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Definition: artillery from Philip's Encyclopedia

Projectile-firing weapons with a carriage or mount. An artillery piece is generally one of four types: gun, howitzer, mortar, or missile launcher. Modern artillery is classified according to calibre; ranging from under 105mm for light artillery to more than 155mm for heavy. Artillery changed the whole strategy and tactics of siege warfare. Advances in the 19th century, such as smokeless powder, elongated shells, rifling, and rapid-fire breach loading, made artillery indispensable in battle. See also army; cannon

Summary Article: Artillery from Encyclopedia of Military Science

Artillery is the science of using mechanical advantages, most frequently using combustible propellant, to deliver a projectile with formidable violence against a target at considerable distance. Artillery is classified as cannon, mortar, and howitzer. Cannon are capable of firing only at a flat trajectory, at targets directly within view of the gun. Today, cannons are typically employed only on tanks or infantry fighting vehicles such as the Bradley. Mortars are capable of firing only at a high angle and are, thus, able to attack targets in a defile, hidden behind buildings, structures, vegetation, or terrain. Howitzers are a hybrid weapon, capable of firing at both low angle for direct engagements and high angle for indirect engagements. Nearly all artillery pieces employed today are howitzers, with mortars being relegated as infantry weapons. This entry describes the development of artillery, types of artillery, technology, and current use.


Ancient armies including the Greeks and Romans used various devices such as catapults, ballistae, and trebuchets to pummel their opponents. By the early 13th century, primitive cannons were employed in Europe against castles, using black gunpowder to propel solid projectiles that could batter their way through stone or earthen walls. This prototypical artillery was heavy, slow-loading, and lacked maneuverability. The earliest projectiles were nothing more than massive, roughly round stones that lacked accuracy or range. However, by the middle of the 18th century, artillery was a well-established field with bronze cannons that were relatively lightweight and mobile, accurate at extended ranges, and capable of firing various types of projectiles.

The 19th century was marked by remarkable technological improvements, which created the field artillery as it is known today. By the time of the American Civil War, rifled artillery cannon were being mass produced, and the first efficient and effective breech-loading cannon also saw employment in that conflict. By the Spanish-American War of 1898, smokeless gunpowder was in widespread (although not yet universal) use. The single greatest advancement in artillery occurred with the development of the French 75-mm cannon in 1897, which for the first time employed an effective recoil mechanism. Although various recoil techniques had been proposed since the middle of the 19th century, the French 75 mm was the first gun to be mass-produced and deployed with such a system. An artillery recoil system is a hydraulic, pneumatic, or spring-type shock absorber that decreases the energy of the recoil and eliminates the “opposite reaction” of the gun that moves it backward in response to the “action” of the gun's firing and, thus, requires it to be re-aimed after each shot. The recoil mechanism permitted effective indirect artillery fire for the first time in history (engaging targets that the gun cannot see through the use of observers) and revolutionized the use of field artillery.

Today, most mortars rarely contain any recoil system, remain smooth bore, and are fired by dropping projectiles down the muzzle, which considerably reduces their weight and enables these systems to be carried by the infantry. Modern field artillery systems are nearly exclusively breech loaded, rifled, and contain recoil systems of various designs. Ranges in excess of 30 kilometers can be achieved with accuracy by most modern 155-mm field artillery systems, and even the heaviest 155-mm system can sustain rates of fire well above one round per minute.

The advent of recoil systems, indirect fire techniques, considerable enhancements in accuracy, advanced projectile effectiveness and lethality, significant improvements in the flexibility of projectile types (e.g., smoke, gas, high explosives, and shrapnel), and much better reliability and precision brought artillery into preeminence in the First World War. A formal system of controlling and directing fires was established, consisting of forward observers serving with the combat arms to request, observe, and adjust fires; a fire coordination element with headquarters units to coordinate the use of field artillery; a fire direction element to translate the forward observers' directions into firing commands to the guns; and the artillery pieces themselves. During World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, field artillery and mortars were the greatest killers on the battlefield. By 1914, artillery enjoyed a reputation as “The King of Battle” as indirect artillery fires dominated any engagement. During these years, the artillery mastered refinements such as manipulating the fall of projectiles to conform to a terrain feature such as a ridge or trench line; massing of artillery pieces to command a point on the battlefield; integrated missions with different types of guns or projectiles; “time on target” fire missions, at which artillery rounds fired from dispersed artillery units at varying ranges and with different times of flight would arrive simultaneously; rolling barrages designed to advance at the rate of an infantryman; box barrages designed to isolate a specific target to facilitate raids and attacks; and zone and sweep missions capable of ranging artillery projectiles across a piece of terrain of varied dimensions.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, the world's first electronic, digital computer, was developed to calculate field artillery ballistic firing tables during World War II. By 1959, electronics had advanced to the point that the Field Artillery Digital Automatic Computer was fielded. Essentially a large, heavy table with folding legs, it had limited capability, and an efficient manual fire direction center could beat it, yet it represented the initial tactical computerization of the artillery.

The Post-Cold War Era

By 1990, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Warsaw Pact field artillery had achieved the pinnacle of development as an industrial warfare force that could command the battlefield with firepower and lethality. The U.S. Army fielded the Tactical Fire Direction System, which consisted of an integrated digital fire control system and a console-sized battery computer system used for all fire direction computations, and individual firing data could be electronically transmitted to each firing piece by a device called the gun display unit. Digital phased array radar systems known as the Firefinder facilitated rapid and accurate counterfire. Conventional field artillery pieces were augmented by the multiple-launch rocket system, a single launcher of which is capable of simultaneously placing devastating fires on an entire square kilometer. Conventional field artillery could employ a wide and diverse range of customized projectiles far beyond the conventional high explosive round, including antipersonnel such as flechette rounds (short-range rounds developed by the U.S. Army for Vietnam, containing a multitude of small metal darts), various poison gas rounds, scatterable antipersonnel and antivehicular mines, obscuring smoke, white phosphorous for marking objectives or targets, antitank, illumination, improved conventional munitions capable of engaging different target types over a large area with deadly effects, and even remotely delivered sensors. The result was an integrated, robust, highly mobile, and flexible system that absolutely controlled the battlefield. North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. artillery systems played a major role in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Saudi Arabian-Kuwaiti-Iraqi deserts in 1990–1991. Since then, refinements such as the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System have continued to accelerate and miniaturize field artillery support systems.

However, the field artillery has proven less versatile and capable in the military operations other than war that have dominated the globe since the Persian Gulf War. Field artillery has seen significantly reduced employment in counterinsurgency operations of the later decades of the 20th century. In the Somalia deployment by the U.S. Army in 1992–1994 (originally to provide humanitarian aid, later to end rival clan conflicts), a single artillery illumination round was fired. Artillery saw no employment whatsoever in operations in Haiti in 1994–1995 (to restore to power the democratically elected president of Haiti). This is because field artillery was not capable of precise targeting, and the absence of such precision artillery tends to cause extensive collateral damage such as the destruction of adjacent structures and inflict serious civilian casualties. An early effort to improve accuracy was the M712 155-mm Copperhead laser-guided artillery round, fielded in the early 1980s by the U.S. Army and only recently withdrawn from active service (in 2007). The Copperhead followed the guidance of a laser beam to strike with considerable accuracy, although the “footprint” within which it could operate was limited, it could only be used on static targets, and its accuracy was dependent on technical limitations of the laser beam itself. The round was also prohibitively expensive at nearly $500,000 apiece.

The increased growth in field artillery systems was also to blame for this reduction in utility, as subsequent field artillery systems became so heavy as to demand considerable transportation assets. They are difficult and slow to deploy, complex and challenging to sustain, and have limited tactical flexibility to respond to hybrid wars and insurgency. U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld realized this when in the spring of 2002 he cancelled the U.S. Army's cherished “Crusader” 155-mm field artillery concept, a hideously expensive and technically intricate, 41-ton behemoth of an artillery piece, whose effectiveness was limited to conventional combat with an industrial-age mechanized force supported by a well-established logistical tail.

Artillery is also constrained in current Global War on Terrorism operations due to range and terrain restrictions. The artillery has always been concerned with range, and various methodologies have been explored to increase range, such as rocket-assisted projectiles, which generally lacked accuracy but retained larger payload capacity and are favored by the U.S. Army, and various types of base bleed/extended-range projectiles favored by European militaries (which significantly extend range without a deterioration of accuracy but have limitations in payload and thus explosive capability). Rocket-assisted projectile rounds contain a rocket motor that provides additional thrust, while base bleed/extended-range projectiles contain a small quantity of propellant in the end of the round that does not provide any thrust but increases the air pressure at the base, thus extending its range, and also contain an aerodynamically enhanced shape. In Afghanistan, most fire missions are necessarily conducted at a high angle because of the extremes of topography, which reduces accuracy and causes increased wear to the carriages. The heavy weight of the M198 155-mm howitzer (16,000 pounds) has also limited its use in remote locations in Afghanistan, as the road system in that country is poor and the terrain demanding. The extended ranges at which artillery is being employed in Afghanistan often require maximum propellant charges, which place additional stresses on the carriages and frequently demand the use of rocket-assisted projectile rounds, which further degrades accuracy.

The recently fielded M777 155-mm howitzer is a considerable improvement in mobility; this is the first 155-mm howitzer fielded by the U.S. Army and the United Kingdom to weigh less than 10,000 pounds, and it has proved invaluable in operations in Afghanistan. The M777 155-mm howitzer can sustain rates of fire of two rounds per minute and can achieve a maximum rate of fire as high as five rounds per minute (although this rate of fire cannot be maintained). Its reduced weight enables it to be maneuvered relatively easily and rapidly across various types of ground, considerably enhancing its utility in challenging terrain such as Afghanistan. Although field artillery has not been extensively employed in Iraq, the considerable distances, comparatively lower density of population, and isolation of numerous forward operating bases and combat outposts in Afghanistan have led to considerable employment of artillery-delivered firepower there. For example, for 15 months in 2007–2008, the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team employed 36,225 artillery and mortar projectiles in Nuristan and Kunar Provinces.

The U.S. Army recently (2007) fielded the M982 155-mm artillery projectile Excalibur, which may prove to be the most significant field artillery advancement since the recoil mechanism was perfected by the French more than a century ago. As recently as the late 1980s, electronic technology had not sufficiently matured to enable delicate, precision electronics to survive the brutal G-forces and rotational spins generated by a modern howitzer. The Excalibur exploits recent miniaturization and “hardening” of electrical components to install Global Positioning System technology inside an artillery projectile. The Excalibur round has been described as “unbelievably accurate” by artillerymen firing it in Iraq, enabling it to be successfully employed within 50 meters of friendly troops. It is accurate to within 10 meters at 14 miles; and future versions are intended to achieve 10-meter accuracy at 24 miles. With such precision, engagement of individual houses is now possible, a feat that has been repeatedly demonstrated in Iraq.

With the deployment of relatively lightweight 155-mm howitzers such as the M777, and the Global Positioning System-guided Excalibur projectile, it is conceivable that field artillery will regain the mobility and precision necessary to function in a population-centric counterinsurgency battlefield, where a precise, timely engagement is more to be desired than the massive, preplanned, thundering barrages of the battles of Somme and Verdun during World War I.

See Civil War, American; Global War on Terrorism; Haiti, U.S. Intervention in; Iraq Insurgency (2003–2011); Korean War (1950–1953); North Atlantic Treaty Organization; Somalia Intervention; Spanish-American War (1898); Vietnam War; War in Afghanistan; World War I; World War II

Further Readings
Further Readings
  • Bailey, J. B. A. (2003). Field artillery and firepower. U.S. Naval Institute Press Annapolis, MD.
  • Dastrup, B. L. (1994). The field artillery: History and sourcebook. Greenwood Press Westport, CT.
  • Hogg, I. (1972). Artillery. Scribner New York, NY.
  • Kinard, J. (2007). Artillery: An illustrated history of its impact. ABC-CLIO Santa Barbara, CA.
  • Artillery in the 18th Century
  • Cubbison, D. R. (2008). The artillery never gained more honour: The British Royal Artillery in the 1776 Valcour Island and 1777 Saratoga campaigns. Purple Mountain Press Fleischmanns, NY.
  • U.S. Army Field Artillery
  • Dastrup, B. L. (1992). King of battle: A branch history of the U.S. Army's field artillery. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Fort Eustis, VA.
  • McKenney, J. E. (2007). The organizational history of field artillery, 1775-2003. U.S. Army Center of Military History Washington, DC.
  • Current Artillery
  • Foss, C. F. (2011). Jane's armor and artillery (annual). Janes Information Group London, UK.
  • Artillery in GWOT and Contingency Operations.
  • Yates, L. (n.d.). Field artillery in military operations other than war: An overview of the US experience. U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute Fort Leavenworth, KS.
  • Douglas R. Cubbison
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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