HC Deb 12 March 1878 vol 238 cc1146-55

moved— That more attention should he paid to experiments on new systems of Breech Loading Ordnance than has been given for the last three years. He considered that this subject was eminently deserving of the consideration of Parliament, and he hoped that Ministerial responsibility would be sufficiently awakened with respect to it. One of the grounds upon which he now advocated a change from muzzle-loading to breech-loading guns, was that the opinion of the civilized world was in favour of a change. Germany, Russia, and France, were entirely in favour of breech-loading ordnance; so, also, was the Austrian Land Service and the greater portion of the Austrian Marine. Italy was at present doing what he recommended Her Majesty's Government to do—making experiments on a large scale with breech-loading guns. There was some difficulty about the case of the United States, which could not be said to have any modern ordnance. At the close of the war, they found themselves in possession of smooth-bore large guns, and had since made few new guns; but had tried to convert the old ones. Still, the Land and Naval Ordnance Departments were making experiments, and the reports were in favour of breech-loading. Of the six military nations of the world, all were in favour of breech-loading guns except Italy, which was making extensive experiments. Denmark had gone in for them largely, and had ordered 146 Krupp guns; and Holland had ordered 299. In Spain the guns of the Land Service were nearly all breechloaders, but the guns in the Navy were muzzle-loaders. It was only such small and distant States as Chili and Peru which remained in favour of muzzle-loading. There was, in fact, in foreign countries an enormous preponderance of opinion in favour of breech-loading guns. The opinion of their own civil engineers was practically in favour of breech-loaders over muzzle-loaders. On the last occasion when he brought this subject forward, he did not refer to the opinion of naval and military authorities, but it was then said that their feeling was quiescent. But what had been the history of the formation of opinion in this country on the subject? Rifled guns were introduced practically by Sir William Armstrong in 1858 or 1859; but the guns were generally not built upon the lines which Sir William Armstrong had laid down. His system, too, unfortunately, required the lifting out of a portion of the breech, which was very heavy, and, therefore, highly objectionable, in the larger guns. Ten years ago they had bad powder, which was suited to short guns, and which somewhat inclined the balance in favour of muzzle-loaders, which had generally been short guns; but now they had better powder—perhaps the best in the world. On the introduction of breech-loading, their manufacturing power, which was one of the sources of their national strength, outstripped their scientific advance, and they made big guns before science had discovered the best way of closing the breech. Their military and naval opinion had been largely influenced by consideration for India, which it was at one time thought could make its own guns of brass after the muzzle-loading pattern. The introduction of a new class of gun involved great trouble in the changing of stores, and there was a constant tendency on the part of the new class to push out the old one. An Ordnance Committee, which was composed, among others, of some very able scientific officers, recommended that the country should make large experiments with breech-loading guns, and that it should not commit itself exclusively to muzzle-loaders; but that was at a time when other countries were still doubtful about the matter, and a few months after that the Committee was broken up. The main reason why they differed from the opinions of other countries was possibly not unconnected with the breaking up of the Ordnance Committee; and there was a feeling, to a certain extent, that it was broken up because it recommended experiments in breech-loading ordnance. They adhered to the muzzle-loading principle, also, because they adopted a system of breech-loading which could not go beyond certain limits; because their manufacturing system and prejudice operated against any change; -and because India had considerable influence in their determination in the matter. There could, however, be no doubt that the breech-loaders possessed many advantages over the muzzle-loaders in regard to the facilities which the former system afforded for working the guns, and the protection which it gave to the operators. One great advantage of the breech-loading system was that the gun always filled up the hole in the wall or the embrasure; whereas, in the case of the muzzle-loader, it had to be drawn back a considerable distance each time it became necessary to charge it, so that a single rifleman at a distance of 800 yards, was able to take off the man em- ployed in that operation. In the experiments witnessed by the Secretary of State for War at Shoeburyness, five muzzle-loaders were fired, charged by machinery, and there was no doubt that that machinery worked well; but the men working the guns on this occasion were much exposed to an enemy's fire on board fighting ships. His Motion, as the House would observe, dealt only with experiments, and he argued they had not sufficiently tried the guns which they had. Their field guns should have a full and searching trial. All the great nations which in recent years had been engaged in war, had abandoned muzzle - loading guns for breech-loading guns, and now breechloaders were in favour with every country where this question had been put to the test. He did not intend to divide the House; but he thought the War Office ought to take some steps in the matter. The hon. and gallant Member concluded by moving his Resolution.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That more attention should be paid to experiments on new systems of Breech Loading Ordnance than has been given for the last three years."—[Major Nolan.)


in supporting the Motion, said, that at one time he was opposed to the breech-loading principle; but his opinion had undergone a considerable change. The objections he before entertained to breech-loaders were mainly attributable to the defects in the rifling, and especially to the vent-pieces. If we had attained to the present state of manufacture at the date when breech-loading was in use, he believed that the change to muzzle-loading would not have taken place. The question now was as to reverting to the breech-loading system. That was a serious matter; for he believed that £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 would not be sufficient to provide sufficient breech-loading guns for the Army and Navy. He agreed with his hon. and gallant Friend that the preponderance of opinion throughout Europe was decidedly in favour of breech-loading guns, and many officers were opposed to the change we made. The Duke of Cambridge had been opposed to the abolition of the breech-loading system, and had urged the necessity of extreme caution before they made a change to muzzle-loaders. It was no economy for England to have either guns or soldiers of a defective kind. They possessed too few men and too few guns to justify them in having inferior articles, and he strongly advocated the adoption of that system of ordnance which might be the most effective. If the Surveyor General of Ordnance could furnish the House with an assurance that qualified officers were of opinion that the advantage in recent wars was decidedly in favour of the breech-loading guns, he should feel inclined to support the Motion. Before, however, they committed the country to a very large expenditure, he thought it desirable to have the Reports on the late operations made public, and, above all, to make the experiments suggested by his hon. and gallant Friend.


said, the hon. and gallant Member for Galway (Major Nolan) had brought this subject forward in a very temperate manner, that offered a contrast to the warmth, with which the Battle of the Guns was fought in that House some years ago. But he was not convinced by the arguments of the two hon. and gallant Gentlemen who, as Artillery officers, of course, spoke with more authority that he could upon a subject of this kind. Still, he desired to make a few remarks, as he was at the Admiralty when it was decided that the breech-loading system was not so advantageous for the Navy as the muzzle-loading system, especially in the case of large guns. If he had the slightest hope that a much better gun could be produced in consequence of the proposed experiments, he should agree with the hon. and gallant General that it would be worth while to incur any amount of expenditure; but he was by no means convinced that they did not at present possess the best guns in Europe. He believed the experiments which were being conducted in almost all the countries of Europe afforded a proof that those countries were not entirely satisfied with the breech-loading system. The question was, whether the protection to the men that was certainly secured to a greater extent by the breech-loading system was so great as to counterbalance the strength and simplicity which were attained by the muzzle-loading system. He believed no such heavy charges were known in Europe as those used in their muzzle-loading guns. By reason of the construction of those guns battering charges could now be used which infinitely increased the power of our artillery. This view was strongly confirmed by recent experiments. Up to within a few months back the 7-inch gun could not be, or was not, used as an armour-piercing weapon. Further tests showed, however, that the charge could be increased by about one-third, and by that means the gun was made available for the purpose for which it was up to that time supposed to be unfitted. There was no reason why the present system should be unsettled just now; and he hoped the authorities at the War Office would not consent to any change being made in the artillery of the country. A sufficient number of guns had already been made to arm all the ships in the Fleet and the forts' batteries on shore, and he hoped no further change would be made until the existing arrangements had been fully and fairly tested, and until this country had had sufficient time to benefit by the experience afforded by the Franco-German and Russo-Turkish Wars. Many hon. Members would remember that at the time the first change was made from muzzle-loading to breech-loading guns, a serious accident occurred on board a French ship of war. The vessel was shifting into night-quarters, and, as might easily happen in the dark, a part of the breech-loading apparatus was left out of place. The result was, that when the gun came next to be fired, the charge, instead of leaving the gun by way of the muzzle, exploded in the contrary direction and killed several men, in addition to causing much confusion on board the ship. Accidents of this kind were much to be dreaded, because they destroyed the confidence of the men, and so produced very disastrous results.


in reply, said, there was always a certain amount of disquiet abroad in reference to questions of this sort. There seemed to be a considerable feeling that in armaments, guns, and troops, this country was deficient; and, from the most patriotic motives in the world, individuals went about depreciating everything English—and people, thinking there was something wrong, often rushed to a very false conclusion. He was most anxious to dispel any conclusion of that kind, and to show that, after all that had been said and done by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the matter was not quite so black as he had painted it. As the hon. and gallant Gentleman had gone somewhat fully into the whole question of muzzle-loading as against breech-loading guns, he would lightly sketch the whole history of the controversy. In a debate two or three years ago, he (Lord Eustace Cecil) stated that between 1863 and 1870 there had been two or three, if not more, Committees on the subject of breech-loading; and the Government of the day, in consequence of those inquiries, came to the conclusion that on the whole, and taking everything into consideration, the muzzle-loader was preferable to the breechloader. As far as he had been able to examine the evidence, more particularly the valuable evidence derived from the Franco-German and the Russo-Turkish Wars, he thought that judgment had been proved to be perfectly sound. At first complaints were made against muzzle-loading guns, mainly on the ground of excessive windage; but these were removed by the adoption of gas checks, air spaces, elongated guns, and, above all, by the use of pebble prismatic gunpowder. By these inventions and improvements, muzzle-loading guns had been rendered much more efficient and serviceable than when first re-introduced in 1870. He would now state to the House at what cost the experiments which led to those calculations were made. Between 1863 and the present time they had made no less than 5,544 field and siege heavy guns, at a cost of something like £4,500,000; and, taking into consideration what was spent between 1859and 1863, £2,500,000 more must be added. The result was that in that period those guns and the experiments cost between £6,000,000 and £7,000,000. There was no doubt that the money, if it had not produced an immediate result, had not been thrown away; but had, indeed, as the right hon. and gallant Admiral (Sir John Hay) had said, produced the best gun in the world. In 1859 the breech-loading gun was introduced into the Service. The first was the Armstrong gun, which, being the first system, was naturally the least perfect. It had been tried by the Army and Navy, and fully reported on. It had been tried in actual service in Japan, China, and elsewhere, and the result was that very serious complaints were made of the Armstrong system. The fuse did not act properly, and the vent-pieces were constantly blown out. Such a state of things was fraught with danger to the men standing by, and the result was that the system of breech-loading guns was unanimously condemned. The hon. and gallant Member (Major Nolan) said that the whole opinion of the civilized world was against them, and that there was an enormous preponderance of opinion in favour of breech-loaders; that they had only looked at one side of the question, and should think the matter over again. He (Lord Eustace Cecil) had shown what cost that would entail; and, as for the preponderance of opinion, that certainly was less enormous than had been stated. The following nations had adopted the Krupp breech-loading guns:—The Russians, the Germans, the Austrians; the Belgians partially the breech-loading, and partially the heavy muzzle-loading; the French had adopted a system of their own; the Italians had adopted a system of breech-loading for their field artillery and heavy muzzle-loading for their big guns; and the Swedes and some other minor Powers had adopted muzzle-loaders. The United States still held to muzzle-loaders, both for field and heavy guns. So that out of these eight Powers, four were breechloaders, two half breech-loaders and half muzzle-loaders, and two muzzle-loaders. The hon. and gallant Member was also wrong in supposing that no trial of breech-loading as against muzzle-loading guns had been made in this country. Previous to the Motion being put upon the Paper, there was a trial of a field muzzle-loader and field breech-loader of exact weight and size at Shoeburyness; and the result was that in range, accuracy, and rapidity of fire they were precisely alike. Durability was an important condition in guns; but the relative merits of the breech-loading and the muzzle-loading system in this respect had not yet been satisfactorily ascertained. As far as the evidence went, the advantage appeared to be in favour of the muzzle-loader. It appeared that in the Franco-German War the number of breech-loading. Krupp guns rendered unserviceable amounted, to 210, and almost every year two or three of these guns became unserviceable, and occasionally burst and caused loss of life. That was a large number, considering that the war only lasted from July to the February following. Further testimony against the breech-loader was furnished by the recent Russo-Turkish War. One of the officers sent out by the War Office, by the advice of the Director of Artillery, to the seat of war for the purposes of observation, reported that the Krupp guns used by the Turks had to be sponged out with soap and water after each round or they would soon have become unserviceable, and that the usual rate of firing was once in five minutes, or in an emergency once in three. The Turkish artillerymen were less active than the English, no doubt; but, after all allowance was made, one round in five minutes was certainly not rapid firing, considering that the guns of the Devastation could be fired once a minute. The sights and gear of the Turkish guns, moreover, often got deranged; and, though Turkish gunners were no doubt less careful than English, the circumstance remained as one which told against the breech-loading system. On the whole, he did not gather from the reports of the officers in question that the Krupp breech-loaders had been remarkable for their endurance. As official opinion had been sneered at —very unjustly he thought—as being "made to order," he would here cite the opinion of Captain Noble, an outsider, whose authority to speak on this question everybody would recognize, and who had been a consistent advocate of the breech-loading system. Now Captain Noble, in a Minute which was dated the 29th of April, 1875, gave up the whole question in favour of the muzzle-loading guns except in very limited cases, and that was the gist of the matter; for there were, no doubt, some cases in which breech-loading guns would be more appropriate. The present Director of Artillery, he might add, had most beneficially utilized some of the breech-loading Armstrongs in store; so that, in point of fact, they could have the advantage, supposing there were anything like an invasion—which he hoped would never occur—of seeing the difference between a breech-loader and a muzzle-loader. But, with certain exceptions, to which he had referred, he did not believe they would have any necessity to adopt the breech-loader in either their Land or Sea Service. He had got, besides those which he had already, the opinion of an Austrian colonel, and of an Italian Minister of Marine, dated 1875, in favour of the muzzle-loading system. As matters now stood, we had a very good gun, and he did not see why we should change it unless a much better was produced. Such a breech-loading gun might be in embryo; but it had not, so far as he was aware, got beyond that stage. We had heard accounts of the Martini-Henry rifle during the late war in Turkey; and though the weapon supplied to the Turkish Army was very inferior in make and in the way in which it was turned, to that with which our troops were armed, no soldier, he thought, in that House or out of it, would be disposed to deny that the brilliant victories which the Turks could boast of having won at the beginning of the war in Armenia or the gallant defence of Plevna, would hardly have been achieved without the aid of the Peabody Martini-Henry rifle. He believed our muzzle-loading guns would come as well out of the trial, should there be occasion —which God forbid!—to test it in that way. Some time ago, he might add, had it not been for the very onerous conditions which the Messrs. Krupp proposed, we should, he believed, have had the satisfaction of obtaining one of their guns for the purpose of testing it. They offered to lend the English Government a gun for a sum of £15,000, and stated that if it proved successful they should expect that £2,000,000 worth of these guns would be ordered. Well, these were conditions to which it was found impossible to accede, and so the matter remained. The Government had, however, never shrunk from making the experiment, and they would be very glad, indeed, to have the opportunity of giving one of the Messrs. Krupp's guns a fair trial. His right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, as well as the Admiralty, had always taken a great interest in the subject. They were perfectly aware that there must come changes in guns, and that we would have new inventions. That being so, when they saw that a certain stage of progress had been arrived at in which the necessity of a change pressed itself upon their attention, he had no doubt they would have no hesitation in expending the money which would be required for the purpose.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.