Artillery Evolutions: Putting the French 75 in Production

Recapping from earlier posts, upon entry into World War I, the United States had insufficient quantities of a 3-inch field gun.  In order to meet the massive projected demand for divisional artillery, the Army turned first to a domestic design.  When that project stalled, the Army opted to license produce the French Model 1897 75mm field gun.  Let me turn now to the story of producing the French 75.

As mentioned in the closing of the last article, to meet immediate needs in 1917, the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) received 600 French 75s, then designated M1897 in the US Army’s system, directly from French stocks.  But recall that General John Pershing’s staff called for 1080 field guns (and General Charles Summerall wanted 2400 guns!).  The French could supply a few more batches, but clearly the Americans had to produce their own at some point.  At that time, of course, everyone assumed the great American industrial complex would soon have guns piled up at the docks waiting shipment.

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The French 75

I’ve already discussed the debacle that became the “Crime of 1916” and why that gun did not enter immediate production.  With war demands pressing, in late 1917 the Ordnance Department suggested turning to production of the French 75 as a short term solution.  You must admit this made sense.  The type was a proven design, in service, and met requirements.

But this decision did not go lightly with artillerists, particularly Major General William Snow at the Field Artillery School.  Their counter-proposal was to reopen production of the M1902 field gun, re-chambered for the 75mm round.   Now from our 21st century keyboards, this makes even more sense.  The Army “knew” the M1902 as a reliable gun.  Spare parts were on hand.  So were training materials and all the other intangible things troops in the field need that program managers tend to forget about.  And in some regards the M1902 was a better gun in terms of accuracy given the panoramic sights.  The chief complaint against the M1902 was it fell just short of the French gun in range.  Oh, and there were not many M1902s in France.

So in short order the American Army went from just sharing the same ammunition to completely accepting the French gun. The governing production boards opted to parcel out the manufacturing into sub-components – the gun tube, the carriage, and the recoil system.

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Symington-Anderson Muzzle Stamps

The Symington-Anderson Company of Rochester, New York and Wisconsin Gun Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin received orders to produce the gun tubes.  Symington-Anderson soon boasted a production rate of fifteen a day.  Likewise the Milwaukee company produced seven a day.  Most accounts indicate production of that component moved smoothly.  Each gun component received a serial number for tracking.  And I’m not just showing them here to break up the text with photos.

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Tube and Breech Hoop Serial Numbers

With five different vendors producing parts working off translated French diagrams, re-scaled from metric to English measures, there was certainly concerns about compatibility.

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Carriage Data Plate from Willys-Overland

Going back to the data plate on the gun carriage, Willys-Overland produced the gun carriage.  Originally the company held contracts to produce 2,900 or so carriages for M1916 guns.  With the change to the French design, Willys-Overland’s order changed to production of M1897 carriages.  As with the gun tubes, production began with only a few bumps.

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Recoil Mechaism Stamps - Rock Island Arsenal

In March 1918, Singer Manufacturing received the contract to produce the first batch of Puteaux recoil system for the M1897.  Shortly afterwards, a second order went to Rock Island Arsenal. Both plants received copies of French diagrams detailing the recuperator design.  But even after twenty years, the French considered these highly sensitive.  Few engineers were allowed to view them, and even then only under guarded circumstances.

One example of the lengths to which the French went to preserve the secret comes from the artillery school at Fort Sill.  After one M1897 burst during training, the school’s shop used the salvaged recoil assembly as a cut-away training tool for instruction.  The French delegation went mad.  In the end the school had to destroy the training aid and promise not to discuss the workings with students.  Other stories from the period mention diagrams locked in vaults only to be viewed at night.

Perhaps in no small part due to the secrecy, both firms soon experienced problems with manufacture.  In spite of following diagrams faithfully, the recuperators did not work.  So in good American fashion, ordnance officers started systematic examination of the problem.  In addition to checking the parts rolling off the assembly line, the Americans disassembled some of the guns from French stocks (four of these were a batch purchased by Yale University to train “their” students… my how things have changed).   Quickly the ordnance officers determined the working examples, from France, all exhibited post-manufacture machining and fitting.  To be brief, the “Soixante-quinze” was in many respects hand-fitted and not ready for American style assembly line mass production. Nor would would such production techniques allow for interchangeable parts.

In addition to all these woes, the Americans also found the hydraulic fluid in use was temperature sensitive.  Not so much a problem in France. But for an Army training up at depots across a continent, this was a major issue.  So that too was changed.  By trial and error, the Americans modified the designs to meet mass-production techniques and field requirements.  The exact modifications are difficult to track, as some were applied only after the war in the 1920s.  But at some point the piston inside the recuperator tube gained sealing rings.

Of course all this delayed efforts to put guns in the batteries.  The first American made recuperators arrived from Rock Island in October 1918.  The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was just a page tear away.  In all just over 100 American made M1897s arrived in France before hostilities ended.  Had the war gone into 1919, as allied planners anticipated, perhaps Captain Harry Truman would have commanded a battery of American made guns.  Instead the 1,000 or so produced, along with over 1,800 purchased from France, became the main weapon in the inter-war US artillery park.

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Business End of the M1897

So even with a “proven” design, American industry was not able to meet the Army’s needs.  Several reasons might be advanced for the M1897s failure.  The sum of it all goes back to manufacturing practices.  American industry at the time catered to a broad consumer base.  Market space went to the company which most quickly met the demand, often with products celebrated for standardization.  Converting factories geared for practices supporting that philosophy required tailoring the weapon’s design to the assembly line.  The Americans had no time for hand fitted parts, in war or peace.  The failure to adapt the M1897 quickly to mass production was its downfall in 1918.

Before leaving the divisional, or light, field guns of World War I, there is one other weapon to consider in the next post – the M1917 75mm.  This gun had a British accent and its story features jaded bureaucracy.

4 thoughts on “Artillery Evolutions: Putting the French 75 in Production”

  1. The “mass production, but really hand fitted” gun problem would crop up again with the Bofors 40mm. Virtually all the changes the US made when putting it into production were needed not to improve the gun, but to improve the ability to mass produce the gun.

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