Martin Foray (Updated: 7/23/2016):
The British Stokes Mortar
Towards the second half of World War 1, the British introduced the 3-inch Stokes Mortar designed by engineer Sir Wilfred Stokes (1860-1927). The type saw widespread use in the British Army and was further passed on to Commonwealth forces as well as to the armies of Portugal and the United States. The Stokes Mortar, while appearing rather basic in both form and function, proved something of an evolutionary step in the field of lobbed artillery. The design was very much in the mold of modern-day mortar systems with its cylindrical launch tube, adjustable support frame and recoil-absorbing base plate and fired an explosive grenade. Such a weapon served its operators well for it could be fired from confined areas and from behind cover. The Stokes Mortar went on to become the basis for many-a-mortar system in the years and, ultimately, decades following. The weapon served with the British Army up until 1936 before it was replaced in service by the more modern "Ordnance ML 3-inch" infantry mortar.
Brandt Improves the Stokes
The Brandt Company of France, led by French engineer Edgar Williams Brandt (1880-1960), took the basic Stokes design and developed it further to coincide with the development of all-new mortar projectiles. The basic form remained faithful to the Stokes design but enough revisions were instituted to produce a more evenly-keeled end-product suitable for war - she was a more efficient design that was easier to use and implement. The complete weapon system weighed in at 132lbs and featured a firing tube of 1.26 meters in length. The mortar was operated by three personnel and was designed around an 81mm projectile offered in two shell types - a "light" version weighing in at 3.25 and a "heavy" version weighing in at 6.9 kilograms. Range was out to 1,900 meters (lesser so when using its heavier available projectile - approximately out to 1,000 meters) and a trained and experienced crew could fire up to 18 rounds per minute. The crew could break down the entire system into three individual components for ease of transport. The firing tube weighed 46lbs while the bipod and base plate measured in at 41lbs and 45lbs respectively. Elevation limitations were between +45 and +80 degrees while inherent traverse was limited to 8- and 12-degrees. Any further directional adjustments required the crew to physically reposition their mortar. The new mortar was christened the "Brandt mle 27" (known more formally as the "Mortier Brandt de 81mm modele 27") and, as its model name would suggest, the weapon was introduced in 1927.
Brandt mle 27 General Operation
Operation of the Brandt mle 27 was conventional even by modern standards. Adjustments were made through an integrated elevation crank handle on the bipod that affected a screw-type installation under the muzzle end of the firing tube. The "layer" could sight through an apparatus at the top left-hand side of the bipod assembly - this placed him away from the muzzle as a safety measure. One operator would introduce a primed 81mm projectile into the muzzle and let it fall down the firing tube, ultimately striking an awaiting firing pin located at the base of the firing tube. This would ignite the projectile's propellant payload and force the shell out of the launch tube at speed. The tube was internally smoothbore so "rifling" did not spin the projectile to stabilize it in flight, instead, each projectile was fitted with stabilizing fins for this purpose. The projectile simply followed the predetermined trajectory arc set by the layer towards a target area. Shells were primarily High-Explosive (HE) in nature, suitable for dislodging dug-in enemy troops, attacking unprotected concentrations of soldiers from above or disabling soft-skinned vehicles to an extent. Her purpose was first and foremost to make hell for enemy infantry. A smoke projectile could be used to cover offensive actions or defensive maneuvers as needed. This projectile was also developed to include a family of smoke charges offered in various colors for in-the-field signaling and such.
The Improved Brandt mle 27/31
Once in operational service, the Brandt mle 27 proved an ultimate success and a vast improvement over the original British Stokes Mortar of decades prior. She was revised in a few short years to become the "Brandt mle 27/31" of 1931 and capable of firing an ever-expanding array of improved 81mm projectiles. Such was the design success of the French Brandt that the Austrians, Danes, Germans, Japanese, Dutch, Russians, Italians and Americans utilized her as the standard in designing their own line of infantry mortars of the 81mm caliber and beyond. Other nations looking to avoid licensing fees simply copied the Brandt design outright though none were as highly regarded as the French version. Each of these Brandt "clones" was, as can be expected, slightly different than the original French design to coincide with various military requirements put forth by their respective operators.
World War Finds Europe
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler came to power as Germany's chancellor and the governments of Japan and Italy were laying forceful claim to evermore world real estate. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) across the Iberian peninsula proved a testbed of sorts for several world powers including the Germans and Soviets and war soon found the rest of Europe thereafter. Germany invaded France in May of 1940 and the French Army was pressed into full action and, along with them, their 8,000 Brandt mortars were called into play. Further production was also handled in Czechoslovakia, Netherlands, Poland and Yugoslavia and, therefore, many became property of the German Army following respective conquests. In the German Army inventory, designations were unique to each country of origin and became the Austrian 8.14cm GRW 33(o), Czechoslovakian 8.14cm GRW 278(t), Danish 8.14cm GRW 275(d), Dutch 8.14cm GRW 286(h), French 8.14cm GRW 278(f), Polish 8.14cm GRW 31 (p) and Yugoslavian 8.14cm GRW 270(j). The Brandt mle 27 and mle 27/31 mortars and all her derivatives saw extensive combat actions throughout the war. Her design succeeded in outlasting the global conflict and existed in several post-war forms during the Cold War.
Brandt Mortar Influence
As the Stokes Mortar before it, the Brandt mortar influenced much in the way of newer designs for decades following its introduction and its reach can still be seen in many of the mortar designs utilized by the militaries of today. While the forms of today outclass the Brandt series in nearly every way, the Brandt still serves as a standard thanks to its finely tuned and inherently strong French design.