Armstrong: The Great Gunmaker


The 1859 'Royal Commission on the Defences of the United Kingdom' envisaged a sytem of fortification to defend our shores armed with the latest artillery pieces. The new Armstrong gun was forseen as the best artillery piece to be employed in the defences. "At that time, the 68-pounder gun was the heaviest gun contemplated, and the Committee on 1861 did not anticipate the introduction of rifled artillery of more than one nature (probably the 110pounder breech-loading Armstrong). By 1869 when the "Committee on the Construction Condition and Costs.." reported on the progress so far with the buillding of the fortifications the new 'Armstrong' gun was already in production and in some respects its weakness had been discovered. The gun in question started as the 'Armstrong 100 pounder' then in became the 'Armstrong 110pounder' but it entered British service as the 7-inch Rifled Breech Loader. The term 'Armstrong Gun' continued to be applied to this artilery piece, but the name was also extended to all guns manufactured by Armstrong. Armstrong guns were adopted into the British service under their individual designations (i.e. 20pr Rifled Breech Loader, 40pr Rifled Breech Loader) but often appeared in official reports as 'Amstrong guns'.


William George, later Baron, Armstrong was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1810. His father was a corn merchant who became mayor of the City. William Armstrong was educated with the aim of becoming a lawyer. He, it seems, was intent on becoming an engineer, but nevertheless he stuck to his selected career as a member and then a partner of an eminent legal firm in Newcastle until he was thirty seven years of age. The first indication that the engineer in him was eventually to take-over became apparent when in 1835 whilst walking in a mountainous district of Yorkshire he came across a stream that was used to power a mill wheel. He recognised the fact that a tremendous amount of energy was wasted in this exercise and he set about designing an engine worked by water pressure, which was complete by 1840. In this year he observed an effect produced by steam escaping through a fissure of cement of chalk and oil placed around the safety valve of a steam-boiler on a railway near Newcastle. This lead to his making a hydroelectric machine, which produced frictional electricity. In 1845 he became secretary to a water company and designed a hydraulic crane. One such crane was erected on the quayside at Newcastle. As a consequence of these first inventions he was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846. In 1854 he designed a submarine mine. He soon relinquished the duties of a solicitor and turned his attentions full time to engineering. Together with a few friends he formed the Elswick Engine Works. This largely produced hydraulic cranes, engines, accumulators and bridges but was soon to be famous for its ordnance.


Observation of the battle of Inkerman, the outcome of which was decided by two 18pr. guns each weighing three tons that had to be manoeuvred through the mud, led to Armstrong deciding that what the Army needed was a light rifled field gun with long range. He prepared a design for such a gun in which he proposed to enlarge a rifled musket to the standard of a field gun, substituting elongated projectiles of lead instead of cast-iron balls. This had the advantage of delivering the projectile to the target point first. The gun was to be light and he argued that what weight there was had to be scientifically distributed. He suggested to the Secretary of State for War that a trial of such a gun was possible. The Duke of Newcastle backed him and he put together his first wrought-iron gun in 1855. It was tested with impressive results. It had a steel barrel with rifling of a uniform twist from breech to muzzle. The barrel was supported by wrought iron hoops made by winding a long bar when hot around a mandrill so that it formed a cylinder with the appearance of a tightly coiled helical spring. More significantly, the gun was a breech loader with a block or vent piece placed in a slot in the breech of the gun and screwed up against the end of the barrel by means of a hollow screw through which the gun was loaded. The gun was fired by placing a goose quill filled with powder into the vent which was drilled down and through the vent piece. The gun was rifled with several shallow grooves on a system known as polygroove.


The first trials were conducted on the sea shore of Northumberland. For his trials Armstrong also invented a night scope called a ‘nyctoscope’ so that he could observe the fall of his projectiles by night as well as by day. Much later he brought it to the attention of the Government. He also turned his attention to constructing a reliable time fuse that was adjusted by twisting a brass cap to set an arrow against figures marked on the body of the fuse.Armstrong’s rival was a Joseph Whitworth, later Sir Joseph. He had first worked as a mechanic in Manchester and London and had set himself up as a tool-maker in manchester in 1833. He became famous for his measuring machine for his system of standard measures and gauges. He adopted another system of manufacturing guns. Between 1854 and 1857 he designed some guns with his own hexagonal rifling. The bore was really smooth but the twist in it was to provide a similar action to rifling, imparting spin to the projectile which had a hexagonal cross section. When tested these achieved a range and accuracy far greater than any previously recorded.


Six Armstrong guns for trial were authorised by the Minister for War. The first was a 3-pounder which was reported on by the War Office Select Committee in November 1855. They recommended further trials on a larger scale. It was re-bored to a 5-pounder and was fired at Shoeburyness with success both in terms of accuracy and range. The second gun, an 18-pounder was submitted for trial in 1858 with unexpected results. The piece was regarded as a a significant step forward and orders were given for a 12-pounder and two 18-pounders. Trials were made of these and with a 32-pounder. As a result, the light Armstrong gun was adopted for field service in November 1858. A decision on the suitability of those of a heavier calibre for fortifications and for the navy was left pending the possibility that another and superior gun might be discovered. In 1858 Parliament appointed a committee to examine and report on the merits of the different systems of rifling ordnance. It came to the conclusion that only the Whitworth and Armstrong systems were worthy of consideration. Tests on Armstrong’s system were so favourable that they looked upon it as the best of the two. Armstrong had recently set up the beginnings of the Elswick Ordnance Company. He was approached with a view to the government obtaining his discoveries and the patents which protected them. Armstrong declined to sell but was ready to assign them unconditionally, making them a gift to Her Majesty and her successors. A deed to that effect was executed on January 15 1859 completing what General Peel described as “the handsomest offer ever made by a private individual to the Government”.


Mr. Armstrong received a reimbursement of all expenses incurred by him in developing the gun between 1855 and 1859 when his gun was adopted. The gun however was incomplete and no-one but its inventor was competent to conduct the further experiments required to perfect it. The Government now had a gun that they could not produce or use without Armstrong’s direction. Within three days of the deed being signed making over the patents Armstrong wrote to the Secretary of State suggesting that he be made a public officer, at an adequate salary, with the title of Director of Rifled Ordnance. The salary was to be backdated three years to account for his previous work on the matter and was to continue for seven years. He was also to be allowed to carry on his duties with the Elswick works. The Secretary for War complied and Armstrong was appointed as Engineer to the War Department on February 23 1859 with a salary of £2,000. He was to act as a consultant and an assistant to him was appointed, Mr. Anderson, to take charge of the practical department at Woolwich. On his appointment, Mr. Armstrong was granted knighthood and companionship of the Bath. He later became Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factory. At the same time as the transfer of his patents to the Government a contract was entered into for the manufacture of his guns by a private company. The parties to it were the Secretary of State for War, Sir William Armstrong, and Sir William’s partners who formed what afterwards became the Elswick Ordnance Company. They were joined by Captain Noble of the Royal Artillery who had served as secretary to many Select Committees on Ordnance. (He later became Sir Andrew Noble and gained a world-wide reputation for his work on the composition and properties of explosives, together with Sir Frederick Abel.) The exclusive right to the manufacture and supply of rifled ordnance outside the Royal gun factory was given to the company. Sir William supplied capital at fixed interest to the company with the right to join it in the event of his retirement from his commitments to public service. A contingency was provided should the Elswick works find that the government curtailed or withdrew orders leaving the works unproductive. In such an instance compensation was to be paid in a sum not exceeding £85,000 should a loss be incurred due to the manufacture being moved to Woolwich or a superior gun be developed, possibly by Mr. Whitworth.


The Elswick Company therefore had a privileged monopoly. The Elswick Company commenced manufacture of guns for the Government in January 1859. Armstrong inspected the manufacture of the guns at Elswick and also superintended 3,000 men at Woolwich, a fact which caused concern in some circles as the two places were 300 miles apart. The guns produced were those field pieces that had previously entered service but by the following Autumn large calibre pieces were accepted for naval service. In Winter of 1858-59 the Admiralty requested the supply of a large number of 40-pounder and 70-pounder Armstrong guns with as little delay as possible. In September 1859 a Committee, of which Armstrong was himself a member, approved of the 40-pounder for naval service. The Armstrong system was first extended to the 110 pounder on October 14th. 1859 and due to urgent demand 100 were constructed before any experiments on them had been concluded. The failure to find an alternative, better, cheaper or speedier method of constructing rifled guns led to the complete adoption of the Armstrong system. When Armstrong was asked in 1863 by what series of experiments the 110 pounder was approved he replied ‘none at all’. It appears that Armstrong guns, with the exception of the 40-pounder, were taken into the service without trial. The committee that sanctioned the 40-pounder had as two of its members Armstrong and Captain Noble, who himself joined the Elswick Company as a partner.


The Armstrong 100pounder

The Armstrong 600pounder on trial at Shoeburyness 1863

The Armstrong 100pounder on trial at Shoeburyness

The Armstrong 110pounder

The Armstrong 600pounder shunt gun on trial at Shoeburyness 1863

The Armstrong 100pounder on trial at Shoeburyness


Before the end of 1858 Armstrong’s 32- pounder had produced astonishing results, achieving a range of 9,000 yards with a charge of 5lbs. In 1859 it was decided to test it against the sides of a floating battery ‘Trusty’. The trial took place at Shoeburyness in January. Fourteen shots were fired, two of which struck joints on the armour making indentations of a few inches. The ship herself proved to be impenetrable to the best efforts of this gun. In September of the same year Armstrong’s latest weapon, an 80-pounder, was tested against ‘Trusty’. Over two days out of twenty two shots three penetrated the armour sufficiently to lodge in the side of the Trusty which was built of 25 inches of oak clad with 4 inches of iron. This therefore represented a complete protection against the greatest power of artillery then known. For all practical purposes ships clad with 4½-inches of armour were deemed to be invulnerable to any known shot at any ascertained range.


It was perceived by some that what was needed was an effective projectile rather than concentrating on cannon to deliver it. Whitworth set about producing this, determining the required projectile and then devising the best gun to fire it. One of his flat-fronted iron projectiles succeeded in penetrating iron plate and in 1857 he took out patents to protect his ideas. Anxious to cooperate with the naval and military authorities he gave over the use of his projectile to the Government and subsequently Armstrong was also able to experiment with shot of this nature at Shoeburyness. Whitworth continued his experiments He suggested rifling a 68-pounder to project his missile. Trials were held at Portsmouth in October 1858, the target being H.M.S. Alfred. The projectile was a flat-fronted hexagonal one twelve inches long. With a charge of 12lbs at 450 yards it was driven clean through the armour-plate, through the side of the ship and tore the woodwork inside asunder falling on the deck two feet inside. The following day the gun burst during the trial. It was assumed later that the rifling process had weakened the gun and when two more of Whitworth’s guns also burst at Shoeburyness Whitworth was told that further experiments on this principle of rifling were to be discontinued. Whitworth was not disheartened and while Armstrong continued to develop his method of construction Whitworth turned his attention to the materials from which his guns were made.


The first Armstrong gun

In 1859 the Armstrong breech loading rifled gun was brought out, the 12pr. of 8cwt for Field Artillery and the 9pr. of 6cwt. for the Horse Artillery. By the end of 1859 Whitworth had developed a heavy breech-loading gun of 5½-inch bore. having an inner tube of homogenous metal or mild steel bored out of a hammered ingot. It was calculated to throw shot or shell up to 80-pounds weight. The projectile, a flat-fronted one, had a tapered rear which was to add to its range and steadiness of flight. The gun had previously been tried at Southport and was now taken to the Thames to be tried against the Trusty in May 1860. It was placed on board the Carnation, a gun-boat moored 200 yards distance from the Trusty. It used charges of 12 and 14lbs. Four shots were fired, all of which penetrated the armour. Two entered the ship and one of these struck one of the armour’s securing bolts, driving it and a portion of plate around it clean through the ship’s side and half way across the deck carrying with it part of the iron maindeck knee. The Admiralty Lords present brought the trial to an end after the fourth shot. Whitworth wanted to continue but the Duke of Somerset feared that one or two more shots would have sunk the Trusty. Punching through iron armour with such a projectile was the obvious way forward. Whitworth and Armstrong argued over the results. Whitworth maintained his stance that it was the power of his flatfronted projectile driven forward with sufficiently high velocity that was demonstrated. Armstrong believed that form was subordinate to material and that no projectile really cuts a hole like a punch but breaks an entrance by main force. He stated that it was impossible for any missile to act as a punch and maintain its cutting edge and shape. Armstrong was later proved wrong as flat-fronted projectiles that had passed through armour plate were so entirely unaffected in shape as to be capable of being fired again from the same gun.


The Armstrong 12pr R.B.L. field gun

The Armstrong 12pr R.B.L. field gun

The Armstrong 12pr R.B.L. field gun



Armstrong had earlier expressed an opinion that the only way to defeat an iron-clad was to fire a projectile of such magnitude and weight as to crush the ship’s side instead of punching through it. To this end he advocated the use of smooth bore guns recognising the limitations of rifled guns for sea service. Whitworth continued to explain that the special form of the projectile was essential for penetration. Armstrong’s guns required a leaded shell which was compressed into the grooves in the bore of the gun as it is fired. This reduced the initial velocity of the projectile. Whitworth’s guns did not suffer from this as the projectile was already rifled and fitted to the bore. They could obtain higher initial velocities but not so high as those of a smooth bore gun as the charges had to be reduced in order to prevent strain on the piece. Although it had been proved that high initial velocity was not a major consideration the supporters of the smooth bores had advised a return to their use with spherical shot to hurl heavy projectiles of crushing weight against the sides of iron ships. Whitworth was humiliated by the inability of the Government to realise that such a step was already proven by his experiments to be a retrograde one.


In 1861 Lord Palmerston and the Secretary of State for War witnessed one of Whitworth’s practices at Shoeburyness. As a result Whitworth was ordered to prepare a gun with a bore of 7-inches to fire a projectile of 150 pounds. The gun was to be made at Woolwich as Whitworth could not produce such a gun in Manchester. It was to be made under Whitworth’s direction. The weight of the gun was increased from four to seven and a half tons distributing the weight in hoops of nearly equal thickness. During the course of construction an argument developed around the nature of the gun being made by an officer subordinate to Armstrong. It was asserted that although it was a Whitworth gun by virtue of its rifling the nature of it’s material made it an Armstrong gun. The Committee of the House of Commons on Ordnance was called upon to investigate and Whitworth was vindicated. The gun was made to his design by Anderson. The trials took place in September 1862 at Shoeburyness in order to test the flat-fronted projectiles against armour. All other shells had hitherto failed.


Whitworth’s shells had previously displayed a peculiar attribute in that they exploded without a fuze when striking at high velocity. This was proven to be caused by the heat generated by the impact of the shell on the plate. Thus some of the bursting effect was wasted prior to the shell entering the plate. Whitworth surrounded the gunpowder in a flannel envelope to delay the explosion. His shells could be safely No. 30 February 1993 piled like solid shot or even let fall upon the deck without fear of explosion. On the first day of the trial the Whitworth 12-pounder was fired from 200 yards, the shot passing completely through the target burying itself deeply in the sand hill behind. When dug-up it was found to be unburst. The amount of flannel coating was adjusted in the second shot and the projectile burst behind the plate and backing. No hollow projectile had ever before passed unbroken through more than one inch of wrought iron. The next test was of the 70-pounder of 4 tons against stronger iron. The target was a box-target seven feet in length and four feet broad with 4-inches of armour covering nine inches of oak. Behind it three feet back was four inches of solid timber faced with two inches of iron plate. From 200 yards the 68lb shell passed through the armour and wood exploding against the back plate, bursting it into large pieces and driving them through the sides shattering the target frame to fragments. The charge was only one sixth the weight of the projectile. On September 25th.


7-inch trials

1862 the trial of the 7-inch from Woolwich was carried out. The target was twenty-one feet in length and fifteen feet high representing Warrior’s side. The armour plate was 4½ inches thick on eighteen inches of teak lined with 5/8th iron. The gun was laid at 600 yards and after a few ranging shots the trial began. The first shot passed through the armour plate within an inch of the aiming spot shattering the teak beyond into minute fragments. It struck one of the massive vertical supporting angle irons tearing it in half driving the screw bolts and rivets in all directions. The shot however remained buried in the teak with its flat head resting against the angle iron. The next shell was loaded with 3lbs 8oz of powder. Its total weight was 131lbs. It was fired from the same range passing completely through everything apparently bursting when it encountered the resistance of the inner skin causing an explosion that blew it completely away and set fire to the timber at the back. On a target such as Warrior this would have caused great carnage amongst the crew behind. Armstrong was successful in having six different natures of his breech loading guns adopted into the service., the 7- inch (earlier designated the 110 pounder), 40, 20, 12 and 6 pounders.


The 40pr. of 32cwt. sometimes designated the O.P. 40pr. (Old Pattern) was later adopted for land service for use in batteries of position, siege work and garrison positions. A heavier 40pr. of 35cwt. was introduced in 1860 to take the place of the 32pr. as the upper deck broadside armament of larger ships. Three 20prs. were were introduced in 1859, two for sea service and one for land. The land 16cwt. was intended as a light gun of position. It was at first a 25pr. but the projectile was lightened and it was used for heavy filed batteries of reserve. The sea service guns were the 15cwt. broadside gun for sloops and the 13cwt. pinnnace gun for boat and field marine use. In 1877 it was used on the upper deck of ironclads for anti-torpedo and antiboarding roles.


The 12pr. 8cwt. was introduced in 1858 for land service as a field gun. It was then adopted by the navy for as a boat or field marine gun. The 9pr. was a 6cwt gun for the Horse Artillery introduced in 1862. The navy also acquired some for boat and field marine use. The 6pr. 3cwt. gun was intended for mountain use but was too heavy to be carried by mule. It was supplied to colonial batteries and the navy had some to add to their store of boat and field marine guns.


The 7inch R.B.L.

There were two natures of 7-inch. The heavier 82cwt gun, produced to replace the 72cwt which had not yet been issued, was introduced to the navy in 1861 where it superseded the 68 pounder as the pivot gun of ships. It fired a shell of 100 pounds but this was increased after february 1862 to 110 pounds and the gun was so designated as the 110-pounder. It was too light and produced a recoil too great for ship use. The 72cwt was not completed until 1863 when it was decided to modify it to strengthen the powder chamber with an extra coil. Seventy six of the old mark were too far advanced to be reworked, some finding their way into land use in forts as flank and main armament. The 7-inch as a naval gun was short lived as a committee reported in 1865 that the muzzle loaders were far superior in accuracy range and ease of working to the breech loaders. Endurance and cost also tipped the scales in favour of the muzzle loaders. The 7-inch proved to be lacking in muzzle velocity and was not able to penetrate the armour of the new class of iron clads. It was replaced in 1866 by the new heavier muzzle loaders.


The 7-inch R.B.L. of 72cwt at Fort Nelson

The 7-inch R.B.L.

The 7-inch R.B.L. of 72cwt at Fort Nelson

The 7-inch R.B.L. of

72cwt at Fort Nelson

The 7-inch R.B.L.

The 7-inch R.B.L. of 72cwt at Fort Nelson


The 7-inch R.B.L. of 82 cwt. became one of the standard guns of position for the Palmerston forts. It had a length of 120 inches (face of muzzle to rear of gun excluding breech screw) with a greatest diameter of 27.7 inches. The rifling consisted of 76 grooves each 0.6 inches deep and .166 inches wide, with a twist of one turn in 37 calibres. 833 of these guns were manufactured. The projectile charge was originally 14lb for distant shot and 12lb for full shell. In June 1863 the 14lb charge was withdrawn and in March 1865 the 12lb charge was reduced to 11lb. All shot and shell were ogival-headed and were made of iron coated with lead. With a charge of 14lb the range was 4,000 yards. The muzzle velocity was 1,150 ft. per sec. and penetration of iron was 5 inches at 1,000 yards. This performance was a third less than that of the 68pr. R.M.L. Armstrong’s breech loaders were difficult to load and were prone to fouling. In some cases the lead was stripped from the projectile fouling the bore. The heavy vent piece was cumbersome and needed to be replaced every so often (the handbook says every ten rounds) under constant firing conditions as it tended to heat up. The vent piece also leaked causing erosion around it. Some military men considered the vent guns to be dangerous and some fatal mishaps had occurred. There was nothing to prevent the gun from being fired with the vent piece partially closed. At the battle of Kagosima in 1863 more than one of the vent pieces of the Euryalus (the Admiral’s flagship) were blown out during the action. After an unfavourable report the guns were soon withdrawn and replaced by the 64 pr. shunt gun. The smaller natures remained in service for many years.


The 7-inch R.B.L. of 72cwt

The 7-inch R.B.L. of 82cwt

The 7-inch R.B.L. of 72cwt

The 7-inch R.B.L. of 82cwt


The 20pr R.B.L.

The 20pr. was regarded as the most serviceable gun for use against torpedo boats until the introduction of the 3pr. and 6pr. Q.F. guns The Armstrong R.B.L. guns had several disadvantages as well as advantages. They were more accurate compared with every other description of ordnance at the time of their introduction due to the perfect centering of the shell, the constant air space of the charge and the total absence of windage. There was no windage in the system as the shell was slightly larger that the bore, the lead coating biting into the polygroove rifling in order to impart spin. Because of this the flash could not light the fuze. A considerable force was required to overcome friction in the bore. In February 1863 Armstrong Voluntarily retired from his official appointments.


Armstrong: Consulting Officer on Artillery

In April 1863 the contract with Elswick was discontinued by the Government. This later incurred a payment of compensation under the terms of contract of £65,000. During his term of office Armstrong had been placed in a position of great power. As Engineer to the War Department he became the consulting officer of the Crown upon artillery in general. Under the terms of his appointment he was to report and advise upon all questions submitted to him by the War Department in relation to rifled ordnance. He was to exercise these duties, subject to the control of the Secretary of State for War. He advised not only on his own inventions but on those of others, possibly rivals. This seems to have restrained other inventors, such as Colonel Blakely, from submitting their ideas to the Ordnance Select Committee, of which Armstrong was the appointed advisor and a competitor.


Whitworth's guns: A rival to Armstrong?

Whitworth had been forced to develop his own guns privately without the financial help of the Treasury whilst the manufacture of Armstrong guns, carriages and ammunition cost the Treasury two and a half millions sterling. The Armstrong guns, hailed as the most superior of their kind during the early period of their introduction began to be looked upon with less admiration. Sir Howard Douglas came to the conclusion that the delicate necessities of adjusting and laying the Armstrong gun with the required degree of accuracy were utterly inapplicable on board ship. This, together with the dangers of a separate breech piece, led to the Armstrong guns being dropped from sea service.


Another factor was the liability of the lead coated shell to strip as it left the gun inflicting injury upon those in close proximity. Armstrong had attempted to overcome some of these defects with a new shunt gun that dispensed with the dangers of breech loading. This gun was still experimental and had not yet been adopted into the service. Meanwhile rumours were circulated that Armstrong guns could not bear rapid fire. During firing the metal would become heated and the breech screw would no longer fit, disabling the piece. Graver defects were said to be discovered, muzzles as well as vent pieces being blown away and the guns liable to fracture. It was reported however that officers commanding an Armstrong battery in China found no difficulty in all weathers and all circumstances. The Secretary of State for War suspended the issue of 110-pounder guns in 1861 pending further experiments. Attention was now on the relative performance of Armstrong and Whitworth guns, for the fleet, against armour. Because of these and other objections raised against the breech loaders, Armstrong introduced (in 1864) 40pr and 64pr guns with a wedgeinstead of screw breech actions and 64pr. muzzle loading guns. He also submitted designs for muzzle loading field guns.


The Armstrong Polygroove

The Armstrong lead coated shell for the 7-inch R.B.L. gun

The Armstrong Polygroove

The Armstrong lead coated shell for the

7-inch R.B.L. gun


Whitworth also proposed a new muzzle loading system. Whitworth objected strongly to Armstrong’s monopoly of providing British guns and he often demanded a comparative trial to test his guns against those of Armstrong. A special committee was appointed to carry out trials in 1863 with 12pr. and 70pr. rifled guns. These were Armstrong 12pr. breech loaders with breech screw, 70pr. with wedge, Armstrong muzzle loaders and Whitworth muzzle loaders. The 12pr. was a possibility for the field service and the 70pr. for siege, garrison and naval broadside. The Armstrong muzzle loaders had three deep grooves in the barrel into which three rows of soft metal studs on the shell engaged as it was entered into the muzzle. These same grooves imparted a spin to the shell as it rode up the barrel on firing. The R.M.L. (Rifled Muzzle Loading) gun was born.


Whitworth's Hexagonal bore

The Whitworth Hexagonal shell

Whitworth's Hexagonal bore

and shell

The Whitworth Hexagonal shell


Whitworth’s guns were rifled on his hexagonal system. His 70pr. had an inner tube which was screwed into the body and was further strengthened with hoops forced on by hydraulic pressure when cold. The 12pr. was forged in one piece with a a hoop over the powder chamber. On test all guns were considered good. All Armstrong’s guns had a steel barrel. After each gun had fired 2,800 rounds they were fired with increased charges in order to test them to destruction. The Armstrong breech loader split on the forty-second round but did not burst. At the ninety second round the Whitworth steel gun burst violently into eleven pieces whilst the muzzle loading Armstrong failed at the sixtieth round, one of the outer coils falling off after cracking.


The committee reported favourable and Armstrong’s system of manufacturing guns was adopted by Woolwich with certain later modifications. Armstrong’s guns soon became obsolete but Armstrong had the satisfaction of seeing his method of construction guns adopted for all the later types. No R.B.L. ordnance was manufactured for many years after 1864 and the manufacture of R.M.L. steel and wrought iron ordnance began in 1871. They were constructed with an inner barrel of steel and jackets of coiled wrought iron on the Armstrong principle. The Armstrong-Whitworth tests had proved that the future lay in rifled guns and the military had to find a way to use thousands of cast iron smooth bore guns that were now useless.



Converted Guns: The Palliser system

The problem was solved by a Major Palliser who invented a system of lining the barrels of smooth bore guns with a rifled wrought iron tube. This was proposed in 1863 and soon adopted. Three natures of ordnance were converted on this principle, the 64pr. 58cwt. R.M.L. converted from the 32pr. S.B. of 58 cwt. the 64pr. 71 cwt. R.M.L. converted from the 8-inch shell gun of 71 cwt. and the 80pr. 5-ton R.M.L. converted from the 68pr. of 112 cwt.


Armstrong resigned his position at Woolwich because of the official preference for muzzle loaders and continued research into the development of improved breech loading. Armstrong must also be credited with the innovations he introduced in sighting guns beginning with his method of correcting for cross winds with his barrel headed sights. Whilst Armstrong enjoyed the support of the officials responsible for the expenditure of vast sums of money on Britain’s defences


Whitworth Versus Armstrong

Whitworth never seemed to gain the rewards he justly deserved. Sir James Emmerson Tennent, devotes the whole of his book ‘The Story of the Guns’, written in 1864, to exploring the Armstrong Whitworth case with a heavy bias towards Whitworth. Tennent argued that Whitworth never received the help and recognitin for his guns that he deserved. ‘Lord Echo stated in the House of Commons, in 1861, that from the first, when Mr. Whitworth was called in by Lord Hastings to advise as the best principles on which rifles should be made, there arose a feeling of prejudice against him because he was an outsider.’ In the same year another book was published, anonymously, to tip the balance in favour of Armstrong, entitled ‘Another Story of the Guns’.


Armstrong was always in the forefront of gun building technology. Most countries in Europe experimented with a succession of bigger and more powerful guns and the the Elswick works continued to build guns for the War Office for many years. In 1863 Armstrong’s 22 ton gun, called Big Will, was hailed as the summit of perfection. Then came guns of 25 tons for the powerful iron clads, followed quickly by 35 ton guns and amid great public interest, rumours abounded of an 80 ton gun from Woolwich known as the ‘Infant’. Soon it was confirmed that Elswick had produced two huge 100 ton guns for the Italians to mount in one of their battleships the Duilio and Dandolo. The British responded by purchasing two of these 17.72-inch guns of 100 tons from Elswick in 1878 for Malta and two more for Gibraltar. Each was 32ft. 10½ inches long with an extreme diameter of 6ft. 4½ inches.


After 1882 Armstrong entered the realm of ship-building. In 1883 Sir William White (then Mr.) later to become Director of Naval Construction at the Admiralty, was in charge of the creation, equipment and work of a new ship-yard at Elswick which was to rival both Portsmouth and Woolwich in size. White resigned in 1885 and his place was taken by Mr. Watts. In 1887 Armstrong was created a baron. In 1897 Armstrong’s firm amalgamated with Joseph Whitworth &Co. incorporating Whitworth’s ‘Walker’ yard on the Tyne (Known as Low Walker or ‘Mitchell’s’) and created Armstrong, Whitworth and Company. (some documents refer to Armstrong Mitchell &Co.) In his works were constructed hydraulic machinery for dock gates, cranes, steel forging and hydraulic gun mountings. In the shipyard ships were constructed for Britain, Italy, Norway, Spain, Portugal, as well as South American republics and the far East.


In the Japan/China war the Elswick ‘Naniwa’ sank the ‘Kowshing.’ British ships included the Victoria, Sirius, Spartan, Pactolus and Rattler. For the Australian squadron were built Boomerang, Karakatta, Katoomba Mildura and Wallaroo. For the Argentine Armstrong’s yard built the Buenos Aires of 4,800 tons. Under Lord Armstrong’s supervision together with Sir Andrew Noble and Captain Lloyd the production of ordnance continued with wire-wound Quick Fire guns for use on ships and for coast defence. These included the 6 pounder, 12 pounder, the 4.7-inch, 6-inch, 8-inch and 9.2-inch guns. Armstrong died in 1900 after a spectacular lifetime of involvement with some of the finest of the Victorian guns. More guns followed.



The Story of the Guns - Sir J. Emmerson Tennent. 1864.

Handbook for the 20-pr. R.B.L. gun of 16 cwt. H.M.S.O. 1892

Handbook for the 7-inch R.B.L. OF 72 and 82 cwt Land Service H.M.S.O. 1885

Textbook of Gun carriages and Gun Mountings - H.M.S.O. 1924

Artillery : Its Origin Heyday and Decline - O.F.G. Hogg Artillery Through the Ages - Col. H. Rogers

Naval Gunnery - Captain H. Garbett 1897 A Treatise on Service Ordnance - H.M.S.O. 1904

The Illustrated History of Ammunition - Ivan V. Hogg

Treatise on Ammunition - H.M.S.O. 1887 Navy and Army Illustrated Vol. 6 - 1898

Report of the Committee Appointed to Enquire into the Construction, Condition and Cost of Fortifications Erected in 30, 31 Victoria Statutes together with Minutes of Evidence - 1868


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