Shells and Shooting
by Willy Ley

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Modern Age, New York; 1942
223 pages; many diagrams
April 2009


The original source for what is usually called the "Bertholdus legend" is an anonymous book called the Fireworks-Book, the earliest copies of which date back to a time shortly after 1410. This Fireworks-Book relates that gunnery began when "Magister Bertholdus" made alchemistic experiments. ... After a short while the vessel burst with terrifying noise, doing much damage to everything in the laboratory. ...

This is what actually happened [while attempting] the transmutation of mercury. ... Imprisoned in mercury, the alchemists presumed, was a spirit or "basilisk," which had to be expelled. ...

i presume that alchemists probably felt certain that "black powder" behaved as it did because the "basilisk" suddenly escaped from it when it was "expelled" by a spark. ...

An engaging history of artillery

Let Me Do the Talking - Homer Ansley, WW2 One could hardly find a more pleasantly informative writer than Willy Ley to write a history of artillery, nor an author so steeped in the traditions of launching projectiles. Shells and Shooting is a technical history, but it is very readable. Although occasional commanding names such as Napoleon and Gustavus Adolphus, inventive ones such as Berthold and Shrapnel, or more often manufacturing ones such as Krupp and Skoda, find their way into the narrative, this is the history of a family of related technologies.

The development of artillery, broadly conceived, cannot be separated from the evolution of firearms in general, but particularly of gunpowder, related difficulties of casting or assembling sufficiently strong gun-barrels, the principle of range-finding, understanding high-angle fire versus flat-trajectory fire, and so on. In all these, the many clear drawings and diagrams, most by Willy Ley himself, are greatly helpful.

Shells and Shooting is definitely not an Army manual. It is more like a warlike cousin of Ley's wonderful natural histories of extinct and mythical beasts and plants.

Baseball, discus, grenades

Here's an example. Among grenades, the German "potato-masher" is classified as an offensive weapon, and the American "pineapple" as defensive. This is one of the topics where Willy Ley, German-born, adds personal observation to history and analysis:

As a missile, the stick grenade is definitely superior to the stickless; the leverage provided by the stick furnishes an additional range of at least twenty yards. But a stick grenade is not thrown like a ball. If, as in America, most of the men in an army have played baseball, it is probably safer to give them a grenade that can be thrown like a baseball. Since baseball is not played in continental Europe, the German High Command could issue the longer range stick-type without hesitation. I can testify to the superiority of the stick type from private experiments with wooden dummies. Not only did I attain a much longer range, but also my arm did not tire nearly so quickly. However, I once practiced some discus throwing; I have never played a game of ball in my life.

The stick-type has only one disadvantage: it is not easy to throw the grenade from a trench. In World War I soldiers often hit the back wall of the trench while swinging for the toss, and that frequently caused the grenade to burst instantly. The Germans solved this difficulty by picking one or two crack throwers to crawl out of the trench and throw without cover; men in the trenches handed grenades up to them with the strings already pulled.

And in case you thought discus practice might not be that helpful:

For some time the Germans employed a flat "discus grenade," thrown precisely like the classical discus. ...

From grenades, Ley goes on to the development of various kinds of trench artillery, in which he includes mine throwers, trench mortars, and flame-throwers.

Among other specialized functions, the author discusses anti-aircraft guns with their features and tactics, airplane-mounted guns, recoilless artillery, as well as battle rockets — which latter is the seed of Ley's Rockets and evolving into his famous Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel.

Big Ordnance and distant targets

The "extreme guns" material here deals with the search for Big Ordnance, or Great Bombards, present almost from the beginnings:

The first monster cannon was the Dulle Griete, built in 1380 and used in 1411. It was simply a gigantic firing tube, sixteen feet long and weighing thirteen tons, with an inside diameter of twenty-five inches. It fired a stone ball weighing roughly 700 pounds, and that ball, if and when it hit, naturally disposed of what was then considered a solid fortification.

The cream of the crop, though, is the German Army's Paris Gun of World War I — after the war often confused with the "Big Bertha" super-howitzers. This long-range gun could fire eighty miles, a spectacular technical feat although not helpful militarily. Its history is most interesting — for instance, its combat air patrol of forty planes to prevent surveillance — and draws together a number of the technologies and tactics Ley has shown us in other cannon and other conflicts. The Paris Gun's tactical secrecy and logistical misadventures are related neatly beside its success at blasting random Parisian streets.

What I find particularly fascinating in Ley's account of the Paris Gun is its stratospheric arc and his comparison of air resistance with the abstract or Platonic ideal of vacuum range: the performance of a bullet or shell without having to push air out of its way. I trace my curiosity about shooting in vacuum to my first reading of Robert A. Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo with its use of firearms on the Moon. I also recall, with more tolerance after reading Ley's account, the almost-prophetical Baltimore Gun Club in Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.

From grenade tactics to giant howitzers, there's a lot here. How can one not be bemused by an exploding discus, or a gun for which an ordinary truck can carry only one round, like a single giant log on an Oregon logging truck?

While you will find the delights of Willy Ley's Shells and Shooting mostly more measured than explosive, this is a very good history.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


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