French Artillery Equipment

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Introduction

From 1680 Pierre-Suirey de Saint-Rémy reduced the plethora of various guns in the army to the 4-, 8-, 12-, 16- and 24-pounders, giving birth to the Model 1685 system. Maximum barrel length was about three metres. The same designs of guns were used in fortresses and in the field; they were very cumbersome, but even so, were the best pieces then available in Europe. He also standardized the dimensions of the barrels within each calibre, thus simplifying the re-supply and inter-changeability of artillery ammunition.

Another significant figure in the development of French artillery was Jean-Florent de Vallière (1667-1759), colonel and inspector of artillery from 1720, lieutenant-general in 1732. As Director-General of France's artillery, he reduced the pieces in use to the cannon listed above and two types of mortars. From 1726 to 1747, de Vallière was Director-General of the Manufacture of Arms in France. In 1704 the Swiss, Jean Maritz I (1680-1743) designed and built a water-powered horizontal cannon-boring machine in the foundry in Geneva; this was a great technical advance in the manufacture of gun barrels. De Vallière recruited Maritz I into French service and in 1732, the first Maritz cannon boring machine was operational in the foundry at Lyon, boring out the Model 1732 system equipments.

In 1731 Bernard Forest de Belidor (1673-1761), working in the artillery institute in La Fère, determined that the accepted black powder charge of about two-thirds of the weight of the shot, could be reduced by half, without adversely affecting the range attained. By 1740 this had led to the reduction in the thickness of the walls and chambers of the cannon, allowing reduction in weight and thus improved mobility. Improvements in the quality and power of black powder would lead to further weight reductions in barrel and gun carriage being achieved.

But France was not to profit from this knowledge for some years; it was Prussia and Russia which first applied this knowledge to improve their field artillery. As with other artillery systems, the decoration and embellishment of the early gun barrels was deemed as vital as their ballistic performance. They were covered with crests, names, Latin inscriptions and intricate ornamentation.

It was the superior performance of Prussian artillery over that of Austria in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) that spurred Fürst Wenzel Liechtenstein to overhaul and improve the Austrian artillery.

Prior to the outbreak of the Seven Years War, the French army was equipped with the best artillery in Europe, but they had just been overhauled by that of Austria, with the Model 1753 Liechtenstein system.

French artillery would suffer heavy losses, when their cumbersome pieces were abandoned on the field following a tactical defeat. The artillery train was as inefficient and cumbersome as those of all other armies of the day and included the engineer, artificer and mining assets of the army, as well as the infantry small arms ammunition.

As luck would have it, Austria was short of well-qualified engineer and artillery officers at the outbreak of that war and had asked France for help. The French sent Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval. Although specialising in engineering techniques, Gribeauval was a trained artillery officer. He was able to study the Liechtenstein artillery system and brought many of its principles back to France at the end of the war, when he incorporated them into the design of his own system.

For his services to Austria, Gribeauval was promoted to Generalfeldwachtmeister (Brigadier-General) and awarded the Knights Cross of the Order of Maria Theresia, on condition that he remains in Austrian service. He chose to return to France.

Artillery Pieces

1-pdr piece à la Rostaing

In 1741, Philippe Joseph, comte de Rostaing, then commissioner of artillery, was sent to India to establish an artillery school and a powder manufacture. He took part to the campaigns on the Malabar coast and was then sent to Ile de France (today Mauritius Island) where he had to establish a saltpetre refinery and a powder mill. In 1748 and 1749, he served as commander of the land and naval artillery under the command of the chevalier de la Bourdonnais during the campaigns against the British in India and Ile de France. He returned to France en 1755.

Rostaing's experience of colonial campaigns where marches were made on trails instead of roads and draught animals were scarce; brought him to design the so-called 1-pdr gun à la Rostaing.

4-pdr Cannon “à la Suédoise”

During the 1730 decade, the chevalier de Belac managed to join the artillery corps of the Swedish Army and to study the artillery system developed by marshal Cronstedt in the years 1725.

In 1735, the chevalier de Belac transmitted dimensions and drawings on this artillery system to the comte de Castéja, the French ambassador in Sweden. The latter dispatched a courier with two scale models to M. Boiteulx de Gormond, secretary general of the artillery, to inform him of the habit of the Swedish and Russian armies of placing at the head of their regiments pieces capable of firing more than 10 shots per minute, a remarkable feat for the period.

During the following years, particularly at the Ecole Royale d'Artillerie in Metz, serious thoughts were given to the regimental artillery. A certain number of memoirs were published on the subject. Between 1738 and 1740, several tests were conducted which eventually led to the casting of 50 barrels of 4-pdr cannon à la Suédoise.

By a regulation dated January 20 1757, this piece became the official regimental piece (one per battalion).

The Vallière System

From 1720, Jean-Florent de Vallière, then Director-General of the French artillery, totally reorganised this arm and standardized its various pieces in the Vallière system.

Types of Shot

Artillery cannon used solid shot and grape or canister. All howitzers used explosive shells as well as incendiary bombs.

Firing Procedures

No information available yet

Piece Barrel

No information available yet

Artillery Carriages

At the beginning of the XVIIIth century, French artillery carriages were probably red as were the gun carriages of the French Marine Royale. However, by the time of the Seven Years' War, gun carriages of the French army were blue to distinguish them from the equipment of the supply train (caissons and carts), painted brick red. Furthermore, canvas used with artillery equipment were usually decorated with a device consisting of two crossed cannon (in saltire) with a crowned "A" or "AA". The change to blue occurred very soon after the Vallière reform of 1732, even though the precise date is unknown. More details are available in the aforementioned article.

References

Dawson, A L and P L Dawson and Stephen Summerfield, Napoleonic Artillery, Crowhurst Press, 2007

Acknowledgments

Digby Smith for the initial version of this article

Jean-Louis Vial of Nec Pluribus Impar for the sections on the French 1-pdr gun à la Rostaing, the French 4-pdr gun à la suédoise and the gun carriages.