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Internal organisation of a French shrapnell shell
Evolution of the artillery projectiles before 1914

The organisation of the artillery projectiles
Propelling charge
Primer and primer tube
Driving band

Fragmentation and shrapnel shells
Fragmentation shells
Rear-charge shrapnell shells
Effects of the rear-charge shrapnell shells
Canister shots

High-explosive and perforation shells
High-explosive shells
Effects of the high-explosive shells
Perforation shells
Universal shells

Special and gaz shells
Tracer, lighting and incendiary shells
Gaz shells

Trench artillery projectiles


Uncovered troops or protected in trenches, concrete bunkers or wooden huts, deep dugouts, ammunition stocks, ships, armoured fortresses or houses, tanks or planes, the destruction of each type of target often requires a specific type of projectile. And when used for making war, the human's imagination can be sometimes particularly prolific...

Evolution of the artillery projectiles before 1914

The first artillery weapons, appeared well before the First World War and most often present on battlefields since the last periods of the middle-age, first launched solid cast iron or stone bullets, or various material grape-shot.

1273 a.d. records can be found of the use of a gunpowder cannon by the Arab Sultan Abou-Youssouf, shooting of the 'iron gravel' on the besieged soldiers of Sidjilmesa ! In the second part of the Middle Age, bombards of all calibers broke the walls of the most formidable fortresses with full cast iron or stone bullets, inducing a major reform of the principles of the fortifications and announcing the advent of systems of the 'Vauban' type with inclinated walls.

Old spherical bomb model - hollow bullet charged with black powder, used with smoothbore tubes of French Mortars of 150, 220, 270 and 320 mmHollow projectiles, named 'shells', still spherical and filled with inflammable material or gunpowder, appeared in the 17th century. The delayed ignition of the inner explosive charge induced the development of a new device, called 'fuze', that was only a wood cylinder inserted through the shell wall in an hole ('eye'), and filled by compacted slow-burning gunpowder that was ignited by the hot gasses inside the gun tube at the projectile discharge.

Another important evolution appeared in 1803 when the British officer Shrapnell invented a spherical hollow shell filled with gunpowder and steel bullets, whose explosion spread on the uncovered enemy soldiers a deadly cloud of balls.

The 19th century saw a rapid acceleration of the artillery techniques development, with guns progressively becoming more powerful, more accurate, with higher rate of fire and longer ranges. These weapons evolutions created the need of adapted ammunitions, that will evoluate from the initial spherical shape to the incomparably more sophisticated projectiles of the Great War.

The following highlights might serve as a tentative summary of this evolution :

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The organisation of the artillery projectiles

At the end of the evolutions summarized above, the 1914 artillery projectiles were generally organized like this German 7.7cm shell :

Its 75mm French equivalent had the same structure :

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Propelling charge

Formerly poured in the gun muzzle and tamped before the bullet introduction, the 1914 propelling charge was in 1914 usually made of

  • 'gunpowder', producing an impressive smoke quantity - in english 'gunpowder'

  • 'smokeless powder', generally nitrocellulose powder - in english 'guncotton'

  • grains or chords of a nitrocellulose / nitroglycerine compound - in english 'cordite'.

It could be conditioned either :
  • packed in pre-weighted tissue bags ("cartridge bags"). It was therefore possible to adapt the propelling charge to the needed range, by cha,ging the number or type of bags.

  • packed into metal cartridge cases (copper or brass, more rarely steel). The propelling charge was then constant, but this disadvantage was largely offset by the easier handling allowing higher fire rates.

Scheme of a German 7.7cm fieldgun complete ammunition Scheme of a German 10.5 cm howitzer shell cartridge case

There were different techniques for the assembly of the shell and the propelling charge :

  • fixed : the metal (copper, brass and sometimes steel, aluminium, ...) cartridge case containing the invariant propelling charge is crimped on the shell, and this assembly is handled as a single item, allowing higher fire rates.

  • semi-fixed : the cartrigge and the shell are handled separately, and gathered at fire time. The weight of the propelling charge can be lowered before the discharge according to the fire officer calculations. This was useful with high angle weapons such as mortars or howitzers.

  • separated : the propelling charge bags are introduced after the shell by the gun breech, and the last one is often contained inside a short metal case including the starter. In this last cas, the propelling charge can be very easily modified.

From the left to the right, German 7.6cm light Minenwerfer shell, German 7.7cm fieldgun high explosive shell, German 7.7cm fieldgun shrapnell shell, French 75mm fieldgun high explosive shell, French 75mm fieldgun shrapnell shell, German 10.5cm howitzer cartridge case (separated propelling charge).

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Primer and primer tube

When the propelling charge was contained into a cartridge case, its ignition was triggered by an integrated primer filled with a high sensitive material (for instance mercury fulminate). It was located at the cartridge base, and was triggered machanically (hammered) or electrically by the means of a system located inside the gun's breech.

The propelling charges that was contained in bags or not conditioned required the use of a friction, percussion or electrical primer tube, inserted through the gun base or the breech.

All the 1914 propelling charges used cordite or smokeless gunpowder, more adaped to stealth. Some propelling material were more stable and required an intermediate igniter charge (for instance gunpowder) to burst them.

Friction primer tubes for German minenwerfers

Base of a German 7.7cm fieldgun ammunition, manufactured by Fritz Neumeyer in Nürnberg (Nuremberg) in November 1917 (thanks to J-L Landreat) - See the primer cap at the center.. French friction primer tubes

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Driving band

The shell inflight stability was insured by its spin movement around its axis (gyroscopic effect, well known by scientists). This spin was given to the projectile when fired, by a system of helicoïdal grooves machined inside the gun barrel ('rifling') in which shell's soft metal rotation pins or indents made on soft metal circle(s) were inserted, driving the projectile out of the tube.

This principle knew severeal developments during the second half of the XIXth century, but two major methods existed in 1914, both based on the 'driving band' technique :

  • In most cases, for breech-loading guns, the shell base (and sometimes body) was circled by one or several soft metal or copper driving bands, with an external diameter equal to the barrel inner diameter at the bottom of the rifling grooves. When introduced inside the gun's rear chamber, the shell was forced inside the rifled tube section, and the barrel helicoïdal grooves pressed inclined indents into the driving bands. When expulsed by the propelling charge, the shell followed the movement of its driving bands locked inside the rifling grooves, giving it the desired spin movement that it kept during its flight afterwards.

  • In more rare cases of rifled muzzle-loading guns (particularly the German minenwerfers lMW, mMW and sMW), the gun had less and larger grooves, and the corresponding inclined indents were pre-machined in the projectiles driving bands. At the contrary of the previous case, the existence of indents inside the driving bands of such projectiles does not mean that they have been fired, when observed nowadays...

Myriads of fragments of these copper driving bands can still be found on former WW1 battlefields today.

15cm sFH02 German howitzer tube rifling
120mm German shrapnell shell equipped with 4 driving bands
Wartime scheme showing the forcing of the shell's driving band into the rifled section grooves. Driving bands fragments

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The nature of the shells explosive fillings was also subject to a constant evolution. The initial times gun powder, that could easily be exploded by a blow or even friction was not poweful enough and used to braek shells into too big fragments that would not fly far and quick enough. It was still in use in WW1 but only with very old guns and ammunition, or in fuzes.

This material was then progressively replaced by derivated products of the Nitroglycerine, primal componebt of the well-jnown dynamite, and more particularly the Trinitrotoluene (TNT). This material acts by detonating rather than exploding. The detonation is a much more powerful reaction than the explosion, that is a surface reaction progressively progressing inside the explosive material layer by layer, while the detonation bursts the whole mass almost instantaneously. But if the breaking power of TNT was much higher, it was a difficult material to burst.

A 'miracle' material was then invented, alloying a great detonating power and ease. The picric acid, named 'Mélinite' in France, and 'Lyddite' in England, or 'Granatfüllung 88' in Germany, was used. However, this material manufacturing was hazardous, and it was so instable that it needed the shells inside walls to be varnished or tinned, since it was reacting with steel and formed highly unstable picrate salts that could burst the detonation only under the action of the shell acceleration in the gun barrel... !

This is how the armies came back to explosives giving a better compromise between power and stability, but needing to add to the fuzes a powerful exploder sometimes called gaine (for instance using powder picric acid), itself burst by a smaller fulminate of mercury detonator triggered directly by the fuze.

French typical pyrotechnic chain for detonation of high-explosive 75mm shells loaded with melinite, including (from the left to the right) a percussion fuze Nr 24/31, a thread adaptator, a 2-grams fulminate of mercury detonator, and an exploder (sometimes calles gaine) filled with powder picric acid.

Several explosives were used by the fighting nations during WW1, including :

German name
French name
British name
Type of explosive
Poudre noire
Inflammable, explodes under a flame, a primer or a spark action.
Used in artifices, fuzes pyrotechnics, and in old explosive shells. Different variants in granulometry and composition.
Fulminate de mercure
Fulminate of mercury
Very high
Highly unstable, detonates on shocks, friction or heat.
Produces a violent flash but not hot and long enough to burst gunpowder or a stable explosive. Used as a primer or a detonator in shells, but usually in association with an unstable explosive filled exploder (or gaine).
Very high
Highly unstable, detonates on shocks, blows, heat or even by sun decomposition into even more unstable components.
Used for manufacturing of more stable explosives and propellants.
Granatfüllung 88
Acide Picrique or Mélinite
Picric Acid or Lyddite (fondu)
Very high
Unstable. Detonates under the action of a blow, a primer or a spark. Forms an very unstable and self-detonating picrate salts when in contact with metals.
Usual use in expolders ('gaines'), or in shells (molten condition) in association with an exploder.
Füllpulver 02
Tolite or TNT
Trinitrotoluene or Trotyl (TNT)
High, slightly lower than picric acid
Stable, cannot detonate under the action of a flame nor thye heat or a chemical reaction with metals. Needs a direct and powerful hit to detonate, or a detonator (f.i. fulminate of mercury)
Füllpulver 60/40
60/40 Amatol
Stable, but less than TNT
Mix of 60% TNT and 40% ammonium nitrate
Tetryl or Composition Exploding
Very high, higher than picric acid
Used as a primer, a detonator, or relays in fuzes.

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The fuze was the mechanical or pyrotechnic device that was mounted on the shell and triggered the time of explosion during flight (Time fuzes or Time and Percussion fuzes), at impact on the target (Percussion fuzes), or after penetration into it (Delayed Percussion fuzes). The variety of the shells in use and the different effects wanted, associated with the tecnological or economical evolution during the war years, created the conditions of an impressive multiplication of these devices types within each fighting armies.

German time and percussion fuze Dopp Z 92. The cut-through allows to observe the internals of the sophisticated mechanical and pyrotechnic system.

The 'main types of artillery fuzes' in use during WW1 and the 'fuzes used by the different fighting nations' of WW1 are the topic of specific and detailed sections of this website, that can be easily accessed clicking on these links.

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Fragmentation and shrapnell shells

In August 1914, the shrapnel shells were the main ammunitions of the field artillery. Designed to burst right over the ennemy troops by the means of a specific time setting device (time fuze), they were spreading an deadly lead bullets and steel fragments rain while producing a smoke cloud that allowed the gunners to tune their aiming.

Two main types of shrapnel shells existed in 1914 ; the fragmentation shells and the more modern shrapnel shells.

Most of these ammunitions and their associated time fuzes had disappeared from the battlefields pby the end of the war. They were replaced by high explosive fuzes mounted with super-quick direct action fuzes, easier to manufacture, needing little to no settings by the less and less experimented gunners, and much more effective particularly against moderately entrenched troops.

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Fragmentation shells

Wartime sheme of the French 95mm fragmentation shell

Fragmentation shells were still used with the old 80, 90, 95, 120 and 155mm de Bange guns as late as 1916. Made of a thick steel base in which hemispheric rooms were machined for bullets, on which were piled a series of prefragmented honeycombed cast iron waffles and lead bullets, with a hollow head on top containing the burst charge linked to the time fuze, and contained into a thin steel plate cylinder crimped around the base and the head.

The shock of discharge fragmented the cast iron waffles, and the shell burst during the flight dislocated the thin steel enveloppe, spreading the thin cast iron fragments and the lead bullets in all directions but in relatively small numbers, with a moderate speed, and producing a hardly visible burst cloud. Despite these drawbacks, the good compacity of this kind of shell was a real asset, and made of it an efficient ammunition as well for the destruction of common shelters (wood, brick, ...), just by its momentum and mass.

Base of a French 120mm fragmentation shell, with the honeycomb machining for bullets and filled with lead bullets, and view on the hollow bottom of a similar 90mm French fragmentation shell base
Wartime sheme of the French 95mm fragmentation shell

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Rear charge shrapnel shells

Rear charge shrapnel shells were organized a bit like flying guns. The same design was used by all the fighting countries. For instance, in the case of the French 75mm shrapnel shell (7.240 kg), the base and cylindrical body was made of hot formed steel in one piece. The base had thicker walls than the cylindric section ones, and formed a chamber that received the rear burst charge (gunpowder - 100g).

This rear chamber was closed by an inner steel lower diaphragm on top of which were placed the 250 antimony hardened lead bullets, prisoner of a special resin ('collophane') for a good compacity and fixity. An upper steel diaphragm closed the cylinder, on which the fuze-bearing steel head was thread. A low alloy steel tube was passing through the body along its central axis, allowing the shell base gunpowder chamber to communicate with the fuze tail (inserted in the tube by means of a funnel called 'tulip').

In flight, when the fuze ordered the shell explosion, the inner tube let the fuze tail flame communicate with the rear charge. This latter bursted and violently pushed the lower diaphragm forward, propulsing the bullets in the same direction and ejecting the upper diaphragm and the shell head. The lead bullets rain was forming a cone and the impacted gound zone was therefore ellipsoïdal, up to 300m long and 25m wide (see the scheme below).

The in-flight shell burst produced a visible cloud thanks to the resin combustion, allowing the gunner to adjust the aiming and range for the next shots.

Usual and almost sole ammunition of the field artillery in 1914, but not adapted to the positions war with entrenched enemy, the shrapnel shells were progressively replaced with high explosive shells with dedicated fuzes. They disappeared compltely from the arsenals between WW1 and WW2.

Base (gunpowder chamber) of the German 7.7cm shrapnel shell, broken at the place where the walls thickness reduces. Found in Artois.
Wartime scheme of the French 75mm fieldgun rear charge shrapnel shell Head of a German 10.5mm shrapnell shell found in Champagne. One can see the bullets still glued into the collophane resin, and in the center the rest of the tulip.


Inner organisation of a French shrapnel shell


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Effects of rear charge shrapnel shells


Scheme of the effects of a rear charge shrapnel shell :


The time fuze triggers the inflight shell burst, the rear charge propulses the lead bullets forward, so they hit an elliptic area on the ground in front of the trajectory. Used as a antipersonnel weapon on a wide area, but almost unefficient when the enemy is deep entrenched.

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Canister shots

Canister shots (or 'Grape shots'), were designed for close range defence. It was generally a cylindrical zinc or brass box with very thin walls, closed at its base and top by cheap means, and filled with lead bullets somewhat heavier than the ones of the shrapnel shells.

This ammunition was dismantled inside the gun tube by the discharge and propulsed its bullets load at point blank. In WW1, most of the guns needing this kind of ammo could use a conventional shrapnel shell to obtain a comparable effect by setting the fuze at range 'zero'

The canister shots were therefore rarely used during WW1, except for some specific applications, such as close-range fortresses defence guns or infantry guns.

Wartime scheme of the French 90mm gun.
  French 37mm infantry gun canister shot
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High explosive and perforation shells

The high explosive and perforation shells have been designed in order to burst when hitting their target (but also in flight, for high explosive shells), under the action of a powerful and large quantity of inner explosive charge. Their thick steel walls were producing deadly fragments, and the charge burst a shock effect much larger than the fragmentation shells could ever do.

High explosive shells

The general organisation of such a weapon was pretty universal amongst the fighting countries. It can be explained taking as an example the high explosive shell ,of the French 75mm fieldgun. The shell body is a single piece forged steel piece, from the base to the igival head, with thicker wallthicknesses than the shrapnel shell, and pierced at its top by a threaded hole for fuze insertion. The shell weight was 5.300 kg, and it was filled with 850 g of Melinite explosive. Since this material was corroding the steel to form unstable components, the inner surfaces of the shell were protected with varnish or a tin layer, to avoid accidental explosions.

In some cases, for instance most of the German heavy caliber shells, the high explosive shells were an assembly of several seperate parts, the base being threaded on the cylindric / ogival part and bearing a base fuze. In some German high explosive shells of medium to light caliber, it was sometimes the head that could be threaded onto the body.

These high explosive shells effects were dreadful and could vary depending on the kind of fuze used (as seen in below section). The shell fragments produced by these ammunitions burst ranged from tiny particles able to penetrate deep inside the human body to big and sharp steel sections flying quick to dislocate men in pieces... When used with a delay fuze, the shell could explode underground and produce shell holes of every sizes, creating the characteristic lunar landscape of WW1 battlefield, still visible nowadays under the trees and bushes, one century later..

During the war years, the high explosive shells progressively replaced the shrapnell in the batteries, being able to provide all the needed missions by using the appropriate fuzes, including shrapnel-like inflight explosion.

Defective French high explosive 75mm shell. The organization is well visible with the fuze, the exploder, the thick walled steel body and the copper driving band.
Wartime scheme of the French 75mm high explosive shell. High explosive shell fragment, coming from the shell head. The effects of such a sharp piece of steel flying at full speed on a human body are dreadful... (found in Artois)

Effects of the high explosive shells

Effects of a high explosive shell equipped with a percussion fuze without delay :

Effects of a high explosive shell equipped with a percussion fuze with delay :

The brutal deceleration of the fuze when hitting the target or the ground triggers its mechanism, burtsing the shell while it is penetrating the obstacle. A shell hole is created in the ground, and shell fragments are spread over the ground. 'Universal' use in antipersonnel or anti-entrenchment missions.

The brutal deceleration of the delay fuze when hitting the target or the ground triggers its mechanism, whose action is delayed for some seconds hundredths in order to make the shell burst instants after it penetrated the obstacle. A deep shell hole is created in the ground, and few shell fragments are spread over the ground. Specific use for shelters or entrenchments destruction.

Effects of a high explosive shell equipped with a superquick percussion :

Effects of a high explosive shell equipped with a time fuze :

The brutal deceleration of the superquick fuze (positioned ahead of the shell body) when hitting the target or the ground triggers its mechanism, burtsing the shell before it is penetrating the obstacle. A very small or no shell hole is created in the ground, but a big quantity of fragments are spread over the ground. Specific use in antipersonnel or barbwire destruction missions.

The time fuze triggers the shell burst inflight, the shell fragments are mostly projected perpendicularly to the trajectory. Specific use in antipersonnel missions, but more efficient than the shrapnell shell against enemies sheletred in deep trenches provided the explosion occurs just at their vertical.

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Perforation shells

The initial mission for which the perforation shells had been created was the armor piercing. Used with heavy caliber guns, they were the usual ammunition of the navy artillery for the destruction of steel hulls of ironclad ships.

This kind of shell had a thick and full hardened steel head body, and very thick steel walls. These characteristics gave it improved perforation properties in its target, a delay fuze (internal or base fuze) making it burst after it penetrates the armor.

This kind of concept was extended to the Army fighting onshore, for the destruction of reinforced concrete fortresses and shelters by heavy guns and howitzers, using both shock and mine effects, and later to the fieldguns dedicated to anti-tank fight.

Knowing that the wall thicknesses were considerably bigger, the explosive charge proportion was lower than high explosive shell in relation to the total weight (10 to 12% compared to 16 to 30%).
The fuze was most of the time fixed through the shell base, eor inserted inside the shell itself, but never on the shell head. Like in high explosive heavy German shells, the shell bases were threaded at the rear of the single-piece huge shell body.

A special care was given to the shell aerodynamics, needed by the heavy weight and the wanted long ranges, giving way sometimes to the use of a thin steel plate hollow ogival head covering the real shell head.

Wartime scheme of French and Austrian super-heavy artillery shells with heavy wall thickness, full steel head and threaded base with base fuze hole.

French 400mm shell, weight 900 kg. (Mémorial de Verdun)

Huge threaded base of a German heavy artillery shell, supposedly 380 mm. (Mort Homme - Verdun)

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Les obus universels

The early XXth century conflicts and war tactics demonstrated before 1914 what would be evident just some months after august 1914, that is an increasing need of fieldguns ammunitions more powerful than the usual shrapnel shells, that prooved just good enough in percussion mode when hitting light shelters (bricks, wood, earth, etc...). In order to improve the shells destruction behavior, better explosive properties were needed. This is how the German Army designed a 'Universal shell' ('Einheitsgeschoss') before the war, and used it in the early stages of the conflict.

This shell was organized like a shrapnel shell but the resin mass usually surronding the bullets was replaced by TNT for a better explosive effect. Like many technical compromises, this projectile never gave full satisfaction neither as a shrapnel shell, nor as an explosive shelle, and was gradually abandoned. Moreover, it needed a very sophisticated time and percussion fuze ('KZ11' ou 'HZ05') able to order the multiple functions of the ammunition.

Wartime scheme of the German universal shell.

France had a similar experience, equally short and disappointing, with their 'Robin shell' also named 'Mixed charge shrapnel shell', that did not have a bottom chamber for the rear burst charge.

The whoke available volume in the shell was filled with a highly compressed mix of gunpowder and a quantity of lead balls slightly higher than the one of the classical rear charge shrapnel shells. This concept was providing a higher lethal effect when used as a shrapnel ammo, better inciendary properties, and a relatively good performance as an explosivve shell.

Manufacturing difficulties were such that the production was soon abandonned.

Wartime scheme of the French Robin shell.

The Austro-Hungarians adopted an even different concept of universal shell, called the 'SchrapnellGranate' or 'Obus Schrapnell'. It closely resembled a conventional bullet shell, with a powder chamber in the base and a propellant diaphragm and axial flame transmission tube.

However, an explosive chamber in the warhead fulfilled two different functions depending on how the shell was used:

  • when fired percussively, the fuse detonated this chamber on impact, causing the shell body charge to explode. The detonation of this ogival chamber amplified the dispersion of the bullets and shrapnel
  • in a fusing action, the fuse communicated a flame to the rear chamber via the axial tube, causing the balls and the warhead to be ejected in flight. The warhead continued its trajectory and on impact with the ground, the fuse's percussion mechanism operated, detonating the charge in the warhead chamber.
Their use required specific fuses such as the 'M14 for 8cm shells' or the 'M14 for 10cm shells'.

Wartime scheme of the Austrian SchrapnellGranate shell.

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Special and gaz shells

Specialized projectiles were used during the conflict. Their exhaustive list would be pretty long, but some of them will stay forever sadly famous.

Tracer, lighting and incendiary shells

The tracer shells (in German 'Lichtspurgranate') were filled with a slow-burning composition (for instance a mixture of baryum nitrate and magnesium) or phosphorous and their head was pierced by holes letting the flames escape during the flight. These shells were leaving a smoke trace (or illuminated trace at night) behind them allowing to correct the aiming on aircraft targets, and had incendiary properties very useful against baloons and zeppelins.

The incendiary shells (in German 'Brand Granate') were filled with slow but intense burning material, for instance tar impregnated tissue and gunpowder dust, able to burn about 2 minutes. These burning elements were dispersed meters away after the shell burst in every direction. One should note that the gunpowder explosive shells had pretty good incendiary properties.

The smoke shells (in German 'Rauchentwickler Granate'), looking like the explosive shells but filled with a phosphorous-based composition, ou sulfuric anhydrid, they emitted for some minutes after hittong the ground a dense smoke cloud designed to hide the friendly troops movements to the enemy.

The star shells (in German 'Leuchtgeschoss'), simple enveloppe enclosing fireworks 'stars' often made of magnesium base material, expulsed by the shell rear at the burst ordered by a time fuze, and descending slowly, often suspended to a small parachute, lighting the landscape and the enemy positions.

Wartime scheme of the French 75mm tracer shell. Wartime scheme of the British 10 Pdr star shell.

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Gaz shells

The gaz, suffocating or tear shells, were based on the same kind of design as the incendiary shells, but diepersed toxic or irritating material when hitting the ground. These shells were often made of a double envelope system : the inner envelope containing the agressive liquid could be made of glass or thin steel plate.

In other designs, the toxic material was contained inside a glass bottle that was broken by the shock of landing, simultaneously with the shell casing dismantling.

These shells were most often used with 'superquick' fuzes, so that the shell burst occurs over the ground.

See this excellent website for an extensive presentation of the WW1 gaz war history and material : 'La Guerre des Gaz'

Wartime scheme of the German 7.7cm 'Yellow cross' shell. Toxic material directly in contact with the shell walls. Wartime scheme of the German 7.7cm 'Yellow cross' shell, with the toxic liquid contained into a glass bottle.

German gaz shell glass bottle container The brutal deceleration of the superquick fuze (positioned ahead of the shell body) when hitting the target or the ground triggers its mechanism, burtsing the shell before it is penetrating the obstacle. The low power explosion breaks the weak envelope and the containers filled with the toxic materials and creates the gaz cloud.

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Trench artillery ammunitions

The rapid evolution of the operations from a conventional field war to a trech war gave way to the quick and almost improvised development of trench artillery, whose mission was to send an as big as possible explosive charge to a short range, following an almost vertical ballistic curve. These various and numerous 'trench mortars', sometimes called 'Crapouillots' when French, 'Trench Mortars' when British, and 'Minenwerfers' or 'Ladungswerfers' when German, sent different ammunitions with a small muzzle speed.

These ammunitions being therefore less stressed than the usual shells by the weaker initial acceleration, these 'bombs' could be built with thin steel walls, and give the better part of their volume to considerable weights of powerful explosive charges that could represent up to 50 to 60 % of the total weight !

It is then easy to understand how such weapons were able to flatten tens of metres of trenches by a single hit, and destroy or terrorize their poor inhabitants.

Most of the trench artillery weapons tubes were not rifled, the inflight stabilty being then either random, or controlled by fins, efficient enough at small speeds. In these cases, the bomb was either inserted entirely with its body and fins inside the tube, or a cylindric tail welded to the bomb body was inserted inside the mortar bore (like for the French 58mm 'crapouillots' and their different ammunitions).

In other cases, like the powerful German reglementary minenwerfers, the trench mortars tubes were rifled like a conventional gun, and the ammunitions driving bands were premachined with the matching shapes, and introduced backwards by the gun muzzle.

This kind of weapons evoluated all along the war towards the infantry mortars, and the frontier with the grenade-launcher devices became often unclear. The final evolution brang the weapon to the famous British Stokes mortar, or to pneumatic mortars using compressed gaz for their grenade propulsion instead of explosives.

Different ammunitions of the French Trench mortars, with fins or driving bands.

Collection of German trench mortars, showing the extreme diversity of the weapons used in improvisation (upper picture), over the classical ammunitions of the reglementary and powerful Minenwerfers (lower picture).

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