This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
If, now, a steel tube, suitable for the lining of a gun, be prepared by having wire wound round it very tightly, layer over layer, it will be compressed as the winding proceeds, and the tension of the wire will act as shrinkage. You will readily understand that a gun can be thus formed, having enormous strength to resist bursting. Unfortunately, the wires have no cohesion with one another, and the great difficulty with construction of this kind is to obtain what gun-makers call end strength. It is of but little use to make your walls strong enough, if the first round blows the breech out. In the early days of wire this was what happened, and Mr. Longridge, who invented the system, was compelled to abandon it.
Lately, methods have been devised in France, by M. Schultz; at Elswick, by Sir W.G. Armstrong & Co.; and at Woolwich, by ourselves, for getting end strength with wire guns. They are all in the experimental stage; they may prove successful; but I prefer not to prophesy at present.
The diagrams on the wall show the general construction of the modern German, French, and English heavy breech-loading guns. The Germans have a tube, a jacket, and hoops. The French, a thick tube or body, and hoops. The English, a tube, a jacket, and an overcoat, as it may be called. In each system of construction, the whole of the wall of the gun comes into play to resist the transverse bursting strain of the charge.
The longitudinal or end strength varies: thus, in the German guns, the tube and hoops do nothing--the jacket is considered sufficient. The French construction relies entirely on the thick body, while the English method aims at utilizing the whole section of the gun, both ways. Of course, if the others are strong enough, there is no particular advantage in this; and it is by no means improbable that eventually we shall find it cheaper, and equally good, to substitute hoops for the "overcoat."
I fear I have detained you a long time over construction, but it is both instructive and interesting to note that certain well defined points of contact now exist between all the great systems. Thus, a surface of steel inside the bore is common to all, and the general use of steel is spreading fast. Shrinkage, again, is now everywhere employed, and such differences as still exist are matters rather of detail than of principle, as far as systems of construction are concerned.
We now come to a part of the question which has long been hotly debated in this country, and about which an immense quantity of matter has been both spoken and written on opposite sides--I mean muzzle loading and breech-loading. The controversy has been a remarkable one, and, perhaps, the most remarkable part of it has been the circumstance that while there is now little doubt that the advocates of breech-loading were on the right side, their reasons were for the most part fallacious. Thus, they commonly stated that a gun loaded at the breech could be more rapidly fired than one loaded at the muzzle. Now, this was certainly not the case, at any rate, with the comparatively short guns which were made on both systems a few years ago. The public were acquainted with breech-loaders only in the form of sporting guns and rifles, and argued from them. The muzzle-loading thirty eight ton guns were fired in a casemate at Shoeburyness repeatedly in less than twenty minutes for ten rounds, with careful aiming. No breech-loader of corresponding size has, I think, ever beaten that rate. With field-guns in the open, the No. 1 of the detachment can aim his muzzle loader while it is being loaded, while he must wait to do so till loading at the breech is completed. Again, it was freely stated that, with breech-loaders greater protection was afforded to the gunners than with the muzzle-loaders. This entirely depends on how the guns are mounted. If in siege works or en barbette, it is much easier to load a muzzle loader under cover than a breech-loader. But I need not traverse the old ground all over again. It is sufficient for me to say here, that the real cause which has rendered breech-loading an absolute necessity is the improvement which has been made in the powder. You witnessed a few minutes ago the change which took place in the action of fired gunpowder when the grains were enlarged. You will readily understand that nearly the whole of a quick burning charge was converted into gas before the shot had time to start; suppose for the moment that the combustion was really instantaneous. Then we have a bore, say sixteen diameters long, with the cartridge occupying a length of, say, two diameters.
The pressure of the gas causes the shot to move. The greater the pressure, the greater the impulse given. As the shot advances, the pressure lessens; and it lessens in proportion to the distance the shot proceeds. Thus, when the shot has proceeded a distance equal to the length of the cartridge, the space occupied by the gas is doubled, and its original pressure is halved. As the shot travels another cartridge length, the space occupied by the gas is trebled, and its pressure will be but one-third of the original amount. When the shot arrives at the muzzle--that is, at eight times the length of the cartridge from the breech--the pressure will be but one ninth of that originally set up. Remember, this is on the supposition that the powder has been entirely converted into gas before the shot begins to move.
Now, suppose the powder to be of a slow-burning kind, and assume that only one-third of it has been converted into gas before the shot starts, then the remaining two-thirds will be giving off additional gas as the shot travels through the bore. Instead, therefore, of the pressure falling rapidly, as the shot approaches the muzzle, the increasing quantity of gas tends to make up for the increasing space holding it. You will at once perceive that the slower the combustion of the powder the less difference there will be in the pressure exerted by the gas at the breech and at the muzzle, and the greater will be the advantage, in point of velocity, of lengthening the bore, and so keeping the shot under the influence of the pressure. Hence, all recent improvement has tended toward larger charges of slower burning powder, and increased length of bore. And it is evident that the longer the bore of the gun, the greater is the convenience of putting the charge in behind, instead of having to ram it home from the front. I may here remark, that the increased length of gun necessary to produce the best effect is causing even those who have possessed breech-loaders for many years to rearm, just as completely as we are now beginning to do. All the old short breech loading guns are becoming obsolete. Another great advantage of breech-loading is the facility afforded for enlarging the powder chamber of the gun, so that a comparatively short, thick cartridge may be I employed, without any definite restriction due to the size of the bore.