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French TRF1 155 mm gun-howitzer

A howitzer is a type of artillery piece that is characterized by a relatively short barrel (barrel length 15 to 25 times the caliber of the gun) and the use of comparatively small explosive charges to propel projectiles at relatively high trajectories, with a steep angle of descent. In the taxonomies of artillery pieces used by European (and European-style) armies in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the howitzer stood between the "gun" (which was characterized by a longer barrel, larger propelling charges, smaller shells, higher velocities and flatter trajectories) and the "mortar" (which has the ability to fire projectiles at even higher angles of ascent and descent). Howitzers, like other artillery pieces, are usually organized in groups called batteries.



Howitzer at the Colorado State Capitol

The English word howitzer derives from the German word Haufen (heap) which as Gewalthaufen designated a pike square formation, as weapon name haufnize. Already in the Battle of Grunwald (1410), the Teutonic Knights used artillery[1] which was intended to break up enemy formations. In the Hussite Wars of the 1420s and 1430s, the Czechs used short barreled "houfnice"[2] cannons to fire at short distances into such crowds of Haufen infantry ("houf" came in use as the Czech word for crowd[3]), or into charging heavy cavalry, to make horses shy away.[4] From the aufeniz mentioned in 1440 derive the German Haussnitz and later Haubitze, the Swedish haubits, Finnish haupitsi, Italian obice, Spanish obús, Portuguese obus and the Dutch word houwitser which led to the English word howitzer .

Since the First World War, the word howitzer has been increasingly used to describe artillery pieces that, strictly speaking, belong to the category of gun-howitzer - relatively long barrels and high muzzle velocity combined with multiple propelling charges and high maximum elevation. This is particularly true in the armed forces of the United States, where gun-howitzers have been officially described as "howitzers" for more than sixty years. Because of this practice, the word "howitzer" is used in some armies as a generic term for any kind of artillery piece that is designed to attack targets using indirect fire. Thus, artillery pieces that bear little resemblance to howitzers of earlier eras are now described as howitzers, although the British, perhaps favoring brevity, call them guns. Most other armies in the world still reserve the word howitzer for guns with barrel length 15 to 25 times its caliber, longer-barreled guns being cannons.

The British had a further method of nomenclature that they adopted in the nineteenth century. Guns were categorized by projectile weight in pounds while howitzers were categorized by caliber in inches. This system broke down in the 1930s with the introduction of gun-howitzers.



Early modern period

Mountain howitzer firing

The Abus gun was an early form of howitzer created by the Ottoman Empire. Abus guns were a significant part of the Ottoman Empire's artillery, and could perhaps even be referred to as the signature piece of artillery during the height of the Empire's power, in the 16th and 17th centuries, for no other civilization used a gun quite like this gun up until this time.[5]

The modern howitzers were invented in Sweden towards the end of the seventeenth century. These were characterized by a shorter trail than other field guns meaning less stability when firing, which reduced the amount of powder that could be used; armies using these had to rely on a greater elevation angle to achieve a given range, which gave a steeper angle of descent.[citation needed]

Originally intended for use in siege warfare, they were particularly useful for delivering cast-iron shells filled with gunpowder or incendiary materials into the interior of fortifications. In contrast to contemporary mortars, which were fired at a fixed angle and were entirely dependent upon adjustments to the size of propellant charges to vary range, howitzers could be fired at a wide variety of angles. Thus, while howitzer gunnery was more complicated than the technique of employing mortars, the howitzer was an inherently more flexible weapon that could fire its projectiles along a wide variety of trajectories.[6]

In the middle of the eighteenth century a number of European armies began to introduce howitzers that were mobile enough to accompany armies in the field. Though usually fired at the relatively high angles of fire used by contemporary siege howitzers, these field howitzers were rarely defined by this capability. Rather, as the field guns of the day were usually restricted to inert projectiles (which relied entirely upon momentum to achieve their destructive effects), the field howitzers of the eighteenth century were chiefly valued for their ability to fire explosive shells. Many, for the sake of simplicity and rapidity of fire, dispensed with adjustable propellant charges.[7]

Nineteenth century 12 pounder (5 kg) mountain howitzer displayed by the National Park Service at Fort Laramie in Wyoming, United States

In the mid-nineteenth century, some armies attempted to simplify their artillery parks by introducing smoothbore artillery pieces that were designed to fire both explosive projectiles and cannonballs, thereby replacing both field howitzers and field guns. The most famous of these "gun-howitzers" was the Napoleon 12-pounder, a weapon of French design that saw extensive service in the American Civil War.[8] The longest-serving artillery piece of the nineteenth century was the mountain howitzer, which saw service from the War with Mexico to the Spanish-American War.

In 1859 the armies of Europe (to include those which had recently adopted gun-howitzers) began to rearm their field batteries with rifled field guns. These new field pieces used cylindrical projectiles that, while smaller in caliber than the spherical shells of smoothbore field howitzers, could carry a comparable charge of gunpowder. Moreover, their greater range allowed them to create many of the same effects (such as firing over low walls) that had previously required the sharply curved trajectories of smoothbore field howitzers. Because of this, military authorities saw no point in obtaining rifled field howitzers to replace their smoothbore counterparts but, instead, used rifled field guns to replace both guns and howitzers.[9]

A United States Mountain howitzer at the Battle of Apache Pass, 1862.

In siege warfare the introduction of rifling had the opposite effect. In the 1860s artillery officers discovered that rifled siege howitzers (which were substantially larger than field howitzers) were a much more efficient means of destroying walls (and particularly walls that were protected by intervening obstacles of certain kinds) than either siege guns or siege mortars. Thus, at the same time that armies were taking howitzers of one sort out of their field batteries, they were introducing howitzers of another sort into their siege trains and fortresses. The lightest of these weapons (which would later become known as "light siege howitzers") had calibers in the vicinity of 150 mm or so and fired shells that weighed between 40 and 50 kilograms. The heaviest (which would later be called "medium siege howitzers") had calibers between 200 mm and 220 mm and fired shells that weighed about 100 kilograms (220 pounds).[10]

In the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 the inability of rifled field guns to inflict significant damage upon field fortifications led to a revival of interest in field howitzers. By the 1890s a number of European armies fielded either light (105 mm to 127 mm) or heavy (149 mm to 155 mm) field howitzers and a few, such as that of Germany, fielded both.[citation needed]

A United States howitzer during the Battle of Manila, 1899.

During the 1880s a third type of siege howitzer was added to inventories of a number of European armies. With calibers that ranged between 240 mm and 270 mm and shells that weighed more than 150 kilos, these soon came to be known as "heavy siege howitzers." A good example of a weapon of this class is provided by the 9.45-inch (240 mm) weapon that the British Army purchased from the Skoda works in 1899. Intended for use against the fortifications of Pretoria, which fell before the howitzer could be used, and subsequently deployed to China for use against the fortifications of Peking, which also fell without a siege, the 9.45-inch (240 mm) howitzer was never fired in anger.[citation needed]

Twentieth century

15-inch howitzer of the Royal Marine Artillery

In the early twentieth century the introduction of howitzers that were significantly larger than the heavy siege howitzers of the day made necessary the creation of a fourth category, that of "super-heavy siege howitzers". Weapons of this category include the famous Big Bertha of the German Army and the 15-inch (381 mm) howitzer of the Royal Marine Artillery. These large howitzers were transported mechanically rather than by teams of horses. They were transported as several loads and had to be assembled on their firing position.[citation needed]

These field howitzers introduced at the end of the nineteenth century could fire shells with high trajectories giving a steep angle of descent and, as a result, could strike targets that were protected by intervening obstacles. They could also fire shells that were about twice as large as shells fired by guns of the same size. Thus, while a 75 mm field gun that weighed one ton or so was limited to shells that weighed less than 8 kilograms, a 105 mm howitzer of the same weight could fire 15 kilogram shells. This is a matter of fundamental mechanics affecting the stability and hence the weight of the carriage. However, howitzers had a shorter maximum range than the equivalent gun.[citation needed]

US M198 gun-howitzer

As heavy field howitzers and light siege howitzers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used ammunition of the same size and types, there was a marked tendency for the two types to merge. At first this was largely a matter of the same basic weapon being employed on two different mountings. Later, as on-carriage recoil-absorbing systems eliminated many of the advantages that siege platforms had enjoyed over field carriages, the same combination of barrel assembly, recoil mechanism and carriage was used in both roles.[citation needed]

By the early twentieth century the differences between guns and howitzers were relative not absolute and generally recognized[11] as follows:

  • Guns - higher velocity and longer range, single charge propellant, maximum elevation generally less than 35 degrees.
  • Howitzers - lower velocity and shorter range, multi-charge propellant, maximum elevation typically more than 45 degrees.

The onset of trench warfare after the first few months of First World War greatly increased the demand for howitzers that gave a steep angle of descent, which were better suited than guns to the task of striking targets on a horizontal plane (such as trenches), with large amounts of explosive and considerably less barrel wear. The German army was well equipped with howitzers, having far more at the beginning of the war than France.[12]

German 10.5 cm leFH 18/40 howitzer (dating from World War II), employed as a monument on the site of the World War I Battle of Turtucaia.

Many howitzers introduced in the course of World War I had longer barrels than pre-war howitzers. The standard German light field howitzer at the start of the war (the 10.5 cm leichte Feldhaubitze 98/09) had a barrel that was 16 calibers long, but the light field howitzer adopted by the German Army in 1916 (105 mm leichte Feldhaubitze 16, see on the left) had a barrel that was 22 calibers long. At the same time, new models of field gun introduced during that conflict, such as the 77 mm field gun adopted by the German Army in 1916 (7,7 cm Feldkanone 16) were often provided with carriages that allowed firing at comparatively high angles, and adjustable propellant cartridges. [13]In other words, there was a marked tendency for howitzers to become more "gun-like" while guns were taking on some of the attributes of howitzers.[citation needed]

Nine-person gun crew firing a US M198 howitzer

In the years after World War I, the tendency of guns and howitzers to acquire each other's characteristics led to the renaissance of the concept of the gun-howitzer. This was a product of technical advances such as the French invention of autofrettage just before World War I, which led to stronger and lighter barrels, the use of cut-off gear to control recoil length depending on firing elevation angle, and the invention of muzzle brakes to reduce recoil forces. Like the gun-howitzers of the nineteenth century, those of the twentieth century replaced both guns and howitzers. Thus, the 25-pounder "gun-howitzer" of the British Army replaced both the 18-pounder field gun and the 4.5-inch howitzer.[citation needed] While this had the effect of simplifying such things as organization, training and the supply of ammunition, it created considerable confusion in the realm of nomenclature.[citation needed]

Breech of a US M109 self-propelled gun-howitzer

In the US Army, however, the preferred term was "howitzer". Thus, as gun-howitzers replaced both guns and howitzers, words such as "obusier" (French) and "Haubitze" (German), which had originally been used to designate weapons with relatively short barrels, were applied to weapons with much longer barrels.[citation needed]

Since World War II most of the artillery pieces adopted by land armies for attacking targets on land have combined the traditional characteristics of guns and howitzers—high muzzle velocity, long barrels, long range, multiple charges and maximum elevation angles greater than 45 degrees. The term "gun-howitzer" is sometimes used for these (e.g., in Russia); many nations use "howitzer" while the UK calls them "guns", see, for example Gun, 105mm, Field, L118.


Self-propelled howitzer PzH 2000 of the German Army
  • A self-propelled howitzer is mounted on a tracked or wheeled motor vehicle. In many cases, it is protected by some sort of armor so that it superficially resembles a tank.
  • A pack howitzer is a relatively light howitzer that is designed to be easily broken down into several pieces, each of which is small enough to be carried by a mule or a packhorse.
  • A mountain howitzer is a relatively light howitzer designed for use in mountainous terrain. Most, but not all, mountain howitzers are also pack howitzers.
  • A siege howitzer is a howitzer that is designed to be fired from a mounting on a fixed platform of some sort.
  • A field howitzer is a howitzer that is mobile enough to accompany a field army on campaign. It is invariably provided with a wheeled carriage of some sort.


For more examples, see List of artillery

See also


  1. ^ Stephen R. Turnbull: Tannenberg 1410 Disaster for the Teutonic Knights, p. 45
  2. ^ Stephen Turnbull: The Hussite Wars, 1419-36 [1]
  3. ^ Christopher Gravett: German Medieval Armies 1300-1500 [2]
  4. ^ The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1973), I, p. 992
  5. ^ William Johnson, "The Sultan's Big Guns." Dragoman, vol.1, no.2 [3]
  6. ^ OFG Hogg Artillery: its Origin, Heyday and Decline (London: C Hurst & Co, 1970), pp. 94
  7. ^ Heinrich Rohne, "Zur Geschichte der schweren Feldhaubitze", Jahrbücher für die deutsche Armee und Marine, No. 423, pp. 567-68
  8. ^ Ildefonse Favé, “Résumé des progrès de l’artillerie depuis l’année 1800 jusqu’a l’année 1853”, in Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and Ildefonse Favé, Études sur le passé et l'avenir de de l'artillerie, (Paris: J. Dumaine, 1846-71), V, p. 223-25
  9. ^ Charles Thoumas, Les transformations de l'Armée française: essais d'histoire et de critique sur l'état militaire de la France, (Paris : Berger-Levrault, 1887), II, p. 123-26
  10. ^ Hermann von Müller, Die Entwickelung der deutschen Festungs und Belagerungstrains, (Berlin: E. S. Mittler, 1896), pp. 328-35
  11. ^ HA Bethell, Modern Guns and Gunnery, (Woolwich: F.J. Cattermole, 1905, 1907, 1910)
  12. ^ Gudmundsson, Bruce I. (1993). On Artillery. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0275940470. 
  13. ^ Hans Linnenkohl, Vom Einzelschuss zur Feuerwalze, (Koblenz: Bernard und Graefe, 1990), pp. 86 and 219-220

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