Date added: 4 Aug 2016
Shrapnel is named after Major-General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842), a British artillery officer, whose experiments, initially conducted in his own time and at his own expense, culminated in the design and development of a new type of artillery shell.
In 1784, Lieutenant Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery began developing an improved anti-personnel weapon. At the time artillery could use 'canister shot' at ranges of up to 300m; canister shot was highly lethal, though at this range the shots’ density was much lower, making a hit on a human target less likely. At longer ranges, 'roundshot' or the ‘common shell’ — a hollow cast-iron sphere filled with black powder — was used, although with more of a concussive than a fragmentation effect, as the pieces of the shell were very large and sparse in number.
Shrapnel's innovation was to combine the effects of two existing projectiles, the common shell and the canister round (common case). His shell was a hollow cast-iron sphere filled with a mixture of balls and powder, with a crude time fuse. If the fuse was set correctly then the shell would break open, either in front or above the intended target, releasing its contents of musket balls. It could be fired from both howitzers and fieldpieces. He called his device 'spherical case shot', but in time it came to be called after him. It took until 1803 for the British artillery to adopt the Shrapnel shell (as spherical case) albeit with great enthusiasm when it did. Henry Shrapnel was promoted to major in the same year and after his invention's success in action he was promoted to lieutenant colonel less than nine months later.
In due course it represented between 13 and 15 percent of all British fieldpiece ammunition and up to 50 percent of howitzer ammunition.
The Duke of Wellington's armies used it from 1808 in the Peninsular War and at the Battle of Waterloo. The French were simply astounded at being engaged at so great a range in such a devastating manner. They quickly nicknamed the round ‘black rain’.
It was described at the time as ‘the greatest artillery discovery of the day, and had our enemies possessed it and not we ourselves, the result of our battles might have been different to what it was’.