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In the 1700s and 1800s, how accurate was rocket artillery in Europe (or Asia, if you prefer to speak of her)? Its accuracy is frequently made a joke, that rockets couldn't be relied on to hit their targets even under good conditions.

Was rocket artillery really so woefully inaccurate, that it could only be relied on to scare the enemy? Are there anecdotes that demonstrate troops did rely on their rocket artillery to hit targets (be they infantry formations, forts, or other targets)? Or perhaps there are tests of modern reproductions of 17th and 18th century artillery pieces, that have tested their accuracy?

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This does depend a lot on what you consider to be accurate given the times and the circumstances. For example, the smoothbore artillery of the period were not particularly accurate themselves when compared to the modern rifled artillery we now have.

In European service (and that means, essentially, British service) rockets were intended for area saturation. That is, no single rocket was aimed to hit a specified target but a volley was intended to hit a given area. Their advantages over field and siege guns of the time, were range, weight of shell and rate of fire.

All that is required to discharge the rocket is a bank to lay it against, sloped to the proper elevation, and scored down to receive and direct it - from such a trench, 30 yards long, 100 rockets may be fired in a volley.

A Treatise on the General Principles, Powers and facility of Application of the Congreve Rocket System
(W. Congreve, 1827) pg 24.

Whereas, for comparison, the same 30 yards might only accomodate a 6 gun battery (and, on the battlefield, probably fewer than that). Congreve goes on to explain how the rockets can be used in the field.

I now propose to devote a few lines to the use and advantages which I conceive may be made of rockets in the field. In the first place, therefore, field carriages may be constructed of the lightest kind, (for they have only the weight of the ammunition to carry, no ordnance, no any re-action to support,) to be attached to every park of artillery, for the purpose either of using the rocket carcass in such regular sieges as may occur during a campaign, or for the occasional business of destroying magazines, of disposting an enemy by the burning of villages, or for the annoyance of camps, all of which might thus be accomplished with the lightest description of artillery, yet at such ranges as at present unknown in the field, even by the heaviest field ordnance.

A Treatise on the General Principles, Powers and facility of Application of the Congreve Rocket System
(W. Congreve, 1827) pg 25.

  • Starting fires was the main point. It was accurate enough to make it effective against ships at close ranges. – John Dee Jan 3 '18 at 17:53
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Rockets were developed not long after the invention of gunpowder. The Mysore Kingdom in Tamil Nadu (India) was the first to invent a formidable rocket, around the 1760's. Their use of iron tubes allowed for a substantial increase in velocity. Previously, rockets had been made of an organic material. Rockets tend to "squirrel" around when they are shot. To counter this, they added a stick to the rear of it. Most of us used bottle rockets when we were kids. Some veer of in one direction or another. Others go pretty straight. Mysore rockets were the same way. They were fired in quantities to target a specific area, or to increase the chance of hitting something. They weren't accurate, but neither was European artillery.

The Mysore were the first to adopt rockets as a major part of their strategy. They used them with effect against the British East India Company in the 1780's and 90's. A sword was fitted to the end of them, and they were volleyed into the opposing infantry. This was similar to the way that the Europeans would use muskets. The main benefit, though, was that they would continue to throw flames after they had landed. They had no detonation. The Mysore were able to blow up the Brits' munitions stockpile, swiftly ending the Second Mysore War. Targeting munitions would be one of their main uses when they were introduced in the West.

When the British defeated Mysore, they captured these strange weapons and reverse engineered them. They were introduced by the British in the Napoleonic Wars. The advantage that they gained was critical. Their main effect was psychological, so they eventually came to be used sporadically. They were, however, pretty good at starting fires. They were used by navies at short and medium ranges. Both the English and the Americans used them in the war of 1812: "... and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there".

Eventually, the stick on the end was centered instead of attached to the side. This gave a nominal increase in accuracy when the rocket lifted off. The advantages of using rockets in addition artillery were probably negated by the introduction of steel cannon in the later half of the century. William Hale invented a spinning rocket in 1844 that was much more accurate, eliminated the stick, and increased the range. Still you don't hear much about them in the later part of the 19th century.

The next major step wasn't made until 1914, when Robert Goddard proposed the use of a De Laval Nozzle for supersonic propulsion. The De Laval Nozzle was invented for the steam engine in 1888. "Modern" rockets are still are not very accurate. They are fired in volleys, not unlike Mysore's rocket swords. The effectiveness of handheld devices, like the RPG 7, greatly decreases with distance. For this reason, rockets have become largely obsolete in modern arsenals.

Fore more information, see: Mysorean Rockets, Congreve Rocket

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