Fist Of History

September, 2014Archive for

The Atomic Cannons – Full-size and Fun-size

Monday, September 29th, 2014


Meet the M65 Atomic Cannon, one of the more interesting atomic weapon deployment systems created by the United States military during the Cold War.  The M65 Atomic Cannon was developed in the early 1950s and was deployed in Europe and Korea to provide a moderate range tactical deployment method for stopping large scale military assaults with atomic shells.  The M65 Atomic Cannon fired a 240mm shell and could lob an atomic shell approximately twenty miles.  It was only actually used once with a test fire shot at the Nevada test site.  The test was successful and the weapon demonstrated it could fire an atomic shell without the “firing” part of the process accidentally setting off the nuke in the guns barrel.


The M65 atomic cannon, although technically a functional weapon, was never something considered a serious means of halting any sort of major or minor tactical movements.  The weapon was a slow-moving vehicle, it would be hard to defend in actual battle, and the number of technical situations where it would be really useful in contrast to a nuclear weapon carried by a missile or an aircraft were fairly minor.  What it was though was a big, impressive cannon that could be used to shore up local defenders feeling of superiority to a threat and scare up possible aggressors with the threat of massive atomic shells raining down.  (Hence its consideration as a “prestige weapon.”)  At a cost of $800,000 (nearly $8 million in today’s currency) each these weapons were deployed in Europe and Korea and moved around regularly so that enemy air attack, if it occurred, wouldn’t destroy them immediately.


On the other side of Cold War crazy nuclear weapons systems is the Davy Crockett, a small nuclear weapon launcher that could be either mounted on a jeep or carried by a team of infantry men into battle.  The Davy Crockett used an extremely small tactical nuclear weapon and was fairly inaccurate when fired, it’s main plan was to be used for deterrent effect and also to create pockets of lethal radiation in advancing enemy troops.  The Davy Crockett was deployed from the mid-1950s through the late 1960s and was stationed with United States troops in Germany.  In its single atomic warhead test it showed it had a firing range of about one and a half miles, making it a rather “cozy” ranged nuclear weapon.

Both weapons were a product of the broader fears in the 1950s regarding the Cold War, the United States strategically was in a transitional period, facing two competing challenges, on the one hand building a sufficient strategic nuclear force to allow war against the Soviet Union to be successfully waged and render its military capacity moot and also facing a potential tactical challenge of stopping a far larger Soviet ground military with limited ground troops in Europe.  These two nuclear weapons delivery systems were both responses to that second challenge, a lower-cost means of harnessing the “wonder of atomic weapons” to tactical battlefield use.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the M65 atomic cannon and Davy Crockett nuclear rifle

Politics and United States History

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014


I make it a point to carefully screen online articles these days that seem designed to stir up controversy on issues of history, but the chatter going around about conservative efforts to edit the Common Core United States history materials to promote values of “nationalism, patriotism, and American Exceptionalism” seems to be a genuine conservative element.  (Articles linking to it are here, here, and here.)  The cornerstone debate seems to hinge on several issues, one of the core issues is the argument that the AP materials move away from “Great Heroes” and towards “Social and Economic Forces” to which my response is, welcome to the 1970s!  In teaching United States history college professors, since the 1970s, have abandoned the “Great Heroes” school of teaching and moved towards social and economic forces as a means of capturing mass consent/mass movements and how they shaped history.  The most current cutting edge historical work is a blending of both perspectives, arguing that social/economic forces are critical but also often key individuals form nexus points to spark historical change.  So in that regard, the conservatives complaints are understandable, but for 17 and 18 year old students ramming into this material for the first time, no, they actually need the full “Social and Economic Forces Shape History” mind-blowing moment to properly understand United States History – the adult version.

Regarding complaints by conservatives that material should instill “patriotism, nationalism” and contain materials expressing a respect for “law and free market capitalism” – well that gets a bit more complicated.  My personal favorite example is the Boston Tea Party, 1773, which actually captures both the power of “free market capitalism” and “civil unrest” – one of the subjects conservatives wish to, at the most generous, minimize in the material.  The Boston Tea Party was due to many interconnected factors but one of the core issues was that it represented a government enforced advantage to a preferred provider (the East India Company) that was resolved by lawless behavior, throwing boxes of private property into the harbor.  (In reality also climbing into boats and smashing open the boxes with axes while the sat in the harbor, it was low tide at the time and human screw-ups are a theme throughout history.)  The Boston Tea Party is also one of the core “feel good” stories of the American Revolution, as is the Boston Massacre [more civil disorder] and the entire initial American revolution [armed insurrection against the legal authorities.]


Want to argue that those “don’t count” because they are rebellions against British law and order?  Fine – the Whiskey Rebellion, an armed uprising by western Pennsylvania farmers against what they saw as unfair taxation by the United States federal government in 1793.  That image you see above, by the way, is a federal tax collector being tarred and feathered by the farmers to drive home their point they don’t wish to pay the tax.  Why the rebellion against the tax?  Again, many reasons but at a simple core point, they felt it an unfair tax because it overly impacted the western territories which lacked sufficient political power to oppose the action in Congress and have their opposition have meaning.

Not to be crude but that is a Right-wing wet dream up there of “proper” rebellion against authority, it even depicts, again, free market forces raging against government tax tyranny.


The thing that really pisses me off though, as a historian, is the complaint by the right that the AP History material makes the United States look too evil, makes corporations look too destructive, and doesn’t present any event with a clear sheen of heroism in it.  The picture above is from the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, which the right would probably prefer to describe as a “battle” – in which when U.S. Troops of the 7th Cavalry were escorting Lakota tribal members (by “escorting” we mean “forcing back to their approved territory”) and there was an incident with a single gunshot being fired, no one is sure who opened fire.  The U.S. soldiers then proceed to slaughter the Lakota using vastly superior firepower, when several Lakota attempted to flee they were chased by the troops and shot down.   The fire was so undisciplined and the urge to slaughter so powerful far more U.S. troops were hurt by friendly fire then by the Lakota shooting at them.

By the way this was the same 7th Cavalry that in 1876 had its ass kicked by a combined force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes – do you think there might be some possible effort in this battle to offset the sting of a past defeat?

The answer by the way, is not necessarily known, it would require assessing letters written by solders at the time, the post action report, and news coverage of the event.  It would be an involved examination of many sources of material, a careful discussion of what they might mean, and careful and thoughtful analysis by those studying the issue.  In other words, perfect fodder for AP high school students to discuss.

But make no mistake, that image, and what happened, is an ugly moment in United States history.  There are plenty of ugly moments in U.S. history.  There are also moments of amazing beauty in U.S. history.  But all of those moments have a good dollop of good and bad in them.  The realization of that fact is when you move from understanding history in a simplistic manner and shift into understanding it on a more nuanced level.

I’d like to leave you with a story from my own studies when I was getting my Masters in history – I was taking a course on the history of Modern China [1800 to 2000 for those curious] and our professor was a refugee from Communist China, so from the 1950s onwards we routinely heard stories about how stupid the Communist Chinese were/are.  Incredibly angry stories, the professor chortled over things like the Great Leap Forward.  But one thing that stayed with me was her story about how Communist Chinese historians worked very hard, and debated, to come up with an official “percentage” for Mao – the end product of their work was the officially mandated historical rating of Chairman Mao – he was, and I quote, “51% Good and 49% Bad.”  The professor then laughed and we all joined in – stupid Communist Chinese, you can’t assign percentages to history, it doesn’t work that way.

As an older man though, with more time and perspective – as well as far more study of history on my own – I think silly as the idea sounds basic history students would benefit from the challenge of having historical figures presented this way – as a mix of “Good and Bad.”  Simplistic as it may be it would help people begin to grapple with the complicated realities of history in a more meaningful way and also make historical figures, and events, more useful to students as a way to help grapple with today.  For me the goal of history is not to teach people how to deal with modern challenges, it can at best provide hints at past screw-ups and triumphs under different cases, no history has value in teaching people how to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty, by providing good examples of those in the past facing the same challenges who both rose and fell.


24th Infantry Regiment in Korea – Race and Memory

Monday, September 22nd, 2014


One of the delicate challenges when examining United States military history is the issue of race – specifically the impact that segregation had upon African-American military units serving in both peace and war capacities.  One of the more complicated such stories is that of the 24th Infantry Regiment during its period of service in post-war Japan, and then immediately transferred to the Korean War in 1950.  The 24th Infantry Regiment was one of the last fully segregated units in the United States Army and its African-American soldiers served under an almost entirely white cadre of officers.  Prior to the outbreak of the Korean War the unit was on garrison duty in Japan where its soldiers were able to enjoy a relatively high standard of living, thanks to the economic conditions in post-World War II Japan, which made standard infantry pay enough to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and to enjoy a high degree of recreation.  One problem the 24th faced during the occupation was a high level of drug use by its soldiers and some officers, due to the low-cost of illicit drugs and the ease of obtaining them in Japan.  The greater problem the 24th faced in Japan though was a continual rapid turnover of its senior and mid-range officers, all of whom were white, who would normally serve a period of ninety days in the unit and push for rapid redeployment.  For white officers the 24th was seen as a “screw up” unit where officers who had made errors or were out of favor were sent, for the men of the 24th that reputation meant their officers usually invested little time and energy into building unit cohesion.

Some officers for the 24th infantry regiment did attempt to build up the moral and cohesion of the unit – others simply laid into the unit’s men with insults about how terrible African-American soldiers were and how incompetent the infantrymen were solely based on their race.


Deployment into the Korean War in 1950 showcased all the limitations of the conditions under which the 24th had served in peacetime Japan, the regiment was pushed into rapid front line combat service because on paper it appeared to be one of the more experienced units available to fight.  The combat record of the 24th infantry regiment is a mixed one at best, in several engagements its soldiers did their duty and fought well, in other engagements members of the unit began to “straggle” when faced with combat.  “Straggling” is a catch-all term that can be used to mean either the men were slow to deploy into combat or resistant to going into the firing line, it also covered soldiers pulling out of combat early in an engagement, without proper orders, or when coming only under minimal enemy fire.  The situation for the 24th was not helped by its white officers, some of whom either attempted to rally their men by personal example in holding forward positions under attack and dying in the effort, while others attempted to instill pride in the soldiers by racial baiting.  (A very ineffective attempt to use reverse psychology to change the units combat effectiveness.)

Rumors also undermined the units effectiveness, among African-American soldiers stories circulated of cruelty by white officers to the men under their command and among white officers of wounded white officers being abandoned by their men to die or be captured.  Without trust unit cohesion further broke down.


An excellent example of this situation can be found in the case of Leon Gilbert, an African-American Lieutenant who had ten years military experience and who had fought in World War II.  During one of the harder battles in 1950 Gilbert was ordered to lead twelve men to a forward position under heavy enemy fire.  Gilbert thought the situation was a suicidal order and refused to obey it.  He was arrested on the spot and the later court martial sentenced him to death for cowardice and insubordination.  Popular petitions and pressure on the government got the sentence reduced to twenty years hard labor, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of his pension and benefits.  Gilbert though was quietly released after serving five years on technical grounds.  Gilbert stated then, and stood on his argument, that he had not disobeyed the order but was explaining how it was impossible to carry out in combat.  As well his unit was in terrible shape, being heavily fatigued from heavy combat service and a lack of basic supplies.

Although under better leadership later in the war the 24th infantry regiment rallied its fate was determined and it was disbanded by 1 October 1951 and its members merged into other units.  The 24th Infantry Regiment was not officially reformed until 1995 as a new unit, due to the perceived “stain” on the honor of the unit.

Sources: Wikipedia article on the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea and Leon Gilbert, Executive Summary of the U.S. Military study of the conduct of the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea

Friday Old Comics and Old Ads

Saturday, September 20th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902

Note – I’m not quite sure what this means


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1892


Source:  Life Magazine, 1902


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896

Note – I wonder how dating through services like this actually worked…


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

Note – there is A LOT going on in this cartoon that I don’t understand – I believe it is a knock at contemporary theater and…the Irish?

Burning New York – 1864 Style

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014


The United States Civil War was a contentious time and, much like other nations on the losing end of a war, by 1864 the government of the Confederate States of America (CSA) was very open to alternative means of winning the war, specifically using espionage and indirect methods of attack to disrupt Northern military operations against the Southern states.  Several such operations were funded but one of the more potentially spectacular operations was an effort to set the city of New York ablaze by Confederate agents armed with specially formulated chemical bombs.  On 25 November 1864 agents of the Confederate government had smuggled several pieces of luggage filled with a phosphorus chemical compound, their plan was to use the chemicals to start fires in hotels throughout New York as well as burning Broadway and the P.T. Barnum Museum.  Their overall goal was to cause enough fires to break out at the same time that the New York City Fire Department would prove unable to control the fire and, ideally, the city would either suffer major damage or be so damaged to set back the Northern military effort.

Fortunately for New York, and unfortunately for the conspirators, the plan backfired rather spectacularly.  The Southern agents were able to smuggle the chemicals into the city and were able to establish over nineteen fires in the city, however the chemical compound proved far less robust than the conspirators had hoped.  Rather than starting a series of uncontrollable blazes throughout the city in most cases the chemical fires instead smoldered slowly or burned very sluggishly, allowing ample time for the hotel owners to discover the fires and either control them directly or have the New York Fire Department control the blaze quickly.  The end result was the conspirators fled the city and only minor damage was done to several buildings, the 27 November 1864 New York Times article on the subject notes that most of the damage came from water sprayed to control the minor fires.


An interesting historical note is that on the night of 25 November 1864, when the fires were being set, the three Wilkes brothers were performing together in a special single engagement performance of Julius Caesar.  According to the New York Times article a “Mr. Booth” – which was probably the most famous of the three brothers, John Wilkes, spoke to the crowd at the theater when word of the fires spread urging them to remain calm and stay in their seats.  As Booth at the time was a Confederate agent and spy, one cannot help but wonder was he not aware of this plot or, as the conspirators had hoped to destroy Broadway, was Booth trying to keep the crowd in place in the hopes fire would destroy the theater and cause a more massive death count.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Confederate Army of Manhattan and on John Wilkes Booth, New York Times article on the fire, CIA entry on the fire, and entry in 1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History by Charles Bracelen Flood.

Why clear communications matter – the Mers-el-Kébir attack

Monday, September 15th, 2014


With the June 1940 collapse of French military resistance, followed by France seeking an armistice with Germany to end its war, the British government faced a serious concern – the fate of the French navy.  France by 1940 had a powerful navy with a particular emphasis on significant naval elements with access to the Mediterranean, forces that represented a serious potential threat to the British position in the region.  Although the French naval leadership assured the British that the French fleet would never join with the German navy, for the British such promises were not sufficient to offset the nightmare scenario of a combined German/French/Italian fleet dominating the Mediterranean and devastating British oil shipments and strategic position in North African and the Middle East.  It was determined by the British government, specifically by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that the French fleet had to be neutralized as a threat, with a specific emphasis on neutralizing the largest concentration of modern French naval forces, the fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in French Algeria.


The British admiral on site at Mers-el-Kebir delivered the British ultimatum to the French fleet, a four point proposal, the French could either:

  • Join Team British as full members in Operation “Future Spank Germany”
  • Sail with reduced crews to a British port and remain in harbor – the French crews would be returned to France A.S.A.P.
  • Sail with reduced crews to a remote West Indes French port or an area under United States control to disarm the ships as a threat
  • Take none of the above and the fleet would be sunk by the British

Now in a private communication the leader of the French Navy had informed the French Admiral in command of the Mers-el-Kebir fleet that if something like the third option was offered the French navy would accept it – a happy compromise was in place.  For reasons unknown to history the French Admiral, one Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, informed the French admiralty he was only offered two options – join with the British fleet as full combatants or be sunk.  The French naval command, shocked by this, ordered him to resist, which in turn lead to Admiral Gensoul informing the British he had no choice but to fight.  He also began to move his fleet into combat position sparking the British to move to attack quickly.

The British sunk many ships at Mers-el-Kebir and killed over 1,300 French sailors in the assault, poisoning relations between France and Great Britain for much of the rest of the war.  One of the key questions that was never answered was why Admiral Gensoul did not convey the proper information.  Vichy France conducted an investigation but came to no conclusions on Admirla Gensoul beyond that he had done no wrong.  As well Admiral Gensoul never explained his actions.  But it is a matter of record that had communications gone better, as they did in other British actions, this action might have been avoided.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Attack on Mers-el-Kebir and Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul, article in the Daily Mail on the attack, entry on the attack in The Second World War:  The Mediterranean 1940 – 1945 by Paul Collier and entry in Britain and the Defeated French:  From Occupation to Liberation, 1940 – 1944 by Peter Mangold.

Friday Old Cartoons and Old Ads

Friday, September 12th, 2014


Source:  Life Magazine, 1893

Note – I am really curious what the “special and unusual attractions for young people” were


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896


Source:  Life Magazine, 1900


Source:  Life Magazine, 1907


Source:  Life Magazine, 1890


Source:  Life Magazine, 1896


Source:  Life Magazine, 1891

Operation Willi – the Nazi Plan to Abduct the Duke of Windsor

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014


Nazi Germany in World War II had, initially, an unusual relationship with Great Britain, specifically between 1939 to 1941 Nazi Germany attempted to balance between two different positions, finding a peaceful accommodation with Great Britain to end their mutual war, with a preference towards doing so in a manner favorable to Nazi Germany, or alternatively conquering the British isle and subjugating Great Britain in a manner similar to that imposed on France.  This latter plan was the impetus for the Battle of Britain in 1940, as a necessary preliminary action prior to the invasion of Great Britain by Germany.  However one of the challenges Hitler attempted to plan for was imposing a new government upon Great Britain that would be able to run the nation effectively as a productive addition to the Nazi regime in Europe, he and his subordinates had picked a few potential heads of government but the issue of the British Monarchy was a more delicate issue.  Hitler pinned one possible set of hopes upon the former monarch of the British Empire, King Edward VIII (pictured above) who had served on the British throne for a little under one year in total.  Edward VIII was crowned in early 1936 and reigned until the end of that year, abdicating the British throne to follow a love-match with a divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson.  Edward VIII after abdication was granted the title of Duke of Windsor by his brother and Miss Simpson became the Duchess of Windsor.

Prinz Harrys Urgroßonkel Herzog von Windsor traf Hitler

A semi-outcast from British society by these events the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1937 visited Germany and met with Adolf Hitler, among other key German officials, both the Duke and Duchess were known to be pro-German in their sympathies and the Duke had spoken out several times that he felt Nazism/Fascism was a viable political bulwark against what he saw as a greater threat to Europe, the spread of Communism.  With the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the Duke was given a token military position, to prevent him speaking publicly on political matters, and ended up living in southern France during the conflict.  With France’s defeat in 1940 the Duke and Duchess fled to Portugal where they ended up living in the private villa as guests of a Portuguese pro-Nazi banker.  It was rumored that the Duke was privately opposed to Winston Churchill and the war and was also bitter about his treatment by the British government, including being forced to live a lifestyle he considered below his station.  Hitler approved a plan to make an offer to the Duke of Windsor, if he and his wife were willing to work with the Nazi government and return to the British throne upon Great Britain’s conquest by Germany, Hitler would see to it that the Duke would get a one time payment of 50 million Swiss Francs (a considerable fortune) and would be a key part of any newly formed pro-Nazi British government.  As a fallback plan if the Duke did not agree to this German intrigue Hitler approved the possibility of kidnapping the Duke and Duchess and forcing them to serve Germany.

Ordensburg Krössinsee, Herzog von Windsor

The plan never came to fruition, the Duke and Duchess left Portugal successfully following the Duke being appointed Governor-General of the Bahamas by the British government, an appointment designed to modestly increase the Duke’s income and tuck him well away from any European intrigues or temptations.  During the war the Duke maintained an official silence on his former connections to the Nazi regime and publicly proclaimed his support for Great Britain, after the war both he and the British government regularly asserted that the Duke and Duchess had both remained super patriots for the British cause in the war.  It is speculation and, despite the Duke’s later penchant for controversial public statements about political topics, he and his wife probably would never have accepted the Nazi offering willingly.  Even at his most irritable with the British government the Duke would have known that having a foreign conquering power slam a crown onto his head was an excellent way to become a target for assassination and challenge by his own subjects.  Unlike France, with a developed far-Right political movement and long-term Right/Left divisions, the British had only a token pro-Fascist native movement in Great Britain itself and no real ability to maintain loyalty to such a government system without heavy coercion.

Now what might have proven more possible is the Duke of Windsor privately reaching out to his brother, King George VI, if Great Britain had lost the Battle of Britain and been invaded, about the need to soften the conquerors impact with a negotiated peace and an end to the occupation as swiftly as possible.  Although even that probably would proven unsuccessful, all indications are George VI would have ordered the war continued from Britain’s imperial possessions.

Source:  Wikipedia articles on Operation Willi and Edward VIII, entry in the book The Duke of Windsor’s Last Secrets by Clive Fletcher


Weimar Germany’s Army – the Reichswehr

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Parade der Reichswehr

At the end of World War I, with the signing of the Versailles Treaty, Germany was forced to reduce its military, by 1 January 1921 the limitations of the Versailles Treaty came into full force and Germany had to defend itself with a military force limited to 100,000 men.  That force could be organized into a total of ten divisions, of which seven could be infantry and three cavalry, and these divisions were sharply limited in the level of mechanized equipment they could have.  In essence, no heavy artillery, no armored vehicles, no airplanes, and sharp limitations on the German navy to boot.  The newly formed German military, the Reichswehr, was designed by the Versailles Treaty to be a minimal force, able to deal with minor territorial matters and internal armed rebellions, but unable to offer any challenge to France’s army.  The plan, per Great Britain, France, and the United States, was that the new micro Germany army, this Reichswehr, would offer no instrument with which Germany could threaten the peace of Europe in the future.  As a final note the Reichswehr was prohibited from forming a General Staff, on the theory that such an institution only existed for the purpose of planning future wars of aggression.

Thüringen, Reichswehrmanöver, Hans v. Seeckt

Yet by 1935 when Germany announced its intention to rearm, and began to rapidly expand its military, they had no shortage of trained officers and they were rapidly able to grow the German military from its initial starting size of 100,000 into a far more massive force.  Usually such efforts fall into major leadership issues but the Reichswehr was able to meet the challenge quite rapidly, including producing leaders fully trained and ready to lead a modern mechanized army based around armor and aircraft support.  The reason for this was the leader of the Reichswehr from 1919 – 1926, Hans von Seeckt (pictured above in the center with the binoculars and the wicked mustache), who from the founding of the Reichswehr decided that the limits of the Versailles Treaty were foolish and to be ignored by any means possible.

Seeckt worked hard in the early 1920s to build relationships to assist the Germany military in growing, with his main focus being on forging bonds between Germany and its supposedly sworn ideological enemy, the Soviet Union.  Seeckt was able to build a pragmatic alliance with the Soviet Union in which prototype military equipment was built in the Soviet Union and was flown and driven by German “volunteers” so that Germany would be better prepared for future conflicts.  Spain, Sweden, and Norway also were approached and agreed to help produce off-site German military prototypes for testing purposes.  The Reichswehr itself was treated by Seeckt as an elite military force, only the finest possible candidates were accepted into the German military of this period, it was considered a prestige service and drew in some of the physically fittest and intellectually most talented young men in Germany.  Seeckt also made sure that the German military maneuvers were conducted with an eye to the future, trucks for example were used to bounce around the countryside with signs on their sides proclaiming “I Am A Tank.”  German artillery units drilled with small field guns as if they were larger units.  Small bodies of men were treated as far larger formations.

The Reichswehr also recreated the General Staff, although they hid it thinly by renaming it the “Troop Office” – in theory a unit only concerned with administrative issues in running the Reichswehr but in reality a nucleus of future commanders for the expanded Germany military.  When Hitler took power in 1933 he discovered that the Reichswehr, rather than a tiny under-equipped defense force, was actually a nucleus for a larger army, a proto-officer corp ready to assist him and Germany in its rapid military expansion of the late 1930s.

Seeckt laid one of the key parts of the foundation upon which World War II rested.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Reichswehr, the Ministry of the Reichswehr, and Hans von Seeckt, and a relevant chapter in The Path to Blitzkrieg by Robert Citino

Girandoni Air Rifle – 18th century “space age” weapon system

Thursday, September 4th, 2014


The Girandoni Air Rifle was a unique military weapon system developed in the Austria-Hungarian Empire in the 1780s and deployed for use in the Austrian-Hungarian Army between 1790 to 1815.  A highly specialized weapon the Girandoni Air Rifle, invented by Bartholomaus Giradoni, was an air-pressure based rifle with a lethal range at proper pressure of about 150 yards in combat.  Firing a 46 caliber ball this weapon system had some incredibly unique properties for its time period, including a twenty round magazine and the capacity for comparatively rapid fire to conventional gunpowder based weapons.  The gun centered around a cartridge of compressed air stored in the butt stock of the rifle, which would deliver enough air for thirty shots.  The weapon was built around a conventional cocking and firing trigger mechanism for the period, so the user of the gun would draw back the hammer to a fully-cocked position, pull the trigger, and a burst of compressed air would propel the bullet at high velocity at its target.  Although rumored to be a “silent” weapon historians have determined the Girandoni Air Rifle actually had a loud report, purportedly a loud “crack” when the gun discharged, however it was far less noisy than a period gunpowder weapon.  The Girandoni Air Rifle also allowed a soldier using the weapon to remain prone when firing instead of most gunpowder weapons of the period that required loading from the front and the use of a ramrod to get the bullet down the barrel, actions which meant the shooter had to remain standing when firing.


Although the Girandoni Air Rifle was an impressive weapon for the period it was prone to the same problems any highly advanced weapons platform can have, first the weapon required a difficult to manufacture compressed air container, that pushed the limits of metallurgy at the time to produce and maintain.  Second it took far too long to recharge the compressed air cylinder in combat, (most estimates put it at thirty minutes of hand-pumping by the soldier to return to minimum firing pressure), which required specialized support for the weapon in the form of regular runners to take spent air cylinders and replace them with charged ones.  The soldier using the weapon had to carry a special kit (recreated above) with spare ammunition tubes, spare compressed air cylinders, and specialized tools for maintaining the gun.  The biggest problem with the Girandoni Air Rifle though was it took specialized training to be used and maintained, the Emperor at the time started out enthusiastic for this new “space age” weapon but lost interest as its deployment to troops led to large numbers needing expensive repairs out of neglect and misuse.  The weapon was eventually regulated to use by specialized sharpshooter units in the Austrian-Hungarian Imperial Army.  It was completely phased out by 1815.

The Girandoni Air Rifle though is a fascinating weapon system because it shows that even in the 18th and 19th centuries various nations’ military establishments were fascinated with new weapons to give them an edge over their opponents and were willing to deploy fantastical weapons systems on the off chance it would give them an edge in battle.

Sources:  Wikipedia article on the Girandoni Air Rifle, video on the Girandoni Air Rifle, entry on the air rifle in Flayderman’s Guide to Antique American Firearms and Their Values, entry on the rifle in the The New Weapons of the World Encyclopedia, and personal research report on the rifle by Dr. Robert D. Beeman.