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A gun : state of the art of the beginning of the century
The main categories of artillery
The field artillery
The heavy artillery
The superheavy and long range artillery
The trench artillery
The fortress artillery
The self-propelled and 'special' artillery
The air and naval defences artillery
The roles and effects of artillery
Some books
Some websites


Artillery was one of the most important weapons of the First World War : the immense majority of the human losses were caused by its guns. Let us dedicate to that technique a little time, in order to draw the main lines, before discovering the projectiles which one can still find on the ancient battlefields.

German 77mm field gun - model 1916 (lengthened tube up to 2743 mm for an initial version of 2136 mm ) ,N-D de Lorette museum in Artois

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A fieldgun: state of the art of the beginning of the century

Suddenly appearing in the French Army in 1897, the gun of 75mm, developed by a team led by the General Deloye, established a new reference and became the state of the art for several years. Considerable guns of the World War One adopted some of its principles (or improved them) : single ammunition (joined shell and cartridge), hydropneumatic recoil brake, and quick manoeuvring handling breech mechanism.

Famous French 75mm scheme

Intentionally avoiding to consider this gun as the best one of the world, and thus to repeat the blindness of the French staff of 1914, who believed so much in the omnipotence of 'notre 75 ' that it forsook completely to invest in heavy artillery, let us take this gun as a support to explain the functioning of this weapon at the beginning of the 20th century.

General configuration

Tube grooves in a German 150 mm gunThe 75 gun was composed of a forged steel tube weighting 460 kg, assembled on a mounting. The interior of the gun was machined with the calibre of 75 mm and included 24 spiral grooves. These rifling grooves gave to the shell a rotational movement around its main axis (spin), which improved the stability of its trajectory thanks to the gyroscopic effect. The length of the tube was of 36,6 calibres, that is 36,6 X 75 mm = 2745 mm.

The longer the tube is and longer the shell is propelled by gases, thus the bigger its initial speed increase, improving the maximum range of the shot. For instance, the 2136 mm tube of the German gun 77mm FK96, lengthened in 1916 to 2743 mm (version 77 mm FK16) made it possible inter alia improvements to increase the initial speed of the shell from 460m/s to 600 m/s, and the range from 5500 m to 10500 m.

Main composants of the 75 gun

The carriage was equipped with an axle receiving the wooden wheels, a trail ended with a spade to anchor the gun on the ground, an armoured shield to protect the crew, and a directional cradle for elevation pointing (between -11° and +18°) via the elevating crank and the range scale. The tube rested on the cradle by trunnions.

Hydropneumatic brake (recoiling system)

The gun was equipped with a hydropneumatic brake (or 'recoiling system') mechanism, intended to absorb the considerable recoiling energy at the firing on a total course of 1093 mm and to restore it automatically to draw back the gun in position without a need for re-pointing (see diagram).

75 mm gun hydro-pneumatic recoiling system

To fix the ideas, the departure of the 5.5 kg shell at the velocity of 625 m/s (at the gun muzzle) theoretically applied by reaction a backwards force of one ton approximately to the 1.14 tons gun, giving it an initial recoil speed of about 7,5 m/s... Without the brake system, the gun would have gone backwards for several meters, or, stopped by the spade, would have dangerously jumped on its position !

75 mm hydro-pneumatic recoiling system functionning  : before the shot, shot and recoil pressurizing the air, air depressurizing and back movement to the initial position

The shell was fixed to the cartridge containing the propelling load ('fixed' configuration). This solution highly accelerated the loading procedure of the 75 mm gun which could be done with only one man, unlike most of the other guns of the time for which shells and cartridges were often separately handled.


The ammunition was charged, and the empty cartridge ejected by the back mechanism of the gun, called the breech. The handling of this device was to be fast, and had to lock in a firm and sealed way the bottom of the gun for the shooting operation. The device of the 75 mm gun, with its eccentric mechanism, was particularly well designed :

- Closed breech, ready for the firing

Rear view of the 75 mm gun breech, closed

- Opened breech, ready for charging

Rear view of the 75 mm gun breech, open

The firing device functioned by percussion of a needle through the breech on the bottom primer cap of the shell, started by simple traction on a cord.

This gun was sending its shells up to 6860 m, at the rate of a hit every 6 seconds. The French Armies had nearly 4800 specimens of this weapon in 1914. (As an information, in 1918 more than 17300 guns of 75mm were in service...)

The contemporary guns had adopted the majority of the devices present on this one, with some modifications. In particular, certain models of recoiling systems were rather of hydro-mechanical type (oil + spring), and the breech closing mechanisms of the ‘sliding breechblock’ type (Germany), or of 'interrupted screw' (England and France).

Excentric screw breech system of the French 75 mm fieldgun, closed
Interrupted screw breech system of the French 155 mm Schneider Howitzer, open
Sliding block breech system of a German 100 mm field gun, half-closed

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The main categories of artillery

From the smaller to the largest one calibers, from the short to the long tubes, from fixed coastal or fortress to the self-motorized weapons, from horse-driven to railway mountings, the artillery of 1914-1918 is declined, for each of the belligerents, in several categories, each one deploying a large variety of guns.

Some technical vocabulary can be needed before reviewing the weapons of that period. One will generally class the guns into about 3 main types :
  • Guns (in French : 'Canon') - Weapons generally used in direct sight shooting (flat trajectory).
  • Howitzers (in French : 'Obusier') - Weapons generally used for the indirect shooting (curved trajectory).
  • Mortars (in French : 'Mortier') – Ancient name of the heavy guns used for the indirect only.

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The roles and effects of artillery

Overturned ground by the heavy shelling, in the surroundings of the 'ouvrage de Thiaumont' in VerdunHaving a walk on an old battle field is enough to see the effects of a 1914-1918 artillery shelling. Overturned ground, jointed and superimposed shell holes of several meters of diameter and depth, the destruction of the organized positions is often total, so much so that the fighters ended up using the craters themselves as individual resistance holes.

The fire power is phenomenal and grew with the years in this the conflict: from the first fights of the mobile warfare to the massive artillery preparations ramming during several days the enemy positions before the great offensives, the orders of magnitude changed.

Some examples :

  • The offensive of Champagne and Artois in September 1915 consumed in two months nearly 8 million shell of 75, 155 and 220 mm on a total frontline of 50 km.
  • During the offensive of the Chemin des Dames ('Ladies' Way') in 1917, the French artillery shot nearly 19 million shell, on a frontline of less than 40 km within a period of two months !

Another evidence of this flood of fire is accessible from a simple glance on the remains that can be found on these same battle fields : quantities of lead balls, of small or great glares of steel, or shell fuzes which, projected to several hundreds of km/h, had devastating effects.

Torn shelter on hill 344 in VerdunIt is really a soldiers chopper that felt down on the troops taken under a shelling, and the wounds were generally horrible, most of the time lethal.

Disintegrated bodies, men cut in two pieces, torn off members, disfigured faces or white bled bodies by a small hole bored by a tiny glare, 80% of the human losses of the Great War were hit by the effects of artillery.

In certain cases, the side effects only could as surely kill or injure : the explosion blow that projected the bodies or destroyed the lungs, deep burns by the heat of the flames, live burial in the upset shelters, or psychological shock ' simply' stunned or even drove insane.

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Some books

Surprisingly, a few books are devoted to this weapon of WW1. Amongst them, note :

Same editor (Crowood) and same pictures richness, but two differents authors : Allied Artillery of World War One (Ian V. Hogg), and German Artillery of World War One (Herbert Jäger).
The second tome of the celeb L'Uniforme et les Armes des Soldats de la Guerre 1914-1918 (Liliane et Fred Funcken), dedicates some good chapters to the artillery of the different countries.
The WW1 period publications often are very interesting, like this Manuel du Gradé de l'Artillerie (Artillery Officer Handbook), or this wonderful Cours de Munitions (Lessons in Ammunitions), Ecole Militaire de l'Artillerie, Avril 1916 that belong to a young officer apprentice who later went to the front.
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Some websites

Again, not a lot of specialised website on this subject, but these few ones are of very good quality : Canons pgm / ww1 Guns : This blog dedicated to the collect of WW1 artillery pieces still visible nowadays. I'm the webmaster !! Landships : A very well documented and pictured site on WW1 artillery (and other material from the same period), mainly for modelmaking. Lovett Artillery : Home site of a US artillery passionate, repairing, collecting or selling old guns. Please visit ! Le Canon de 75 : : Probably the best website dedicated to the famous French 75 mm fieldgun.
LES CANONS DE L'APOCALYPSE Les canons de l'Apocalypse : Only very big guns here, from both WW1 and WW2 Histoire Technique de l'Artilerie Française Impressive website of Dr Balliet, covering the XIV to XIX centuries period ArtiglieriA Website dedicated to Italian Artillery of WW1
(too long url !) Harry's Zünder EckeA lot of photographs of artillery fuses, not so much explanations unhopefully Munavia 21 Too bad, this very well documented website, specially for fuses, will disappear end of 2005...

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