A disappearing gun, a gun mounted on a "disappearing carriage" was a type of artillery used in the past which enabled a gun to hide from direct fire and observation. In the overwhelming majority of designs, the gun carriage enabled the gun to rotate backwards and down behind a parapet, or into a pit protected by a wall after it was fired; a small number were simply Barbette mounts on a retractable platform. Either way, retraction lowered the gun from view and direct fire by the enemy while it was being reloaded. It also made reloading easier, since it lowered the breech to a level just above the loading platform, and shells could be rolled right up to the open breech for loading and ramming.
Although it had these advantages, the disappearing carriage was also a complicated mechanism. In the U.S., disappearing carriages were mostly withdrawn from active service by the early 1920s.
Although some early designs were intended as field siege guns, over time the design became associated with fixed fortifications, most of which were coastal artillery. A surprising late exception was the use in mountain fortifications in Switzerland, where six 120mm guns on Saint Chamond disappearing carriages remained at Fort de Dailly until replaced in 1940.
The disappearing gun was usually moved down behind the parapet or into its protective housing by the force of its own recoil, which (on many models) lifted a counterweight. Before firing, the crew tripped a catch on the counterweight, causing it to fall into a well at the center of the gun position and move the gun back up "into battery" (firing position).
Disappearing guns as a functioning concept were invented in the 1860s by Captain (later Sir) Alexander Moncrieff, who built on his observations in the Crimean War to improve on existing designs for a gun carriage capable of rising over a parapet before being reloaded from behind cover. His key innovation was a counterweight system that raised the gun as well as controlled the recoil. Moncrieff promoted his system as an inexpensive and quickly constructed alternative to a more traditional gun emplacement.
Buffington and Crozier further refined the concept in the late 1880s by incorporating hydro-pneumatic recoil control to assist the counterweight action. The Buffington–Crozier Disappearing Carriage (1893) represented the zenith of disappearing gun carriages, and guns of up to 16-inch size were eventually mounted on such carriages. Disappearing guns were highly popular for a while in the British Empire, the United States and other countries.
However, in the 1890s, a series of Royal Navy/New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy trials carried out in New Zealand (where numerous disappearing guns had been bought and installed during the Russian Scares), revealed the virtual impossibility of a small shore installation being hit by a warship, except by chance. Others dispute that the advantages were so limited, and point to the efficiency of such artillery in for example, the Battle of Port Arthur. In any case, with their protective benefits thus cast into doubt, no further production of the expensive gun carriages was undertaken in New Zealand.
Though effective against ships, the guns turned out to be vulnerable to aerial attack. After World War I batteries of disappearing guns were usually casemated for protection or covered with camouflage for concealment. By 1912, the guns were declared obsolete in the British Army, with only some other countries, particularly the United States, still producing them up to World War I and keeping them active through to the end of World War II.
The disappearing carriage had several principal advantages:
- It afforded the gun crew protection from direct fire by raising the gun over the parapet (or wall in front of the gun) only when it was to be fired, otherwise leaving it at a lower level, where it was also able to be loaded easily.
- With its guns in a retracted position (down behind the parapet), the battery was much harder to spot from the sea, making it a much harder target for attacking ships. Flat trajectory fire tended simply to fly over the battery, without damaging it.
- Interposing of a moving fulcrum between the gun and its platform lessened the strain on the latter and allowed it to be of lighter construction while limiting recoil travel.
- Simple, well protected earthen and masonry gun pits were much more economical to construct than the previous practice of constructing the standing heavy walls and fortified casemates of a more traditional gun emplacement.
- The entire battery could be hidden from view when not in use, unlike a traditional fort, enabling ambuscade fire.
The disappearing gun had several drawbacks as well:
- Some British carriage designs restricted maximum elevation to under 20 degrees and thus lacked the necessary range to match newer naval guns entering service during the early part of the 20th century. (Buffington-Crozier carriages, at their final development, could manage 30 degrees on a sixteen inch gun.) The additional elevation gained by mounting the same gun on a later non-disappearing carriage increased their range.
- The time taken for the gun to swing up and down and be reloaded slowed the rate of fire of some designs. Surviving records indicate a rate of fire of 1 round per 1 to 2 minutes for a British 8-inch (20 cm) gun, significantly slower than less complicated guns. (By contrast, the Buffington-Crozier 16' inch mount could manage 1 round per minute; the barbette mount was only 20 percent faster, and was slower at some elevations.)
- The improvement in the speed of warships demanded an increased rate of firing. The disappearing gun was at a disadvantage compared with a gun that stayed in position as one could not aim or reposition a disappearing gun while it was in the lowered position. The gunner still had to climb atop the weapon via an elevated platform to sight and lay the weapon after it was returned to firing position, or receive fire control information (range and bearing) transmitted from a remote location.
- Their relative size and complexity also made them expensive compared with non-disappearing mounts, (but this was more than made up, for some designs, by the reduced cost of protection).
Gun lift battery
One unique and even more complex type of disappearing gun was Battery Potter at Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Built in 1892, the Battery covered the approaches to New York harbor. Instead of using recoil from the gun to lower the weapon, two 12-inch barbette carriages were placed on individual hydraulic elevators that would raise the 110-ton carriage and gun 14 feet to enable it fire over a parapet wall. After firing, the gun was lowered for reloading using hydraulic ramrods and a shell hoist. While the operation of the battery was slow, taking 3 minutes per shot, its design allowed an unlimited field of fire.
Battery Potter required a huge amount of machinery to operate the gun lifts, including boilers, steam pressure pumps and two accumulators. Due to the inability to generate steam quickly, Potter's boilers were run nonstop during its 14-year life, creating a significant operating cost. After the proving of the Buffington Crozier carriage, the United States Army abandoned plans to build several additional gun lift batteries.
(Note: the above illustration is not of a gun lift battery, but of a conventional Buffington-Crozier design.)
The concept was also attempted for conversion to a naval use. HMS Temeraire was completed in 1877 with two disappearing guns sinking down into barbette-structures (basically circular metal protective walls over which the gun fired when elevated). This was to combine the ability of the early pivot guns to swivel with the protection of more classical fixed naval guns. A similar design was later used in Russia for the first ship of the Ekaterina II battleship class. It has been suggested that both the harsh saltwater environment and the constant swaying and rolling of a ship at sea caused problems for the complex mechanism.
- Ben Buckler Gun Battery, Bondi, New South Wales
- Flagstaff Hill Fort, Wollongong, New South Wales
- Fort Queenscliff, Port Phillip, Victoria, with a recovered gun from South Channel Fort
- Fort Nepean, Port Phillip, Victoria
- Fort Scratchley, Newcastle, New South Wales
- Henry Head Battery, Sydney, New South Wales
- Steel Point Battery, Vaucluse, Sydney, New South Wales
- Signal Hill Battery, Watsons Bay, Sydney, New South Wales
- South Channel Fort, Port Phillip, Victoria
- Scaur Hill Fort, 64 pounder Rifled Muzzle Loaders on Moncrieff disappearing mounts
- New Zealand (Armstrong Disappearing Guns)
- Fort Ballance, (Miramar, Wellington), one barrel of a BL 8-inch gun recovered
- Fort Jervois (Lyttelton), one mostly intact BL 6-inch Mk V and one working-order BL 8-inch gun
- North Head (North Shore, Auckland), one remaining gun barrel with mostly intact carriage
- Taiaroa Head (Dunedin) one restored BL 6-inch Mk V
- South Africa
- 9.2 inch disappearing gun in Fort Wynyard, Cape Town. Visible in Google Earth at coordinates 33° 54.136'S 18° 24.807'E.
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Battery Chamberlin, Presidio of San Francisco. One of the few Buffington-Crozier disappearing carriage still operating.
- Battery Potter, Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, New Jersey. This is only remaining steam hydraulic battery.
- Fort Casey, Washington Home of two Buffington-Crozier mounted guns moved from Fort Wint (Subic Bay, Philippines.)
- Fort Stevens, Oregon,the only military installation in the continental United States to receive hostile fire during World War II
- Battery Cooper at Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida contains one 6-inch M1905 gun on a disappearing carriage.
(There were several hundred disappearing guns mounted at Endicott Board and Taft Board fortifications in the US; this list only touches on locations with surviving guns, or which saw action.)
- Disappearing Guns (from the Royal New Zealand Artillery Old Comrades Association)
- The Defenses of Sandy Hook (from a Sandy Hook, Gateway National Recreation Area, U.S. National Park Service information pamphlet. Accessed 2008-02-22.)
- "Moncrieff's method of mounting guns with counterweights, of using them in gun-pits, and of laying them with reflecting sights : a paper read at the Royal United Service Institution (1866)" (from archive.org. Accessed 2009-06-25.)
- The Disappearing Gun (from the 'navyandmarine.org' website, with further references. Accessed 2008-02-22.)
- "Fort Winfield Scott: Battery Lowell Chamberlin". California State Military Museum. Retrieved 2007-03-30.
- Hogg, Ian V., "Illustrated Encyclopedia of Artillery," Chartrwell, Secaucus, NJ, 1978 p74
- The Six Inch Shield Gun (from a private website. Accessed 2009-02-28.)
- "Rare gun barrel surfaces in Wellington". Radio New Zealand. Retrieved 1 April 2013.
- American Seacoast Artillery in the Philippines (12-inch, 10-inch and 6-inch) (from the Coast Defense Study Group website. Accessed 2008-11-14.)
- D. Quarmby, Casemate (Fortress Study Group), 84, 2009, pp17-18
- Hogg, I.V., "The Rise and Fall of the Disappearing Carriage", Fort (Fortress Study Group), (6), 1978
- Hogg, Ian V., "Illustrated Encyclopedia of Artillery," Chartrwell, Secaucus, NJ, 1978
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