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Congreve Rocket Ship-to-Shore Artillery

Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB; Content ©

  Congreve Rocket  
Picture of Congreve Rocket Ship-to-Shore Artillery

The Congreve rocket was the 1805 brainchild of one Sir William Congreve

The British government was impressed with rocket artillery constructed from iron tubes as used by the armies of the Tipu Sultanin in 1799 India. Even with some success against the British military, the Sultanin was inevitably killed, thus ending the war. Hundreds of rockets were later found after the war and upon further inspection, it was learned that these rocket systems were in fact incendiaries with iron points mounted on bamboo. Some had blades intended to spin around as they went thru their target (primarily infantrymen). The devastating effect of these weapons against the British during the Mysore Wars inspired English inventor Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet, to develop his own similar rockets based on the Indian specimens. Congreve had already garnered some experience in the realm of product development as his father (Lt General Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet) served in the position of Comptroller for the Royal Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, London. Congreve (the son) was generally educated at Singlewell School and further enhanced in law studies while at Trinity College in Cambridge.

Congreve set forth working on a new propellant mixture and developed a number of rocket sizes from 3 pounds to 32 pounds, each made from iron tubes with a conical nose. The Royal Arsenal's first demonstration of solid fuel rockets took place in 1805 and the rockets were used effectively during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. Congreve rockets being made of iron were stronger than other European rocket creations of the time. Congreve experimented with varying powder amounts in the combustion chamber which in turn varied the distance of the rocket. He found 1 pound of propellant could take the rocket out about 1,000 yards. These rockets would out-range the cannon of the day and allow for the use of different warheads for multiple missions types - shrapnel for use against solders, explosive for use against fixed emplacements and incendiary charges for use against ships or buildings. The major negative of the design was the inherent inaccuracy and the innate tendency for the systems to explode before reaching their targets.

The British in the War of 1812 used Congreve rockets in the bombardment of Fort McHenry against the U.S. in 1814. The British had 15 frigates in the harbor just outside the range of the fort's cannon. HMS Erebus was a Royal Navy rocket vessel built in 1807 for such a purpose. Erebus was one of the ships involved in the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore during the conflict. She was equipped with a Congreve 32-pound rocket battery installed below her main deck which fired through portholes cut into the ship's side. Thousands of rockets were fired at Fort McHenry over a 25-hour period beginning on September 13, 1814. On a vessel based in the harbor was one Francis Scott Key, observing the rockets fired against the fort. At dawn the following morning, the American fort had still not surrendered while her American flag still fluttered over the ramparts, inspiring Key to compose "The Star-Spangled Banner". The National Anthem's fifth line of the first verse "and the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air" was a description of the Congreve 32-pound rockets assailing the American fort.

Inspection of Fort McHenry later found the rockets had a greater psychological effect than a physically destructive one. The notorious inaccuracy of the missile in flight destroyed its value as an artillery piece. While Congreve's rockets served the British up until the 1850's, Congreve himself continued to experiment on his rockets in an effort to remove this profound defect. He eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1811 though he was also commonly referred to as Colonel Congreve regardless. Congreve died in Toulouse, France, sealing his legacy as a pioneer of rocketry for the West.

Congreve Rocket Ship-to-Shore Artillery Technical Specifications

Service Year: 1805
Type: Ship-to-Shore Artillery
National Origin: United Kingdom
Manufacturer(s): Royal Arsenal Woolwich London - UK

Structural (Dimensions and Weights)

Length: 5.18 meters
Weight: 14 kilograms
Guidance: Guide Poles
Warhead: Cylindro-Conoidal; Explosive; Shrapnel; Incendiary

Installed Power and Base Performance

Propulsion: Black Gunpowder

Speed: 0 kilometers
Range: 1 kilometers