The cannon pioneers

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The cannon pioneers

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 29 apr 2011, 17:39

The rifle-calibre machine gun was the supreme air-fighting weapon during the First World War and for the next two decades, but some nations put a great deal of effort in developing weapons of 20 mm and larger calibre, known today as 'cannon'. Aircraft equipped with cannon were never available in large numbers during the Great War and most weapons developed saw little more than experimental use. Between the Wars, use was even more desultory. However, these weapons represent a fascinating side-branch from the main trunk of armament development, which was only to come to fruition during the next great conflict a quarter of a century later.

Most of these large-calibre guns were manually-loaded; they only fired one shot at a time, and a gunner had to insert each cartridge into the breech by hand. A few of these were recoilless, firing a counterweight out of the back of the gun to balance the recoil of the shell leaving from the front. Some, but not all, featured automatic breech opening and ejection of the fired case immediately after firing, powered by the recoil, a feature known in artillery terms as "semi-automatic". Fully automatic aircraft cannon, which were in effect big machine guns, were only just achieving service status at the end of the war and their development saw only very gradual progress until the 1930s.

The smallest calibre of cannon available before the First World War was 37 mm because of the Declaration of St Petersburg in 1868, which renounced the use of any projectile weighing under 400 g which was either explosive or "charged with fulminatory inflammable matter" (observance of this agreement, at least as far as aircraft ammunition was concerned, effectively ended during World War 1). Most cannon shells were hollow in order to contain high explosive (HE) and were fitted with a fuze to detonate the contents. Other types of ammunition used were incendiary shells, some of which had large holes drilled near the nose of the shell from which the long-burning incendiary flamed out as the shell flew towards its target; and canister shells, which were filled with a quantity of small balls just like a giant shotgun. In British practice most cannon were referred to by the approximate weight of the shells rather than by calibre, so guns were for example known as 'One pounders' (1 Pr or 1 pdr).

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