Army Combat Branches: Artillery

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Army Combat Branches: Artillery. Beginning in colonial times, American artillery has served as coast artillery to defend the coasts, siege artillery to bombard fortifications, garrison artillery to defend land fortifications, and field artillery to support infantry and cavalry. Although artillery made an early appearance with the initial English settlement in Jamestown in 1607, it played a minor role in military operations during colonial times.

The Revolutionary War of 1775–83, however, encouraged the Americans to broaden the employment of their artillery. During that war, they used light, mobile cannons as field artillery and heavier pieces as siege, garrison, or coast artillery. Early in 1776, American siege and field artillery bombarded the British in Boston and caused them to sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia, in defeat. Two years later, in June 1778, Americans massed field artillery fire to help defeat the British at the Battle of Monmouth, New Jersey. In October 1781, American and French field and siege artillery destroyed British defenses in the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, and induced the British to surrender. Henry Knox, who commanded the Continental army's artillery during most of the war, later became secretary of war.

By the mid‐nineteenth century, the Americans had bronze field artillery and cast‐iron siege, garrison, and coast artillery, as well as mortars and rockets. During the Mexican War of 1846–48, U.S. artillery, much more modern than that of the Mexicans, played a critical role in many battles. At Palo Alto in May 1846 and the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, U.S. Army gun crews boldly pushed field guns within range (300–400 yards) of numerically superior Mexican forces and raked them with devastating antipersonnel canister fire. In 1848, U.S. siege batteries, composed of howitzers, guns, and mortars, proved essential in the Battle of Chapultepec and the capture of Mexico City.

The introduction of the rifled musket in the 1850s with ranges greater than canister altered the role of field artillery. Field artillerymen learned early in the Civil War that they could no longer safely push their field guns within canister range of the enemy. To protect themselves and their guns, they had to site them out of range of small‐arms fire. Although during the Civil War this transformed field artillery's role from an offensive to a largely defensive one, massed fire from Union field and siege artillery at Malvern Hill in 1862 demonstrated the lethality of rifled and smoothbore field and siege artillery on the defensive, while siege and field artillery contributed to a Union victory in the siege of Vicksburg (1862–63).

Recoil systems, breech‐loading systems, cartridge ammunition, and high explosives dramatically enhanced the lethality of artillery during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Recoil systems and cartridge ammunition increased rates of fire of breech‐loading weapons over that of muzzleloaders, while high explosives produced ranges greater than black powder artillery did. The Americans armed their coastal fortifications in the United States, Cuba, Panama, and the Philippine Islands with rifled coast artillery for harbor defense, while the field artillery introduced its first rapid‐fire field gun during the first decade of the twentieth century.

World War I provided an opportunity for the Americans to employ their new rifled artillery in battle. Requiring more firepower to destroy sophisticated German fortifications along the western front, the Americans also mounted coast artillery guns on railcars. During the Battle of St. Mihiel and the Meuse‐Argonne offensive in 1918, American gun crews employed field, siege, and coast artillery to destroy complex German defenses and contributed to Allied victories.

Seeking to avoid a repetition of trench warfare, Americans improved the mobility of their artillery during the two decades following World War I. By the 1940s, they had adopted towed and self‐propelled field artillery, antiaircraft artillery, and towed and self‐propelled antitank artillery. Because of the requirement for tremendous amounts of firepower during World War II, Americans often employed antiaircraft artillery, antitank artillery, and coastal artillery in a field artillery role. At the siege of Metz in 1944, during the liberation of France, for example, heavy coast artillery pieces and field guns shelled the fortresses there. Later, in the Korean War, vintage artillery from World War II saw action supporting infantry and armor.

After World War II, the Americans made significant changes in their artillery. Because aerial bombs and high‐velocity naval guns could easily destroy concrete coastal fortifications, the coast artillery was abolished as a branch of artillery; it consolidated its antiaircraft mission with the field artillery in 1950. During the 1950s, in their drive for more firepower, Americans adopted cannon, rocket, and guided missile artillery that carried nuclear and conventional warheads to complement their conventional artillery for possible battle in Europe in the Cold War.

However, the new artillery with conventional munitions saw its first combat in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. During the Vietnam War, American field artillery, sited in fire bases, provided effective close support to the infantry, while air defense artillery, composed of guns and surface‐to‐air missiles, played a minor role because the enemy lacked aircraft to attack American forces.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Americans introduced new artillery systems. Field artillery and air defense artillery fire adopted computers to calculate fire direction and precision‐guided munitions. The first opportunity to employ the new technology came during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. In that war, precision‐guided munitions from American field artillery destroyed Iraqi bunkers and command and control centers, while the Patriot air defense missiles downed many Iraqi Scud missiles launched against Israeli and Saudi‐Arabian targets.
[See also Army, U.S.; Weaponry, Army.]


Albert Manucy , Artillery Through the Ages: A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America, 1949.
Fairfax Downey , Sound of the Guns: The Story of the American Artillery, 1955.
Harold L. Peterson , Round Shot and Rammers, 1969.
Ian Hogg , Artillery 2000, 1990.
Boyd L. Dastrup , King of Battle: A Branch History of the U.S. Army's Field Artillery, 1992.

Boyd L. Dastrup

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Army Combat Branches: Artillery

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