Book Review: A History of Artillery


by Jeremy Black

Lanham / New York / London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2023. Pp. xx, 2022. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $95.00 / £73.00. ISBN: 1538178192

Artillery, From Catapults to Cannon to Missiles

A History of Artillery, by noted military historian (and noted NYMAS supporter) Jeremy Black, is yet another tightly written, extensive, and entertaining book on military history from this prolific author. In it, he traces the development of artillery from its pre-gunpowder origins through the Cold War. The book is chronological in structure, with each century having its own chapter or chapters. A final chapter draws some conclusions.

The opening chapter surveys pre-gunpowder weaponry, such as trebuchets and catapults, and their use by various cultures. Most such weapons were used in sieges, although Alexander the Great did use them for anti-personnel attacks. All these weapons used some form of mechanical energy, such as torsion or levering with heavy weights.

Chapter 2 heralds the arrival of gunpowder from China, ushering in the change to chemical means of propelling projectiles. New technologies develop, both in propellent and metal gun-tube science. Sea warfare is greatly affected, with ship-killing cannon coming to the fore.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 deal with the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and the spread of weaponry around the world. China, India and SE Asia are all included in detailed discussions. The first artillery manuals appear; the printing press allows for information to circulate far more widely. Flat-trajectory guns, as opposed to high-angle howitzers and mortars, become more prominent on battlefields. European mercenaries help to spread the new technology around the world, with Russia, Austria and Prussia eagerly following developments.

The Nineteenth Century rates 2 chapters. Napoleon reorganizes French artillery tactics, and teaches everyone new methods of usage. Shrapnel is developed, along with rifling, which greatly extends range and accuracy. Breech-loaders begin to replace muzzle-loaders, and ship-borne cannon become fewer, but much more powerful; HMS Dreadnought is launched, the first all big-gun vessel.

Chapter 8 covers World War I, the “artilleryman’s war.” Mass industrialization provided virtually unlimited firepower to both sides, thus ushering the in trench lines so redolent of the struggle. Slugging took the place of maneuver, with an estimated 60% of all casualties being caused by artillery. Forward observers (including aerial) become central, as increased range moves artillery back out of sight. Aerial observation comes to include bombing, thus causing the development of fighter aircraft for defense. Photography also develops, aiding in mapping and evaluation of results. Anti-tank weaponry moves along, with the improvement of AFVs.

The interwar years are discussed briefly, with WWII coming as the culmination of interwar trends. Improvements in radio, tank (and anti-tank) technology, and command and control give commanders on both sides better control of the battlefield. At sea, the big-gun battleship gives way to the aircraft carrier.

Cold War era (and after) is covered next, with Viet Nam and the Middle East receiving a lot of attention. Tanks (now with stabilized main guns) become part of the artillery park. The U.S. beginning to develop precision-guided munitions, which revolutionizes accuracy; combined with the rise in drone development, and the integration of satellite data, today’s battlefield is rather different in tone than preceding conflicts.

In short, Prof. Black has produced an entertaining, yet concise history of heavy weaponry, from its beginnings to the present day. I enjoyed reading this work; I think you will, too.


Our Reviewer: Bob Bulko, a long time student of military affairs, is Secretary and Member of the Board of NYMAS




Note: A History of Artillery is also available in paperback and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Robert J. Bulko   

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