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The Paixhans gun (French: Canon Paixhans) was the first naval gun using explosive shells. It was developed by the French general Henri-Joseph Paixhans in 1822-1823.


Explosive shells had long been in use in ground warfare (in howitzers and mortars), but they were only fired at high angles and with relatively low velocities. Shells are inherently dangerous to handle, and no solution had been found yet to combine the explosive character of the shells with the high-power and high velocity of a flat-trajectory gun.

However, before the advent of radar and modern optical controlled firing, high-trajectories were not practical for marine combat. Naval combat essentially required flat-trajectory guns in order to have some decent odds of hitting the target. Therefore naval warfare had consisted for centuries in encounters between flat-trajectory cannons using inert cannonballs, which could inflict only local damage even on wooden hulls.


Paixhans advocated the usage of flat-trajectory shell guns against warships in 1822 in his Nouvelle force maritime et artillerie.

Paixhans developed a delaying mechanism which, for the first time, allowed shells to be fired safely in high-powered flat-trajectory guns. The effect of explosive shells lodging into wooden hulls and setting them aflame was devastating, and was demonstrated by Henri-Joseph Paixhans in trials against the two-decker Pacificateur in 1824, in which he successfully broke up the ship. Two prototype Paixhans guns had been founded in 1823 and 1824 for this test. Paixhans reported the results in Experiences faites sur une arme nouvelle. The shells were equipped with a fuse which ignited automatically when the gun was fired. The shell would then lodge itself in the soft wooden hull of boat, before exploding a moment later:

The first Paixhans guns for the French Navy were founded in 1841. The barrel of the guns weighed about 10,000 pounds, and proved accurate to about two miles. In the 1840s, France, England, Russia and the United States adopted the new naval guns.

The effect of the guns in an operational context was first demonstrated during the actions at Eckernförde in 1849 during the Danish-Prussian War, and especially at the Battle of Sinop in 1853 during the Crimean War.

According to the Penny Cyclopaedia (1858):



The guns were introduced on several ships in France, although they were limited to a small part of the total armamanent of each ship. The 1856 three-decker Bretagne, the largest French warship at the time, had 36 22cm shell guns on a total of 130 cannon.

United States

The United States Navy adopted the design, and equipped several ships with 8-inch guns of 63 and 55 cwt. in 1845, and later a 10-inch shell gun of 86 cwt. Paixhans guns were used on the USS Constitutionmarker (4 Paixhans guns) in 1842, under the command of Foxhall A. Parker, Sr., and were also present onboard the USS Mississippi (10 Paixhans guns), and the USS Susquehanna (6 Paixhans guns) during Commodore Perry's mission to open Japan in 1853.

The Dahlgren gun was developed by John A. Dahlgren in 1849 to supercede Paixhans guns:


The Russian Navy was the first to use the guns extensively in combat. At the Battle of Sinop in 1853, Russian ships attacked and annihilated a Turkish fleet with their Paixhans explosive shell guns. The shell penetrated deep inside the wooden planking of Turkish ships, exploding and igniting the hulls.


  1. Of arms and men Robert L. O'Connell p.193 [1]
  2. Artillery Jeff Kinard, Spencer C. (INT) Tucker p.235-236 [2]
  3. Of arms and men Robert L. O'Connell p.193 [3]
  4. Artillery Jeff Kinard, Spencer C. (INT) Tucker p.235-236 [4]
  5. Arms and men: a study in American military history Walter Millis p.88 [5]
  6. Black Ships Off Japan - The Story of Commodore Perry's Expedition Arthur Walworth p.21 [6]
  7. Of arms and men Robert L. O'Connell p.193 [7]

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