The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 1 - June 1971

Guns in South Africa 1899-1902

Major Darrell D Hall

Major Darrell Hall comes of distinguished military ancestry on both sides. His father served in Botha's Natal Horse 1914-1915 and his grandfather was a transport conductor in the Zulu War of 1879, serving with the central column and subsequently with Pearson's Column. An ancestor on the distaff side served in Bowker's Rovers in the Gaika-Galeka War.

First photo

Major Darrel Hall

Major Hall joined the British Army in 1946 after an education at Michaelhouse, and retired in 1968. He saw service in the U.K., Germany, Norway, North Africa, Cyprus and the Far East. He qualified as a paratrooper and served with the Parachute Brigade and later with the Royal Marine Commando Brigade. He took part in the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt and served as commander of Kirkee Light Commando Battery in the Borneo confrontation of Indonesia and Malaysia. Since his retirement Major Hall has been in business in Durban where he is an active member of the Society's Durban Branch.


This is a review of the guns used during the South African War, 1899-1902. It is not exhaustive, particularly with regard to the Boer Artillery, but it includes all the more important equipments.

This was an interesting period in the development of Artillery. It marked the change-over from muzzle-loading short range guns with no recoil arrangements, and only rudimentary sighting systems, to the more sophisticated long range, breech-loading, quick-firing, recoiling guns of the 20th Century.

This development forced the pace in Artillery tactics and handling. The importance of communications, observation of fire methods, and concealed gun positions soon became apparent. The enemy no longer stood out in the open, and Artillery tactics were soon shown to be in need of review. These articles, however, will only cover the equipments. Artillery tactics will be dealt with separately.

Details of the equipments vary from source to source. Care has been taken to provide figures which are as accurate as possible, but it should be remembered that even these are only a guide to performance in the field.

Weather conditions, particularly wind and air temperature, will affect the range of a gun. Firing from the top of a hill, as did the Boers on many occasions, will give a greater range than when gun and target are on the same level. A gun will fire further at five or six thousand feet above sea level than at sea level. All these factors will affect fuze setting. This may explain why Boer fuze setting was poor.

Maps were poor or non-existent. Estimates of ranges in narratives of the war may often be inaccurate, resulting in a gun being credited with a greater range than was justified.

Finally, the guns themselves could be coaxed into firing further than the range for which they were designed. The Naval 'Long 12s' (12 pr 12 cwt) on more than one occasion had their trails dug in to provide greater elevation; or had them blocked completely to prevent any recoil and so give a longer range, although this would damage the axle and/or trail. The Boers were known to put an additional half-charge into captured 15 prs to get greater ranges.

Nearly 30 guns and howitzers will be described in these articles. It may be of assistance to mention the more important equipments used by both sides in the war.

At the outset, with the British Army were:

Royal Horse Artillery 12 pr 6 cwt BL
Royal Field Artillery 15 pr 7 cwt BL
5 in Howitzer BL
Royal Garrison Artillery 2.5 in RML

Initially there was an absence of long range Artillery, and this gap was filled by the Royal Navy. Guns were removed from ships, given temporary carriages, and sent to the front with Naval detachments. These were:
12 pr 12 cwt QF ('Long 12')
4.7 in QF
6 in BL

Later the Royal Garrison Artillery appeared on the scene, and took over these guns to allow the sailors to return to their ships. In addition, they brought with them the following:
5 in BL
6 in Howitzer BL

Boer Artillery was a mixture of obsolete guns and the latest that Europe had to offer. Most prominent among the latter were:
75 mm Creusot QF
75 mm Krupp QF
120 mm Krupp Howitzer QE
155 mm Creusot BL ('Long Tom')
37 mm Maxim Automatic Machine Gun ('Pom-Pom')


A tin cylinder filled with bullets of lead hardened with antimony. The 9 pr case contained 110 bullets, each like the old smooth bore musket ball. It was effective up to 350 yds and wascused against infantry and cavalry at short ranges.
A hollow projectile filled with a bursting charge, fittedcwith a fuze, and designed to burst on impact (percussion) or in the air (time).
A shell of increased length fired with a reduced charge.
Ring (or segment)
A thin cast iron shell, made up of rings welded together, with a hollow space in the centre for the bursting charge. The rings broke up into segments on explosion. It could be employed as shrapnel, case or common shell.
A shell with its interior filled with bullets embedded in rosin. A bursting charge at the base ejected the bullets forward when detonated in the air above the target. It was less effective when detonated on impact.
Breech-loading - On the introduction of quick-firing guns (QF) with brass cartridge cases, BL came to mean only those guns where the charge was loaded in bags. This distinction remains to this day. Both BL and QF are, in fact, breech-loaders.
The wheels, axle, trail and recoil system (if any).
This ignites the bursting charge of the shell at the required moment, either on percussion or time. In artillery usage, it is spelt 'fuze'. This is the shortened or modern method of spelling 'fuzee', meaning a tube filled with combustible material. 'Fuse', from the Latin 'fundo', means 'to melt', and is used in connection with electricity, as well as with commercial explosives.
Technically the gun is the barrel and breech only, and the term does not include the carriage. However, normally the word is applied to the whole equipment. In comparison with a howitzer, a gun is a long-barrelled equipment firing a relatively light shell a greater distance at a higher muzzle velocity (MV) with a lower trajectory.
Compared with a gun, a howitzer is a short barrelled equipment firing a heavier shell a shorter distance at a lower MV with a higher trajectory. Although possibly incorrectly, a gunner will normally refer to his howitzer as 'his gun'.
Muzzle loading.
A gun is normally referred to by the weight of its shell (e.g. 12 pr) or its calibre (e.g. 5 in). When described as '12 pr 6 cwt', the '6 cwt' is the weight of the gun, in the correct sense of that term.
Quick-firing - Originally this indicated an equipment with both a means of controlling recoil, and with the charge in a brass cartridge case. Later, when all guns had recoil systems, QF only applied to guns using cartridge cases.
Quoin (or wedge)
In some equipments, a wedge is moved backwards and forwards under the breech to achieve elevation and depression.
Rifled muzzle-loader.
Rounds per minute.
The projections on the gun which support it in its carriage and about which it rotates in elevation and depression.



Outranged by Boer artillery in the opening stages of the war, British artillery in the field was initially at a distinct disadvantage. This was overcome to a certain extent by the massing of artillery fire in comparison with the Boers, and by bold handling, although on occasion the methods used were foolhardy. Guns in this category were:

12 pr 6 cwt BL
15 pr 7 cwt
5 in Howitzer BL
These three were the main armament of the artillery in the field.

12 pr 12 cwt QF
12.5 pr Vickers Maxim QF
These guns were in limited numbers only.

Second photo

12 pr 6 cwt BL - note the drag shoes under the wheels.


Calibre 3 in
Weight of gun 6 cwt
Weight of gun carriage packed 17 cwt 3 qtrs 20 lbs.
Weight behind gun team 32 cwt 3 qtrs 20 lbs
Ammunition Shrapnel
Weight of shell 12 lbs 8 ozs
Range: Time-Fuze 3,700 yds
Range: Percussion 5,400 yds
Rate of fire 7-8 rpm

Third photo

12 pr - this may well be the earlier 12 pr 7 cwt BL.

In 1883 the 12 pr 7 cwt was introduced for both Horse and Field Artillery. This was an interesting equipment as its carriage showed the inception of the idea of controlling recoil. The axletree was connected to the trail on each side by stays, in which were strong spiral springs. These took the force of recoil, aided by some play in the axletree housing, and brakes on the wheel hubs. Drag shoes under the wheels helped to lock them. There were also improvements in the elevating gear. Sighting was improved, and this was the first equipment to be fitted with a telescopic sight.

Fourth photo

12 pr 6 cwt BL - one of the guns captured at Koorn Spruit.

It proved to be too heavy for the RHA and a new 12 pr gun of 6 cwt, with a simple, light carriage, was introduced in 1894. This constituted the armament of RHA batteries when the Army took the field in 1899, except for batteries from India which had the 15 pr. All 12 prs in South Africa were on Mk I carriages. The detachment was completely mounted, where RFA detachments rode on limbers, and sometime on guns.

Only shrapnel was provided. The maximum time-fuze range was the maximum effective range, as a shrapnel shell bursting on percussion was not of much value. The range quoted in the table is with Fuze 56. Later the new Fuze 57, known as 'The Blue Fuze' from the colour it was painted, produced a greater time-fuze range. Filled with a slower burning composition, it was effective up to 5,800 yds.


Fifth photo

15 pr 7 cwt BL on Mk III carriage - the operation of the axle spade is clearly illustrated here.

Calibre 3 in
Weight of gun 7 cwt
Weight of gun carriage packed 20 cwt 2 qtr 27 lbs.
Weight behind gun team 37 cwt 2 qtrs 17 lbs
Ammunition Shrapnel
Weight of shell 14 lbs 1 oz
Range: Time-Fuze 4,100 yds
Range: Percussion 5,600 yds
Rate of fire 7-8 rpm

Experience had shown that the 12 pr 7 cwt shell had little effect on earthworks. It was, therefore, converted to a 15 pr (although the shell in fact only weighed just over 14 lbs). In 1895, this became the gun of the RFA. This conversion was possible as the new smokeless propellant, Cordite, was much more powerful than gunpowder. It provided an opportunity for adding to the weight of the shell without necessitating any major alterations to the gun.

Sixth photo

15 pr 7 cwt BL on Mk III carriage - note the tangent sight mounted above the breech, and the elevating screw. This method of elevation had been in use for over 200 years.

At the same time, the cry of 'one shell, one fuze' resulted in the 15 pr only receiving the shrapnel shell. The shortburning time-fuze was a major disadvantage in South Africa. Being frequently outranged by Boer artillery, there were many instances where RFA had to move forward under fire in order to be able to engage the enemy with air-burst shrapnel. Later, the new 'Blue Fuze' (Fuze 57) increased this range to 5,900 yds.

Seventh photo

15 pr 7 cwt BL - axletree seats are evident in this and Figure 5.

The 15 pr was also notable for the axle-spade system of controlling carriage recoil. The spade was connected by a rope stay to a strong spring in the trail. The recoil of the carriage caused the spade to dig into the ground, and the stay then prevented any movement of the carriage except that permitted by the compression of the spring. This spring housing was a distinctive feature of the 15 pr. However, batteries arriving from India had not yet had this modification applied to their guns.

The majority of batteries had the Mk I carriage; four had Mk II and three Mk III carriages.

Eighth photo

15 pr 7 cwt BL - these are guns of 21 Battery RFA arriving in Durban from India. Axle spades and trail springs had not been fitted to guns arriving from that country. This Battery served in Ladysmith during the siege.


Calibre 5 in
Weight of gun 9 cwt
Weight behind gun team 48 cwt 1 qtr 26 lbs
Ammunition Common shell
Weight of shell 50 lbs
Range 4,900 yds

Ninth photo

5-inch Howitzer BL - the trunnion gearing elevation system
and the method of fitting drag shoes can be seen here.

The abolition of common shell for field guns brought to a head the demand for some form of artillery which would give greater shell power in the field. The attempt to employ guns for curved fire by the use of reduced charges failed, and consequently the need was met by the formation of field howitzer batteries. The first was organized in 1896 and was armed with this equipment. At about the same time, a 6 in Howitzer was introduced for use with the Siege Train.

Tenth photo

5-inch Howitzer BL - the short, stubby Howitzer barrel is distinctive.
The recoil system should be noted. Stays from the axle to the trail help absorb the shock of firing.

The 5 in Howitzer was first used in the Sudan in 1898. Lyddite was introduced as the new bursting charge with this howitzer, but it was greatly overrated. There were exaggerated press reports that the mere concussion of the explosion was enough to kill any enemy in the vicinity. Too much was expected of it in South Africa where, in addition, it was found that the Lyddite often failed to detonate. However, some success was achieved in Natal, when the 5 in Howitzer was able to get close and engage targets such as Boers in trenches. As a field howitzer it was found to be too heavy. The shell was too light and the range too short; but it did have some interesting features.

A recoil system was incorporated. This allowed a short recoil of six inches only, so it was also necessary to fit drag shoes. (The French were the first to adopt the theory of 'long recoil', which, coupled with an adequate recuperator to return the gun to its original position, allowed quicker laying and real 'Quick firing').

Elevation was by trunnion gearing. A crank was fitted to the right trunnion. This was operated by a long screw and nut turned by the elevation handwheel.

Muzzle velocity was from 402 to 782 feet per second (depending on charge) compared with the 15 pr's 1,574 feet per second, illustrating one of the differences between a howitzer and a gun.

12 PR 12 CWT QF:

Calibre 3 in
Weight of gun 12 cwt
Weight of gun carriage packed 30 cwt 0 qtrs 3 lbs
Weight behind gun team 44 cwt
Ammunition Common shell and shrapnel
Weight of shell 12 lbs 8 ozs
Range: Time-Fuze 4,200 yds
Range: Percussion (Shrapnel) 6,500 yds
Range: Percussion (Common) 8,000 yds

Eleventh photo

12 pr 12 cwt QF - this was the Naval 'Long 12' on a field carriage.

Twelfth photo

12 pr 12 cwt QF - an 'Elswick gun' in South Africa.

This was the gun of the Elswick Battery (see 'The Elswick Guns', by Major L. A. Crook, in Volume 1, No.4 of this journal). It was basically the Naval 'Long 12' which will be described later in this series. Removed from a Japanese battleship under construction at Armstrong Whitworth Ltd., six 12 pr 3 in guns were converted to field pieces at the Elswick Ordnance Works at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. They were presented to Lord Roberts by Lady Meux, and went to South Africa manned by the men who made them. These guns had a high muzzle velocity (2,210 ft per sec with common shell) and a long range, but were too heavy for Field Artillery and not powerful enough for Heavy Artillery.


Calibre 2.95 in/75 mm
Weight of gun 6 cwt
Weight of gun carriage packed 20 cwt 2 qtrs 20 lbs
Weight behind gun team 38 cwt 1 qtr 20 lbs
Ammunition Shrapnel
Weight of shell 12 lbs 8 ozs
Range: Time-Fuze 5,200 yds
Range: Percussion 6,000 yds

The City Imperial Volunteer Battery was equipped with this gun. It had four 124 prs. The only other 124 pr with the British Army, was with Colonel Plumer. This was one of the two guns purchased by Dr Jameson for his raid. It had, however, been left behind in Bulawayo on that occasion, owing to the non-arrival of its carriage. It thus escaped the fate of its sister gun which was captured by the Boers at Doornkop in 1896. The two guns met again on opposite sides in the Metse Mashoane Valley in February 1900, when von Dalwig had one of them, and Plumer the other.

Thirteenth photo

12 1/2 pr Vickers Maxim QF - the gun of the CIV Battery.

Fourteenth photo

12 1/2 pr Vickers Maxim QF - this is the lone 12 1/2 pr with Plumer's Column.



Firing light shells a short distance only, these guns did not achieve much success in the war. However, in spite of their obsolescence, they were needed in the opening stages. Screw guns helped defend Kimberley; and all saw service in the early battles in Natal.

Guns in this category were:
2.5 in RML Mk II ('Screw Gun')  This was the gun of Mountain Artillery.
3 pr Hotchkiss BL
7 pr RML Steel Gun Mk IV 200 lbs
7 pr RML Steel Gun Mk IV 200 lbs on Field Carriage
2.5 in RML on Field Carriage
9 pr RML 8 cwt
These guns were with locally raised Colonial Forces.

Fifteenth photo

2,5 inch RML ('Screw Gun') - the quoin method of elevation was the oldest known, and was used up to the end of the 19th century. The check rope provided the only means of controlling recoil with this equipment.


Calibre 2.5 in
Weight of gun 400 lbs
Weight of gun carriage and gun 800 lbs
Ammunition Ring, Shrapnel, Star and Case
Weight of shell: Ring 8 lbs 2 ozs
Weight of shell:Shrapnel 7 lbs 6 ozs
Range: Ring 4,000 yds
Range: Shrapnel 3,300 yds

This gun was adopted in 1879 to meet a demand for greater power for Mountain Artillery. As it was too heavy for a single mule load, weighing 400 lbs, the gun was jointed at the trunnions and could be broken down to two loads; hence the name, the 'Screw Gun'. The gun carriage and wheels were carried on another two mules.

Sixteenth photo

2,5 inch RML - the Screw Gun in the Defence of Kimberley.

It fired a black powder charge which caused a large cloud of smoke. This was disastrous in South Africa. It had a flat trajectory. To engage a target at the same height at its maximum range of 4,000 yds, required an elevation of only 11deg 7min. The request for a howitzer for Mountain Artillery was only granted in 1918.

Mountain gunnery was the responsibility of Companies of the Royal Garrison Artillery.


Weight of shell 3 lbs
Range 3,500 yds approx.

The Natal Volunteer Hotchkiss Detachment had two of these 3 pr Hotchkiss guns and one 9 pr. Although not of much value, these Hotchkiss guns helped defend Ladysmith.

Seventeenth photo

3 pr Hotchkiss BL - Walker's Maritzburg Battery.


Calibre 3 in
Weight of gun 200 lbs
Ammunition Common, Shrapnel and Double
Weight of shell: Common 7.4 lbs
Weight of shell:Double 12 lbs
Range: Common 3,100 yds

This was a Mountain gun, the predecessor of the 'Screw Gun'. It could be assembled and a round loaded in 20 seconds. Its Common shell was not very effective. In India it was said to stick in a mud wall at 450 yds, and would rebound from a stockade to explode on the ground.

To give it a high angle capability, a Double shell was produced. This was of increased length and contained a bursting charge larger than that used with ordinary shell. It was fired with a reduced charge, but the low muzzle velocity did not always arm the fuze, or prevent the over-long projectile from somersaulting.

Shell rotation in each case was effected by studs on the body of the shell. Elevation was by quoin or wedge and by screw.

Eighteenth photo

7 pr RML on Mountain carriage - this drawing shows the three alternative positions for the quoin, the lowest providing the greatest elevation. Fine adjustment was achieved by screwing the quoin in or out as required.

The gun was mounted on armoured trains, and was used by locally raised forces in the early stages of the war.

Nineteenth photo

7 pr RML on Mountain carriage - these guns were captured at Kraaipan.


Specifications .. .. .. As above

This was the same gun mounted on a Field carriage. This gave it greater manoeuvrability, enabling it to be horsedrawn. The increased height of the gun above the ground led to easier operation, particularly in long grass. The firmer platform may also have produced a slightly greater range. However, the light shell and short range, compared with Boer guns, reduced its effectiveness.

Twentieth photo

7 pr RML on Field Carriage - this gun is now at Kokstad.

The gun illustrated is now in Kokstad. It has an arc and pinion elevation system.

Twenty-first photo

7 pr RML on Field Carriage - elevation is by arc and pinion; the trunnions are at the centre of the arc. Most guns today use this system.


Specifications.. .. .. Similar to the 'Screw Gun'

The 'Screw Gun' was also mounted on a Field carriage for greater mobility. It was issued to locally raised units. With the Natal Field Battery it was present at Elandslaagte, and with the Diamond Fields Artillery, was besieged in Kimberley.

Twenty-second photo

2,5 inch RML on Field Carriage - probably a gun of the Natal Field Battery in action in Natal. The man on the left is about to fire the gun by 'chopping' down on the firing lanyard. Elevation is by elevating screw; note the drag shoes method of controlling recoil.

This gun was often described as a 7 pr. When the 'Screw Gun' first appeared, it was known as a 7 pr, but there was then confusion between this and the original 7 pr. The two guns did not use the same ammunition, and so to clarify matters, the new gun was designated the 2.5 in RML. This may explain why both designations are used in describing the armament of the two units mentioned above.

There are references in contemporary records to 'Kaffrarian carriages' and 'Randle (or Randall) carriages', in connection with 7 prs. These may be the carriages of the 7 pr and 2.5 in RML, but if so, it is not known which is which.

There are two 2.5 in RMLs on Field carriages at Fort Klapperkop Military Museum, and one on a Mountain carriage. The three guns are in very good condition.

Twenty-third photo

2,5 inch RML on Field Carriage - this gun is at Fort Klapperkop. It is the same "Screw Gun" given greater mobility than the Mountain version.


Calibre 3 in
Weight of gun 8 cwt
Ammunition Common, Shrapnel and Case
Weight of shell 9 lbs approx.
Range: Common 3,500 yds
Range: Shrapnel 2,910 yds
Range: Case Effective up to about 350 yds

Twenty-fourth photo

9 pr RML 8 cwt - this gun is now at Kokstad.

This was another obsolete equipment with Colonial Forces only. The Natal Volunteer Hotchkiss Detachment had one 9 pr at the Siege of Ladysmith.
The 9 pr illustrated is also at Kokstad.

Twenty-fifth photo

9 pr RML 8 cwt - the axletree seats on this gun have deteriorated over the years. Elevation is by elevating screw.


Times History of the War in South Africa (in particular Volume VI, Part II, Chapter VIII, 'The Armament and Employment of the Artillery').
History of the Royal Artillery 1860-1914 - Callwell and Headlam.
Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution (Volumes XXVI to XXIX).
The History of Indian Mountain Artillery - Graham.
The Elements of Field Artillery (1877) - Knollys.
Text Books of Gun Carriages and Gun Mountings 1924.
S.A. Military History Journal (in particular Volume 1, No.4, 'The Elswick Guns', by Maj. L. A. Crook).
The Story of the Gun - Wilson.
With the Naval Brigade in Natal - Burne.
Navy and Army Illustrated.
The Siege of Kimberley 1899-1900.

British Smooth-Bore Artillery - Hughes.
Artillery: Its Origin, Heyday and Decline - Hogg.

Note. - Where possible, gun specifications and details of performance have been taken from the Times History.

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