Saturday, October 2, 2010


[The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War by Edward B. McCaul, Jr. (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2010). Softcover, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 138/226. ISBN:978-0-7864-4613-1 $35]

For all that has been written about the important Civil War role played by modern, long range rifled artillery weaponry, it remains that these guns would have been toothless without the development of a robust, mass producible, and predictable means of bursting the round. This truth is the subject of Edward McCaul's thoroughly researched and fascinating new book The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War. While both sides recognized the need for mechanical fuzes and possessed inventive designers, due to the requirements of high tolerance industrial equipment and parts, as well as a large pool of skilled labor, only the Union side was capable of mass producing reliable fuzes.

No fuze can operate correctly without the right type and packing of gunpowder, and McCaul begins his book with an illuminating discussion of just that. Data dealing with the classes of U.S. military gunpowder, in terms of grain size, component (nitre, charcoal, and sulfur) ratios, etc., are supplemented with tables reproduced from period ordnance manuals. Interestingly, the country was heavily dependent on India as a source of nitre, an item of import largely left out of U.S.-British foreign relations studies of the Civil War years.

The strengths and weaknesses of pre-Civil War fuze technology is covered next, from early wood and paper designs to the far more effective Bormann Fuze. While reliable, Bormann's early designs suffered from having a maximum burn time of only 5 seconds, rendering them unusable for the flight times of modern rounds. Fuzes would be needed for both smoothbore and rifled artillery, and a brief chapter also contrasts the uses and special needs of both.

A main theme of the book is the "Weapon System Pyramid", a feedback loop between military need, technical availability, and industrial capability, with the Confederacy totally lacking in any equivalent to the concentrated industrial districts located between Boston and Philadelphia, the strip of arsenals and manufacturers that produced the vast majority of fuzes for the U.S. army and navy.  The high level of professionalism (in terms of staff and management) extending to the production of fuzes in U.S. armories and arsenals is the subject of another chapter.

The section of the book summarizing the Civil War battlefield role of artillery and the type of ammunition used at various ranges is brief and will be familiar to many readers, but the salient points about the relationship between fuzes and general reluctance to fire over friendly troops (even at very long ranges) are well developed.

Not surprisingly, given war's tendency to accelerate technological change, between 1861-64 patents for new fuze designs and improvements grew steeply, to 83 (as opposed to 8 for the five year period preceding the war). The inner workings, effectiveness, and drawbacks of several of the most prominent of these [especially concussion (e.g. Tice), combination (e.g. Schenkl), and percussion (e.g. Schenkl, Parrott, and Hotchkiss) fuze designs] are discussed in some detail.

If all this sounds daunting, the author's writing throughout is only moderately technical, with little in the way of prior knowledge required. Some important aspects, such as setback forces, are a bit under explained, a situation not helped by the rather sparse index. Also, while the author notes that the Confederacy was sufficient in two-thirds of the Weapon System Pyramid, there own role in all this is only explored in the context of their industrial deficiencies, with no mention of any southern inventors or designs. Confederate artillerymen complained throughout the war of their very high fuze defect rate, an equipment failure in both army and naval spheres that remains underappreciated in degree of seriousness, and thus might have been addressed to better effect in this specialized book.

A significant part of McCaul's study is taken up by the appendices, the first an impressive analysis of U.S. fuze related patents approved between 1855 and 1872. The others deal with British patents, biographies of persons mentioned in the text, and a brief rundown of all prewar arsenals, armories, navy yards, foundries, and arms makers.

An appeciation of fuze technology is essential to any meaningful understanding of Civil War artillery, and McCaul's new study is an important and authoritative guide. Readers seeking a well documented and primary source based narrative presentation with more technical information than that found in the typical period history will find The Mechanical Fuze and the Advance of Artillery in the Civil War quite useful for their purposes. Highly recommended.

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