Why were rockets not extensively used throughout the world like cannon until the 20th century? Maybe one may ask the reason for pointing out 20th century. I guess it's fair enough after thinking about sailing ships full to the brim with cannons or star forts which were built to withstand heavy cannon fire. Even in WW1 rockets did not play an important role.

I am not saying that they had never been used. Numerous military leaders (from Mongol commanders to British ones) made use of rockets in naval and land battles including siege warfare for both offensive and defensive purposes. But in the end, rockets were never as popular as cannons despite being invented around the same time and rocket's explosive/incendiary attributes - even for early rockets.

One reason would be the inaccuracy problem encountered in rockets.But in return, especially early cannons and their ammunition were extremely heavy (see Dardanelles gun); from a logistical point of view they should be nightmare for users. I can add some other poor attributes of both, but I think that much is enough to make my question clearer.

So, both (rockets and cannons) seem to have some disadvantages when compared to each other. Then, returning to where I started, why? Also, is there any surviving handbooks or training manual for soldiers of those days which compare such fire support weaponry or clearly favors cannons over the rockets?

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    I suspect the key factor was the lack of precision in the first world war, while the ballistics of cannon balls, and other projectiles were already pretty much refined. I will research the subject when I go home (if nobody finds good answer until then), it is interesting topic. Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 14:37
  • Missiles, or rockets? I believe rockets were used more (or at least as much as) in certain parts of the world as more standard field artillery. They could be carried instead of requiring (horse-drawn) carriages.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 14:57
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    I added some paragraphs, I hope no one minds. Also, @CsBalazsHungary is correct.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 15:33
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    It's also worth noting that rockets as signals were very popular and useful for both land and naval communications... Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 0:18
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    And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there. -- Francis Scott Key, 1814 Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 1:05

7 Answers 7


The premise is a bit off. Because actually, rocket artillery did become somewhat popular before the 20th century. Rockets were used to great effect in India, by the Kingdom of Mysore against forces of the British East India Company. The British in turn learnt from the Indians and developed their own rocket weaponry which went on to feature in the Napoleonic Wars:

It is not generally known that rocket artillery played a considerable part in the military and naval history of the 18th and early 19th centuries in the Western world. The city of Copenhagen was set on fire by rockets from the British navy during the Napoleonic wars, and rocket troops were prominent in the days of the so-called Honourable East India Company, contending with princes like Tippoo Sahib.

- Needham, Joseph. Science in Traditional China: A Comparative Perspective. Chinese University Press, 1981.

Rockets became sufficiently popular during this period, that dedicated rocket troops were formed. Modern British Army Units such as the O Battery traces their lineage back to the Rocket Troops who fought at Waterloo and earlier. They weren't just limited to land either; British naval rockets actually helped inspire America's national anthem:

By the 19th century, Britain's Royal Navy had a squadron of warships equipped with rocket artillery. One of these so-called "rocket ships" bombarded America's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

- Vulpetti, Giovanni, Les Johnson, and Greg Matloff. Solar Sails: a Novel approach to Interplanetary Travel. Springer, 2009.

So why did rocket artillery go out of fashion? As @CsBalazsHungary correctly observed, the problem was that rockets were inaccurate. Exacerbating this weakness is that during the 18th century, conventional artillery steadily advanced. Rockets were left in the dust as canons became more accurate and longer ranged, and smaller and lighter. As a result, rocket artillery became essentially abandoned by western armies by the time of the American Civil War. Artillery were far superior by World War One, and rockets didn't begin catching up until the interwar period.

This was however, a short-lived phase, for high-explosive shells and incendiary shells could be fired from more advanced artillery with much greater accuracy of aim, and the rocket batteries of the West died out after about 1850.

- Needham, Joseph. Science in Traditional China: A Comparative Perspective. Chinese University Press, 1981.

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    To make matters worse for rockets, not only were they more inaccurate right from the factory, but any damage to the light body or frame in the field would make matters far worse. Cannonballs and bags of powder are hard to hurt and easy to repair.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 18:05
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    +1 Good answer, I would aim for the same concusion, well done. Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 19:37
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    And added disadvantage of rockets to artillery is that the battery is visible from far greater range when firing. Especially for tactical use (the only use rocketry of the time was applicable for because of its inaccuracy) this is a major disadvantage, as the battery is clearly lit up for any unit capable of delivering counter battery fire. This caused the Germans severe problems during WWII, with their Nebelwerfer and other short range rocket batteries taking extreme casualties, often only getting off one or two volleys before being wiped out.
    – jwenting
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 7:19

To quote from Manual of Gunnery for Her Majesty's Fleet (1880):

War Rockets

This subject is at present under the consideration of a committee, the results obtained with Hale's rockets being considered most unsatisfactory.

At present the 24-pr. rocket manufactured is Mark III., the later patterns having failed to meet the requirements of service.

Advantages. Useful for incendiary purposes, and would be still more so if the head were fitted with a shell or carcass.

Its moral effect is great, especially against savages and cavalry, and owing to the lightness of the apparatus required for firing, it can be transported easily in rough country.

Disadvantages. The disadvantages under which it labours are,—

1st. Its efficiency and safety depend on the complete contact of a very large service of composition with a thin metal case; hence it is liable to deteriorate.

2nd. Its flight is necessarily very slow, so that it is very susceptible to the action of gravity, wind, and accidental causes of deviation.

3rd. The same causes that thus make it peculiarly liable to be acted on by wind and gravity, aggravate the effect of deflection; indeed rockets have been occasionally deflected so as to come back at the people who fired them.

4th. From the fact of the composition burning away during flight, the position of the centre of gravity is constantly changing. Cause of The motion of the rocket depends on the well-known law '"" that " action and reaction are equal and opposite."

There you go from the horse's mouth. Rockets are convenient due to lightness (no need to carry a cannon around) and are primarily effective against less sophisticated forces in rough country. Otherwise guns are better, due to accuracy.

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    While its OK as a period quote, I don't think using "savages" in modern prose is appropriate. I'm not real satisfied with the euphamisim I picked to replace it with though ("less sophisticated forces"), so if someone has a better phrasing I'd like to see it.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 19:10

I am going to suggest the following simple point which is certainly mentioned above: A rocket cannot, without a guidance system, be as accurate as a cannon which can be aimed iteratively. If you fire a cannon and it misses, the place where the shot landed can be used to adjust the next shot. Rockets can't really be aimed this way because of inconsistencies in flight caused by various factors.


Actually, rockets are very different from artillery, even though they do somewhat the same things ("rain" death and destruction on enemies) from the air.

Artillery fired out of "guns" is relatively accurate. That is, it can be counted on to hit a target a few miles away. A "rocket" couldn't be counted on to hit a specified target at ANY distance for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. (Maybe that's different in the 21st century but the question doesn't cover that time frame.)

The advantage of rockets is that they can be fired form ultra long ranges (thousands of miles through earth and space) with an accuracy in that order of magnitude.

There is a saying that if the Chinese fired their intercontinental ballistic missiles at Los Angeles, they might end up in Arizona. Even so, it illustrates the point that rockets are "good" weapons compared to others fired from halfway around the world, if the intended target is "anywhere in the United States."

(Note to commenter: U.S. ICBM's are quite a bit more accurate than the Chinese ICBM's mentioned above.)

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    Modern ballistic missiles are guided. Rockets in the 18th century were not.
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 20:21
  • @vsz: That's true. Even so, their accuracy is somewhat limited. That's why I used the example of "Chinese" ICBM's, which are quite a bit less accurate than ours. But in any event, rockets have been less accurate than artillery in both the 19th and 20th centuries (per the OP's question). If you want to talk about the 21st, that's a different story.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 20:45
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    If you fired a hypothetical 19th-century ICBM from China at Los Angeles, you could not count on it hitting the Earth, much less any particular location.
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 1:27
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    @Mark 19th-century ICBM could achieve orbit?
    – Taemyr
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 10:06
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    @jwentinh hence my disbelief that they would be able to miss earth.
    – Taemyr
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 12:12

One major use of artillery was against fortifications / castles etc.. Actually that was the most important role of artillery in the 15-17th century, and had little importance in open battles. Brass cannons were major investments, but they became the main tool of siege, like e.g. in the case of Constantinople in 1453. To destroy thick walls, projected stone cannon balls and similar are just more effective than the missiles/rockets. Similarly, cannons used on ships could effectively penetrate and destroy the hull of the opponent ship, while rockets are much less effective.


Quick Answer-

Early Rockets were: Inaccurate, Immobile, Ineffective.

They were used before the XX century (eg. Napoleon) but very scarcely for the reasons above.

The Chinese and Koreans on the other hand did use rockets before that time. For an example the ancient Korean's launchers were very effective and even managed to stop a Japanese samurai invasion.


Rockets were much less efficient in converting the chemical energy of black powder to kinetic energy. In earlier times the chemical components of gunpowder were in scarce supply and were considered a strategic resource to be conserved.

  • Your first sentence could do with some source references and some expansion. Since rockets were often used to deliver an explosive warhead, the amount of kinetic energy delivered is less of an issue, I'd think.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 16:01

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