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This is a two-part question:

  1. Which, if any, WW1 artillery pieces would be able to damage or destroy a modern tank presuming it got a direct hit. That is - what can today's armour NOT protect against that existed before that armour was designed

  2. What is the destructive power of today's tanks compared to various artillery pieces from WW1

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  • A tank and an artillery piece have different roles on the battlefield. It's hard to compare "destructive power" even between pieces of the same period. – nvoigt Nov 12 at 17:54
  • WW1 artillery was designed for stationary targets, so a direct hit would be amazingly lucky. Also armor piercing shells didn't exist in WWI. Note that few American tanks were lost to direct fire in the gulf war despite the technological gap being much narrower than this question. – Gort the Robot Nov 12 at 17:56
  • ~10 years ago I heard that the US's newer (at the time) 105mm cannons were as effective as the 152mm cannons of the previous "generation" of guns. If a tank gun's high-explosive shell is not too different from that of an artillery piece, then an M1's 120mm gun would definitely be more effective than a 152mm gun from WW1. However, for anti-personnel work a tank would have buckshot-like rounds with flechettes instead of high-explosive shrapnelly rounds like cannons, so I suspect that this is a very apples-to-oranges comparison. – Amorphous Blob Nov 12 at 18:15
  • They had some fairly nasty pieces of artillery back in WW1. See for instance en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bertha_(howitzer) or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Gun -- tanks are mobile pea shooters compared to either. – Denis de Bernardy Nov 12 at 18:41
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You are ignoring the very real differences between gun types and their ordnance.

Gun Types:

  • Direct fire:
    These weapons fire along line of sight at high speed and at very low elevations. They include muskets, rifles, cannons, and - in a later era - anti-tank weapons. Much of the damage is done by the velocity of the projectile, whether a solid shot such as a cannon ball or bullet or an exploding one like an anti-tank ordnance. In order to obtain the high muzzle velocity a high ratio of charge weight to projectile weight is required - consequently also improving accuracy especially once rifled barrels became common place. The projectile approaches it's target at a nearly horizontal elevation

  • Indirect Fire - Howitzers:
    These indirect fire weapons fire at elevations of from roughly 15 degrees to 45 degrees. The increased angle of fire allows for a much lower ratio of charge weight to projectile weight, allowing for heavier projectiles - ideal for high explosive ordnance where the bigger the bang the better. Accuracy is less than for an direct fire weapon, so effectiveness is only obtained for larger targets.

  • Indirect Fire - Mortars: These indirect fire weapons fore at elevations of from 45 degrees to 85 degrees. Some damage is done by vertical penetration of the projectile in addition to its explosive charge. Accuracy is reduced again relative to howitzers due to the longer flight time.

Note that the key difference between the use of howitzers and mortars is that howitzers increase range by increasing elevation (towards 45 degrees) while mortars increase range by reducing elevation (towards 45 degrees.

An effective anti-tank weapon (and its ordnance) must have the following characteristics:

  • High muzzle velocity to penetrate the armour (up to a foot thick on the front of heavy tanks) and allow acquiring fast moving targets;

  • Explode after initial target contact; and

  • Direct fire so as to be aimed at a smallish target.

An effective anti-personnel weapon and its ordnance must in contrast have these characteristics:

  • Medium muzzle velocity as formed units (and trenches) are fairly large and stationary or slow moving;

  • Explode on - or ideally shortly before - target contact; and

  • Indirect fire for effectiveness against targets behind terrain.

An effective siege gun

  • Muzzle velocity irrelevant as fired only at stationary targets such as buildings;

  • Explode on - or after as in a bunker buster - contact; and

  • Indirect fire for effectiveness against targets behind terrain.

Weapons commonly used in WW1 were designed for use against structures and personnel, so of the latter two types. When tanks appeared they could get by with quite light armour because no direct fire anti-tank weapons existed on the battlefield.

The rifles (calibre too small to penetrate armour), howitzers and siege guns (both too inaccurate and with too slow a projectile for targeting tanks effectively) of World War One were designed for a very different purpose than weapons designed to target and destroy small, fast-moving, armoured targets such as tanks. Other than lucky hits on the tread, there was little most WW1 units could do against tanks until specialized anti-tank weapons had been developed and distributed.

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    Your last line: I believe the Germans were succesfully using normal infantry guns (ie made for indirect fire against troops) for direct fire against tanks very shortly after the latter were introduced (1917). – Tomas By Nov 12 at 19:41
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    wikipedia: "[tanks in 1917/18] were vulnerable to a direct hit from artillery and mortar shells." – Tomas By Nov 12 at 19:48
  • @TomasBy: Emphasis on direct hit from. Of course a direct hit would disable a vehicle with barely sufficient armour to stop small arms fire and HE shrapnel - but getting a direct hit from a slow-moving indirect fire weapon such as a howitzer or mortar is easier said than done, and very unreliable. An ACW-era Napoleon cannon - a 12 lb hybrid howitzer-gun - would likely have been more effective than a 150 mm howitzer against WW1-era tanks due to its capability for direct fire. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 12 at 19:54
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    In response to first sentence of the last paragraph. See the K Bullet. These were developed in WW1 and had a roughly 1:3 chance of penetrating a half inch of armor. That was enough to penetrate most side armor on WW1 tanks and some frontal armor of some of the lighter tanks. - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K_bullet – ed.hank Nov 12 at 20:05
  • Since this question is about modern tanks, for comparison, the M1A1 has frontal armor roughly equivalent to 50+ inches of steel. – Gort the Robot Nov 12 at 23:18
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The largest WW1 artillery pieces (especially the siege mortars) were very large indeed and even a dud shell from one would do serious damage if it landed on the engine deck of a modern (or indeed almost any) vehicle by sheer kinetic impact force alone.

For example the Austrian "Schlanke Emma" fired a 385kg projectile (yes...). It'd probably crush through the engine covers and do serious damage to the engine of a modern tank (or indeed any tank in history). Of course the chances of scoring such a direct hit would be miniscule, and even a near miss would likely do little but rattle the tank and maybe stun the crew for a few minutes.

Similar with the Paris gun used by the Germans. Smaller projectile but higher impact speed giving it more kinetic energy.

Then there was the massive Big Bertha firing shells nearly 900kg in weight. The impact of a shell from one of those would be similar to being hit by a 1000lb aircraft bomb...

And while the central powers had the most famous big guns, the British had several 12 inch howitzers and railway guns that would have made a big bang as well if a shell of one hit an armoured vehicle on the engine deck.

But none of these weapons were even close to being accurate enough or fast enough to aim and fire to be useful as anti-tank weapons.

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    "It'd probably crush through the engine covers and do serious damage to the engine of a modern tank" -- That's a bit of an understatement, lol. More like blast the whole tank to pieces. :D – Denis de Bernardy Nov 13 at 7:51
  • @DenisdeBernardy I was assuming a dud shell, striking the engine deck but not exploding :) – jwenting Nov 13 at 9:17
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A direct hit from a heavy howitzer or cannon (6" and up) against anything other than the frontal armor of a MBT should do serious damage. (I'll leave it as vague as that because I have no exact source handy. But WWI artillery shells were in the same ballpark as WWII artillery shells, and the frontal armor of late WWII tanks was better than the side, top, or rear armor of modern tanks. Big artillery could kill tanks during WWII if they could hit.) But as Pieter pointed out, these weapons were not designed for direct fire against agile ground targets.

Heavy coastal artillery and ships firing inland would also be effective and it might have a slightly better chance to track the tank, as long as they can bear at all -- coastal batteries were usually pointed seawards.

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