The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 3 - June 1972

Guns in South Africa 1899-1902 Part V and VI

by Major Darrell Hall

Parts 1 to 4 in this series appeared in Vol. 2, Numbers 1 and 2, June and December 1971

A siege train accompanied the Army Corps to South Africa. It was provided by the Royal Garrison Artillery and consisted of two companies (not batteries) equipped with 4.7 in guns and 6 in howitzers. Eleven more companies followed soon afterwards.

A siege train was intended to be used against an enemy's fixed fortifications. The Boers had upset this thinking by taking their 'guns of position' into the field. The British followed suit with the guns of the Royal Navy. The siege train, therefore, had the unexpected task of relieving the Navy in the field, with a prospect of action long before it would be required to deal with the fortifications of Pretoria.

Activity at this stage was aimed at relieving the garrisons besieged in Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking. Helping defend these places were the conventional guns described in earlier parts of this series, supplemented by the strange equipments which will be described in Part 6.



Although unwieldy and cumbersome, nevertheless the heavy guns of the siege artillery were to provide useful assistance to the army in the field. The effectiveness of heavy artillery had already been illustrated, both by the Boers and the Royal Navy. The Royal Garrison Artillery, therefore, was a welcome addition to the British forces in South Africa.

This applied particularly in Natal where the Boers were holding relatively fixed positions on the Tugela. Where more mobility was required, as with Lord Roberts' forces, the heavy guns were less prominent. Even the 5 in howitzers of the Royal Field Artillery, much to their disgust, were left out of Roberts' Grand Army in the march from Bloemfontein to Pretoria.

The Boer defence of Pretoria did not materialise, and so siege artillery was never needed in its intended role. Later, the heavy guns were used, but in penny packets 'because they were there', and not in their proper roles. Guns which saw service in South Africa were: ..

4.7 in QF on 6 in howitzer carriage
5 in BL on 40 pr RML carriage
6 in howitzer BL
6.3 in howitzer RML on 40 pr RML carriage
9.2 in BL
9.45 in howitzer BL.

First photo

4.7 in QF on 6in howitzer carriage - this illustrates
the unusual appearance of a long-barrelled gun mounted on a howitzer carriage

4.7 in QF on 6 in howitzer carriage

Calibre  4.7 in
Weight of gun  42 cwt
Weight of gun carriage packed  86 cwt
Weight behind the gun team  98 cwt
Ammunition  Common and shrapnel
Weight of shell: Common  46 lbs 9 ozs
Shrapnel  45 lbs
Range: Percussion  10,000 yds
Time fuze  6,000 yds

This was the same as the gun used by the Royal Navy, but it was mounted on a 6 in howitzer carriage. It was the armament of one of the two companies comprising the siege train. Other RGA Companies were similarly equipped while some took over the naval guns mounted on Captain Scott's carriages.

This version was preferred to the naval one. It weighed nearly a ton less and it also had little recoil when fired with 40 pr recoil scotches. Nevertheless, it was lively in action, as it was not the original intention to put a high velocity gun, 16 feet in length, on a howitzer carriage.

It had a three-motion breech mechanism, but this was considered better than the electrical single-action mechanism of the naval guns, as electrical firing was not satisfactory in the field.

Second photo

4.7 in QF on 6in howitzer carriage - to improve mobility
experiments were carried out with wide wheels

It was towed by as many as 24 oxen, muzzle forward, guided by hand, with a small limber at the rear. Two guns with 'improved carriages' had the limbers forward. It could also be towed by traction engines, but this development was not viewed with favour by all. Oxen could always be relied on, while the traction engine relied on a supply of fuel, and there was always the chance of 'breakages to machinery'.

Differences in the weights of common and shrapnel shell caused the two to range differently, and this presented difficulties.

5 in BL on 40 pr RML carriage

Calibre  5 in
Weight of gun  40 cwt
Weight of gun carriage packed  74 cwt
Weight behind the gun team  89 cwt
Ammunition  Common and sharpnel
Weight of shell  50 lbs
Range: Percussion  10,500 yds
Time fuze  5,400 yds

Third photo

5 in BL on 40 pr RML carriage - this gun is in front of
the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Note the brakes

The 5 in BL was mounted on a 40 pr RML carriage, as was the 6.3 in howitzer RML. It was considered to be accurate to 7,000 yds, fairly accurate to 8,500 yds and serviceable up to 11,000 yds. (Compare this maximum range, quoted in the RAI Proceedings, with The Times History figures above.)

It was found that the recoil checking arrangements were inadequate. There were no brakes or recoil scotches initially, and on occasion guns turned completely over in recoil. here was no buffer. Later, Cape brakes were fitted, recoil scotches provided and recoil control improved.

Fourth photo

5 in BL on 40 pr RML carriage - on the march.
A retaining strap over the breech steadies the gun while on the move

It was felt by some that this equipment could not be compared with the 4.7 in on 6 in howitzer carriage, as the latter had as much shell power, greater MV and greater accuracy. On the other hand, the weight behind the 5 in gun team was slightly less than that of the 4.7 in. Batteries equipped with the 5 in felt that the greater simplicity of the carriage, the nominal superiority of the shell and their familiarity with the equipment, gave it preference

Fifth photo

6 in Howitzer BL - the equipment of the Siege Train on its special platform


Calibre  6 in
Weight of gun  30 cwt
Weight of gun carriage packed  69 cwt 3 qtrs 8 lbs
Weight behind the gun team  85 cwt 0 qtrs 2 lbs
Ammunition  Common shell
Weight of shell  120 lbs
Range  5,200 yds

At the outbreak of war, this was the equipment of one of the two companies in the siege train. Being specifically intended for this role, it was an interesting gun.

It was designed to fire from a platform to which the tension, hydraulic buffer was attached. In this configuration, it had an elevation of 35 degrees. If greater elevation was required, the wheels were removed and the carriage placed on the platform. A top carriage was then placed on the normal carriage, and an elevation of 70 degrees could then be achieved.

This capability was designed for distinct siege operation, and in South Africa the need for this did not arise. In this theatre the platform was an encumbrance, and it was discovered that it could be dispensed with. There are no reports of the top carriage being used.

Sixth photo

6 in Howitzer BL - in South Africa

The ammunition was heavy and the range short. Several charges were available so that the angle of descent could be varied. In 1901 a 100 lb shell was introduced and, with this, the range was increased to 7,000 yds.


Calibre  6.3 in
Weight of gun  18 cwt
Ammunition  Common, star, case
Weight of shell: Common  72 lbs
Star  11 lbs
Case  49 lbs 14.5 ozs
Range: Common  4,000 yds

The 6.3 in howitzer came into service in the British Army in 1878. Two were in Port Elizabeth at the outbreak of war and were sent urgently to Ladysmith just before the siege. Known as Castor and Pollux, they were a welcome addition to the defences. One gun was with the Boer forces and was captured when Johannesburg fell.

Seventh photo

6.3 in Howitzer RML - note that the carriage is the same as that of the 5 in BL

Up till 1878, a rifled muzzle loader's shell had projecting studs which slotted into the rifling. This system had proved unsatisfactory as excessive windage caused considerable erosion in the bore. It was necessary, therefore, to devise some means of preventing the forward escape of gases when the gun was fired.

The first solution was a papier mache cup which was placed between the base of the shell and the cartridge. This was called a gas-check. It was found that, apart from preventing windage, the gas-check increased the range of the gun.

After several experiments, copper was found to be the best check, and it was adopted in 1878. At this time the gas-check was not fitted to the base of the shell but rotated independently. When it was suggested that it might, by being fixed to the shell, also be used to impart rotation, the studs on the shell were dispensed with and the gas-check became the driving band. This development was first applied with this equipment. Today, every shell has a driving band.

Castor and Pollux now stand in front of Ladysmith Town Hall.

Eighth photo

9.2 in BL - this photograph was taken in Belfast in August 1900

9.2 in BL

Calibre 9.2 in
Weight of gun complete 22 tons
Ammunition  Common shell
Weight of shell  380 lbs
Range  14,000 yds

Manned by the Cape Garrison Artillery, this gun was dismounted from the Cape Town defences and placed upon a railway truck. It got as far as Belfast but was too late for the action at Bergendal. It was the only one of its kind sent to the front.


Calibre  9.45 in/24 cm
Weight of gun complete 9 tons approx.
Ammunition  Common shell
Weight of shell  280 lbs.

In November 1899, four 24 cm howitzers on mobile mountings were being made by Skoda of Pilsen. When it was discovered that a German agent was negotiating with a view to purchase, it was realised that the ultimate destination would probably be the Transvaal.

The British moved in and, by February 1900, a deal had been effected. Officers were sent to Pilsen to learn the workings of the guns and a company was despatched to South Africa in order to receive them.

After all this, their services were not required in this theatre. They fired only one round, when a picquet on a hill outside Pretoria was attacked. The officer commanding had been waiting for weeks for the chance of a shot. When he spotted the enemy, he promptly supported the picquet by firing a round over their heads at the Boers who were frightened away.

When trouble started in China, the guns were sent there, but once again there was to be disappointment. Peking was captured without their aid, and they returned to England without having had the opportunity to prove their worth. No photographs are available.



Various other guns saw service in South Africa, but none was significant. Some, however, caught the imagination of the public and are described here. They were:

37 mm Maxim automatic machine gun ('Pom-Pom')
'Lord Nelson'
'The Wolf'
4.1 in BL 'Long Cecil'

Ninth photo

37 mm Maxim Automatic Machine Gun ('Pom-Pom') - a shield was normally fitted

Calibre  37 mm/l.5 in
Weight behind the gun team  27 cwt
Ammunition  Explosive rounds
Weight of round  1 lb
Range  3,000 yds approx.

This weapon was originally used by the Boers, and has already been described in Part 3. After their success with it in the early battles, 57 were ordered for the British Army. Three arrived in time for Paardeberg.

On the British side it filled the gap between the machine gun and the RHA 12 pr. It was useful in reconnaissance work, for driving off snipers and for preventing small parties from checking mounted troops. It often proved of the greatest service when used boldly. Its burst could easily be seen, and it proved a useful practical range-finder for the infantry.

Tenth photo

'Lord Nelson" - made in 1770, it was used in Mafeking during the siege


Constructed in 1770, this old gun was used in Mafeking during the siege. It had originally been presented to Montsioa, a local chief, but had then lain buried for 20 years. At the beginning of the siege it was unearthed and handed over to the military by Wessels, Montsioa's son.

It was a smooth-bore muzzle loader, over a century old, firing round balls, and, curiously, the initials of the founder, stamped on it, were 'BP and Co'.


Eleventh photo

'The Wolf' - made in Mafeking and used during the siege

Calibre  6 in
Weight of shell  18 lbs
Range 4,000 yds approx.

This gun and its ammunition were made in Mafeking. It was used during the siege.

4.1 in BL ('Long Cecil')

Calibre  4.1 in
Weight of gun  2,800 lbs
Weight of gun complete  3 tons
Ammunition Common shell
Weight of shell  28.25 lbs
Range 7,000 yds approx.

Twelfth photo

'Long Cecil' - Mr Labram is leaning on the wheel

At the beginning of the siege, the artillery defence of Kimberley consisted only of 7 prs and 2.5 in RMLs. An American engineer with de Beers, Mr George Labram, therefore, suggested that he should attempt to make a gun of a calibre better able to deal with the Boer guns. This gun was designed and constructed by engineers who had no previous experience of ordnance manufacture, without special plant or arrangements, and on designs adapted from descriptions found in a stray copy of an engineering journal.

Its construction, from the day that designs were fashioned, took 24 days and, on the next day, it was in action against the enemy. During the first few days, it occasionally broke down, but the defects were soon remedied and it remained in action until the end of the siege.

Thirteenth photo

'Long Cecil' - as the gun appears in Kimberley today

'Long Cecil' fired 225 shells against the Boers at an average range of 5,000 yds. Its activity forced the Boers to send for a 'Long Tom'. Ironically, Mr Labram was killed by one of the first shells that this 'Long Tom' fired into Kimberley. 'Long Cecil' can still be seen in Kimberley, where it stands in memory of those who defended the town during the siege.


Apart from describing the guns in use in South Africa, this review illustrates, to a certain extent, the thinking and tactics of both sides. Although some of their equipment was superior, the Boers nevertheless failed to derive full benefit from this advantage. This was partly because of their methods, and partly because their artillery was outnumbered in the field - increasingly so as time went on.

In most cases the British guns were inferior, but they were used boldly and discipline was very good. The British concentrated their fire more than did the Boers, and this helped them overcome their difficulties. Nevertheless, three years of war convinced the Royal Artillery that they must develop new guns, and improve the tactical handling of artillery in the field. The lessons they learnt in South Africa were to stand them in good stead in 1914.

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