Air in war — the Vesuvius dynamite cruiser

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

The history of airguns

This report covers:

  • Dynamite guns
  • More stable than nitroglycerin
  • Air provides a way
  • U.S.S. Vesuvius
  • Close-support ship
  • Technical specifications
  • Accuracy poor
  • Thanks

Dynamite guns

When we think of airguns we think of quiet, low-powered guns that are safer than firearms because of their limited range and reduced tendency to ricochet. But that’s not the whole story. Over a century ago there was a special type of airgun that was used on the battlefield and the high seas to do major damage. I’m referring to the so-called dynamite guns of the late 1890s.

More stable than nitroglycerin

Dynamite was invented in 1866 by Swedish inventor, Alfred Nobel. He took nitroglycerin, another recent invention (1846) and stabilized it by combining it with silica to turn the sensitive liquid into a malleable paste he called dynamite. He discharged the dynamite with one of his blasting caps, originally perfected in 1863 to discharge nitroglycerin with shock rather than heat.

Dynamite was much more stable than nitroglycerin, but it still had problems. Sometimes the nitroglycerin in the compound “sweated” out in droplets of pure nitroglycerin that were as sensitive as any other nitro. That made the early dynamite a very sensitive product to handle.

Air provides a way

The military was quick to accept the new more powerful explosive, and they soon set about finding new ways to exploit it. One idea was to replace the  blasting powder in explosive artillery shells with dynamite. This gave the shells increased power, but it did have a drawback. The conventional method of launching the shell — i.e. via a gunpowder explosion — was deemed too much shock for the dynamite to safely endure. It was too possible for the warhead to detonate inside the gun barrel from the shock of the gunpowder explosion at the instant of firing. A less aggressive way to launch the shells was needed.

Ohio schoolteacher D.M. Medford believed that compressed air would solve the explosion problem, and would also reduce the weight of the gun, since air pressure would be far below the pressure generated by exploding gunpowder. On the other hand, the gun barrels needed to be much longer, to allow the compressed air more time to accelerate the shell.

U.S.S. Vesuvius

Dynamite guns were built for the U.S. Army and also for the U.S. Navy. Today we are looking at the U.S.S. Vesuvius, a purpose-built dynamite cruiser. Her keel was laid in September, 1887 and she was launched April 28, 1888. She was 246 feet long with a beam (width) of 26.5 feet. She displaced 945 tons. She was commissioned June 2, 1890. There were 70 in her crew, and her captain was Lieutenant Seaton Schroeder.

Vesuvius
U.S.S. Vesuvius with two guns down and one elevated. From Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World.

Close-support ship

As long and narrow as the Vesuvius was, she didn’t handle that well in high seas and was not considered to be a good ocean-going vessel. Her strength was closing with a hostile coastline under cover of darkness and aligning herself with the target. Her three guns were 55 feet long and passed through two upper decks at an 18 degree angle. There was no ability to swivel them like the guns on a battleship. They pointed out over the bow of the ship and the entire ship had to be aimed at the target to engage. Minor adjustments consisted of shooting long or short, which equates to beyond or short of the target! Range was determined by the length of time to compressed air pushed against the shells while they were still inside the tubes.

Technical specifications

The guns worked on air compressed to 1000 psi. Compressors recharged the air storage tanks onboard, and could apparently keep up with the rate at which the guns fired. The cast iron tubes had 3/8-inch walls with 1/8-inch brass liners. The 7-foot shells were 14.75-inches in diameter and the bore of the guns was 15 inches. Undoubtedly the shells had something to obturate the bore so air couldn’t get past. The velocity at the muzzle was around 800 f.p.s.

The ship carried a load of 10 shells per tube, for a total of 30. The maximum warhead charge in a shell could be as much as 550 pounds of desensitized blasting gelatin — not dynamite, per se, though dynamite was the main component of this material. With the full weight warhead the maximum range was about 2000 yards, but the warhead could be reduced to 200 lbs. to double the range. It was said when the guns fired they sounded like a loud deep cough rather than an explosion.

The crew was said to be concerned about the use of the dynamite charges. They felt every time the guns fired might be their last, as a warhead could go off inside the thin tubes. Apparently there was a lot of skepticism over first-generation dynamite charges.

Accuracy poor

Accuracy was iffy at best. There is no record of any damage done by the nighttime bombardments, though the Spanish soldiers are reported to have been disconcerted by the quiet flight of the shells through the dark sky and also by the huge devastation they made when they hit. I see a parallel between a Vesuvius barrage and a V-1 rocket attack on London during WWII.

The Vesuvius was not a success. Though the ship did accomplish several fire missions during the war, the accuracy wasn’t up to the standards of traditional naval gunfire. The ship was removed from service at the end of the Spanish-American War and her three pneumatic tubes were removed. She was put back into service again several times for other duties and finally ended service in 1921.

Although a second dynamite cruiser was on the boards, plans were scrapped as soon as the Vesuvius started operations. The advantages of operating with compressed air were more than offset by the severe drawbacks of aiming, short range and inaccuracy.

Dynamite cruisers were built by other nations, but they used different means of compressing the air. Instead of precharged pneumatics, they had pistons that used a charge of gunpowder to compress the air at the instant of firing — making them spring-piston guns.

Thanks

I was inspired to write this review from an article in the United States Naval Institutes’s Naval History publication from June of 2015. A copy of that article by Commander Tyrone G. Martin, USN (retired) was sent to me by a Shotgun News reader, Jay P. Norton. I have known about the Vesuvius since first reading about the ship in the 1957 publication, Smith’s Standard Encyclopedia of Gas, Air and Spring Guns of the World, by W.H.B. Smith, but the Naval History article contained several facts not previously published.

35 thoughts on “Air in war — the Vesuvius dynamite cruiser


  1. Some may not know that the Army and the Navy both had sea going vessels in those days! I had a friend that was in the ARMY and aboard a ARMY sea going vessel just before WWI! Took six months to come down a main river in China to the open sea to head back to the United States of American to joint in the war effort of WWI! Semper fi!


  2. BB
    Very good read. Again love these nostalgic pieces of history. And combined with air guns.

    And even if it wasn’t a accurate system. When the soldiers got to see the damage that the rounds caused the next day they had to have a shiver go down their spine. And being quiet and all.

    Sounds like it could of fit into the stratigecs of warefare as a deterent. I sure wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that gun.


  3. BB
    That’s sound liker a new addition to the already famed Pumpkin Chunkin contests they have competitions in and by adding some dynamiter inside the pumpkins it would be a real crowd pleaser to watch pumpkin being shot almost a mile to produce a huge explosion on impact instead of the pumpkin just busting all to pieces.

    Some of the air cannons they use are enormous and likely some of the largest PCP based style gun in existence and just plain cool to watch shoot pumpkin at the ranges they achieve out of those cannons..

    Very cool history lesson as I have heard of the U.S.S. Vesuvius before but di nor realize it was an air cannon based gun ship.

    BD


    • Hey, BD, and BB,
      A number of things (concerns) always enter my mind when contemplating the “What would I be thinking about when asked to “Just push the big red button while we stand over here in the bunker…and, ah, you know, just ‘take notes’ on the results.”
      Reference: “The Professionals,” the scene played by Burt Reynolds as the ‘dynamite expert’ (VERY) carefully wiping exuded nitroglycerin drops from poorly stored dynamite sticks. He flicks the drops onto the wall and an equally sharp “WHACK” ensues as the drop micro-explodes.
      “NEVER. fool around with less than it takes to kill you,” he says.
      But what the heck, we were working with tactical nukes and likely the net personal result of dropping one wouldn’t be a whole lot different than dropping a fixed 105mm tank round on its noggin.
      (I don’t have a copy of the late sixties film, so this is but an approximation of the scene that I file in my mental, “really good life lesson” folder. By the way, still one of the all-time best westerns ever made. Holds up well too.
      –At least through the late 1960’s, the Army had a pretty extensive ‘Navy’ including landing craft, armed port security/patrol boats, and tugboats. I know because I came within an eyelash of spending a year on Okinawa parking ocean transports with one.
      The Marines, Navy, and the Army also retain their own ‘Air Force’, too, despite their being a ‘real’ Air Force .
      –I have it on (at least) plausible authority that the Dynamite Gun sounded nothing whatsoever like a “cough.” Pure PR bulldookey.
      Allegedly, more like the legendary bridesmaid’s…indiscretion.
      Oh, heck, in truth, the girl (the Vesuvius) exuded a world class fart.
      Really, would you or anyone else expect less?
      Stylin’


      • 103David
        First off Happy labor day to all

        David, You had me rollin with laughter first off this morning with your retakes of the movie the “Professionals” and the flick of the nitro by Burt Reynolds and then your explanation of the True sound of the mighty Vesuvius firing her over grown “gas” cannons as I only wish I could have heard it first hand as I would have had to add some rotten eggs or other fragrance enhancer to truly gain the most from the experience of our navy’s only fart machine in action.

        The best way to start a day in pure uncontrollable laughter.

        Thanks bunches.

        BD


  4. B.B.

    A very nice piece of history!
    Introduction of dynamite forced many of those days’ superpowers to seek some sort of solution to launching a dynamite-filled projectile with something “softer” than gunpowder, like pneumatic cannons. There were, if I’m not mistaken, even real spring-powered or torsion-powered catapults.

    High-cal PCP Rennaissance happened during WWI. Austrians used pneumatic 80mm mortar. One of its advantages was very quiet discharge (thus enabling to avoid sound location) soft impulse (allowing to launch ampules with chemical weapons) and it allowed to spare gunpowder as Austro-Hungary’s economy and production were in miserable condition. Italians used several types of mine and hand launchers powered by HPA. Some blowgas (acethylen+air mix or any other flammable gas or fumes + air mix) solutions were used too.

    Second Rennaissance for high-cal high-power PCPs in military is happening now. Different militaries test so-called light-gas guns that are actually a combo of powderburner, piston rifle and PCP. While it’s not a very close prospect for such guns to be fielded anytime soon, they are widely used to test different types of projectiles and kinetic protection materials. Their advantage is just like any PCP – flexibility and ability to quickly change power settings.

    Another military use for PCP is chickengun. My dad used them to test engines and they are also used to test airframes and aircraft canopies.
    Imagine a PCP gun of caliber enough to be loaded with fresh or defrosted chicken (an equivalent of a crow, the most dangerous bird for an aircraft) and move it from 100 kph up to supersonic, just like it happens in life, only the component is stationary and “bird” is moving. Then canopy, or wing, or working engine are placed in front of it in an armored chamber. And then boom, chicken defies the proverb that chickens don’t fly and leaves a smashing impression on aircraft windshield of wing. Well-built engine can take up to 3 and continue working before it jams/catches fire/explodes.

    duskwight


    • duskwight,

      My research tells me that the American Army dynamite cannons used gunpowder to push a piston that compressed the air to launch the dynamite. That’s all I have found so far.

      As for the pneumatic mortar, I had 4.2-inch (105mm) mortars in my platoon and we once used a subcaliber device to train with the actual guns on the squadron parade ground. I guess I will blog that sometime.

      B.B.


    • I don’t know if this more than an urban legend but I remember reading about the French or British trying to replicate the USA test with a chicken canon. The story goes that the first shot went through the windshield, through the back of the pilots cabin, then out the rear of the plane.

      They contacted the USA group and asked what went wrong.

      The response was “did you thaw out the chicken?”

      I don’t know if it is a true story but it I can see it happening.

      Jim


    • D,
      Doubtless you and most of us have heard the apocryphal tale of [add acronym of big-time aero-space organization of choice here] requesting information on building a chicken-matic (the full-auto, belt-fed version of the chicken-gun.) Of course disaster and complete destruction occurs. What happened…?
      The in so many ways icy reply…
      “Step one, defrost the chicken.”
      Okay, so you heard it, but there’s still four or five guys out there who haven’t…


  5. BB,

    Another wonderful stroll down history lane! Thank you!

    I have a cut away view of the Vesuvius I occasionally put on my desktop. Unfortunately, it is not of fine enough resolution for me to make a large print and frame it.

    I would like to read that article. I will have to see if I can find it.


  6. Cool stuff there! I had no idea there were air cannons used on warships! Thanks for another interesting post. I’m a history buff and this Airgun history series is really exciting!



  7. B.B.,

    Have you seen, or heard of, the ” Pumpkin Chuckin’ ” that Buldawg76 mentioned?

    No doubt, there are on-line videos. I guarantee that you would be fascinated 100%. On the PCP versions, the barrels are like 30ft.+ long. Then others that are various versions of catapults. Think of it, massive barrels, huge valves, big compressors, enormous weights of projectiles.

    Not sure how you would make an article of it, but it is just as real and applicable as today’s story….minus the war part of it. It may be just a “Northern” thing. Got pumpkins down your way?

    Chris


  8. A silly idea in retrospect unless it had worked…

    What propels torpedoes from destroyers and PT boats? It is certainly not an explosion. There was a story of a PT boat which could not fire its torpedoes, so it set them off by “percussion” by striking the tubes. Have no idea what that means.

    Matt61


  9. Hi Guys, interesting blog. I run across a similar operation. This was a video of a guy shooting a Crosman C41 bb pistol. Among his demonstrations, was to fire into a explosive target. He said the targets were homemade. So we had air, actually CO2 propelling a solid missile striking a explosive target. Regardless, it looked cool. Same effect if you had a BIG PCB cannon firing a solid missile into a fireworks factory. My wife would like me to grow up, but it ain’t gonna happen. Have fun
    Harvey


  10. B.B.,

    I love history-lesson blog entries such as this one. Those who forget history our doomed to repeat it, eh?

    I really am dumbfounded by christening a ship “Vesuvius,” however. It seems an inauspicious name for a warship that could have literally erupted under and around its crew!

    Thanks for this informative, great read,

    Michael






  11. I’ve actually done some reading on both the Vesuvius and Army guns (the latter being the Dudley-Simms gun). The tubes of the Vesuvius couldn’t change their elevation – they were fixed. Range was adjusted by air pressure alone. I’ve also read that they operated at up to 2,000 PSI, but who knows. And, as someone who has witnessed a 420 PSI air cannon firing, I can say that a 1,000 PSI cannon would be VERY loud indeed. As for the army gun, it did use a black powder charge to push a piston. The specs I found on it were as follows: 600 FPS with a 10-pound, drag-stabilized shell. Effective range supposedly about 900 yards, and also very inaccurate. It also apparently broke-down after every few shots. Some smaller pre-charged guns (smaller than the 15-inch Vesuvius guns) were also set up as coastal defense guns in New York and San Francisco if I remember correctly.


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