Review: The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War

The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War, by Edward B. McCaul, Jr., (McFarland, 2010).  Paperback, 129 pages main, 217 pages total. $35.00.

Bottom line up front.  The Mechanical Fuze is a work which details the technical history of a weapons systems component.  It is not for light reading, or for those who are easily bored with descriptions of working components.  The intended audience for this book is one interested in the functionality of artillery during the Civil War.

Fuses, according to McCaul, are an overlooked component of the artillery weapon system.  Other authors have failed to appreciate the success and failures with regard to fuse technology and the impact upon the war.  At least from a tactical standpoint, McCaul feels, “The combination of rifled artillery and mechanical fuses changed warfare.”  Adding, “For the first time battlefields had become so dangerous that, by the middle of the Civil War, if a man could be seen, he could be killed.”  McCaul attributes the Federal advantage in the artillery arm in part to the superior weapon design process in the north.

With due respect to advocates of the rifled musket, sharpshooters, and the repeating rifle, the author’s premise carries some weight.  McCaul frames the discussion with reference to the Weapon System Pyramid – the three legs of industrial capacity, technical availability, and military need.   The linkage of these three legs requires constant feedback to refine and improve the design.

Bear in mind, McCaul focuses most upon the fuses provided to rifled artillery, which represented the most technically advanced weapons of the arm during the war.  Building up to that examination, the author first provides a historical and technical overview of the other components of the weapon system.  Short chapters detail the evolution of gunpowder and the US military standards applied, pre-war wood and paper fuses, and the cannon themselves.  Included are very descriptive explanations of the Bormann time fuse and the Navy water cap fuse – both widely used during the war and important starting points.

The middle chapters of the book focus less on the technical aspects and more on the production and operational use of the weapon system.  Certainly the chief disadvantage faced by the Confederacy throughout the war was limited manufacturing capacity.  McCaul documents the imbalance referring to the number of arsenals, armories, and private manufacturing firms in the respective regions.  Another chapter, somewhat longer, discusses the operational use of artillery in the war, with of course weight toward the use of fuses.  Rifled artillery, because of its nearly non-existent windage, presented a technical problem not solved by flame-ignited fuses of pre-war origin.  In order to make the most of rifled artillery’s range, the military called for new fuse technologies.

Inventors were certainly up to the challenge.  From 1855 to 1872, the United States issued 115 fuse-related patents (83 of them between January 1861 and December 1864 alone).  In addition to variations of the old flame-ignition pattern, these new fuses included concussion timing, friction timing, percussion impact, concussion impact, and combination types.  Remarkably these patterns formed the basis of all fuses developed up until World War II (with variable time and proximity fuses).

Most of the proposed innovations and patented fuses failed to see service.  But those of three inventors – Benjamin Hotchkiss, Robert P. Parrott, and John P. Schenkl –  became the principal sources for rifled artillery mechanical fuses.  Each inventor offered projectile designs in addition to fuses, and of course Parrott also developed the guns themselves.   McCaul explains these inventors worked both competitively and in cooperation, with regular correspondence with each other, and the military customer.   The last chapter of the book details post-Civil War developments which built upon the wartime progress.

McCaul provides appendices which enumerate the US and British fuse patents granted from 1855 to the 1870s.  An appendix with short biographies of the people involved with ordnance development (both in and outside the military) and another detailing the pre-war production facilities (armories, arsenals, yards, foundries and factories) round out the book.

I would be hard pressed to offer any sources not listed in McCaul’s bibliography.  The bases are well covered.  However, unlike perhaps a battle or unit history, the author is also reliant on physical artifacts as perhaps even more valuable source material than the written word.  From the text and citations it is clear McCaul  calls upon a hands-on familiarity with the fuses.

If anything I find two shortfalls in the book.  First, very limited discussion of Confederate fuse technology.  Granted, the Confederacy’s fuse production largely copied that of the Federals, there were certainly a few variations of note.  Even if the Confederate ordnance sources lacked the ability to produce advanced fuses, certainly they were aware of the problems.  A discussion of their suggested solutions might serve as a good comparison.

Secondly, even with a chapter discussing the operational role of artillery in the war, there is insufficient, in my opinion, linkage to the battlefield.  If indeed the rifled cannon with its mechanical fuse changed the battlefield (as I am apt to agree!), then what metrics can we advance to prove such?

Regardless, I found The Mechanical Fuze informative.  While short in volume, the work is heavy on details.  The description of the inner workings and components of the various fuses exceeded those I’ve encountered before.  Illustrations in the book provide handy reference, and are clearly drawn.  More importantly, McCaul sheds much-needed light on some rather obscure aspects of Civil War weapon system development.

It is a welcome addition to my bookshelf.