The underrated genius gun

World War II artillery lessons learned pointed at four desirable main improvements:
+ all-round fire capability on short notice
+ anti-tank self-defence capability
+ ability to shoot in the upper angle group* (43-70° elevation)
+ more range

A greater shell weight was not emphasised much; 149-155 mm was identified as practical calibre limit for standard artillery. 87-105 mm howitzers had proved their effectiveness. Soviet 122 mm howitzers had proved to be an excellent compromise between the 10 cm and 15 cm main calibres.
The bigger howitzer calibres (149-155 mm) justified their existence primarily with test results that showed a greater overhead cover penetration in firing missions against entrenched troops. It was proved again and again in both world wars that such firing missions were slow, expensive in terms of ammunition and in effect usually inferior to a smarter artillery use with suppressive and surprise fires.
You can bombard entrenched troops into oblivion, but operationally you can achieve much more if you overrun them with support by surprise, suppressive and blinding (smoke) indirect fires.

The need for improved shell effectiveness was afaik rated lowly in German WW2 artillery lessons learned. The first use of radio proximity fuses against land targets in late 1944 had already promised an effectiveness boost against soft targets in the open. These fuses favoured medium calibres, for small ones did initially not justify the fuse price for ground combat uses and large ones offered little additional fragmentation radius over medium ones.
The dominance of the 152 and 155 mm calibres came into being only later (1970's), when they replaced dedicated field cannons with their improved range and proved to be most suitable for cargo (bomblet) shells. The effectiveness ratio between impact-fused 105 and 150 mm HE shells was about 2:3 (at most about 1:2) and it jumped to almost 1:4 for 105 and 155 mm bomblet cargo ("ICM", "DPICM") shells.

The optimal WW2 lessons learned standard artillery piece would thus be a medium calibre gun (till the early 70's) somewhere between 105 and 149 mm. NATO countries did not use medium calibre field howitzers of larger calibre than 105 mm; the last ones in the West (120 mm howitzers) were pre-WW2 vintage, if not pre-WW1 vintage and played no role during the Cold War.

The Russians on the other hand had a great WW2 122 mm howitzer, and developed the wet dream of WW2 artillerymen in 122 mm calibre: The 122 mm 2A18 (called "D-30" by Westerners).

Serbian D-30JA1 (or D-30J)

It had
+ an unusually good range (it outranged even the standard U.S. 155 mm howitzers and self-propelled howitzers in 1965-1972!),
+ improved accuracy
+ all-round traverse
+ secondary anti-tank capability with a shaped charge shell, a low profile and a small shield
+ 70° maximum elevation
+ de facto no limit on towing speed (80 kph maximum on roads)

Its emplacement and displacement times are normal for towed howitzers. Its shell effect was significantly better than with 105 mm shells and in regard to HE with proximity fusing close to 152/155 mm shells (the Soviets were famous for having mostly ancient ammunition in their stocks, though).

Its one exceptional element is the three-legged carriage.

Three points are necessary to define a plane in math, and three are necessary to give a gun a stable position. Three relatively equal trails allowed for an unlimited traverse - unlike with the ancient box or the early 20th century split trail designs. A four-legged trail would be one more than necessary, and lead to issues during emplacement as the fourth could float in the air (have you ever seen a three-legged stool to wobble? How about a four-legged one?).
Unlimited traverse is important because it enables a quick reaction to all calls for fire (not just in a 60° arc) - and to a sudden demand for self-defence fires, as against tanks.

The first guns to make use of all-round traverse on land were as far as I know anti-air guns, especially those in 37 - 128 mm calibre (albeit not all of them). The flat four-legged (cruciform) design was apparently the dominant one for AAA.

Some anti-tank guns with a 360° traverse feature were employed as well, albeit it was quite unnecessary for up to 76.2 mm calibre because such AT guns were 'light' enough to be traversed by their crew. The French had a 47 mm SA modèle 39 TAZ prototype on three legs and the British 40 mm two-pounder AT gun had a different three-trail design, too. Both were essentially over-engineered, as much heavier AT guns were very well man-handled during WW2 (the limit for this was somewhere in the 1,000 - 1,200 kg range). The French gun can be considered to be the first one with such a system as later employed in the 2A18, though. The same three-trail concept was also used in a French 75 mm AT gun prototype before the French armaments industry quitted WW2 involuntarily.

Germany employed four-legged designs for the 8,8 cm Pak 44 / 8,8 cm K 44, for the 12,8 cm Pak 44 prototypes (two designs), the 10,5 cm FH 43 Skoda prototype and the two 15 cm FH 43 prototypes - all during WW2.

The Swedes did pick this up (post-WW2) with their Bofors 105 mm howitzer 4140 on a four-trail carriage.

Then came the Russians (Soviets) with their 2A18 design that became the dread of Central European Cold War armies (not the least due to its insurmountable quantity), a dominant artillery piece of the Soviet Pact, a prime export weapon in the Third World and a much-copied design overall. Afaik the Chinese are still manufacturing it, amongst others.

There is one drawback, though: The breech type (vertically-sliding, wedge-type breechblock) does afaik typically not allow for bag-type propellants due to imperfect sealing. Cases are apparently necessary, and this violates a specific German WW2 lesson; cases become expensive and problematic once you need to produce many millions of artillery cases per month while experiencing material shortages...

I was irritated that such a 'great' gun design never seemed to get the kind of attention and 'admiration' that even mediocre main battle tanks received. Or does "D-30" ring louder in your ear than "T-62"?

The 2A18/D-30 design was phenomenal during the 60's, great during the 70's and is still a very good choice for all ground forces that don't need to care much about the counter-artillery radar problem. It's a true classic that begins to exceed the French Soixante-Quinze in its longevity in accomplished service.


*: The upper angle group was important both for firing positions in woods, for better overhead cover penetration and most importantly for a greater fragmentation effect.

Detail photos of a 2A18 gate guard. 

edit Oct 2011: There was also a three-legged 25 pdr mock-up from Woolwhich for the design competition of the famous 25 pdr gun (pre-WW2 !). A prototype of a U.S. 75 mm "Divisional Gun" with three strangely long legs existed as well - it was meant to double as field artillery and heavy AAA.  Source: Hogg, "British & American Artillery of World War Two"


  1. Hi Sven,

    The L118 Light Gun in UK and others service took a different design approach to 360 degree traverse. Instead of a split leg carriage it has a bent tubular carriage combined with a circular traverse platform. This provides the advantage of 360 degree operation and very rapid setup and take down to avoid counter battery fires (as much as practically possible)

    Using a platform instead of traversing it by moving the entire gun also allows your reference point to be maintained.

    On your other points, the Light Gun also has a very high elevation angle and whilst not as long in service as the 'D30' its been going strong since 1975 and has only this year been upgraded for the umpteenth time, this time with new direct fire sights. Direct fire it seems is still alive and well in Afghanistan.

  2. TD, that principle, the Arbel platform, Schießpilze and the 25pdr's platform had all the same problem: The spade could be stuck and difficult to unstuck plus after traversing it's not rock solid in the ground again - unlike a three trail or cruciform carriage.

  3. 'A greater shell weight was not emphasised much; 149-155 mm was identified as practical calibre limit for standard artillery.'

    Lets say there was some perceived NEED -whether rational or not- for a greater shell weight, employed through, say, a handful or two of super heavy (8 inch) gun-howitzers. What level of command would they best be put them under: Battalion, regimental, etc. And who would get the best use out of them, a light infantry division, or a heavy infantry brigade?

  4. A dedicated artillery brigade for Schwerpunkt actions, assigned to the theatre command.

  5. Uh, I didn't even know we had any artillery brigades these days, considering how few regular brigades and divisions NATO has at its disposal. But I do get the idea of not attatching these cumbersome pieces with a mobile strike division: After all, formations move at the speed of their slowest units. And there is a lot of potential if these 8 inchers were outfitted with something like the *long range guided glide projectile (the 6 inch version of which has a range of 100 KM!). A reach like that would make them an invaluable asset for providing an umbrella of protection and fire support over large areas. Who needs fighter bombers when you have those?

    *I would even go so far as to argue that such rounds should be mass producedd for all arty: It would make the concentration of shell fire for major assaults much more conveniant and swift. BTW, sven, would you ever consider dumping the 105mm and 155mm in favor of a good compromise howitzer, like the 122mm?

  6. I don't think we still have any dedicated arty formations either. These things existed in WW2.

    A MRL is a much easier approach for long-range guided munitions. Guiding a fin-stabilised rocket is far easier than guiding a spin-stabilised shell.

    105 and 155 mm calibres aren't ideal by far, but here to stay. Same for the oversized 227 mm MRLRS calibre.
    These calibres are standardised and there's a powerful technological lock-in. The widespread ban on ICM won't change this.

    Btw; guided projectiles are in a high-end conventional war probably as important for their ability to disguise their origin against counter-artillery radars as for their other advantages.

  7. I just dont see artilery as being a big thing in a future war.

    Handy things in a small war, but in a big war?
    I dont see the attraction.

    A 105 with a infrared seeking head is probably overkill for MBTs.

    A 155+ simply wont be available in great enough numbers to provide sufficient carpet bombing to trouble, much less destroy entrenched troops.

    Artilery is a solution looking for a problem.

    Yes, it makes a functional direct fire anti tank gun. But so does an infantryman with a 1kg light anti tank rocket or two.

    Range is useful for harrassing enemy infantry and making them keep their distance, but there are no infantry divisions anymore.

    In a small policing role, battalion, or even companies, would find a light gun extremely handy.

    But I just dont see the use in a big war.

    The only capability the enemy likely has for agressive action will be an Armoured Brigade, which is what, 50 tanks and several thousand supporting Infantry in IFVs and APCs.
    Youre going to need a lot of tightly packed guns toi block that, and to stop the foce simply going around, youre going to need a lot of such forces.

    But I could be wrong.

  8. "But I just dont see the use in a big war."

    Artillery is the classic backbone of a far-stretched defence. You don't have enough troops to maintain a proper line? Use your troops to keep an eye on a line and let artillery do the heavy lifting. It's been a classic solution since 1944 at least.
    You can't do the same with CAS or mortars without requiring much more resources.

    The self-defensibility of artillery is a 'nice to have' nowadays (and SPHs can play a limited role in security for a largely soft brigade - the MBTs cannot provide security everywhere, after all).
    Such a capability can be invaluable in times of crisis, but it's of course not purposeful to build a Pakfront with 2A18s.

  9. But when are we going to be attempting to hold a thin front line?

    And even if we did, what hope would it have when the only force likely to try and break it would be an armoured Brigade, or larger, force?

    It made perfect sense for the primarily infantry armies of the second world war, because it was enough to make an infantry opush far too bloody, but the armoured componants usualy cut through such lines with ease. Simple lack of armoured formations disguised this problem.

    But today thats quite different.

    As you frequently remind us, there are no front lines anymore, because there arent the 50 infantry divisions required to hold a front line.

    For an Afghanistan type War, I fully agree with you. I think the UK should have deployed a light gun to every platoon house, with a 360 degreee arc of fire, and a very high arc to allow a good area to be covered.
    It would have been a brilliant way to provide support fires to TiC, far quicker and far deadlier (due to quantity).

    But in a "proper" war, the only offensive element any national really has, is a big clunky armoured thing.
    Which if I understand correctly, in the UK, consists of 57 Challengers 2's, 2 Battalions of Warrior IFV mounted infantry, and a further battalion in APCs.

    I dont see what threat any reasonable number of guns are.
    Concentrated, they can be avoided, distributed, they will be destroyed.
    If in fact, an concentrated number isnt simply over ran.

    But as I said, I could be wrong
    It just seems to me that the situation is was supposed to counter has gone.

  10. The same rationale works for a (very large) area defence, too.
    You can have a thin net of troops in a large area (even individual squads) and they can call for fires over radio. The primary means of lending them some firepower would be artillery.

    Air power cannot react timely to short peaks of OPFOR activity and mortars have a short range, would require too many units and have longer and more problematic resupply lines than long-range arty.

  11. He has a point, artillery is cheap for surface action compared to smart missiles (and more accurate than non-smart missiles) and has today some air defense capability. Give it a simple truck painted in camouflage and you have a gun that can quickly move to a new emplacement after shooting. I count on Africa adding guns to their technicals(armed pick-up truck) in the future.

  12. Ukraine has proven that Russia still uses artillery in great numbers.

    1. I know nobody who thought otherwise.
      The reports from the Ukraine are consistent with lessons from military history and regarding drones consistent with concepts developed around 1980 already.