Henry Shrapnel

Posted in Scottish Military Figures

Lieutenant (later General) Shrapnel was an officer in the British army who in1804 invented shells filled with bullets, to increase the number of casualties, hence the word shrapnel. We are not talking of explosive shells here, which randomly scatter broken and shattered pieces of the shell casing in landing; these were carefully designed, anti-personnel killing devices.

In pre-World War II days, shrapnel was regarded as the most efficient type of ammunition against troops in the open. The 75mm shrapnel, for example, contained 270 lead balls, each about a half-inch in diameter, in a smoke-producing matrix. The 155mm shrapnel packed a truly deadly load of 800 balls.

Each projectile could be likened to a shotgun which was fired, by means of a time fuse, and ideally at a height which would produce the maximum effect on the enemy. At the moment of burst, the bullets shot forward with increased velocity, normally without fracturing the case. The result was a cone of bullets which swept an area generally much larger than the area made dangerous by the burst of a high explosive shell of the same calibre.

Even for the comparatively small 75mm gun, the effective area at a range of 4,000 yards was about 35 yards wide and 50 yards long. Additionally, some balls with equally effective velocity were scattered less densely over a zone about twice the width and several times as long. The height of burst had to be adjusted by careful observation of the smoke puff produced at the moment of explosion, and by proper changes in the setting of the time fuse.