HC Deb 27 February 1879 vol 243 cc1861-72

, in rising to move— That the great difference which exists between our cannon and those which find favour with Foreign Powers calls for careful investigation, and that it would he unwise to further postpone experiments on such classes of breech loading guns as are now possessed by other Powers; said, the question, although perhaps not so interesting to the House as the discussion on financial matters which had just taken place, was, nevertheless, one of considerable importance to the country; and he had more than once drawn attention to the difference in the construction of the cannon of this country and that of other Continental Powers. It was generally allowed in the Press that England stood alone in the class of cannon which she had, England holding to the muzzle-loader, while on the Continent the breechloader was favoured. He made a statement to that effect last year, and he was corrected by the noble Lord opposite the Surveyor General of Ordnance (Lord Eustace Cecil) who said that his statement as to the general adoption of breech-loading ordnance by the Continental Powers was only partly accurate. The noble Lord admitted that the four great military and naval Powers — Russia, Germany, France, and Austria, wore exclusively in favour of breech-loading guns, and two were entirely in favour of muzzle-loading. The two, he said, which were half in favour of muzzle-loading were Italy and Belgium, while Sweden and the United States were the two exclusively in favour of muzzle-loading. Well, no doubt, these were four important countries, though not such important countries from a military point of view as Russia, Germany, France, and Austria. But even as regarded these smaller Powers, he did think the present state of the case was now that which it was when the noble Lord made his statement. It might have been accurate at the time he made it; but he (Major Nolan) did not believe it was strictly accurate at the present moment. Now, take the case of Italy. That country had been steadily, for the last eight or nine years, replacing all her muzzle and her field artillery with breech-loading cannon. No doubt, last year she seemed to favour muzzle-loading, because she ordered four 100-ton guns in this country on that system; but he believed that those guns had since come into the possession of Her Majesty's Government. He did not know why Italy had parted with them, whether under pressure or not, or whether she was glad to get rid of them; but the fact remained she had those guns no longer, and she was not now so much in favour of muzzle-loading as she had been; in fact, she was going in about a fortnight's time to try a breech-loading gun larger than our 80-tun gun. Therefore he claimed Italy as being in favour of breech-loading. With regard to Belgium the case was this. That in those cases where she was best able to judge she was going in for breech-loaders. As to Sweden, she prided herself upon her cast iron guns; and although the noble Lord last year quoted her as being exclusively in favour of muzzle-loading ordnance, that was no longer the case, and very lately she had decided to abandon muzzle-loading guns as her field guns and adopt breech-loading cannon. There then remained the case of the United States, which was a peculiar one. The United States determined upon a policy of the most rigid economy after her war, and they had of late scarcely made any new cannon whatever. She had made a few experiments, however. The great war left her as a legacy a large number of cast-iron guns, and she had altered these so as to make them better weapons by converting them into rifled cannon. On the whole it had been easier to turn these guns into muzzle-loaders than it would have been to have made them breech-loaders; but the whole scientific opinion of America, which was to be read in the Reports of the Directors of Naval and Military Ordnance in that country, seemed to be exclusively in favour of breech-loading guns. The Chief of the American Ordnance said whatever difference of opinion existed as to the relative efficiency of the breech and the muzzle-loading, the latter being exclusively used by England, and the former exclusively used by the great Continental Powers, there could be no question that in certain cases the breech-loading had peculiar advantages. Therefore, from what he had said it would be seen that the four Powers to which the noble Lord had alluded as being half in favour of the muzzle and only half in favour of the breech-loading system were rapidly getting round to be in favour of breech-loading as against the muzzle-loading. If that should prove to be so, England would be left without a single follower or supporter of any consequence in Europe in her system of ordnance, and they would be in a perfectly isolated position with their guns, if they continued to maintain that the muzzle-loading system was the best against the naval and military opinion of the whole of the rest of the world. What he (Major Nolan) proposed was that extensive experiments should be made by the Government with breech-loading guns, and with breech-loading guns only, because enormous experiments had already been made with muzzle-loading weapons. Herr Krupp had circulated a paper among many hon. Members of the House within the last week, in which he said that his 6¾-inch gun had been tried against an English 9-inch gun, and his gun had given far better results. His main reason for advocating breech-loading for field artillery was that the breech-loader, from the great length of its bore, and from the fact that the chamber was of larger diameter than the bore, not only gave the gun a greater power and a longer range, but also diminished the danger to which artillerymen were usually exposed when charging the gun, inasmuch as they were entirely protected from the attack of small arms while they were engaged in that operation. This was shown to be the case very clearly in the Report of the special Committee some seven or eight years ago, although that Committee did not report in favour of breech-loading. It was demonstrated that there was far better cover for the men with the breech-loader. No experiments, however, were carried out at Shoeburyness to show which gun gave the most cover, so that the special advantage of the breech-loader was not proved to exist; and he hoped, when the noble Lord next made experiments, he would go into this point. If the two guns, a breech-loader and a muzzle-loader, were put in the open field, there would be no difference as to cover; but in intrenchments a very much superior protection was given by the breech-loader. When muzzle-loaders were adopted in this country, it was absolutely necessary that they should be made short, because it was more difficult to ram down charges in a long gun than in a short one; but now the whole tendency of modern artillery was to make guns longer, in order to render them more efficient. Even if the muzzle-loader was improved in that respect, it would only be by: imitating the special quality of the breech-loader—its very great depth; thus making the muzzle very clumsy and difficult to handle. He had seen the experiments at Shoeburyness as to cover for muzzle-loaders; but he was convinced there would be four or five times more men killed by small arms with the muzzle-loader than there would be in cases where the breech-loader was used. These, then, wore the advantages of the breech-loader—the length of the gun, larger chamber for powder, and the great extent of cover. Therefore, this question of the character of English ordnance was a most serious one, and therefore it was that he pressed it upon the attention of the Government. He might refer to what was called the Thunderer system. There the cover was the same as with breech-loading; the gun itself stopped the port-hole, and prevented the fire of the enemy getting in at the men. Had the gun of the Thunderer been a breech-loader, it would have been impossible that it could have received a double charge, and its destruction would have been avoided. Such an accident was one which could not occur again for a long time to come, and he did not wish to make too much of it. The fact was, it was an accident inseparable from the construction of the gun and the mode of loading it. He did not believe the explosion was in any way due to a deficiency in the strength of the gun, which was almost bound to burst when loaded with two charges, inasmuch as the fact caused at least seven times the ordinary amount of pressure to be brought to bear at the point of bursting. Another strong objection to the system of muzzle-loading—and this also was shown in the case of the Thunderer—was that the gun was loaded at a distance from the firing detachment, the members of which could know nothing of what had been done, or of the danger to which they were, or might be, subjected. This was a necessary consequence of the system, and great care would be necessary to prevent a recurrence of similar disasters; but that would not do away with other evils that would inevitably crop up. He did not object to the use of hydraulic machinery, for with large guns it was very useful; but the fact of having the loading party 20 or 30 feet away from the firing party was a great defect, and one likely, as in the present case, to lead to accidents. Yet another danger arising from muzzle-loading ordnance was that the gun bad to be loaded at one elevation; then raised to prevent the missile from falling out of the muzzle; and, in the third place, depressed to bring it to the proper elevation for firing. Thus, there were, at least, three changes in the elevation of a muzzle-loading gun from loading to firing, and this in itself was, in his opinion, a strong ground for objecting to the system altogether as compared with breech-loading. Another point was that, up to the present time, English artillerists had derived great benefit from being able to watch the systems in use in other countries; but this advantage was now withdrawn from them by reason of the fact that England now stood alone in the use of muzzle-loading ordnance, although such use was contrary to the practice of all Europe, and was opposed to the theories of civil engineers universally in the country. He would like to know on what authority the Government based its opinion? When the question had been raised before, the noble Lord opposite (Lord Eustace Cecil) had replied in general terms that his action had been based upon the advice of his official and professional advisers. But the only name given beyond the personal opinion of the noble Lord was that of Captain Nolan, and he thought the noble Lord ought not to shelter himself behind a cloud of names, but he should state the names of his advisers in this matter. If he had a distinct opinion from the Director General of the Ordnance that muzzle-loading guns were superior to breech-loading ones, that would, of course, be most valuable. If the noble Lord had a considerable body of scientific evidence in favour of muzzle-loading guns, he ought to name the officers who supplied it. At present they were going against the scientific practices of Germany, Austria, and America, and against engineering opinion also, and he thought that was most unfortunate. If they were going to retain the muzzle-loading principle, the country ought to know the evidence on which that decision had been arrived at, and the grounds on which it rested. The two systems could not co-exist together; but if the two were used alongside each other, breech-loaders would drive out muzzle-loaders. It was scarcely satisfactory; and it was to be hoped that on the present occasion the, noble Lord would give the names of the gentlemen whose advice had guided him. It might, perhaps, be thought that he was a little pressing in bringing this subject before the House; but, as it was one which might possibly determine the issue of a battle by land or a naval engagement, it was, he thought, well worthy the consideration of the House of Commons. He was not now asking the noble Lord to introduce breech-loaders, but to have such exhaustive experiments made as would satisfy the House as to their value, and that could be done for £100,000 or £200,000, or a cost certainly not exceeding what was now being spent in adding to their muzzle-loading ordnance. It would be better to incur that expenditure than to proceed farther on their present course without well knowing what they were about. There was a very good opportunity for introducing them in some of the forts which required larger guns, and in which there was much practical difficulty in fitting in heavier muzzle-loaders—a difficulty which would vanish if they only put in breech-loaders. The hon. and gallant Member concluded by moving his Amendment.


said, he thought his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Galway (Major Nolan) had done good service by again, this Session, as in the previous one, bringing forward his Motion on the subject of breech-loading ordnance, and he should very much wish that his suggestion for instituting experiments on the subject of the relative merits of muzzle-loaders were adopted and carried into practice. On that account he should beg to second his Motion, in order that, when the time came for making the change from muzzle-loading to breech-loading pieces, at which the hon. and gallant Gentleman's remarks pointed, they might be in a position to make it with despatch and certainty. On the previous occasions when the change from muzzle-loaders to breech-loaders was carried out, the nation was hurried into a vast expense before the best and most suitable breech piece was perfected. Then, 11 years later, the change made from a breech-loader was equally hurried before the best kind of gun was ascertained; indeed, the nation escaped at great outlay in avoiding a brass rifled gun instead of the present iron and steel tube. He was sure that the noble Lord the Surveyor General of Ordnance would not fail to give the attention they deserved to the obviously intelligent and scientific recommendations of his hon. and gallant Friend, and that he would cause experiments to be carried out which would settle the question in which the country was so deeply interested—namely, as to the best kind of gun for the Army and the Navy. A nation like England ought to possess not only the best ships and army that could be formed or produced, but the best guns that scientific skill could devise. He trusted that what his hon. and gallant Friend had said as to the recently proposed 4-ton 6-inch gun would be borne in mind. It was a piece of ordnance perfectly well suited to the class of vessels which the present First Lord of the Admiralty had so wisely introduced into the Service. It was in every way so far superior to the gun of 64 cwt. with which the Isis was armed that it might be truly said, if adopted for that vessel of great speed, to double her power as a vessel of war. He would suggest to his hon. and gallant Friend to submit a programme of the experiments it was desirable to make, and to place a Resolution on the Paper of the House which would require the authorities to give their best attention to the subject. He was aware that the noble Lord was always willing to obtain information from hon. Members at either side of the House, and would not disregard the suggestions of his hon. and gallant Friend merely by reason of his not belonging to the Party of the present Government. What was required was not a hasty and sweeping, but a gradual change, so that the country might, after careful investigation, secure the best possible gun for the Army and the Navy.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the great difference which exists between our cannon and those which find favour with Foreign Powers calls for careful investigation, and that it would he unwise to further postpone experiments on such classes of breech-loading guns as are now possessed by other Powers," —(Major Nolan,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he did not wish to oppose the Motion of the hon. and gallant Member (Major Nolan), which he had brought forward with much practical knowledge and ability. The advance of science had, he admitted, altered the position of the question very much from that which it occupied when, on the then perfectly sound recommendation of the Ordnance Committee, muzzle-loading guns were adopted for both Services. The system of breech-loading had then great disadvantages, while the muzzle-loading gun had the advantages of cheapness and simplicity, the latter being of considerable advantage to the Naval Service. The breech-loading gun had a considerable number of different pieces of various kinds to be attended to, and a slight derangement disabled the gun and was the cause of accidents. The present system of breech-loading was, however, a vast improvement on the old. It was simple, and had the advantage of securing to them a longer gun, with increased charge and accuracy. These reasons induced him to concur with the hon. and gallant Gentleman in desiring that the subject should undergo consideration, and that, if necessary, further experiments should be made. The appointment of a Scientific Commission would probably answer every purpose. He hoped, however, it would be done in a more permanent manner than was suggested by the hon. and gallant Gentleman. He desired to see the Ordnance Select Committee re-established, which, consisting as it did of the ablest officers both of the Navy and Army, gave confidence to the Services in its inquiries and in its reports. He should prefer that, if re-established, it should be in such a manner as to insure the more frequent change of its members than formerly prevailed; either by the adoption of the five years' rule, or in any manner which the Secretary of State for War thought would introduce fresh blood into the Ordnance Select Committee. The fact of the noble Lord instituting such permanent Committee would give confidence and convey an assurance to the officers of both Services that the result of an impartial scientific investigation would be adopted.


said, that the hon. and gallant Member for Galway (Major Nolan) had rather sprung a mine upon him. He was not aware that the Motion would be brought on as it had been, as it was put down for the Army Estimates. He had, however, listened attentively to the able observations of the hon. and gallant Member; but while acknowledging their force, he must correct him on one point. He had represented his (Lord Eustace Cecil's) opinion as being in favour of muzzle-loaders. It was perfectly true that year after year he had defended the course taken by the Government, but for himself he had never expressed any opinion; and for the Government he could truly say that they were neutral in the matter, and that their great anxiety was to adopt that system which, on the whole, would be the best and most useful. The present Government found a certain system in use. That system was, after several years' inquiry, adopted by the Government who preceded them, and it was adopted at very great expense, after an expenditure of from £4,000,000 to £6,000,000 in experiments. It was supposed at that time—and he never heard any opinion to the contrary—that they had as good a gun as any in the world. No doubt, invention did not end there, and it was quite possible that a better gun on a different principle might be discovered; but that better gun did not seem at present to be forthcoming, and he would repeat that the country was now in possession of a good gun. The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Galway had stated that other countries had got a better gun, and that they had adopted Messrs. Krupp's gun; but that was not, as he (Lord Eustace Cecil) showed on the 12th of March last, the case generally. No doubt, other Governments would keep their eyes open to see whether a better system could be discovered; but that was just what the War Department of this country were doing—they were watching for further improvements—and when found out, he ventured to assure the House that no time would be lost in testing any invention which promised to be of advantage to the country. The hon. and gallant Gentleman had suggested that he (Lord Eustace Cecil) should inform him of the names of the officers who advised him; but he really did not think that that was necessary, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman must be quite as, perhaps more, familiar with those names than he was. He knew the Director of Ordnance, and also the Head of the Gun Factory. They were all distinguished officers, very capable of dealing with the question. The Director of Ordnance had always said he was perfectly prepared to see introduced any improvement that could be carried out; he was neither a "muzzle-loader" nor a "breech-loader," but was anxious to obtain the best gun possible for the Service. However, there were very great difficulties in the way of making a sudden change. In gunnery, it was as true as in most other things— "the more haste, the worse speed." It was absolutely necessary that any new step should be taken with great caution, and that it should recommend itself not only to military, but also to naval opinion. He would not now follow the hon. and gallant Member in his remarks with regard to the accident on board the Thunderer, because at present the Papers bearing on the subject had not yet been presented to the House, and because it was impossible as yet to say what change in the present system, if any, naval opinion would recommend. It was quite possible that, in consequence of that accident, it might be thought necessary to introduce breech-loading guns into the turrets of their ships. It was not, however, for him to anticipate what might be done in that matter. All he could say about it was that he felt quite certain the Secretary of State for War would cordially co-operate with the First Lord of the Admiralty and naval opinion in this matter; and that if it should be found necessary to make any great change in their guns the Government would not shrink from doing it, but would do it cautiously, gradually, and, he hoped, thoroughly. He hoped the hon. and gallant Gentleman would not press the Government too hardly. Considerable stress was laid in some quarters on the Krupp system of breech-loading; but unless he was very much mistaken, there were other systems of breech-loading equal, if not superior, to it. The question would, no doubt, receive the fullest consideration from the Heavy Gun Committee now sitting, and further experiments would probably be made if necessary. Two of their officers had been invited by Herr Krupp to attend some new experiments in Germany, and possibly their Report might point to some new invention in the Krupp system worthy of imitation. He could assure hon. Members that every effort was being made to keep up with public opinion in these matters all over Europe. At the same time, he thought it only right to remind the House that experiments in gunnery were extremely costly, and if they allowed a particular inventor to have his gun tested, they must extend the same indulgence, if not to all foreign, certainly to native inventors. The present system of muzzle-loading was only adopted after an immense amount of money had been expended, and still the inventors, as a body, were not satisfied. They never were, to whatever length the experiments were carried. Not anticipating any discussion of this nature, he had not brought any Papers with him; and he was, therefore, unable to go into the subject as fully as he might have done. He could only, in conclusion, repeat his assurance that as soon as a better gun was forthcoming they would not fail to introduce it. It was a mistake to suppose that a prejudice existed against breech-loaders in official circles. Indeed, as the hon. and gallant Member was no doubt aware, breech-loaders were in use to a certain extent both in their fortresses and on board ship, therefore the two systems had been working pari passu. He did not think there had been any unfair detraction of the breech-loading system; on the contrary, he believed there had been every desire to give the breech-loading system a perfectly fair trial, and that civilians and officers of the Army and Navy were all animated by one wish, which was to secure the best gun for the country.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.