Weapons That Forged the U.K.'s Empire

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The British Empire’s military should be best known for quick wars that had remarkably light casualties (on both sides). Part of this has to do with the fact that the U.K. was very good at avoiding conflict with major European continental powers, and even better at picking its fights (and its allies) in other parts of the world. Most of it had to do with the fact that London’s military capabilities were so superior to the rest of the world’s that nobody wanted to fight with the Empire. Technology at the time could be easily pirated, so while the U.K. was also a leader in technological progress, it was the kingdom’s unmatched industrial capacity that really gave London an insurmountable advantage over the rest of the world.

Weapons aren’t everything, of course. British constitutionalism gave the Crown’s subjects enough personal freedom to allow ideas to flourish on the island, which in turn gave London a smorgasbord of organizations and bureaucracies with the ability to out-strategize, outcompete, and outlast formidable enemies throughout the world. Geography is also a factor, as Great Britain is an island that’s just far enough away from the European mainland to make it difficult for invasions to be launched (this doesn’t totally prevent it, of course).

With these caveats in mind, here are 10 weapons that helped forge and secure the empire where the sun never set:

10. Woolwich Guns (mid-late 19th century). The “Woolwich” gun was more of an engineering design than a specific type of weapon. The name stems from the Woolwich Arsenal that built most of the Royal Empire’s heavy weaponry. The design of these artillery units was actually borrowed from a French one. Given that the United Kingdom was a seafaring empire that essentially replaced and enlarged the Dutch one, British artillery was used mostly aboard the Royal Navy’s warships, but was also used for coastal defense. Interestingly, Woolrich guns were used against the British and their Indian allies by Afghan guerillas in the late 19th century.

9. Carronade (1770s -1850s). The carronade was a type of sea artillery that the British developed first, which helped them gain a slight advantage in the arms race of the late 18th century. The carronade was a short, light cannon (like the ones you see in classic cartoons) that was used for close-range combat. As the British continued to build up their massive Royal Navy, these carronades became especially useful because the British could simply overwhelm their opponents at sea. Beginning in the 1850s the carronade was phased out of the Royal Navy and replaced by bigger guns with better accuracy, but merchant ships and militaries worldwide continued to use the carronade well into the late 19th century.

8. .455 Webley handgun. This was the handgun that served the British military from 1891 through the end of World War II. The .455 had a number of engineering designs (Mk I-VI) over the course of the decades it was in use with the British military. One of these versions, the “Manstopper,” or Mk III, was built to support a bigger bullet and was designed specifically for policemen and colonial authorities. The Mk III was one of the first hollow-point handguns in the world, and was soon banned by the British military because it was so devastating that it violated the Hague Conventions.

7. Snider-Enfield Rifle. The Snider-Enfield Rifle was adapted by the British military in 1867 and used until 1901, when London decided to replace it with the Martini-Henry rifle (some of which were found in Taliban weapons caches as late as 2011). The Snider-Enfield is as good an illustration as you can get for describing just how little nationalism and the nation-state mattered in the 19th century: Jacob Snider was an American who sold the design to the British military (Enfield is the name of the town, in England, which hosted the armory that produced the rifles). The Snider-Enfield was used in most of the U.K.’s colonial wars, including against the British by various enemies in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

6. HMS Captain. The British Empire owes its longevity and massiveness to its Imperial Navy, so much so that is impossible to list its splendor here, so instead your correspondent is just going to highlight four ships that highlight London’s mastery over the world’s seas. The HMS Captain was a Canada-class warship that served in the Royal Navy from 1787-1813. She was 170 feet long and housed a 550-person crew. Armed with 74 pieces of artillery, HMS Captain saw action during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, where she participated in the invasion and bombardment of Montevideo and Buenos Aires in South America (Spain was an ally of France during this time).

5. HMS Lord Nelson. The HMS Lord Nelson was in active duty from 1908-19, and was one of the pre-dreadnought battleships that London built to try and intimidate Germany and the United States from building their own world-class fleets (it didn’t work). Almost 444 feet long, HMS Lord Nelson was armed with torpedoes (among other things), armored with steel, and powered by steam. She participated in World War I by bombing the hell out of the Ottoman Empire and wreaking havoc on German and Turkish positions throughout the Mediterranean. HMS Lord Nelson, in a cruel twist of fate, was eventually sold to scrappers in 1922. They were Germans.

4. HMS Albion. This was the first Albion-class warship and she served from 1842-84. The last ship in the Royal Navy to be built without a steam engine, HMS Albion and her 90 guns saw action during the Crimean War, when a combined British, Ottoman, and French fleet pounded Sevastopol for two years before the Russians finally capitulated (no small feat) and the war came to an end. During the siege the HMS Albion was repeatedly battered and even caught on fire a few times. She was sent back to Great Britain so that she could be outfitted with the newest technology (steam engines and steel armor) but HMS Albion’s upgrades were never completed. She sat in a British harbor for the next 20 years before being scrapped in 1884.

3. HMS Victory. First launched in 1765, HMS Victory is still active today, as a museum harbor ship in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard. HMS Victory was classified as a “first-rate ship of the line” and prowled the high seas armed with 104 guns. She saw action against mainly European foes who were considered to be closely on par with the Royal Navy. In the late 18th century the U.K. was still competing with the likes of France and Spain for naval supremacy, but the Royal Navy’s fleets usually fought against Spanish and French fleets with inferior numbers. For example, in the Second Battle of Ushant (1781), the British fought with 12 ships against France’s 19; or the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), where 33 British ships fought 41 French and Spanish ones. However, London’s first-rate ships of the line were often superior to those built by Madrid and Paris, and HMS Victory is the most sublime examples of British seafaring knowledge and engineering know-how in all of history.

2. Chemical weapons. As the sun set on the United Kingdom’s empire, at the dawn of World War I, the Imperial policies that once set polities in northwest Europe apart from all others - respect for the rules of war - came unraveled as the Germans and the British bombarded each other in Belgium and France with chemical weapons. The period from 1915-18 is the only time in the history of the British Empire that its vaunted military used chemical weapons, and it is telling that was done so only as the onset of its Imperial realm was clearly descending. The rough treatment that the U.K. used on its colonial populations, as well as London’s clever geopolitical machinations, at least have upsides to them. The use of chemical weapons, on the other hand, have none. This was the most barbaric atrocity committed by the British Empire from 1583-1945, only rivaled in its brutality by the Crown’s treatment of the Irish.

1. Local proxies. The French often get lauded by historians and anthropologists for their ability to meld with local populations, especially in North America and Africa, but the British were no slouches either when it came to mixing with indigènes. The most prominent example of British prowess regarding local proxies can be found in London’s alliances with the various Native Americans surrounding the United States. The U.K. allied and armed several powerful confederacies located along the border of the U.S., and had no qualms about giving them the best technologies available, lending them London’s finest strategists, or going through diplomatic channels with the U.S., often in order to embarrass Washington in Europe, on their behalf. In Africa, the U.K. used its allies - the Ga and Fante confederacies - to fight the slave-trading Asante Empire in what is now Ghana. In Asia, the British marshalled various local proxies to wage a prolonged, eventually victorious war against the Mughal Empire, which gave London its crown jewel in the form of India. In continental Europe the United Kingdom found a way to use local proxies to its advantage, too: the aforementioned Crimean War was basically fought between Ottoman and Russian soldiers for the benefit of British strategic concerns. If there is one weapon that forged the British Empire, surely it is her local proxies.

Final thoughts

Judging by the ho-hum of most of these weapons, it’s safe to conclude that British technology simply wasn’t all that much more advanced than its nearest rivals, largely thanks to what we would now call “pirating” of intellectual property. British dominance was due to its overwhelmingly large military force and powerful industrial base, which can be attributed to good governance policies at home and, less so, a splendid geographic (but not political or economic) isolation abroad.

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