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.
Having now decided on the material of which the gun is to be composed, and the manner in which it is to be constructed, and having, moreover, settled the knotty point of how it is to be loaded, we come to the general principles on which a gun is designed. It must not be overlooked that a gun is a machine which has to perform a certain quantity of work of a certain definite kind, and, like all other machines, must be formed specially for its purpose. The motive power is gunpowder, and the article to be produced is perhaps a hole in an armor-plate, perhaps a breach in a concealed escarp, or perhaps destructive effect on troops. These articles are quite distinct, and though all guns are capable of producing them all to some extent, no gun is capable of producing more than one in the highest state of excellence.
Thus, for armor piercing, a long pointed bolt, nearly solid, is required. It must strike with great velocity, and must therefore be propelled by a very large charge of powder. Hence an armor-piercing gun should have a large chamber and a comparatively small bore of great length.
For breaching fortifications, on the other hand, curved fire is necessary; the escarps of modern fortresses are usually covered from view by screens of earth or masonry in front, so that the projectiles must pass over the crest of the screen, and drop sufficiently to strike the wall about half-way down, that is to say, at an angle of 15° to 20°. To destroy the wall, shell containing large bursting charges of powder are found to be particularly well adapted. Now it is clear that, for a shell to drop at an angle of 15° or 20° at the end of a moderate range, the velocity at starting must be low. Hence, for pieces intended for breaching no enlarged powder chamber is wanted; the effect on the wall is due to the shell, which must be made of a shape to hold the most powder for a given weight; and, therefore, rather short and thick. This gives us a large bore, which need not be long, as little velocity is required.
For producing destructive effect among troops, a third kind of projectile is employed. It is called shrapnel, and it consists of a thin shell, holding a little powder and a large quantity of bullets. The powder is ignited by a fuse, which is set to act during flight, or on graze, when the shell is nearing the object. The explosion bursts the shell open, and liberates the bullets, which fly forward, actuated by the velocity of the shell at the moment of bursting. Hence, to render the bullets effective, a considerable remaining velocity is requisite. The gun must therefore take a large powder charge, while, as the shell has to hold as many bullets as possible, the bore must be large enough to take a short projectile of the given weight. Thus, the proportions of the shrapnel gun will be intermediate between those of the armor-piercing gun and the shell gun.
There are certain axioms known from experience, which should be mentioned here. First, the length of the powder chamber should not be more than three and a half or four times its diameter, if it can possibly be avoided, because, with longer charges, the inflamed powder gas is apt to acquire rapid motion, and to set up violent local pressures. Next, the strength of a heavy gun, as reckoned on the principle of all the metal being sound and well in bearing, should not be less than about four times the strain expected.
Again, though there are several opinions as to the best weight of shot for armor piercing, in proportion to diameter, yet among the most advanced gun-makers, there is a growing tendency toward increased weight. The value of w/d³, that is, the weight in pounds divided by the cube of the diameter in inches, as this question is termed, is in the hands of the Ordnance Committee, and it is to be confidently hoped that efforts will shortly be made to arrive at a solution. In the meantime, from about 0.45 to 0.5 appears to be a fairly satisfactory value, and is adopted for the present.
Lastly, it may be broadly stated, that with suitable powders, a charge of one-third the weight of the shot demands for most profitable use a length of bore equal to about twenty-six calibers; a charge equal to half the weight of the shot should be accommodated with a bore of about thirty calibers; while a charge of two-thirds the weight of the shot will be best suited by a bore thirty-five calibers long. Of course, in each case, greater length of bore will give increased velocity, but it will be gained at the expense of additional weight, which can be better utilized elsewhere in the gun.
The amount of work performed by gunpowder, when exploded in a gun, is a subject which has engaged a vast quantity of attention, and some highly ingenious methods of calculating it have been put forward. Owing, however, to the impossibility of ascertaining how fast the combustion of large grains and prisms proceeds, a very considerable amount of experience is required to enable the gunmaker to apply the necessary corrections to these calculations; but, on the whole, it may be said that, with a given charge and weight of shot, the muzzle velocity may now be predicted with some accuracy.
You now have the chief data on which the designer bases his proposals, and lays down the dimensions of the gun to suit such conditions as it may be required to fulfill. In actual practice, the conditions are almost always complicated, either by necessities of mounting in particular places, such as turrets and casemates; or by the advantages attending the interchangeability of stores, or other circumstances; and it requires great watchfulness to keep abreast of the ever-growing improvements of the day.
I will now conclude with a few words on the power of heavy guns, when employed in various ways. The first consideration is accuracy of fire. No matter how deadly the projectile may be, it is useless if it does but waste itself on air. Accuracy is of two kinds--true direction and precision of range. All modern guns are capable of being made to shoot straight; but their precision of range depends partly on the successful designing of the gun and ammunition, so as to give uniform velocities, and partly on the flatness of the trajectory. The greater the velocity, the lower the trajectory, and the greater the chance of striking the target. Supposing a heavy gun to be mounted as in the fortresses round our coasts, and aimed with due care, the distance of the object being approximately known, we may fairly expect to strike a target of the size of an ordinary door about every other shot, at a range of a mile and a half. Here we have carriages mounted on accurately leveled platforms; we have men working electric position finders, and the gunners live on the spot, and know the look of the sea and land round about.