Letter: Tales from the Victorian arms bazaar

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The Independent Online
Sir: Stephen Goodwin reports (22 February) that WG Armstrong was "suspected of pirating" the Victorian gun barrel design of Captain Alexander Blakely. This "tale of murky dealing in the arms trade" seems more appropriate to a Tod Slaughter melodrama than to historical fact.

Armstrong addressed the problem of artillery design at the request of the Duke of Newcastle, Minister of War, in December 1854. This was because of the poor performance of the almost medieval British field guns during the Crimean War. Armstrong, aged 44, had already achieved fame because of his interventions in the field of hydraulics and for his researches into static electricity.

By 1858, Armstrong had produced - and proven in trials against six rival designs - a revolutionary field artillery system, the notable features of which were breech loading, polygroove rifling and elongated, fused projectiles. The metallurgy was important, and Armstrong undertook much research into the technology of barrel construction. Essentially, he adopted a steel liner on to which were shrunk layers of wrought iron: a technique already well established in the manufacture of small-calibre guns.

Mr Goodwin reports that Blakely's claims were refuted by Armstrong's family. However, Armstrong was aged only 58, with 32 more years to live, when Blakely died, so he would have responded to claims of a scandal in person. I went through all his many surviving papers and correspondence before producing a biography in 1983. There is no evidence that he secretly borrowed Blakely's ideas.

Armstrong's patents covered more than just barrel construction. By giving them to the government, he lost substantially, since the government set up its own establishment to make guns to his design. His order book dried up immediately and the ordnance part of his business survived only through exports.


Vickers Defence Systems