Search billions of records on

Coast Artillery Ammunition

A group of Ordnance Department men handeling what looks to be that of 155mm GPF shells.

Artillery Ammunition

In April 1917 there existed it in the country less than 780 pieces of heavy artillery and little more than 1 million rounds of ammunition therefore. No pieces heavier than the six-inch guns had yet been made for mobile Artillery troops.

Some idea of the size of the project in hand may be had from the requirements table of July 1st, 1918 which called for more than 153,135,000 rounds during the next 18 months, at a cost of between three and a half and four billion dollars.

The difficulties attendant upon such an undertaking was stupendous. To begin with, it was a new industry as far as the larger calibers were concerned, a type of experimental worked ordinarily required years to develop, which had required years for the Allies to develop, and called for specially trained technical experts and a high type of mechanical labor. The few existing shops in the country, absorbing all the experienced labor in this line, were already occupied with material for the Allies and were therefore unavailable. The adoption of the French designs for the two most important pieces, the 75 and 155 mm, requested by the French and advisable for many reasons, necessitated a long delay in obtaining drawings and translating them to American standards, in modifying existing facilities and in learning for and methods. At the outset, delay in appropriations proved a serious handicap in placing contracts and getting preparations under way. The shortage of raw material, the railway congestion, the desperate machine tool situation, and the labor problem all operated to render almost impossible a very difficult task.

The Allies gloomily predicted that it would require years even to prepare for manufacture and that the possibility of getting quantity production under way before the end of the War was out of the question.

In the face of this, Army Ordnance set to work and trained labor, constructed 53 great plants, designed several superior new types of ammunition, and at the time of the Armistice were producing it at a rate that amazed the experts of the Allied armies. Not knowing it could not be done, we went ahead and did it.

There is not space here to go into the detailed story of each caliber. Briefly, the Field Artillery, consisting of 75 mm gun and howitzer, 4.7-inch guns, five and six-inch guns, 155 mm gun and howitzer, 8-inch guns and the 240 mm gun represented the mobile type of mounts and carriages. Of this group the 75 and 155 mm are the most important.

Ammunition for the 75 mm comprises both Shrapnel and H. E. (high explosive) shell. Later a gas shell of this type was developed and more than half a million manufactured. As certain facilities for shrapnel manufacture already existed, whereas the H. E. facilities had to be newly created, the former was considerably ahead in production, about seven and a half million of these being produced before the Armistice as against a little more than 4 million of the H. E. shell. Compared with vast requirements on this item, this is not a favorable showing, but it must be remembered that we were attempting to do in one year what Germany and France with a regular military establishments and ample appropriations had required many years to do.

The 155 mm was an adaptation of the B model of the famous French Grand Puisson Filloux ammunition, a 95 lb. shell with a range of 13,000 m in the howitzer and 17,500 in the gun. One of the uses of this ammunition, with a special time fuse, was as an agent against captive balloons. In December 1917 Army Ordnance developed a new American 155 mm shell, which had no counterpart in French ammunition. In June 1918 gas shell for both gun and howitzer were developed and a little later H.E. shell. The difficulties resulting from lack of tools, labor and loading facilities limited the production of this shell to less than a million rounds.

The 4.7-inch is of interest as being America is own development practically the only shell used in the War, which we were in any way prepared to make. There were about 60 of these Guns actually in service at the time of our declaration of war and a total of 165,237 rounds of shrapnel and 193,454 rounds of H.E. shell on hand. Frankford Arsenal however was the only manufacturer. By November 1918, five additional sources of supply with a daily production of 12,800 rounds had been developed and a total of nearly half a million shells produced. Further, gas and smoke shell in this caliber had been designed and put into production, and experimental work on incendiary, tracer, lachrymatory, and air bursts shell was well along toward completion.

An intermediate class between the Field Artillery and Seacoast Artillery is composed of howitzer ammunition, including the eight-inch, 9.2-inch and 240 mm H.E. and gas shell and the eight-inch smoke shell. This is effective for use behind the third line trenches for destroying enemy encumbrances such as barbed wire, concrete emplacements, known among the Germans as "Pill-Boxes", ammunition dumps, railway and supply depots and lines of communication. It is shot at high angles and falls almost vertically in places that would be overshot by shells from the guns. The gas shell of this type is also far more effective than that of the smaller calibers, owing to its greater range and quantity. The eight-inch smoke shell serves the twofold purpose of determining the aim of the H.E. shell and of forming a smoke screen to conceal preparations of our troops for an attack or to cover a retreat. The eight-inch shell was the first of the American Artillery ammunition to get on the line. The 240 mm is a 353 lb. projectile having a range of 10 miles. The monthly rate of fire per gun calls for 900 rounds of the eight-inch, 600 rounds of the 9.2-inch and 450 rounds of the 240 mm shell.

The Seacoast Artillery Ammunition includes high explosive shell for the 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 14-inch seacoast guns, 12-inch for Mortars, 16-inch for Howitzers and gas and smoke shell for the five, six and 8 in. seacoast guns. This group of guns and howitzers is composed of heavy Seacoast Artillery mounted on mobile vehicles such as railway mounts. It is used for attack upon heavy structures such as depots, storehouses, dumps, railways, batteries and on massed troops, the ammunition having been changed from the armor piercing type originally employed with this artillery against armored battleships to high explosive shell of both the impact and the timed type.

As the use of this as mobile Artillery had never before been contemplated, the facilities in 1917 were practically negligible, with the exception of a few small shops in operation on British contracts. Enormous facilities were developed.

The 14-inch is probably the most interesting of this group as indicative of the nature of high caliber ammunition. It is a 1,200 lb projectile carrying a powder charge of 490 lbs. of high explosive and having an extreme range of 26 miles. At the highest points in the arc it describes, this shell is 11 miles above the earth. Upon explosion, it digs a crater 30 ft. in diameter and 25 ft. in depth. It is fatal within a radius of 150 yards, death being caused by concussion alone, which is so great as to drive the eyeballs back in the sockets, crushing them against the bony structure of the brain and to produce hemorrhages at the ears, nose and mouth. Beyond the 150 yard area, the concussion may render the victim blind and insane without causing death. But like every frightful weapon of warfare, it gives its own warning. Its approach is heralded by an unearthly screaming which may be heard for 15 seconds before it strikes, so that there is a chance of diving into a shell hole or dugout or in the absence of such shelter, of falling flat on the ground where a concussion will not reach. The cost of the single one of the shells is $600.

The 16-inch is used in bombarding heavy fortifications. It's projectile, with a weight double that of the 14-inch, has only about half the range. In conclusion, we had done far better with the Artillery ammunition than the Allied experts or the Germans had ever dreamed it possible that we might do, and facilities had reached a point of development which would have meant utter annihilation for Germany in the spring of 1919, had the war continued.

Propellants And Explosives

There is no chance for bluff with Ordnance Material. It is made for men and issued to men who have no other insurance of victory, no other safeguard against death. The dependence placed upon it is too great to allow it to long enjoy a false reputation. When soldiers in battle express confidence in Ordnance material, they are backing their opinions with their lives and their judgments must weigh with the rest of us accordingly.

When troops advance under an artillery barrage, portions of the men are killed by the fire of their own Artillery. This cannot be prevented the protection given by the barrage against the enemies fire far more than compensates this loss. In taking a few lives, the barrage saves many more. But the danger to their own men, cause is commanding officers to exercise the greatest caution in the direction of an artillery barrage.

Studying this problem, British General Headquarters issued an order that only American powder should be used in British guns for artillery barrages, because of the greater uniformity and consequent less danger to the troops advancing under protection of the barrage. What higher tribute could be paid the quality of this product of American Ordnance. Mention is made of this testimonial before beginning the story of propellants and explosives because so many persons appear to think that the problem in the manufacture of powder and explosives is almost entirely one of quantity production and not quality.

The Allies, or rather their demands during three years of war, developed somewhat the manufacture of propellants and explosives in the United States before our entry into the war. We have seen, in the case of small arms and in a few other instances, which this was of advantage to the Ordnance Department. But not so in the case of propellants and explosives. Rather did it add to the difficulties of the situation. In April of 1917 American explosive manufactures were crowded with orders from the Allies. They were producing greater quantities than they thought could be produced. Plants had been enlarged and new ones built. The technical ability of the operating organizations of explosives manufacturers had been spread very thinly over a much inflated war industry. Yet none of these manufacturing resources was available for the use of the United States Army. In the case of small arms, the American manufacturers were just completing their European orders, with no new orders in sight, as we entered the war. But with explosives, the needs of Allies were continuing and were increasing, not diminishing.

To prevent that which we were so often told the Enemy hoped to achieve, namely the disruption of the Allies supply system by having the United States Army commandeer sources of supply in the United States vital to the Allies, it was necessary for the Ordnance Department to go outside and provide new sources of supply. In all some 53 plants at an estimated cost of $360 million were begun by the Ordnance Department to supply explosives. A large part of this construction was completed and was in a surprisingly efficient state of operation by November 11, 1918.

The first task of the Ordnance Department was to increase the supply of raw materials entering into manufacture of explosives, sulfuric and nitric acid, phenol, caustic soda, and toluol, the basic raw materials from which TNT is made. In the case of toluol, the Ordnance program required an expansion of the production to 30 million gal. per year by 1919. In 1914 production of toluol in the United States was less than 700,000 gal. per year. To accomplish this, contracts were made and gas-stripping plants were installed in the gas plants of cities extending from Boston to New Orleans and to Seattle, so that the gas burned by consumers in cities all over the country was made to yield its tax to Ordnance and to victory. Operating personnel had to be established and trained for these gas-stripping plants. It was an undertaking of considerable size. The First plant was placed in operation in April of 1918, and by October of 1919 this improvised source of supply was develop to over 500,000 gallons of crude toluol a month. It would have reached 700,000 gallons per month in November, thus providing as much as the entire country produced in 1914. At a cost of $30 million more than 1100 by-product recovery coke ovens for the production of toluol were constructed which would have provided, in 1919 some half a million gallons of toluol, and 320 other ovens, of about equal capacity, would have been completed later in 1919 and early in 1920. Two plants for the manufacture of toluol by special process were begun at Los Angeles and San Francisco. The latter plant, built for capacity of 3 million gal. a year was 90% completed and was in part operation when the Armistice was signed. Despite the demand for TNT, sufficient toluol was produced throughout the war to prevent failures or delays in delivery of high explosives.

The shell filler adopted for high explosive shells was amatol, a mixture of ammonium nitrate and TNT, a product developed in England during the war. In addition to the extension of private resources for the production of ammonium nitrate, the Ordnance Department undertook the construction of two atmospheric nitrogen plants at Sheffield, Alabama and a third plant, which was built by the Atlas Powder Co. as government contractors, for the production of ammonium nitrate by the Brunner-Mond process. Technical men were sent to England to study this process and construction of the third plant was started on March 8th, 1918 at Perryville, Maryland. Fireproof construction was required throughout at this plant. Production of ammonium nitrate was begun by the middle of July and before the Armistice was signed production had reached 500,000 lbs. of ammonium nitrate a day, 5/6 of the estimated total capacity of the plant. The character of the construction work required, the fact that the plan had to be specially designed by American engineers, and that the process of manufacture was new and involved highly technical work, make this achievement a truly remarkable accomplishment to the credit of American industry in the War. Although the British plant, based upon this process, was in operation before ground was broken for the building of the Perryville plant, the daily production of the American plant was in excess of the British plant when hostilities were ended.

For the manufacture of TNT, the Hercules Powder Co. built and put into operation, within five months, a plant at Hercules, California with a capacity of 3,500,000 lbs. per month. Within the same length of time, the Dupont powder Co. built and put into operation at Barksdale, Wisconsin a plant with a capacity of 2 million lbs. per month. These with several smaller plants kept the supply of TNT ahead of the War demands.

Large quantities of other high explosives, fulminate of mercury, tetryl, nitro starch and ammonium picrate, were developed. Three plants were started for the Supply of increased quantities of picric acid to the French.

Demands of the Allies for propellants, smokeless powder for cannon and small arms, black powder etc. had increased production in the United States from 1,500,000 lbs. per month, in 1914, to some 9 million lbs. per month at the time the United States entered the war. Yet the Ordnance program called for additionally 75 million lbs. per month, none of which could be obtained from the sources of supply developed for the Allies.

The Ordnance Department undertook the construction of two of the largest powder plants in the world. The largest of these was built on the site of Andrew Jackson's home near Nashville, Tennessee and is called the Old Hickory plant. It covered an area of 5,000 acres and its construction required, as an incidental item, the building of a village housing some 20,000 people, complete with schools, churches, and other civic improvements. It's estimated cost was $90 million. The contract for the construction of the plant was signed in January of 1918, ground was broken in March, and the first of its nine powder lines were placed an operation on July 1st, 45 days ahead of contract requirements. At the time of the signing of the Armistice, this plant was 90% completed and had reached a production of 400,000 lbs. of smokeless powder per day, but had the performance registered prior to the signing of the Armistice been continued, this would certainly have reached one million pounds per day.

The second powder plant was built by the Thompson-Starrett Company at Nitro, near Charleston, West Virginia. This plant was begun in February of 1918, and the production of powder begun about the middle of September. At the time of the signing of the Armistice, its output was averaging 125,000 lbs. per day. The plant was operated by the Hercules Powder Co. under government contract.

The provision of explosives and propellants was sufficient to meet the demands of the Ordnance program at all times without interference in any way with the supplies sent to the Allies. Had the war continued, the American supply in 1919 would have amounted to over 1 billion lbs. of smokeless powder, of which two-thirds would have been available for the American Expeditionary Forces and the remainder for the Allies, and over one and a quarter billion pounds of high explosive of which three force would have been available for the United States Army and the remainder for the Allies.

Shells at the ready. This is one battery of the 148th Feild Artillery ready to send over a few pieces of hot steel at Fritz! By the look of it with the crate covered with the canvas it may have been time to eat! The 148th Field Artillery used the 155mm GPF gun and it can be seen in the background.

If you have research comments or additional information on this page e-mail them to: Joe Hartwell
This page was created on 1 December 2002 and last modified on 6/23/07

[ Back to the Coast Artillery History Page ] [ Back to the Main Site Map Page ]