The Contest of the Two Systems

 Relatively simple solutions to the needs of the nation, such as the adoption of the Armstrong system, are usually fraught with outcries from numerous alternatives and the Whitworth system was the main one. The first experiment on this idea was a barrel built up of curved oblong bars, surrounded by hoops or staves, harking back to the earliest construction, but giving a hexagonal bore with a twist to provide rifling.  It was thought that, with this system, the barrel could be dismantled and restored from wear or damage.

However, the first three hexagon bored barrels made for the War Office were from solid cast brass ingots supplied by Woolwich Arsenal from stock, originally intended for 24 pounder muzzle loading guns.  These ingots were bored and rifled by Joseph  Whitworth at his works in Manchester.  The initial trial of these pieces resulted in sending a 24 pound projectile by a means of a charge of 2.5 pounds of black powder to a distance of approximately two miles. The then current service 24 pounder, with a charge of 8 pounds of powder would only reach 2,200 yards.  One Whitworth piece, sent to Portsmouth for a naval trial, sent its projectile under three feet of water to strike an oak target, penetrating eight inches, a feat unknown to the Navy.

 The scare of invasion from France, (so lately an ally in the Crimea) led to the instigation of the Volunteer Rifle Movement of that time, and disturbed the slumber of the Ordnance Board.  It was confronted by Lord Panmure, champion of the Armstrong System, and by Lord Hardinge, proponent of the established Whitworth principle as applied to small arms. Colonel Le Froy, scientific adviser to the Secretary of State on matters concerning artillery, (even though India was still in revolt) reported,  “Almost every element was wanting on which to base an opinion as to the adoption of any one system.   He advised that field artillery could profitably use the Armstrong system, while the Whitworth system was more useful for garrison use.  The designs of Lancaster, Cavalli, Blakeley and Wahrendorf had objectionable features that denied their consideration.

The Whitworth system was being developed for the Artillery at the direction of the Secretary of State while the Armstrong system was developed privately, and proved more flexible for most situations.  In August 1858, a special committee (the Committee on Rifled Cannon) was empowered to decide between the two systems, and in spite of the reputation of committees in general, reported within three months. Their report on the Whitworth system stated that, at this time, the range of a variety of shells was not consistent, and some drift was noted. 

Sponging of the bore was regularly needed, though a greased wad had helped somewhat.  On the Armstrong system, the committee reported that the range of the 18 pounder was quite extraordinary, and that the use of either shot or shrapnel reached the same range.  It noted that the effects appeared to exceed that of any shell in the service, and added that his arrangement of percussion fuses was of great importance.  Altogether the performance of Armstrong’s 18 pounder in both range and penetration was probably the greatest on record.  It was exceeded only by his 32 pounder, which reached an astonishing 9,175 yards.  Sponging was also necessary and accomplished from the rear.  However, their “. . . facility of loading, accuracy and durability was such that the Committee on Rifled Cannon recommends that the Armstrong System be adopted for special service in the field.”

This report bears all the hallmarks of the urgency of the times (French Scare) and did not do justice to the possible development of the Whitworth system. The Committee was required to visit both the Elswick and Manchester Works to assess the manufacturing techniques and production facilities of each establishment.  That they did not visit the Manchester Works before submitting their report would suggest that political influence was at work.  It would also seem that Mr. Whitworth was not advised of the tests, nor invited to attend, while Mr. Armstrong not only attended, but was also allowed to apply “on the spot expedients to remove temporary difficulties.”  The results of the trial, held in the absence of Mr. Whitworth, were not even made available to him, and only leaked to him afterwards.

The facts, ascertained in 1863, that the committee had only tried a nine pounder Whitworth with a twelve pounder shell and the original brass 32 pounders, shows the urgency for approval of the Armstrong system.  This was probably also the reason for not visiting the Manchester establishment.  Lord Hardinge was adamant that the invitation to the Committee had been offered by Mr Whitworth and had been accepted by the Committee. The Secretary of State for War adopted the Armstrong principle for field artillery up to the 32 pounder class, wisely leaving the decision on garrison artillery to a review of future developments.

 In the light of the poor publicity emanating from these events, the Government approached Joseph Whitworth as to the terms under which he would transfer his discoveries to the Crown.  For reasons, left to the reader to speculate on, he declined to negotiate a purchase, but expressed his readiness to assign such discoveries unconditionally as a gift to Her Majesty.

A deed of grant for the Armstrong system was made on the 15th of January 1859 with all expenses attendant on his experiments from 1855 to 1859.  Armstrong retained the right to the Elswick Works for private manufacture and sale.  (Refer to  Arms in the Service of Queensland 1859 – 1901  for a description of arms for the Marine Defence Force.)

Three days after the date of the deed of grant (18 January 1859) Armstrong communicated to the Secretary of State that this grant did not include any future discoveries or developments.  He requested that he be made a “public officer” with an adequate salary and that he assume the title of “Director of Rifled Ordinance” with the salary back dated to 1855, at 6,000 per annum.  He wrote,  “As I propose only to apply half of my time to this appointment, I would accept 3,000 to cover services and future inventions.”   Negotiations finally produced a salary of 2,000, retrospective to 1856 and progressive to 1870.  The initial title was “Engineer to the War Department” with travelling expenses of 800 per annum.  Added to this result of negotiations he was knighted and made a Companion of the Bath.  All patents taken out by him were to be the property of the Crown.  There is some divergence of opinion as to whether a patent existed for the adopted system.  At a later period he was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich.  On the same date as the deed of grant, an order was placed with the Elswick Ordnance Works for the manufacture of Armstrong guns on highly advantageous terms.

The view that the expertise in manufacturing at Elswick could not readily be transferred to Woolwich Arsenal or to the manufacturers of cast guns such as “Gospel Oak” or ”Low Moor”, may have been a genuine response to the urgent need for field artillery.  As well it spurred on the urge to improve the design.  Loans from William Armstrong to Elswick Ordnance at fixed interest included the right to sit on the board of the Company on his retirement from public service.

Cost of each unit to the War Office was on a cost-plus basis.  There was a proviso that should Government orders be curtailed or withdrawn, leaving Elswick Ordinance unproductive, compensation, not exceeding 85,000, was to be paid, with the approval of the Secretary of State, in respect of capital invested. This would happen if the Government adopted a superior gun or moved the manufacture entirely to Woolwich.

A capital investment of 12,000 was needed to provide infrastructure for the manufacture of 100 guns per year at a cost of 40,000.   Initial cost of guns from Elswick were 200 each, later reduced to 170, while those made at Woolwich cost 87/3/5 each.  The amount paid to Elswick for shot and shell  between 1859 and 1862 was 292,875.  This compares unfavourably with the figures if the product had been made at Woolwich: 195,588 including 29,702 for new buildings.

This guarantee applied to guns alone and not to projectiles.  Inspection of guns made at Elswick was under William Armstrong`s personal control, but being also in charge of 3,000 men at Woolwich, 300 miles away, how was such inspection actually performed?  In 1863, larger caliber guns were accepted for naval service in sizes of 40 and 70 pounders.

And what of Mr. Whitworth and his products, having basically being ignored by the Committee after handing over his patents on hexagonal rifling to the Crown? His only remuneration was for the costs of experiments, not for his services.  His further patents were also made available to the Crown, defrayed from his private resources.  The rupture of co-operation between Joseph Whitworth and the Secretary of State was to catapult his firm from an engineering works to a gun manufacturer in its own right.  Having discarded brass and cast iron he turned to homogenous iron which, with the hardness and tenacity of steel, was still ductile and tough.  It was forged by the use of large steam hammers after being made with the best quality charcoal.  This product was being made in large quantity by Krupp in Essen, before the development of the ability to make steel in any large quantity, and was the forerunner of the drop forge process.

Light field pieces of up to 12 pounder size had been made without reinforcing the barrel.  However, beyond that size reinforcing became necessary.  Instead of welding coils to the barrel as was being done at Woolwich, solid turned hoops were applied by pressing them on hydraulically, with respect to the position of the projectile and charge. Four hoops were applied to 70 pounder guns.  This allowed shot of from one to ten calibres in length to be fired from the same barrel.

 The public and military authorities were so captivated with the idea of breech loading that Whitworth was constrained to bend his talents to this end, although it introduced complexity to a previous simplicity.  Naturally he concluded that the Armstrong system was fallible (Refer to comments by Captain Blakeley) and his design was for a closing cap screwed on to the exterior of the breech end of the barrel.  This was supported by a hinge, allowing the breech cap to be swung aside for loading.  There was no vent piece subject to gas leakage, which required precision slots as was the case in the Armstrong system.  Moreover, muzzle loading could be effected if required in an emergency, needing only a copper cup to seal inside the breech closing cap.

 Within a year he had produced guns of 3, 12, and 18 pounder size and one 80 pounder.  A range was provided by the Admiralty for test on the west coast of England, on sands, from the boundary of Cumberland to the estuary of the River Dee. The preferred site was from the 'Ribble' to the Mersey.   A long line of tall poles was set up at 1,000-yard intervals, with shorter stakes every 100 yards, for a total range length of 10,000 yards or approximately 6 miles. The three pounder, weighing 208lbs., threw a shot 9,688 yards or (5.5miles), compared with a service Armstrong 32 pounder using 6 pounds of powder which reached 9,130 yards.  Such was public interest that rail services brought crowds of spectators to see and applaud.  The 18 pounder gun sent a projectile to 10,300 yards, nearly 6 miles.  The 80 pounder proved even more accurate, when at a range of two miles, four shots fell into an area 16 yards long by 1 foot wide. These two pieces were subsequently purchased by the War Office with the 12 pounder used to try out the flat-fronted projectile and the 80 pounder sent to Portsmouth for naval trials.  There it was damaged by being fired with an air space between the charge and the projectile.  Still, it was used to successfully test Whitworth’s flat pointed projectile against armour plate.

William Armstrong was to denigrate this performance as he stated that most actions occurred within 2,000 yards, even though the range of his guns was one of their acclaimed attributes.  Colonel Le Froy stated that range and accuracy are necessarily linked to produce effective fire.  With lower angles of elevation, trajectory is lower to the ground, reducing the necessity to assess distance so accurately.  Meanwhile Armstrong guns were in full production at Elswick and Woolwich to such an extent that any changes to the system would have caused embarrassment to the Committee of 1858 and the War Office.  From experience in the use of Armstrong guns in service by troops and sailors there began to accumulate a series of complaints as to the awkwardness of handling the vent piece when hot and the possibility of not returning it to the correct position in the haste of an action. There was also the fact that it formed the weakest point of the assembly when it should have been the strongest point.  Gas leakage was also a growing problem. Vent pieces had been blown out and muzzles cracked in service while lead coating, detaching from the projectile, had injured troops arranged in a forward position.  Issues of Armstrong guns were suspended in time with a reversion to reissue of in house stocks of muzzle loading guns as an interim measure.


This story really has no end and further information on the subject must await another study.













The Story of the Guns  by Sir J. Emerson Tennett. (Longman & Green) 1864

Joseph Whitworth & The Rifled Cannon by Don Foster S. A. Heritage Arms Society, 2003.

Encyclopedia Britannica 1962

Harper's Weekly - Aug 10, 1861