black powder might actually have been discovered earlier elsewhere.
Projectiles used with black powder artillery were generally spherical and nearly any imaginable or fanciful design was tried at some point. As military technology advanced to the use of elongated projectiles, improved explosives also became available. These changes occurred during the late 1800s, and various conflicts brought these changes at slightly different times in different places. Most of the conversion to elongated projectiles occurred between 1860 and 1900.
The ammunition used after the conversion to elongated projectiles is a different class altogether than the ammunition used during the black powder era. Although black powder is still used, it was the only non-experimental option before about the 1880s. Because other explosives like dynamite and the ancestors of smokeless powder became available at about the same time that spherical ammunition was being phased out, this can be used as a way to classify different forms and eras of ammunition and artillery.
In addition to the change away from black powder, another significant change that occurred during this period is that, while beginning to use elongated projectiles, artillery manufacturers generally began to include rifling in the bore of their guns. The addition of rifling dramatically increased the range and accuracy of artillery pieces. Rifling is also another factor that can be used to divide the technological proficiency of artillery, being either smooth bore-era or rifled-era. Although rifling adds significant performance improvements to artillery, the smooth bore tube has never disappeared completely and can still be found in many special purpose weapons, especially rocket launchers.
Early Ammunition for Black Powder Artillery
As cannons, firearms and mortars advanced, so did the ammunition that they launched. The first projectiles used with explosively powered artillery were carried forward from mechanical artillery and they were darts and stone spheres.
Iron darts, sometimes called garros, were the earliest ammunition for black powder-powered artillery. They were usually wrapped with leather near the driving end to improve the fit of the projectile in the bore of the gun. This leather gasket helped to reduce the problem of windage, or the leakage of the propellant gases around the projectile. Darts continued to be used until about 1700.
Stone projectiles were simply rocks that had to be rounded-off so that they would not lodge in the barrel of the gun. This required a skilled stone carver to make each stone. Stone projectiles were the most common because they were cheap and stone was plentiful. In a long siege, armies could take stone cutters on the campaign with them and make more ammunition on location. Not all shot was spherical, however, and several antipersonnel-types include cubic and jagged shapes.
Some of the earliest manufactured ammunition consisted of solid lead, bronze or iron balls called shot. At the beginning of the age of explosively powered artillery, metal ammunition was too costly and difficult to make to be common. One important factor that limited the use of metal shot was that it generally weighed about three times more than stone, so the propellant charge had to be increased a corresponding amount. The brass and bronze cannon of the day were barely able to withstand use with stone projectiles, let alone anything heavier. Another practical limitation to using more black powder per round was the fact that it was very difficult and expensive to produce, and therefore scarce, until the 1800s. Shot made of lead was found most frequently in smaller caliber weapons. Stone and iron shot were sometimes covered with lead to help preserve the interior of the guns and to improve the fit between the shot and the gun. Generally, just one ball of the proper caliber was used at a time. By the time that spherical shot fell into disuse, after about 1870, cast iron shot was the most common type of solid projectile for large guns.
Sometimes, iron balls were heated in an attempt to cause an incendiary effect, and these were called hot shot or red-hot shot. István Báthory, or in Polish, Stefan Batory, and known in English as Stephen Batory, was king of Poland when he invented red-hot shot in 1579. Hot shot was especially effective in naval warfare since the ships of the period were made of wood. In order to put hot shells into the guns without prematurely setting off the propellant charge, gunners could place damp clay over the wadding in the gun.
Hollow cast iron balls were developed by about the 15th century and, naturally, they were called shells. A slow-burning fuze could detonate a shell filled with black powder. Such devices were sometimes called bombs or torpedoes. The word torpedo referred to nearly any type of explosive device before about 1900. With early models of spherical shells, the shell’s fuze was lit by hand before the shell was placed into the gun. Early fuzes were extremely unreliable. It was not unusual for a shell to explode while it was being loaded into the gun and they were extremely dangerous for gun crews to handle. Sometimes, early shells detonated while still in the gun’s barrel thus destroying the gun and frequently injuring personnel. Because of these problems, shells were normally used only with short-barreled guns. Eventually, they were placed into the bore for firing before the fuze on the shell was ignited and then the fuze for the gun would be ignited immediately after the fuze on the shell. In later versions, the propellant charge of the gun could ignite the shell’s fuze.
Case or Canister Shot and Carcass Shot
Case, or canister shot appeared very early, and it usually consisted of a casing filled with lead musket balls. In many examples, where lead shot was used, the metal was alloyed with antimony to make the balls harder. Frequently, some wadding or waste was added to pack the shot tightly into the canister. Another similar design to case or canister shot was known as carcass shot, in which, the casing was filled with incendiary instead of antipersonnel materials..
In 1573, a German known only as Zimmerman invented hailshot, a form of case shot that also had an explosive charge to burst the canister and a fuze that was ignited by the propellant charge. Another type of hailshot was usually found in naval antipersonnel weapons and included a special hailshot gun and cubic-formed shot. The hailshot gun was heavy – on the order of a hand cannon and usually provided a means of resting it on a ship’s railing to control recoil. Hailshot guns sometimes had rectangular muzzles.
Grapeshot was another type of antipersonnel ammunition, and consisted of a multiple of some type of usually round shot. The shot could be made of cast iron, lead or some other metal. The main difference between case shot and grapeshot was that grapeshot normally had larger and fewer balls and a different configuration. There were numerous different designs of grapeshot and several varieties were also known by other names such as quilted shot.
Martin’s shot was a variation of hot shot. It consisted of a cast iron spherical shell lined with insulating materials and it was filled with molten cast iron. When the Martin’s shell contacted its target, the shell would break up and the molten iron inside would cling to the target thus setting any combustible materials aflame.
Bar Shot and Chain Shot
Bar shot and chain shot were most often used in naval applications. Bar shot consisted of two spherical balls of shot joined together with a bar. Chain shot also consisted of two balls of shot, but they were joined together by a chain. The principle of these types of shot was that they could be fired at the masts and rigging of ships and their whirling action would inflict severe damage.
Influenced by the hail shot concept of Zimmerman, British Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel invented a spherical shell filled with shot that incorporated a time fuze in 1784. The shells designed by Shrapnel allowed air-bursting case shot to be indirectly fired at an adversary for the first time and made good use of the artillery of the period.
The basic Shrapnel design shell underwent several modifications and improvements. The diaphragm shell was developed by Colonel Boxer of England’s Royal Artillery Corps as an improvement to the original Shrapnel design shell. His modifications to the design improved manufacturing and bursting characteristics of the shell. The diaphragm shell incorporated a metal diaphragm that separated the explosive charge from the shot and included weakening grooves in the shell thereby improving its bursting characteristics.
Double shells were simply common powder shells made about twice as long along one axis as a spherical shell of similar caliber so that it could hold about twice as much powder. They were usually used at short range and launched with a reduced propellant charge.
Star or illuminating shells were similar to Shrapnel in physical design, but the shot was actually made of pyrotechnics and they were used to illuminate areas such as battlefields at night. The shot composition was usually paper cylinders filled with more-or-less typical fireworks that produced a bright light. The most common method of how these worked was that small magnesium flares in the paper cylinders were suspended in the air by little parachutes after the shell burst.
Benjamin Robins, a British artilleryman and member of the Royal Society, began a study of fortifications, hydraulics and ballistics in the 1730s. While studying ballistics, he reached important conclusions about flight and published one of his books, New Principles of Gunnery in 1742. In it, he outlined his research that essentially formed the basis for all subsequent work on the theory of artillery, projectiles and aerodynamics. Robins suggested improvements included rifling and elongated projectiles, innovations that were not fully appreciated until more than 100 years after his death.
Although the inefficiencies of spherical ammunition had been appreciated by artillerymen for a considerable time, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that serious development of elongated projectiles was undertaken. As artillerymen began to use elongated projectiles, they also had to develop rifled bores in the guns used to fire them. The two innovations were parallel developments. During the American Civil War, several munitions designers such as Captain Robert Parker Parrott, inventor of Parrott Rifle, made significant advances in ordnance technology. Although elongated ammunition began to replace spherical ammunition, spherical ammunition continued to be used until after the beginning of World War I. For many countries, the modernization of arsenals actually occurred during WW I and the arms available at the beginning of the war were fairly primitive compared to those in use at the end of the war.