The 6.3-inch howitzer history
During the early 1880's the South African Republic (ZAR or Transvaal) conducted a number of
small campaigns against rebelling native tribes, many of these ending up in mountain sieges. To
assist, a 6.3-inch howitzer and a mortar were bought from the British Cape Colonial Government;
the howitzer arriving in Pretoria from King Williams Town on 7 April 1882.
In the Transvaal the howitzer saw service during the 1882-1883 Nyabêla campaign under
Commandant Henning Pretorius; later CO of the Staatsartillerie (State Artillery). During the
same campaign it was used to fire the salute at Paul Kruger's first presidential inauguration in
May 1883, thereby gaining a link to this famous Boer leader.
Unlike most of the Transvaal's other obsolete RML guns, the 6.3-inch howitzer was not posted at
Fort Hendrina or Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal during the 1890s. Instead it remained at
the artillery camp in Pretoria and ammunition usage reports during this time indicate that it was
probably used for training. Ammunition stock-takes and order requests from 1886 to 1896
specified the use of common and star shells, case shot as well as Boxer time fuzes of 15 and 30
seconds and Pettman percussion fuzes. Although obsolete, this howitzer remained the Transvaal's
largest artillery piece until the arrival of the well-known 155mm Schneider Creusot Long Toms.
No evidence could be found suggesting that the Transvaal’s 6.3-inch howitzer saw action during
the Anglo-Boer South African War of 1899-1902. On 29 October 1899 Captain Kroon of the
Staatsartillerie reported that it was standing in the Johannesburg Fort, complete with 100 filled
and 100 unfilled shells. It is not sure exactly when the howitzer was sent to Johannesburg, but it
was somewhere between August 1898 and January 1899.
On 31 May 1900 the British Army
marched into Johannesburg and found the fort and a number of obsolete guns therein, including
the 6.3-inch howitzer, abandoned. General Marshall's list identified this howitzer as a Mark I gun,
serial number 33, manufactured at the Royal Gun Factory (RGF) in 1879.
An earlier Staatsartillerie letter, dated 19 July 1886 also identified the howitzer's foundry number as
"Vickers Steel No. 3699". With the gun was its carriage and limber (ammunition wagon), all
made at Woolwich, as well as 50 fuzes, 180 common shells and 90 case shots. There were also a
large number of black powder cartridges roughly made up in unmarked bags of various materials.
After its capture the Boer 6.3-inch howitzer was used as the one o'clock gun in Johannesburg.
Although its capture is listed in War Office documents on captured Boer guns, no mention could
be found in British trophy gun lists of it being sent to England in 1902/1903, as was done with
most other Boer trophy pieces.
Fortunately this historic piece stayed behind in South Africa and
today it can be viewed outside the Ladysmith Town Hall where it rests next to a British howitzer
of the same calibre and design. It is not known how No. 33 ended up in Ladysmith and until 2004
it was generally accepted that both were British howitzer.
As opposed to the Boer piece, the British 6.3-in howitzer standing next to it (No.48) did see
action during the Boer War. It was one of two sent from Port Elizabeth in the Cape Colony to
Ladysmith shortly before the siege of the town commenced.
During the siege the pair was dubbed
"Castor and Pollux"; after the mythological twin sons of Zeus. They became famous for
damaging a Boer Long Tom on Middle Hill, subsequently forcing the Boers to move it to
Telegraph Hill. A few weeks later the Long Tom took revenge by scoring a direct hit on Castor
(the mortal son who fell in battle…), necessitating the replacement of its breast transom.
In total the two British howitzers fired 765 rounds during the war, mainly in defence of Ladysmith and,
although obsolete, therefore played an important role in the war.
Today only one of the original British pair still guards the entrance to the Ladysmith Town Hall.
Its left trunnion inscriptions identify it as also being a Mark I gun manufactured at the RGF in
The two former foes both carry the same weight marking on the breech "17-2-23" (17x112
+ 2x28 + 23 = 1983 lbs). It is suspected that the second British howitzer was replaced with the
captured Boer piece, possibly due to the damage caused by the Long Tom's direct hit. However,
contradicting this, No.48’s carriage still carries battle damage, which indicates that this probably
was Castor, the gun damaged by the Long Tom's direct hit.
So, it seems today, in stead of Castor
and Pollux, we have Castor and Paul guarding the Town Hall! What became of Pollux after the
war remains a mystery…
The British 6.3-inch 18 cwt RML was a typical howitzer. Compared to a gun, howitzers of those
days had a shorter barrel and fired a heavier shell at shorter distances, at a lower muzzle velocity
and with a higher trajectory.
This enabled a howitzer to fire its projectiles into trenches and
behind fortifications, something a normal gun with it flat trajectory could not achieve. For field
use the 6.3-inch 18 cwt RML howitzer was mounted on a wheeled travelling carriage originally
manufactured for a 40-pr RML gun. Mounted on this carriage the assembly was similar to that of
a normal field gun, but due to the howitzer's shorter barrel it could achieve a greater elevation of
around 30 degrees. To fire its shells the howitzer used black powder in bagged charges.
made its position almost impossible to hide when fired and necessitated thorough cleaning at
Earlier British RML artillery fired loose-fitting conical projectiles with projecting studs which
slotted into deep rifling grooves in the barrel; the so-called Woolwich rifling system. This system
had proved unsatisfactory as excessive windage (the escape of burning propellant past the
projectile) caused erosion in the bore.
To overcome this it was necessary to devise some means of
preventing the forward escape of gases when the gun was fired. After several experiments, in
1878, a copper gas-check, in the shape of a cup placed between the shell and the powder
cartridge, was found to be the best solution.
Apart from preventing windage it was also found that
the gas-check increased the range of the gun. Originally the gas check was not fitted to the base
of the shell but rotated independently. After it was suggested that it might, by being fixed to the
shell, also be used to impart rotation, the studs on the shell were dispensed with and the gascheck
became an early form of driving band.
With no studs on the projectile it was now possible
to use a shallow “polygroove” rifling system (20 grooves 0.1-inch deep and 0.5-inch wide with
the twist increasing from one turn in 100 calibres to one in 35 at the muzzle). In Britain the 6.3-
inch RML howitzer came into service in 1878 and was the first artillery piece to make use of this