The Acquisition Problem: Circa 1840

Craig again with some history lessons.

Earlier this week, XBrad discussed issues with the Army acquisition system.  He specifically pointed out the success of the “Big Five” compared to the epic fails of other projects.  Those are good old Americantm systems!  But for those failed systems, I can see the snickering and shaking heads.  All would be funny, were it not for the Army’s (and all of DoD’s for that matter) long history of similar weapons development follies.  Allow me set the clock in the DeLorean for 1840….

In the decade after the War of 1812, the Army stagnated a bit, as will happen after a major war.  The regular army returned to a small force garrisoning frontier and coastal posts.  The militias that formed the backbone of the armed forces returned to state and local control (and unlike today’s National Guard there was more of the later than the former).  Under this decentralized organization, standardization was difficult if not impossible.  Everything from edged weapons to small arms and from saddles to supply wagons varied due to the lack of standardization.  Allow me to pull one critical line item from the mix, which I happen to know a bit about – the field artillery pieces.  By following the development history of the standard field gun of the day, I think the modern reader will see a familiar pattern emerge.

By the close of the War of 1812, the Army used field pieces similar to those used in the American Revolution (which I discussed in more detail on my blog). Three basic problems with those guns.  First they featured a lot of exterior moldings which compromised the castings.   Second they were cast of iron, which all by itself is not a bad thing, but I’ll explain a bit later.  Third the carriages were cumbersome to handle in the field.

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Iron was the metal of choice in early America.  The Army opted for iron as it was cheap, and readily available from domestic sources at that time.  The US lacked substantial copper sources until the 1830s when deposits on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan opened up.  Europeans preferred bronze for field guns, as the metal was more durable.  Americans persisted for a while with iron.

So the Army needed to redesign the gun itself and the carriage.  And that task started in 1819 under the relatively new Ordnance Department (formed in 1812).  The first go round produced a gun with a really streamlined appearance.
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But the Model 1819 6-pdr Field Gun, as it was later known as, was too thin and exhibited a tendency to burst.  Part of the reason was the extreme length and lack of metal around the breech where the propellant charge sat.  But another issue not appreciated at the time was the metal itself.  Around this time American foundries switched from “cold-blast” to “hot-blast” furnaces.  I won’t bore you with the scientific details, but simply point out that while “hot-blast” was cheaper, it produced iron that was brittle.  But again, the ordnance officers at the time didn’t know that.

With these guns cracking and bursting, the ordnance officers opted to retrace steps and reintroduce those rings and adornments.  But they also reduced the gun length in an effort to strengthen the breech while retaining the same basic weight of the gun.  Sounded good.  But the guns still burst at an unacceptable rate.  But lacking anything better, the Army purchased the iron guns and also urged militia organizations to do the same. And… oh, by the way… around that same time (1821) the Army decided to merge the Ordnance Department with the Artillery Corps, with as one might imagine some shuffling of papers and movement of offices.  For the next ten years, the Army tried and failed and tried again to solve the problem with guns.

Not until 1832, when the Ordnance Department got its own “desks” again, did the Army make any major progress.  After a few more years of trials, the officers opted for a bronze gun, naming it Model 1835 6-pdr Field Gun.  At the same time the ordnance officers adopted a better, “stock-trail” carriage using a single tongue with loop to attach under the limber axle (very much the familiar reproduction carriages we see today at Civil War battlefields).

Manassas 19 July 068

While a nice gun, from the Army’s point of view there was one problem – it was too long.  By this time the Army and militia units had hundreds of the shorter, thicker iron field pieces.  If the Army introduced a new gun with these longer dimensions, it would then need to replace all the carriages then in service.  So the ordnance officers went back to the drawing boards to make a shorter bronze gun.  This became the Model 1838 6-pdr Field Gun.
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Yes, to the untrained eye, this is the same gun… but the experienced cannon aficionado, armed with a ruler, notes this gun is seven inches or so shorter.  It weighed 50 pounds less.  Lighter is good right?  Not if you are concerned about the breech pressure.  And certainly not if you are the guy standing behind that gun when it recoils!  Yes, in the days before fancy pneumatic devices, the guns rolled backwards after firing due to something that Newton guy wrote about.  Heavier guns didn’t roll back as far.

So the ordnance officers hit a conundrum – make a smaller gun that is compatible with the old carriages, but is more prone to bursting and kicks up like a mule?

Enter Secretary of War Joel Poinsett (yes famous for the Poinsetta flower, as our SecWars back then were multi-faceted guys).   Poinsett was not only displeased with the guns, he was also displeased with the officers for choosing a design compromise.  In a March 1840 letter, he opened the criticism, “…the Secretary not satisfied that the corps, collectively or individually, posses that practical knowledge which the importance of the subject, both to the country and the reputation of the corps, would seem to require….” and then got so angry as to direct three officers to go visit the Europeans to get “schooled.”

But Poinsett also had an ulterior motive for his actions.  He was at the time also recommending a complete revision of both the regular army and militia.  Poinsett was not only open to a new gun, but also directing the complete replacement of ALL gun carriages.  Cost savings be damned!

The result of all this work was, at long last, the Model 1841 6-pdr Field Gun.
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Yes, again you are saying, “It’s the same gun!”  Well the Model 1841 returned to the full length of the Model 1835 bronze gun AND added about 150 pounds to the gun’s weight.  A thicker, more durable gun met all performance needs.  The Army would take these guns into the fields during the Mexican War, out-classing their opponents.  The Model 1841 remained in the Army’s inventory through the Civil War, although by that time rifled guns and larger smoothbores rendered it obsolete. To anyone second-guessing Poinsett’s decision, I refer them to a battle called Buena Vista and a commander asking for “a little more grape.”

So do you see some parallels to modern-day weapons development programs?  A simple redesign of the system required some twenty years of work.  And I’ve grossly simplified the history of the design within the long post here, avoiding discussion of all the experimental types along the way.  Individuals involved with the design introduced compromises in the name of economy.  Along the way the office in charge of the design reorganized a couple of times.  Finally a SecWar imposing an 1840s style BRAC along with a “top down review” came along to end the agony.

Personally, if I had my way, officers involved with acquisition and R&D wouldn’t go to Gettysburg for staff rides.  No, I’d line up all these fine old guns for an object lesson.

2 thoughts on “The Acquisition Problem: Circa 1840”

  1. I guess the “Big Five” equivalent is the more than two decades the Army spent screwing around trying to replace the M60 Patton and the M113 APC.

  2. Don’t forget the M60 GPMG, M16/M4, and the dress green uniform. I came in in 1986 (yes, I know you were “old army” in 1985), and from that time, until a year ago, without fail, at least once a month, the cover of the Army Times has depicted either “The army’s next rifle” or “The Army’s newest dress uniform.” Now, we just have the new rifle articles, and I hope they don’t get the new rifle as wrong as they got the ASU.

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