HL Deb 12 July 1878 vol 241 cc1325-30

, who had given Notice to move for Returns having reference to muzzle-loading and breech-loading guns, said, he desired to state the reasons which induced him to move for these Returns. In the first place, it was understood by some persons that a series of experiments made by the Government were directed to the purpose of carrying out a very considerable change in our system of heavy ordnance. Now, this was a very serious matter. Some 16 years ago the system of rifling and breech-loading was first introduced into the ordnance system of these countries. Many experiments were made, and the advantages of the system were urged with great cleverness and ingenuity. The matter attracted the attention of scientific men on both sides, and the result was the adoption of the muzzle-loading and rifle system for our ordnance. They had probably no reason to suppose that muzzle-loading was the best kind of ordnance that could be formed; but they were aware of many reasons which should induce them to pause before superseding it. What the reasons might have been that induced other nations to adopt breech-loading ordnance he would not now say; but of this he was perfectly aware—that the first attempt to use the system on a large scale had not been successful, great though the expense was which the change involved. He was speaking within the facts when he said that the Franco-German War had afforded an experience which had entirely modified the opinions entertained with regard to the breech-loading system. He believed of late the Government had modified their opinions also, finding the great risk and danger of the system, which seemed to increase in proportion as the size of the ordnance had been increasing. It was indisputable that the disrupting power of a heavy charge increased in a much greater ratio than the resisting power of the ordnance in which it was employed. That was the result of many experiments; and he thought it was abundantly proved that the breech-loading system was defective and on the wane. But whatever deficiencies might be experienced in the gun now in use in our Service, any attempt to introduce a new system should be adopted with very great caution—he would go almost the length of saying with great suspicion. The casualties whereby breech-loading guns were disabled were out of all proportion greater in number and seriousness than those which occurred in the case of muzzle-loading guns; the accidents to the latter, indeed, came within a very limited extent. He had, therefore, moved for a Return giving details of the number of breech-loading guns not only withdrawn from the Service in consequence of the adoption of the muzzle-loading system, but in consequence of casualties which had arisen in their use. Now, the point as between these rival systems was one of great importance to ourselves, largely because of the limited number of breech-loaders which were in use in the regular Service; and in case of a sudden emergency we should have to depend, to a great extent, upon Volunteers, assisted by the Militia, than whose officers, indeed, none could, speaking generally, be better instructed in the handling of their arms. But, still, inasmuch as breech-loading ordnance was of a very fine and delicate character, and required the most perfect care to elicit its power, and as the muzzle-loader was by comparison so remarkably safe and simple, it was of very great importance, even upon the lowest ground—that of getting the most use out of the arm—that they should not hastily make any change in the direction of breech-loading in our Service. As an illustration, he might mention that in the firing of a 40 lb rifled breech-loader a very small mistake, which might easily happen in any case, very nearly caused a serious accident, and the gun was disabled for nearly 24 hours before it could be got into position again. There was another point in regard to the matter upon which he ventured to lay great stress. He had spoken of breech-loaders being an enemy to safety, and so they were; because, giving the greatest strain at the point where it was required, the greatest strength weakened the gun. Mechanical science, backed by an enormous expenditure of money, might enable them to get over the difficulty; but, in the meantime, they should be slow to give up a system which was not attended with the risks he had indicated, and which fairly satisfied the great object—certainty of accuracy. He wished to know how many muzzle-loading rifle guns there were in the Service? and the number in position at home and abroad must be great; because, to his own knowledge, important works had been left unsupplied with the heavier calibres of muzzle-loading guns for the last two years, in consequence of the enormous demand made by the Army and works abroad. Then it was important they should know how many breech-loading guns had been withdrawn from the Service—whether because they were to be replaced by muzzle-loaders, or on account of casualties? They all knew how great the risk was in the use of breech-loading guns; and he had some reason to believe that the reports of casualties to them, of which they had heard a great deal, were probably not much exaggerated. Those were the reasons which had induced him to ask for the Returns on the Paper. He had no doubt they would take some time to prepare; but he considered it right that the country should know what expense a change in the present system would involve.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty for

  1. 1. Return of the number of muzzle-loading rifled guns in position or used ashore or afloat, divided into classes by calibres:
  2. 2. Return of the number of breech-loading rifled guns now withdrawn from the service that have been in position or used ashore or afloat, divided into classes by calibres:
  3. 3. Return of the number of casualties to such breech-loading rifled guns whereby they have been rendered wholly or temporarily unserviceable:
  4. 4. Special Return of the number of breech-loading rifled guns, sea service, which were thus rendered wholly or temporarily unserviceable in the last naval campaign against the forces of the Daimios of Japan:
  5. 5. Gross cost of supplying the land and sea services with muzzle-loading rifled guns of all calibres.—(The Lord Waveney.)


said, that when the Notice was put on the Paper the noble Lord asked whether the Returns could be granted? and he replied that he thought they could; and the noble Lord then stated that in bringing the matter forward he intended to assign some reasons which, he believed, would be satisfactory to the Government, for producing the Returns. The noble Lord, judging from his speech, seemed to apprehend lest the gun now in use should be changed, and he required the Returns in order to guard against a change. He was informed that the Returns would not only be very difficult to obtain, but extremely costly, and that they would be of no particular value when prepared. He was sorry, therefore, that, not with standing the promise given to the noble Lord, he could not, on the part of the Government, assent to the production of the Returns; and he would ask the noble Lord not to press his Motion, but be content with having called the attention of their Lordships to the subject.


said, that perhaps the noble Viscount would not have any objection to state whether there was any intention, on the part of the Government, to alter the present field gun?


stated that experiments were, of course, always going on, but there was no intention at present to effect any change.


remarked, that for 200 years the same gun was used, and then, suddenly, great changes came. Various experiments were made, and considerable expense was incurred. Although, on the one hand, he was desirous that there should be no unnecessary outlay, on the other hand, he was anxious that no reasonable cost should be spared to insure our having an efficient weapon. A change would necessarily involve great expenditure, because the ammunition adapted to one gun was not suitable for another. It would be unwise for the War Office to pledge themselves that there should be no change whatever, for that would prevent any improvement. Ill-considered changes were to be deprecated; but the War Office must watch and make experiments, so that other nations should not surpass us, and this country might have the best available weapon.


inquired whether the experiments now going on were with the view of improving the existing gun, or of determining whether there should be a change from the present system—a change from the muzzle-loading to the breech-loading gun?


said, a good deal of discussion took place on this subject while he was at the War Office. During that time the Department took care to make themselves acquainted with every improvement that was made in other countries. During the late war they had artillery and engineer officers watching the performance of breech-loading and muzzle-loading guns, and in that way, at a comparatively small cost, they obtained a vast amount of valuable information. The War Office would not be worthy of the name unless experiments were incessantly made, in order to secure an efficient weapon. After investigating the matter, he came to the conclusion that muzzle-loading guns had answered admirably; and while he was at the War Office there appeared to be no reason why the breech-loader should be preferred, either in respect of safety or rapidity of firing. It might be relied upon that whoever was in charge of the Department would employ the best officers in the Service to observe what was going on abroad and experiment at home—officers who had made artillery the study of their lives, and who were wholly unprejudiced. They looked into everything, and kept the War Office thoroughly well-informed, not with the immediate object of change, but with the view of suggesting change if they saw the necessity. Under such circumstances, he was confident that if the necessity arose the country would consent to change, whatever expense the process might involve.


said, there could, of course, be nothing finite with respect to the construction of guns. It was not because great improvements were made to-day that other changes might not be wanted to-morrow; but if the question had not been asked, their Lordships would not have had an opportunity of hearing the satisfactory statement from the noble Viscount to which they had just listened.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.