Military Subjects:  War of 1812

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 2: February 2006



"For want of this precaution ... many Men lose their Arms"
Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815

Part III: "The mysteries of the school at Woolwich:" Royal Artillery Training and Texts, c. 1750-1850.

By Donald E. Graves

In Britain matters relating to artillery centred around the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich near London, which had been founded in 1741 to train artillery and engineer officers. Throughout the remainder of the 18th century and into the early 19th century, most of the technical development in the RA was undertaken by serving officers and civilian employees such as John Armstrong, William Bedford, Thomas Blomefield, Albert Borgard, William Congreve and his son of the same name, Thomas Desaguliers and James Pattison who were connected with either the RMA or its attendant Royal Military Laboratory, Royal Brass Foundry and Royal Carriage Department. The written results of their labours were contained in manuscripts that were rarely published but held in the RMA library. In retrospect this was probably a wise decision because much of this work was "cutting edge" technology that Britain's enemies would have been only too happy to read but it was in distinct contrast to the general practice in Europe where innovations in artillery often found their way into print a few years after they were formulated. European, particularly French, artillery theorists appear to have been aware of the manuscript holdings at the RMA but, unable to consult it, were reduced to complaining about "the mysteries of the school at Woolwich."[1]

The British bias away from publication, which possibly resulted more from oversight than any deliberate policy, also extended to the education of the cadets at the RMA. From the mid-18th century until well into the following century, except for a few elementary primers, there were no established official manuals or texts that provided a complete basic survey of the knowledge an RA officer would need to carry out his professional duties. Instead the aspiring gunner officer who attended the Academy as a cadet was supposed to compile his own reference text based on the notes from his lectures and it would appear that the theory was that, once he had been commissioned, the new officer would make his own amendments and additions based on actual service experience. This was hopeful but many of the "Cadet Notebooks" of these officers have survived and, of the half dozen or so which the author has examined, it is clear that most junior officers did not do much scribbling after being commissioned.

The operation of this praiseworthy system of officer education (praiseworthy because it put the onus on the cadet) can be seen in the academy syllabus for 1793.[2] New entrants to the RMA were required to study fortification, artillery, mathematics, drawing, the French language and chemistry. We will leave the other subjects (which the author finds both confusing and forbidding) for the moment and concentrate on fortification and artillery which are not only more interesting but more easily grasped. The 1793 syllabus prescribes a number of texts that might well have become an essential part of the British gunner's library. For fortifications, the "Printed and Manuscript Books made use of" include Isaac Landmann's Principles of Fortification, John Muller's Practical Course of Fortification and Attack and Defence of Fortified Places, and John Pleydell's Essay on Fortifications.[3] For the artillery course the syllabus prescribed Landmann's Principles of Artillery and Muller's (by this time hoary old) Treatise of Artillery.[4] These were all rudimentary texts and some, particularly Muller's work on the attack of fortified places, first published in 1747, and his Treatise on Artillery, virtually unchanged since its first edition of 1757, were long out of date by the dawn of the 19th century.

The level and age of the required texts did not, however, really matter because, as has been noted, the real emphasis at Woolwich was on the student "doing it himself." For example, to successfully pass the artillery course a cadet was required to complete 57 coloured plates "containing the Plans, Sections and Geometrical elevations" of all guns and mortars in service on land and at sea and their carriages." The fortification course was worse -- not only did it require 68 plates illustrating the principal theories of fortification by such authorities as Vauban and Coehorn -- the student also had to prepare "Field Books" on the tracing of fortifications, surveying and levelling.[5] Having gotten over these obstacles and bumbled his way (as did the author in his own schooling) through chemistry, French, mathematics and drawing) the aspiring young graduate was deemed worthy of a commission in the RA and dispatched merrily on his way to a serving company. Most cadets took an average of about 2-3 years to complete the RMA course although the were some duffers who took as long as 5 years.

As far as published texts and manuals were concerned, things didn't get any better when the young hero joined his first unit. Consider the important subject of gun drill which, according to the 1793 syllabus, was not part of the artillery course at Woolwich. In this, as in so many other things, the RA did not provide a printed manual for guidance but relied on practical instruction at the unit level which meant that the junior officers had to join the "awkward men" or enlisted recruits during the lengthy hours of practice devoted to this duty. In contrast to other armies where established drills with numerous words of command were laid down for every type of weapon, by the late 18th century the RA had simplified gun drill to two types: the "Exercise of Battery Pieces" or "Slow Firing Motions," and the "Exercise of Field Pieces" or "Quick Firing Motions." The former was utilized for the heavy garrison or siege weapons where rate of fire was not a concern and its component motions were executed by separate commands from the NCO in command of the gun detachment. The latter was utilized for field artillery where rate of fire was a concern and consisted of a direction from the officer commanding a section of field pieces to the NCO in charge of the gun detachment specifying target, charge of powder, type of projectile and the number of rounds to be fired (vizt. "infantry in front, minimum charge, case shot, two rounds") followed by the command "fire" given by the NCO at each gun. At this point, the quick-firing drill commenced and continued as a single, continuous process without separate commands for each motion until the specified number of rounds had been put down range at the target. The quick-firing drill was the same for all calibers of field artillery and this meant that "a man trained in the quick firing motions could be employed" on any weapon and casualties replaced quickly.[6] On the other hand, it required well-trained gunners to carry it out and no less than two hours a day were usually devoted to its practice.

This system must have worked well as the RA retained it throughout the American Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars that followed. No official RA manuals of gun drill appeared until nearly the middle of the 19th century although William Congreve the younger published a Syllabus of the exercises ... connected with the service of artillery in 1822 and the Madras Artillery, the artillery component of one of the three separate armies that made up the military forces of the East India Company, produced a series of gun drill plates in 1841.[7] The first Royal Artillery manual came out shortly afterward and, by 1861, official manuals were in print for all the weapons manned by that service.[8]

In contrast, gun drill or "the service of the piece" was a highly regulated business in the French army with established drills and separate words of command for every motion laid down for each different type of artillery be it garrison, siege, seacoast or field. Most of the French authors discussed below who published technical treatises in the late 18th and early 19th centuries included lengthy sections on gun drill as a matter of course in their works and this was augmented by small private manuals specifically on that part of the gunner's duty which appeared as early as 1786 and continued on throughout the Napoleonic period.[9] Finally, the French artillery began to print official manuals of gun drill as early as the 1790s.

The Royal Artillery's reliance on manuscript notebooks and unit training does not mean there were no English language works on artillery matters available in Britain between 1750 and 1850. In actual fact, an impressive number of books appeared which an artillery officer could consult to fill in gaps in his training and extend his professional knowledge. Benjamin Robin's New Principles of Gunnery, a seminal work on the subject which first appeared in 1742 was released again in 1761 by James Wilson with additional commentaries by the German mathematician, Leonard Euler, with a second edition coming in 1777 and also later editions. Lieutenant E. Williams of the RA brought out his Theory and Practice of Gunnery in 1766 and James Glenie's New History of Gunnery appeared in 1778. Charles Hutton, a professor of mathematics at Woolwich, contributed a treatise on explosive force and muzzle velocity in 1778, a description of his experiments in ballistics in 1786 and a new edition of Robin's by-now-classical work in 1805. Other authors who published in the field of ballistics were H. Brown who brought out his True Principles of Gunnery in 1778 and B. Thompson*, Count Rumford, who published his Experiments to determine the Velocity of Projectiles and the Force of Gunpowder in 1802.

The output of all these authors paled, however, compared to the work of William Congreve the younger (1772-1828), son of the colonel commandant of the RMA, and a scientist whose inventive and restless mind investigated such diverse topics as steam engines, the best means to counter forgery and the perfection of perpetual motion. His most important work, however, was done in the service of his country during the Napoleonic Wars when he introduced a number of artillery innovations, including the casting and mounting of naval ordnance, the improvement of gun sights and, of course, the weapon that bears his name -- the Congreve rocket -- which were all thoroughly described in an impressive number of publications.[10]

There were also more general works covering a broader subject matter. John Muller aged Treatise of Artillery, as already noted, continue on in limited service until the 1790s, and it was amplified by Captain H.A. Thompson's translation of D'Antoni's useful general survey of gunpowder, firearms and the use of ordnance in war, a book that is notable because D'Antoni was one of the first experimenters to use live test subjects (horses and pigs) to calculate the effect of artillery projectiles.[11] Finally, a very useful survey of land warfare in general but one that contained much good material on artillery appeared in 1811 when William Mueller, an engineer officer in the King's German Legion, produced his Elements of the Science of War.

These books were informative and educational for the diligent and intelligent RA officer but something more compact was required for field use by the less diligent. This need was filled by little aide-memoires which would probably have been in the luggage of most competent RA officers during the period under examination. The first of these little notebook appears to have appeared in 1778 when T. Fortune brought out The Artillerist's Companion, a useful compendium but a title aimed primarily at artillery NCOs.[12]

 The best known of these primers, however, appeared in 1798 when Captain, later Major, Ralph W. Adye, produced the first edition of his Little Bombardier and Pocket Gunner. Adye had originally compiled this reference work for his own purposes but it "occurred to him, that many of his military friends stood in equal need of such an aid, and would willingly give a few shillings, for what they would not be at the trouble of collecting," which was probably the exact truth, he published his little handbook.[13] The Pocket Gunner, as it came to be called, was a useful item that contained concise information not only on British artillery subjects (including the quick and slow-firing drills) but on those of an RA officer's likely opponents, particularly the French. Constantly updated, it was edited by Major W.G. Elliot, RA, after Adye's death in 1804 and went through eight editions by 1827 when it ceased publication.[14]

The Pocket Gunner was replaced, first by Captain Morton Spearman, RA, who produced two editions, which differ slightly, of The British Gunner in 1828 and later by Major E.A. Griffiths, RA, who brought out the first edition of The Artillerist's Manual and British Soldier's Compendium in 1839. The Artillerist's Manual went through nine different editions between that year and 1862 when the need for such privately-produced pocket books ceased as the Royal Artillery had itself begun to print technical literature. Of these practical little publications, Adye, Spearman and Griffith's works were the best known but, from time to time, other similar items appeared such as the "Artillery Cards," or range tables of Sergeant R. Armour in 1803[15] and Captain A.F. Oakes's Artillery Officer's Assistant, in 1848.

It can be seen, therefore, that British artillery literature from 1750 to 1850 reflected the professional bias of the Royal Artillery which stressed practical instruction over official publication, leaving a void that was happily filled with useful private handbooks written by serving officers. The other published works in the English language were either elementary surveys originally written for the instruction of cadets at the RMA that remained in print long after their utility had evaporated or narrow technical works on highly specific subjects.

Having completed this lengthy but necessary digression, we will now return to Henry Knox and his Continental Artillery gunners whom we left in 1776, perhaps puzzling over the table of contents to Muller's Treatise of Artillery. This useful, if somewhat dated manual was not the only assistance American artillerymen were to receive from Europe as in the spring of 1777 the brig, Amphitre, arrived in North America from Lorient to bring French artillery knowledge to the shores of the New World..  

            The next instalment, Part 4, will be "'Rouges et bleus:' The French Artillery and Its Literature, 1700-1800."


[1].             Louis Tousard, American Artillerist's Companion, (Philadelphia: 2 vols, 1809). On all matters relating of British artillery during the lated 18th century the most currently reliable are the articles published by Adrian Caruana in the jouranl, Arms Collecting. Caruana based much of his work on the manuscript collection at the Royal Artillery Institute at Woolwich.

[2].             The RMA syllabus for the early 1790s will be found W.D. Jones, Records of the Royal Military Academy (Woolwich, 1851), 45.

[3].             Isaac Landmann (1741-1826?) replaced John Muller as the professor of artillery and fortification at the RMA in 1777 and taught until 1815. The prescribed cadet textbooks were The Principles of Fortification reduced in Questions and Answers for the Use of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich of which one edition was printed at London by T. Egerton in 1806 but there were earlier editions. Landmann was also the author of The Field Engineer's Vade Mecum, with Plates (London, 1802) and The Construction of several Systems of Fortification, (London, 1807), wich was in its fifth edition by 1821. The other prescribed texts were John Muller's The Attack and Defence of Fortified Places, first published in 1747 with many subsequent editions and John Playdell, An Essay on Field Fortification, which first appeared in London in 1768..

[4].             Isaac Landmann, The Principles of Artillery, reduced into Questions and Answers for the Use of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, of which a second edition was published by Egerton in London in 1808 but there were earlier edtions and Johm Muller's Treatise of Artillery first brought out by J. Millan in London in 1757 with new editions in 1757, 1768 and 1780 although not changed.

[5].             By a fortunate mischance the manuscript notebook of Charles Rudyerd, one of the cadets who graduated from the RMA in 1793, was found in the 1950s sitting on a window ledge in the Halifax Citadel. How it got there, nobody knows, as although Rudyerd served in New Brunswick from 1801 to 1806, he died at Gibraltar in 1813. This book contains beautifully-rendered coloured drawings of the 57 artillery and 68 fortifications on heavy rag paper. The artillery plates have been published as C.W. Rudyerd, Course on Artillery at the Royal Military Academy as established by His Grace the Duke of Richmond Master General of His Majesty's Ordnance (Ottawa, 1970). I happen to know the original Rudyerd production intimately as at one time it sat on my desk and when tired of the cold, unfeeling and too busy modern world, I would take respite by glancing over the beautiful artwork.

[6].             Adrian Caruana, "British Artillery Drill of the 18th Century," Arms Collecting, vol 16, no. 2.  

[7].             Source for Congreve noted in the text. The Madras Plates are reproduced in B.P. Hughes, Fire-Power. Weapons Effectiveness on the Battlefield, 1630-1850 (London, 1969).

[8].             The earliest title for a Royal Artillery gun drill manual that the author has found is Instructions and Regulations for the service and management of Heavy OOrdnance for the Royal Regiment of Artillery (Woolwich, 1849). As this is noted as being a second edition, it means that there must have been an earlier version. It appears, as far as can be discovered, that the first field artillery gun drill manuls was Manual of Field Artillery Exercise, (War Office, 1861).

[9].             The earliest French publication the author has found, devoted solely to gun drill is Instructions générale sur le service de toutes les bouches à feu (Metz, 1786). In 1792 appeared the first edition of the Manuel du canonier, our instruction générale sur le service de toutes les bouches à feu en usage dans l'artillerie published by Lepetit in Paris. By 1811, this had apparently gone through five editions published either by Magimel in Paris or in Lille with the title altered slightly to Petit manuel du canonier. There was also Hulot's Instruction sur le service de l'artillerie; revuée et augmentée par Bigot of which a third edition came out at Paris in 1813, implying there were certainly earlier editions.

[10].            A bibliography of the publications of William Congreve the younger can be found in my monograph, The Rocket's Red Glare: William Congreve and his Weapon sSystem (Bloomfield, 1988).

[11].            Treatises on Gunpowder, Fire-Arms, and Service of Artillery, in time of War; translated from the Italian of General A.V.P. D'Antoni, by Captain Thompson, of the Royal Artillery (London, 1789). Egerton the British military publisher was still carrying this title on his list in 1806.

[12].            T. Fortune, The Artillerist's Companion, Containing The Discipline, Returns, Reports, Pay, Provision, &c. of that Corps, in the Field, in Forts, at Sea &c. (J. Millan, London, 1778, reprinted Bloomfield, 1992).

[13].            Adye's foreword to the second edition, published in 1801.

[14].            During the Napoleonic period, no less than seven editions of the Pocket Gunner appeared: 1st edition, 1798; 2nd edition, 1801; 3rd edition, 1802; 4th edition, 1804; 5th edition (1806); and the 7th edition in 1813. The 6th edition must have clearly come out some time between 1806 and 1813 but the author has never seen a catalogue listing for it. Of the seven editions, the 1813 which had RA practise in the field current to about 1811, is by far the best. The first two editions were titled the Little Bombardier and Pocket Gunner, the later editions were The Pocket Gunner and Bombardier. These books, which were printed in the hundreds if not thousands, have now become very rare possibly because they were so useful that they were taken into the field and suffered the fate of many field manuals.

[15].            Adrian CaruanA, "Artillery Cards of Sergeant R. Armour," Arms Collecting, vol 30, no. 3.



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