Wellington’s Big Bang: the British 12-pounders
It has long been considered by historians and commentators on the Royal Artillery of the Napoleonic period that the British army did not have a 12-pounder field gun in service; it has been suggested that the weapon was too heavy and therefore immobile for use in the field and that it was instead a siege or garrison weapon. This, however, is not the case. The Royal Artillery used 12-pounder field guns in almost all of their major operations and furthermore it was used by the Royal Horse Artillery.
The [re-]introduction of the 12-pounder to the British army was due to Prussian influence and tactical papers by Major William Collier published between 1780 and 1791. Collier had made a study of contemporary European artillery and believed the Prussian system to be the superior. He advocated a new scheme of artillery which utilised two calibres of field guns (heavy three -pounder and medium 12-pounder) and two calibres of howitzer (5.5inch and 8 inch). The 12-pounder “would prove more by a superior weight and rate of fire”.
Collier, however, also advocated the abolishing of the heavy 12-pounder and that it be replaced by the long 6-pounders. These guns had a similar range and importantly
He urged the retention of the medium 12-pounder to provide heavy fire support at crucial points.
William Congreve senior had also visited Prussia in the late 1770’s and had made a study of both Prussian and Hanoverian horse artillery; he also became well acquainted with King Frederick (“the Great”) of Prussia.
a) Brass (Bronze) Gun-tubes
Thomas Blomefield, as Inspector-General of Artillery, introduced a new system of Ordnance from 1784 onwards. His system of gun tubes was based around two standard lengths: that of 17 calibres and that of 13. Seventeen calibre tubes were used for the “heavy” or “long” pieces with the “light” and siege/garrison guns having tubes of 13 calibres. The calibre of all 12-pounders was 4.623 inches.
Blomefield designed three types of 12-pounder, each being specialised towards a particular function. The heavy 12-pounder was used in garrison and siege work; the medium was used in the field and the light for the horse artillery. As the Napoleonic wars progressed, however, the medium 12-pounder became the sole weapon of its class.
The medium 12-pounder had a gun-tube that was 6 feet 6.66 inches in length and it weighed 18.0 cwt; an example cast by John and Henry King in 1795 at the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds, has a length of 6 feet 3 inches and a weight of 18 cwt 9lb. A medium 12-pounder also survives with its original block-trail carriage in Montreal.
The dimensions of the 12-pounder tubes are noted by Isaac Landmann c.1790:
Blomefield’s light 12-pounder was 5 feet 0.10 inches long and weighed 12.0 cwt. Ironically, the Blomefield weapon was heavier by approximately 4 cwt than its predecessor. The use of a 13-calibre light 12-pounder is presumably based on the Prussian horse artillery weapon which had a length of 14 calibres.
The Blomefield 12-pounders were first cast in 1792; in 1794 trials took place between the heavy and medium calibres of that weapon. They were tested against each other, but also against the older weapons of their class. A letter dated 14th February 1794 states that the medium 12-pounder of 18 cwt was to be adopted “…to compleat the Park of Artillery”. Cockburn writing in 1827, however, indicates the medium 12-pounder of 18.0 cwt was introduced as early as 1788. Cadet Mould at the Royal Military College confirms the length and weight of the medium 12-pounder and tables of ordnance show that it was in service until 1881.
In 1792 Colonel Drummond and Majors Blomefield and Congreve were ordered by the Duke of Richmond, Master General of the Ordnance, to convene a meeting and hold trials of the new block-trail carriage and to ascertain which armament was most suitable for the new Royal Horse Artillery. Present at these trails of August 1792 was the 12-pounder, mounted on the block-trail. The initial armament for the Royal Horse Artillery was the heavy 3-pounder Desaguliers, the 6-pounder Belford and Light 12-pounder Blomefield. This establishment is supported by Adye (1802), as is the fact that they were mounted on the block-trail.
The three Blomefield weapons were not the only 12-pounders designed for the Royal Artillery; General Thomas Desaguliers designed a bronze 12-pounder of 7 feet 6 inches and a weight of 23.0cwt in 1778. According to Adye this was still in use by 1802, despite it being deemed obsolete in 1784.
By 1802, suggests Adye, the Blomefield medium and light 12-pounders were “…the only ones now in service”.
b) Iron Gun-tubes
Not only did Blomefield produce designs for bronze 12-pounder field guns, but also iron. The iron 12-pounders were designed for garrison, siege or naval service; Blomefield designed six of these weapons.
Adye in 1802 indicates that four iron 12-pounders were in service, and gives their respective lengths, length by calibre and weights:-
For each gun-tube there was 249 pounds of metal for every pound of shot.
Blomefield, however also designed two “short” iron 12-pounders for field service; both of these had gun-tubes six feet in length, with one weighing 24cwt and the second 21cwt respectively.
Cadet Mould at the Royal Military Academy in 1825 lists four 12-pounders in his notebook, as follows:
By 1813 only two iron 12-pounders were still in service, those of 9.0 feet and 34cwt and 6 feet and 24cwt. The 9 foot gun was used as siege or garrison artillery and the 6 foot gun as part of the park artillery.
At Fort York, Toronto, is an iron Blomefield gun on what appears to be an original block-trail carriage. The tube length is 9.0 feet, and overall 9 feet 8 ¾ inches.
The tube has no markings other than a broad Ordnance Board arrow, George III cipher and quarter-site. There are no weight markings, Master General of Ordnance cipher, nor are there any maker’s marks.
The medium 12-pounder used by the Royal Horse artillery was mounted on the block-trail carriage from 1792; this is further confirmed by Lawson in 1800 and Adye in his “Pocket Gunner” of 1802. The block-trail for the 12-pounder, unlike those for the 3- and 6-pounders had no axle seats, and William Congreve in 1795 argued for two gunners to ride on the limber and the remainder of the gun detachment to travel into action mounted on the support vehicles, rather like the French and Austrian horse artillery “Wurst Wagon”. This is confirmed by Adye.
For the foot artillery, the gun was mounted on a “light travelling carriage” of traditional double-bracket form. A cadet’s note book of c.1800, quoting Adye, notes
The same student also indicates it was drawn by three horses in single file – which indicates that at that time the 12-pounder had not yet received the 1788 system limber.
The weights of the “park” or travelling carriages for the light and medium 12- pounders are note by Adye:
Wheels were four feet eight inches in diameter for both carriage and limber.
He also proceeds to detail the “horse artillery” block-trail carriage in use at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The carriage for the medium 12-pounders had two trunnion positions (firing and travelling) and that of the light 12-pounder had a single position due to its short tube length.
Circa 1800 William Congreve indicates that the 12-pounder carriage could be modified on campaign so that it could be fired at an elevation of 17 degrees.
Adye, in 1802, indicates that the horse harness and limbers for the foot artillery 12-pounder were all of the New Pattern, but the carriages were still of the double-bracket type.
Returns by Lieutenant-Colonel William Robe of 1st November 1808 in Spain note that the foot artillery’s 12-pounder was by that date mounted on the “New Pattern”, i.e. block-trail carriage.
The weights for the carriage and support vehicles for the 12-pounders are as follows:-
The total weight of the New Block Trail Carriage and New Pattern Ammunition Carriages, when equipped, are listed by Adye:
The wheels for the 12-pounders on the block-trail were 5.0 feet in diameter and weighed 4cwt 21lbs a pair in 1813. The carriage for the 12-pounders lacked the side-boxes of their smaller sisters and carried all their ammunition and stores in the limber boxes. Adye, however, notes that the ammunition and stores were carried in two ammunition wagons.
The iron 12-pounders were still mounted on the double-bracket carriage in 1813 which presumably confirms they were used as siege or garrison pieces. The carriage for the 9 foot 12-pounder weighed 24-0-6 and that for the 6 foot tube, 18-1-4
Gun detachments and Equipment
Drill manuals from the 1790s indicate that the medium 12-pounder had an 8-man detachment and two ammunition numbers; the heavy had 10 men to serve it, plus 2 ammunition numbers, which, ironically, was the same as that for the light 6-pounder in Battalion service.
In action the limber and its horse team were placed 20 yards behind the gun line; the first-line ammunition wagon 15 yards behind and the 2nd line 15 yards further. Each gun was placed 13.1 yards apart.
The equipment issued for the service of a medium 12-pounder included:-
The lead apron was to cover the vent of the gun-tube to prevent any moisture or foreign objects entering it; the straps were to secure it to the tube on the march. The tampion served the same function but to protect the muzzle.
The Wadhook or worm was a metal helix mounted on an ash stave which was used to remove the remains of the cartridge from the bass of the cylinder and the sponges to extinguish any burning embers in the cylinder. The Priming wires – made from bronze or copper - were to pierce a hole in the cartridge through the vent into which the priming tube or fuse was inserted. The claw-hammer was used to extract a miss-fired priming tube. In French service a special fuse-extractor was in use.
The two spikes were used to render a weapon hors de combat if the gun-position was in danger of being overrun. The common spike was a length of soft iron that could be hammered into the vent, which could only be removed by drilling it out. The spring spike did not completely disable the gun. The spike had a spring mounted half-way down its length, so that it was compressed when forced through the vent but sprung open when it entered the cylinder. When the gun was recovered, the ram rod could be pushed down the cylinder, compressing the spring, so that the spike could be removed.
The remainder of the equipment is fairly self explanatory: the gun detachment was expected not only to serve their pieces, but also to maintain them in the field and create any field works as necessary.
The harness for the six horses consisted of:-
Each 12-pounder was issued with two ammunition wagons of “Flanders Pattern” in 1802 to transport the ammunition, and each Brigade of four guns had issued to it 8 ammunition wagons, 1 forge cart, 1 stores wagon, 1 spare wagon, 1 food wagon, 2 wagons musket ammunition.
Around 1800 the medium and light 12-pounders were drawn by three horses, but with the introduction of the New Pattern Carriage, it had risen to 6 and then 8 by 1808. During the Peninsula it was found expedient to increase their number by a further pair, bringing the total of horses per gun to 10.
Ammunition and Ranges
The ammunition allotted to each medium 12-pounder in 1802 is listed by Adye. He notes that they carried extra ammunition in a “small box on their limbers, carry 6 round shot and 2 case shot, with 6 cartridges of 4lbs and 2 of 3 ½ lbs powder more.”
The medium 12-pounder had no side-lockers or limber-boxes, and had all of its ammunition and stores divided equally between two artillery wagons. Each carried 72 rounds, giving a total of 144 rounds. The wagons in use in 1802 were all of the “old pattern”, drawn by three horses.
Light 12-pounders used by the Royal Horse Artillery were issued with only 66 rounds, distributed between an ammunition wagon and limber boxes:-
This was considerably less than the other weapons used by the RHA; the 6-pounder had 116 rounds and the 9-pounder 104 rounds total.
With the introduction of the block-trail for the foot artillery 12-pounders and the associated new pattern rolling stock, the amount of stores carried per gun was dramatically increased. By 1813 a medium 12-pounder was issued with the following stores:
Total: 62 round shot, 7 Heavy case shot, 7 Light case shot, 8 Shrapnell’s case shot: 84 rounds total.
It is interesting to note that spherical case shot is referred to as “Shrapnell’s case shot”. Alexander Dickson states that on average guns were equipped with ammunition according to the following ratio: 70% round shot, 11.5% canister, 18.5 Shrapnell’s case.
French 12-pounders were allocated three Caissons, which were loaded with 48 round shot, 12 heavy canister and 8 light canister, giving a total of 68 rounds per caisson.
Therefore it is apparent that the British artillery were used in an offensive role; to fire at long range, using round shot to break up enemy formations. The small provision of defensive shot (canister etc) suggests that the guns were seldom fought at close range.
A comparison of the ammunition provision for the 12-pounders of various other Napoleonic armies suggests that in a prolonged fire-fight that the British would have been out shot
Adye in his “Little Bombardier and Pocket Gunner” of 1802 gives the following details on range and recoil of these guns:
The comparative ranges to the first graze and weights of charge for the medium, light and Desaguliers 12-pounders are as follows:
When fired with a reduced or “small” charge the range in yards at the first graze of a medium 12-pounder were measured as being:
At three degrees elevation the “first” graze for the 12-pounder firing round-shot was at 1, 189 yards using a four-pound charge, 255 yards shorter than that of the 6-pounder at the same elevation, using a 2 pound charge. The French Year 11 12-pounder at 2 degrees elevation with a 4.5 pound charge had a first graze of 1,350 yards i.e. 161 yards further.
British canister shot was made in two types: light and heavy. The 12-pounder used three sizes of canister balls; the light ball of 6.5oz was shared by the light and medium weapons, with the medium 12-pounder using a ball of 18oz for heavy canister compared to 14oz for the light gun.
These figures, however, are contradicted by Adye in
1813 who suggests that all balls were 1.5 inches in diameter each weighing
10 ounces. There were 55 per canister.
The charges for firing round and case shot are given by Adye: 12-pdr heavy canister shot was 4.0 lbs., the same used for round shot. The light canister used a charge of 3.5lbs in 1802 and 3lbs in 1813.
The British canister used considerably fewer balls than its French counterpart; Gribeauval system canister, for heavy canister shot used 41 balls and light 112. Furthermore, the French cartridges were lighter.
Shrapnell’s Case Shot was a copy of the European “exploding grenade shot” which was initially devised in Prussia. It was in use in Prussia and France by 1780. Lieutenant Henry Shrapnell is credited with its introduction to the Royal Artillery in 1784 and also claims its invention, which was obviously not the case. It consisted of a hollow iron sphere filled with a bursting charge and up to 60 iron or lead musket balls. They used a wooden timing fuse. Shrapnells case shot was not used in the field artillery until c.1805 and the Board of Ordnance refused to let it be fired against French troops in case they captured any unexploded cases and therefore would be able to copy them, which, in any event they had been able to do when French soldiers had captured a British ammunition in the Peninsula.
Range tables from the early 1820s indicate that the Blomefield 12-pound gun could fire Shrapnell’s case up to 2,340 yards. Trials show that it could achieve a 48% of hits at 1000 yards.
British Guns in Russia
In 1813 the British Government sponsored the formation of the Russo-German Legion. Equipment appears to have been largely obsolete. The Russo-German Legion was issued with a hotchpotch of artillery equipment and the surviving material in the Kremlin and Borodino Museum indicates the use of a variety of gun-tubes, carriages and support equipment.
Details of two British 12-pounders in Russia are as follows:
From these details it would appear that the light 12- pound gun in Russia was the Blomefield weapon introduced in 1784, as the above details relate closely to those listed by Adye etc.
The medium 12-pound gun listed, however, does not relate to the weight of any known British tube; it is too heavy to be the Blomefield medium gun and too light to be that of Desaguliers. However, one candidate may be the “old” (i.e. pre-Blomefield) medium 12-pounder. It is listed by Adye (1802) Congreve (1778) and Walton (1778) has a weight of approximately 21cwt. Adye notes that the pre-Blomefield medium 12-pounder was obsolete and not in service by 1802, which raises the question of obsolete equipment that was still serviceable being used for Colonial service and to rapidly and cheaply equip émigré or foreign regiments.
The light, subsequently medium, 12-pounder was adopted for use by the Royal Horse Artillery in 1792. The use of such a large-calibre weapon for Horse Artillery duties is presumably based on Prussian practice. The Prussian Horse Artillery used a light 12-pounder with a tube length of 14 calibres as early as 1763 and the French adopted that same calibre by 1806.
The use of Horse Artillery 12-pouders and gives some impression of the tactical role of that new arm. William Congreve suggests that the Horse Artillery were to: “…be capable of Accompanying Cavalry and infantry in all their movements” and “that it never ought never to be stationary, and scarcely ever to act on the defensive.” In other words the Horse Artillery was to be a highly-mobile Brigade of guns to be brought rapidly to bear on critical points of the enemy line.
The foot artillery 12-pounders were used in a similar fashion. They formed part of the Park, which unlike the French practice, was seen as a pool of heavy guns to be drawn on as required, rather than a heavy Brigade to be deployed en-masse. William Robe in 1808 suggests that Park guns were
Adye in 1813 suggests that the
Both the medium and light 12-pounders saw service in Flanders 1794 and the Egypt Expedition of 1799-1800, as a result of which their carriages were re-designed under the auspices of Major General Lawson. Lawson noted that their carriages, unlike their European contemporaries, did not have a second pair of trunnion holes so that the gun tubes could be moved when on the march. He noted that this had the effect that the gun and limber were highly unstable on the march and that the muzzles dragged on the ground. The introduction of the travelling position for the gun tube was put into immediate effect.
Adye in 1802 notes that the field artillery consisted of 3-, 6- and 12-pounders and the park 12- and light 24-pounders. The medium 12-pounder saw service in the Peninsula war; the reserve park at Lisbon in October 1808 had a Brigade of five 12-pounders and in November Robe lists nine 12-pounders in service, four of which were manned by the Royal German Artillery. The medium 12-pounder was in service in March 1809 in Spain and both the medium and light weapon was used in the War of 1812. Two medium 12-pounders were involved in the attack on Sacket’s Harbour and 12-pounders (both brass and iron) are listed in service in June 1813.
In order to help their fight against Napoleon, Britain supplied artillery equipment to the Prussian army in 1813 which included the medium 12-pounder.
Conclusion: Were the 12-pounders too heavy?
As can be observed from the above, the British used the 12-pounder field guns for the entirety of the Napoleonic wars. This surely must contradict the notion that on the first hand it wasn’t used and on the second that it was phased-out because it was too heavy.
The following table compares the light and medium 12-pounders to those of contemporary European armies:
As can be readily observed, the Blomefield light 12-pounder was the smallest of its class in use during the Napoleonic wars and therefore would have been the easiest to manoeuvre on the battle-field. The Blomefield medium 12-pounder was approximately the same weight as similar weapons in use by other European powers, which did not deem them to be too heavy and immobile. This suggests that notion that the British 12-pounder was too heavy is misplaced.
Furthermore, the light 12-pounder was approximately the same weight as the Blomefield 9-pounder (1510 lbs) and the medium 12-pounder was shorter than the 9-pounder by 12 inches.
The total weight of the gun-tube and carriage for the 12-pounders compared to the 9-pounder are displayed below:-
It is obvious, therefore that the medium 12-pounder was only marginally heavier than the 9-pounder, and therefore just as manoeuvrable on the battle field.
The major difference between the potential manoeuvrability of the various weapons was the weight of their stores; the 12-pounder carried considerably less ammunition than either the 6- or 9-pounder and further more it was 50% and 25% heavier than the ammunition for those pieces.
Even though commentators have wrongly suggested that the Royal Artillery deemed the Blomefield 12-pounders too heavy for service, they were used by both the Prussian and Russian armies to great success c.1812 to 1815; two Prussian field batteries were armed with British 12-pounders. Therefore, if the continental armies did not deem them to be too heavy and lack manoeuvrability, surely that must imply that they were as mobile as the weapons in use in Europe at the same date.
Due to the chronic shortage of good horses and the poor state of the roads – or lack thereof – great difficulty was had in drawing the heavier field guns. Gun-teams for all calibres of weapons suffered greatly and William Robe argued that
In other words, gun teams were enlarged by an extra pair of animals. It was becoming obvious, however, that as the Peninsula campaign drew on not only was the quality of the horses available dropping, but also their number. Robe, therefore, was forced to reduce the strength of Brigades to four, or even in some cases three pieces, and the heavier field guns, notably the 12- and 9-pounders were increasingly un-used. Robe suggested that the 12-pounder albeit it a powerful weapon, having to use 165 horses to transport them was too great a strain on artillery resources and ordered that a Brigade of 9-pounders be sent to replace them. Even then, there was a 12-pounder Brigade present in Spain as late as 1810. This, therefore, suggests that the 12-pounders were not taken out of service due to being too heavy and immobile, they were taken out of service due to the extreme climate and rough terrain encountered in Spain, and more importantly, there were insufficient horses available to move them.
It is surely this that has been misinterpreted that they were too heavy for a battle-field role.
Moreover, the claim that the Royal Artillery introduced the 9-pounder into service c.1809 as a weapon to counteract the French 8- and 12-pounder guns can also be proven to be wrong. 9-pounder guns were in use in the Peninsula from the outbreak of that campaign and fought alongside the 12-pounders, which shows conclusively that the British did have the equivalent firepower to the Grande Armée.
The adoption of the 9-pounder as the “standard” British field gun by 1815 does not appear to have been a popular decision; the weapon was heavier and less manoeuvrable than the 6-pounders and required more horses to draw it.
The argument that the 9-pounder was adopted to match the firepower of the French artillery, therefore, is incorrect. The accusation that the 12-pounder was too heavy to be of use in the field Brigades only appears to hold true for the unique circumstances encountered in Spain, and it is likely that had sufficient good quality horses been available the weapon would have continued in service.
One must also add, that the 12-pounder was not the heaviest field gun in use by the Royal Artillery – that distinction falls to the light 24-pounder, which remained in service in that role during the War of 1812.
In the research for this paper, the author has identified three surviving British Napoleonic 12-pounder gun tubes, two of which are in Canada, with that in Montreal being mounted on its original carriage.
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The author would like to express his thanks to Mr Don Graves for his support, encouragement and invaluable help with writing this paper as well Dr Carl Benn and the staff at Fort York, Toronto, for providing details of the surviving 12-pounder there.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2006
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