Does Size Really Matter? – The Big Guns of WW1

The Big Guns-1914 to 1918

World War One was the first industrialized war that was on a truly global scale. With mass production and ever improving technology driving the war forward to its bloody conclusion.

Artillery performance changed out of all recognition compared to previous wars. For field guns had gone from line of sight firing bronze muzzle loading cannons of the 19th century to the en masse World War One indirect barrage inducing beasts like the new breech loading German 105mm Leichte 1916 or the heavier British BL 6 inch (152mm) 26cwt howitzer, with over 3,600 of these produced alone.

Weapon Nationality Introduced Loading Crew Weight of Weapon Weight of Projectile Muzzle velocity Range Rate of Fire
M185712-pounder (76mm) “Napoleon” French/US 1857 Muzzle Loading 6 3,665 Ibs 12 Ibs of solid shot 1,440 ft/sec 4,857 ft 1 p/m
4inch (105mm) Leichte 1916 German 1916 Breech Loader 6 3,362 Ibs 3 Ibs containing HE 1,300 ft/sec 30, 267 ft 6 p/m
BL 6 inch (152mm) 26cwt Howitzer British 1915 Breech Loader 10 8,142 Ibs 5 Ibs containing HE 1,400 ft/sec 28,500 ft 2 p/m

In World War One, which quickly degenerated into brutal static trench warfare that dragged on for years, artillery quickly started to play an ever important tactical role. Often using its rapid and heavy firepower by pure brute force to smash holes in the opponent’s defenses. This allowed  troops to pour through the newly created gap and push the enemy lines back a few precious miles at a time.

British 6 Inch Howitzer. August 1917
British 6 Inch Howitzer. August 1917

These powerful new weapons required new tactics. Which rapidly evolved to take full advantage of this new breed of longer ranged artillery with its rapid rate of fire, accuracy and heavier exploding projectiles:

  • Precision Firing:Fire accuracy among artillery units had improved dramatically as they learned to take into consideration things such as barrel wear, wind, air density and temperature.
  • Curtain Fire:This is a denying tactic where you keep an area under constant fire in order to cut off an enemy’s supply lines or to stop their units from moving forward through there.
  • The Creeping or Moving Barrage: This is where the artillery barrage falls in front of advancing friendly troops. The barrage continually moving forward in a set pattern allowing the troops to advance behind it as it did so, thus continually under its cover. It took great coordination and communication, something the new weapons were more than capable of doing.
  • Artillery Sound Ranging:Used for long range counter-battery fire, a totally new concept. Where a series of microphones were placed in a pattern over several miles. Then the incoming enemy fire would be plotted along this array of microphones to the point of impact. Then the time differences between these points would be used to calculate the rough location and direction of the enemy artillery. This method was popular with the Germans, but quickly discarded by the Allies as it was deemed far too ineffective to be of any use.
Complicated but deadly. Example of a Sound Ranging Operation.
Complicated but deadly. Example of a Sound Ranging Operation.

Soon even larger artillery pieces started to appear with much more power. They were primarily designed to dislodge heavily entrenched enemy and destroying their fortifications. These weapons increasingly reached deeper and deeper beyond the enemy line, allowing them to threaten the enemy command structure and logistics which once had been immuned to such attacks.

So this opened up the possibility of artillery playing a more strategic role, but field artillery had reached the practical limit of their traditional way of deploying  due to their size and weight.

A German built 15 cm Kanone 16 in transport configuration.
A German built 15 cm Kanone 16 in transport configuration.

Like the German 150mm model K16. This giant gun was a major step up for the Germans from their standard 105mm Lieche 1916. It could fire-up to a range of 72,000 feet (nearly 14 miles).

But it came with many disadvantages, weighting in at 24,000 lbs, which meant it was nearly 7 times heavier than the standard German 105mm field gun. It needed a crew of 8 and required a special 8 wheeled carriage and tractor to transport it.

And as soon as it was attempted to deploy it off road it often got bogged down due to its hefty size. But when deployed correctly, with its long range and firing a massive projectile, it was a most formidable weapon.

As this meant it could attack positions that were previously considered safe and could carry out devastating counter battery fire with impunity against the more standard size enemy artillery pieces. Until of course the Allies started to deploy similar caliber weapons.

At this stage there simply was not the technology to mount these types of gun on mobile platforms, like there is today with vehicles such as the 155mm armed tracked US M109 (1963) or the UK AS-90 (1993).

So where to go next? Missile technology was non-existence at this stage and would only start to come of age at the end of World War Two, with the German V-1 and V-2 strategic rockets.

The future of heavy armament.. A U.S. Army cut-away of the German V-2.
The future of heavy armament.. A U.S. Army cut-away of the German V-2.

Then there was aerial bombardment using strategic heavy bombers. But these were very much still in their infancy with only a handful of designs being used towards the end of the war. Probably the most significant of these was the plywood skinned German Gotha G.IV bomber which had for its day a very useful bomb load of 1,100 lb.

These bombers had a top speed of 83 mph, with a range of 506 miles. But these type of aircraft were highly fragile and limited in what weather they could fly in. They were also highly vulnerable to bad weather and enemy fighter aircrafts. And there were never the numbers available to be considered effective.

So most aerial raids were left to smaller aircraft like the British Airco DH.9 with its meager bomb load of 460 lb

British Airco D.H.9A
British Airco D.H.9A

So France and Germany came to the same conclusion that the answer was to take advantage of both their extensive railway network and create a gun of truly epic proportion that could be used for strategic bombardment.

Thus was born both the railway gun and the concept of attacking deep into enemy territory without warning and impunity.

The war at sea was helping this development with larger caliber guns being constantly developed. Especially amongst the British and Germans as they indulged in an arms race that constantly demanded bigger and better warships , armed with equally bigger and better guns.

As the conflict began both nations entered the war with dreadnought style warships like the British 19,700 tonnes HMS St. Vincent with its 12 inch (305mm) guns. Towards the end of the war, ships like the 32,200 tonne German SMS Bayern  were coming off the slipway with  massive 15 inch (380mm) main armament .

Bayern with her massive 15in Guns. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R17811 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Bayern with her massive 15in Guns. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R17811 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The French took the approach of using mainly obsolete warship armament to make an assortment of railway guns. For example the Canon de 274 modèle 93/96 Berceau of 1915 used the armament of Terrible class warships 10.8 inch (274 mm) from the 1890’s.

But as the war stagnated into bloody trench warfare, the French became so desperate for heavy artillery that they started stripping some of their coastal defenses of their guns. This resulted in such railways guns as the 9.5 inch Canon de 240 mm mle 1884 sur affût à échantigolles.

The British compared to the French and Germans did not particularly embrace the use of railway guns, preferring to build larger numbers of smaller sized caliber artillery instead.

But an exception to this was the two BL 14-inch railway guns that briefly saw service on the Western front in 1918, firing around 200 rounds. After the war as the caliber was no longer a standard issue, these guns were quickly phased out of service.

King George V inspects the breech of a 14 inch gun.
King George V inspects the breech of a 14 inch gun.

As for the Americans, they briefly fielded five 14-inch (355 mm) railways guns and were fired a total of 782 times between September and November 1918. Used primarily to destroy German infrastructural like communication centers and railway stations.

They had to be moved around cautiously and slowly as they weighed 25% more than the French railway line were designed to carry.

But after the war America quickly lost interest in the whole concept of railway guns as the complexity and logistics involved was too much. Having to use several locomotives to pull one gun carriage and with a further  11 support cars for ammunition, fuel and spare parts it was deemed too impractical .

America instead started to explore strategic Aerial bombing, which would result in the vast fleets of medium bombers being deployed to great effect during World War Two.

An Italian 381/40 loading on a monitor in the battle of the Piave River, June 1918.
An Italian 381/40 loading on a monitor in the battle of the Piave River, June 1918.

Even the Italians got in on the act regarding Railway guns during World War One. For they had originally an ambitious program to start building a powerful new class of dreadnought just before World War One.

But eventually it was canceled and the already built 15 inch guns were put to various other uses, including being used to build seven Cannone navale da 381/40. These saw limited service and were still on the active list when World War Two started.

The Germans were much more enthusiastic about Railway guns. It all started in 1914 with the short barreled German siege Howitzers, the 16.5 inches (420 mm) Kurze Marinekanone 14 L/12 which was a modified naval cannon. It was given the nickname ‘Big Bertha’ and 12 were built, seeing service throughout the war. They were relatively quick to set up, around 5 to 6 hours and for its type had a respectable rate of fire, between 5 to 6 rounds an hour.

This design lead to a series of smaller 305 mm railway guns; the Beta-M-Gerat, Beta-Gerat 09 and the Beta-Gerat. These guns took longer to set-up, but had a much better rate of fire.

 Weapon Nationality Type Introduction Length of Carriage Overall Weight Range Weight of projectile *Rate of Fire per hour
Big Bertha’ 16.5 inch 14L/12 Calibre German Railway Howitzer 1914 42 ft 93,900 Ibs 6 miles 1,785 Ibs 8
15 inch 381/40 AVS Italian Railway Gun 1916 52 ft 201,000 Ibs 19 miles 1,950 lb 60
9.5 inch Canon de 240 L Mle 1884 French Railway Gun 1916 Estimate 40ft 68,000 Ibs 11 miles 310 Ibs 20
8.3 inch‘Paris Gun’ German Railway Gun 1918 111 ft 564,000 Ibs 81 miles 234 Ibs 4
14 inch 50 caliber Model 1 US Railway Gun 1918 72 ft 535,000 Ibs 24 miles 1,400 Ibs 60
Schwerer Gustav 31.5 inch German Railway Gun 1941 155 ft 2,980,000 Ibs 30 mile 10,500 Ibs 1

*The reality was that over the course of an hour for some guns the rate of fire would decline due to wearing and heating issues.

These guns were used particularly to good effect against French and Belgium forts. These were heavily armored with thick reinforced concrete, but by using special High Explosive shells with delayed charges that could penetrate up to several feet of reinforced concrete or up to 40 ft (12 metres) of earth.

Germany went onto introduce various other types of railway guns throughout the war. Resulting by the end of the war in the sole ‘Paris Gun‘, which by barrel length (112 ft) made it the largest gun of its type in World War One.

A Paris gun turntable mounting, as captured by United States forces near Château-Thierry, 1918 postcard
A Paris gun turntable mounting, as captured by United States forces near Château-Thierry, 1918 postcard

This was used in the spring of 1918 to attack Paris from a great distance away. The gun as a weapon of psychological terror was highly effective for a short time, as it struck without warning and there seemed to be no way of stopping the projectile as they reigned down.

It had an incredible range of 81 miles, but this came at a cost and that was the projectile only weighed 234 lbs (very small by Supergun standards). Whereas in the similar weight category, the American 14 inch 50 caliber Model 1 Railway gun which only had a range of 24 miles, but could fire a projectile 6 times heavier (1,400 lbs) to devastating effect.

A truly remarkable thing about this German weapon was the projectiles climbed to an altitude of 25 miles, which meant they were at the time, the highest a man made object had ever reached.

Map of central districts of Paris, showing where shells fired by the Paris Gun landed, June-August 1918
Map of central districts of Paris, showing where shells fired by the Paris Gun landed, June-August 1918

The Paris Gun fired around 350 shells that spring (1918), killing and wounding 870 people (mostly civilians). Which equated to about 3 casualties for every round fired. For this reason it was seen as a waste of valuable resource at a time when Imperial Germany had little to spare.

After World War One interest waned in Railway guns, but a few lingered on and saw some service in the early days of World War Two. Yet Germany did maintain an interest in them when it started to re-arm in the 1930’s.

Ultimately this would lead to Nazi Germany developing in the late 1930’s an even more sophisticated Railway guns. Resulting in the 1,350 tonnes Schwerer Gustav (Heavy Gustaf) Railway Gun. This was a 31.5 inch (800 mm) caliber monster that was gigantic in every way. It had a useful range of 153,000 ft (30 miles). It fired a 10,500 lbs projectile that could take up to a minute to reach its target. In comparison this meant its projectile was nearly 43 times heavier than the Paris guns.

Read another story from us: Artillery Beasts – Railway Guns in 33 pictures

But it was a dead-end concept with so many factors sealed the fate of the Railway Gun, it was not just their cost and complexities.

Warfare was now fast moving and a Railway gun would always run the risk of being over-run. Counter Barrage tactics had become more sophisticated and effective, leaving Railway guns vulnerable as it took them hours to get ready to move.

Read another story from us: Breaking The Deadlock – Machine Gun Tactics of WWI

Aerial units had taken over their role in many nations, being much more flexible and cost effective. This was later supplemented by missiles. Also, these units could be used to hunt down the Railway gun who were easy to spot due to their size and easy to find as they had to use the railway network.

This also limited where they could be deployed and they could be simply neutralized if the railway track they needed to use was destroyed.

The Railway gun no matter how impressive they were, had its heyday over 100 years ago and now is just a footnote in History.

Conan White

Conan White is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE