The word “howitzer” is often used interchangeably with other artillery, in much the same way that Kleenex is used by people referring to tissues. Because of that, the waters are often a bit muddy whether some resources are referring to howitzers or other forms of artillery in general.
US military doctrine defines howitzers as any cannon artillery capable of both high-angle (45° to 90° elevation) and low-angle fire (0° to 90 ° elevation). As such, a howitzer can fire directly at targets or it can act similarly to a mortar and lob shells over obstacles at a high angle in indirect fire, acting almost like a mortar. Because of this, it is extraordinarily versatile. Most howitzers feature a short barrel and fire projectiles at low or medium velocity.
Howitzers in History
Artillery is the most lethal weapon on the battlefield, referred to as “The King Of Battle.” As far back as the 1420s and 1430s, the Hussites used short-barreled howitzers to fire at short range into crowds of infantry. They also fired it at groups of cavalry to make horses shy away.
Initially, Europeans employed siege artillery to knock down castle walls, and also to defend against a besieging army. In the early 15th century, Europeans began using cast-bronze cannons, which used granulated black powder that was more explosive and dependable than the serpentine powder that was formerly used. These bronze cannons fired iron cannon balls that fit tightly into the bore and achieved higher velocities and flatter trajectories. It wasn’t until the middle of the 18th century that light, mobile cannons designed to be maneuvered in battle made an appearance.
True American artillery came into being during the American Revolutionary War. A national artillery arm became necessary with the birth of the Continental Army in 1775. In November of that year, Colonel Henry Knox received an appointment to the Continental Regiment of Artillery, where he began to organize and train his charges. With the help of George Washington, they built four regiments of artillery.
In 1775 and 1776, Congress procured bronze and iron smoothbore artillery that was similar to British cannons. As well, Col. Knox also used captured artillery pieces from Fort Ticonderoga. This artillery was transported to Boston where it was placed in the hills surrounding the British garrison and fleet. In March of 1776, the colonists bombarded the British with this artillery, damaging British barracks and destroying buildings.
The British were shocked by the colonists’ cannonade, and General Howe decided to abandon Boston rather than launch an assault on the colonists’ position. It wasn’t merely the damage wrought by the cannonade, but also the psychological impact that it had. It degraded the morale of the British and scored a win for the colonists.
The American Civil War led to more widespread use of artillery, with soldiers dreading facing the big guns more and more. Advances in projectiles made it deadlier than ever. Aside from solid shot, grape shot turned the artillery into a giant shotgun, firing numerous projectiles at once.
Union and Confederate armies moved their field pieces behind the infantry line when possible. They realized that putting it in front of the line left it too vulnerable to fire in an era where rifled muskets were employed, a lesson they learned during the Mexican War. Chiefs of artillery were established, and artillery reserves were created. They centralized command of their artillery to facilitate mass fire.
Both sides used generally the same battery and gun drill. The North and South also used massive formations of troops in frontal assaults of well-defended positions, with artillery wreaking havoc on the infantry and cavalry.
Confederates were forced to use whatever artillery pieces they could find because of their lack of manufacturing facilities in the South.
By World War I, artillery became the main weapon of the war (machine guns and airplanes helped too), forcing both sides into a prolonged trench war in a stalemate that lasted for years. Artillery of the era utilized breach loading, making them far faster to operate.
France’s 75mm gun was widely used by the Allies in World War I. When it entered World War I, the United States was forced to rely on its European allies because it did not have sufficient artillery to arm its own military.
The US did adopt the 1902 three-inch Field Gun around 1903. It had a hydrospring recoil system and panoramic sights, fired ammunition of shrapnel and high explosive, used smokeless powder, and had a range of 6,000 yards. It also fired more rapidly than its predecessors.
Shortly after adopting the 1902, the War Department adopted other guns with recoil systems: the M1904 4.7-inch gun, the M1905 3.8-inch gun, the M1906 6-inch howitzer, and the M1907 4.7-inch howitzer. The howitzers used different ammunition than the other guns. Unfortunately, limited Congressional funding did not allow enough production to fight a war in Europe.
Tactics were changing, too. Field Telephones were now utilized for the direction of artillery fire, making for a faster, more accurate direction system. The downside was that the wires linking the phones could be cut or damaged in a number of ways during battle. Because of that, signal flags were used as an alternative way to direct fire.
Indirect fire was also used, and it hid the artillery battery from the enemy while still raining fire on their positions.
By the time World War II rolled around, artillery was also rolling via numerous mobile platforms, including tracked and wheeled vehicles. The Germans were the kings of putting together a myriad of ad-hoc vehicles, using anything they could get their hands on, whether it was tracked or wheeled. They mounted a plethora of weapons on various chassis, including anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, howitzers, and others. Mobile artillery was the name of the game, in addition to standard field artillery units.
The Americans were at it, too. One of their most popular carriages was the M-7 105mm howitzer motor carriage, which was mounted on an M3 tank chassis. It earned the nickname “The Priest” because of its .50 caliber machinegun ring mount that resembled a pulpit. Its 105mm howitzer could fling a 33-pound shell 12,000 yards.
Following World War II, there was a push to develop new artillery pieces and reorganize how it was deployed on the battlefield. However, before any meaningful advances were made, the Korean War broke out in June of 1950.
Although there were no huge technological advances realized during the Korean War, artillery played a massive role in pushing the North Korean forces back. On more than one occasion, US forces were drastically outnumbered but US artillery saved the day. Field artillery made it possible for US forces to take objectives and then protect them with accurate supporting fire.
In Vietnam, firebases were utilized for artillery. Entire tops of hills were cleared, sometimes via bulldozers, other times with large bombs. These cleared areas were turned into fortresses and artillery units were entrenched to support the surrounding areas.
Initial firebases tended to be less permanent affairs, with mobility being preferred. However, as the enemy became more organized and aggressive, better defenses were required, and bases were better built and more permanent. The defensive complexes became more elaborate, with trenches and bunkers being constructed more deeply.
Positions were often surrounded by concertina wire, claymore mines, napalm, and trip flares, as well as elaborately prepared fighting positions to repel concentrated attacks by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).
The Southern Lowlands also saw large numbers of firebases. Typically, the guns faced outward, being able to fire in all directions in support of the defense of the base.
The firebases were scattered and situated to cover as much of the countryside as possible. The downside of firebases was that they couldn’t bring massive amounts of artillery to bear on a single target, instead relying on the guns of one or a few firebases to carry out fire missions.
The Modern Era
Surprisingly little has changed over the decades in the artillery field. Sure, there are new designs of guns and new munitions. Many of the techniques and doctrines, though, have not changed tremendously. Communications, obviously, no longer rely on telephone wires to connect radios.
Fire direction systems are far more complicated than in the earlier days, too, with many being electronic these days. There is a focus on achieving first-round hits whenever possible.
These days, howitzers and other artillery compete with various rocket systems and other battlefield weapons. Despite that, there still remains a need for howitzers, with their ability to drop rounds over hills in indirect fire missions. Howitzers are frequently transported by air and dropped into positions, giving them far better mobility than they enjoyed in yesteryear.
Throughout history, artillery (including the howitzer) has undergone drastic changes, with the earliest models being unrecognizable compared to the pieces of today.
The development of newer metals, powders, recoil systems, and sights has improved performance drastically over the centuries. Despite that, the overall mission remains relatively unchanged: Drop explosive shells on the bad guys as quickly and accurately as possible.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.