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Thumbnail of Henry Shrapnel (source)
Henry Shrapnel
(3 Jun 1761 - 13 Mar 1842)

English soldier and inventor of the Shrapnel shell and other munitions improvements.

Henry Shrapnel

Henry Shrapnel Portrait - upper body
Lieutenant-Colonel, Royal Regiment of Artillery
Inventor of the “Shrapnel” shell
died lieutenant-general - 13 march, 1842
From an oil painting in the Royal Artillery Institution, Woolwich
(Painted by F. Arrowsmith, in 1812)

Henry Scrope Shrapnel was an English soldier and inventor of the anti-personnel weapon known by his name - the Shrapnel artillery shell - designed to explode, widely spreading its content of small lead musket balls to injure enemy soldiers. Exploded fragments from the metal casing of modern artillery, bombs or mines are still known as shrapnel.

He invented a percussion lock for small arms (patented 1834) and other improvements in fuses, ammunition and small arms. He also prepared important artillery range tables and originated the brass tangent slide to improve the sighting of guns. Incorporating his idea of the parabolic chamber, howitzers and mortars were operated more efficiently.

Shrapnel was born in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire , the youngest son in the family of nine children of clothier Zachariah and Lydia Shrapnel. He was raised at the Midway Manor House in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. A month after his 18th birthday, he began a life-long military career with the Royal Artillery, serving in various places around he world. Within a year of being commissioned, he was stationed at Newfoundland (1780-84) in the fort protecting St. John's harbour.

Upon his return to England, a first lieutenant in his early twenties, Shrapnel started working on an explosive shell designed to be more devastating to enemy infantry than the solid cannon ball or cannister rounds then in use. His idea was to use a hollow spherical shell carrying numerous small metal balls, equipped with a fuse and bursting charge of gunpowder. If properly adjusted, the fuse length determined that the shell would explode over the enemy in midair to scatter the shot over a wide area. For years Shrapnel devoted his free time to solving the design problems with the fuse and perfecting his invention, and eventually he got it to work dependably. This design work and testing was carried out at his own expense, which would amount to several thousand pounds as he continued his experiments over twenty-eight years to refine his shell.

Previously, artillery had used a canister - a tin container filled with iron balls but no internal explosive. When fired, the container burst open at the muzzle, and the balls could cause heavy casualties up to a range of 300 metres. At longer ranges, the common shell was used - a hollow cast iron spheres filled with gunpowder - but these fragmented poorly. Shrapnel's combination of a fuse, explosive charge and shot inside the shell increased the effective range of case to about 1100 metres.

By 1799, he had seen action in Gibralter, the West Indies and the Low Countries of Europe, achieved the rank of Captain, and presented the results of now fifteen years of intermittent design work to the Board of Ordnance.

The army adopted Shrapnel's shell in 1803, which was used successfully on the battlefield the following year when Surinam was captured from the Dutch, who promptly surrendered when subjected to the devastating rounds. By now, Shrapnel was first assistant inspector of artillery at Woolwich, where he expanded his research work to other aspects of ordnance.

Shrapnel shell cutaway diagram.
Shrapnel, Mk. 1 for 155mm gun. (source)

After the effective use of the Shrapnel shell in the battle against the occupying French troops at Vimeiro, Portugal (21 Aug 1808), General Arthur Wellesley wanted the weapon's design kept secret. Although he regretted depriving the inventor of his due recognition, he suggested the

... ingenuity and the science which he has proved he possesses by the great perfection to which he has brought this invention ...

should in itself be sufficient reward. (Dictionary of National Biography)

Shrapnel shells were widely employed in various other military operations during the following years, including the British victory by Wellington over Napoleon at Waterloo (1815). Yet, he was never effectively recompensed for his own expenditures. In fact, when he asked the Board of Ordinance in Sep 1813, he was told there were no funds available for a merit reward. However, the following year, the government granted him a modest pension in addition to his service pay.

On 29 Jul 1825, Shrapnel retired from active service, 46 years after he joined the Royal Artillery as a cadet. He continued his contributions with further work as an experimenter and inventor. When he patented a percussion lock for small arms (1834), he was over 70 years old.

A promotion to lieutenant-general on 10 Jan 1837 was followed by a visit as the guest of William IV who praised his accomplishments. Although the king's private secretary wrote a few months later concerning making Shrapnel a baron, the king died shortly thereafter, and the baronetcy was never conferred.

The design principles Shrapnel originated were used for over a century, including shells manufactured for World War I. They were superceded by the Second World War, with high explosive shell having casings designed to fragment themselves so effectively such that additional shot was not needed.

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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