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Coast Artillery Masters Its Job

Date:Oct - Nov 1941
Magazine: Science and Mechanics

Biggest of all big guns defending America are the giant 16-inch rifles used at strategic coastal defense positions and on board battleships. With a range from 15 to 25 miles, the 16-inchers can propel a shell weighing more than a ton against a target far off-shore. These illustrations show how members of the 245th Coast Artillery received their training on the battery of two big guns at Fort Tilden, New York. After weeks of intensive training in which the men were whipped into shape to work as a coordinated team, the climax came when 7 shells were fired from each gun, once every 90 seconds.

One of the giant 16-inch rifles at Fort Tilden, New York, gets a workout from Battery G of the 245th Coast Artillery, in Fig. 1. The new coast artillery men are required to learn the whys and wherefores of the "big berthas" preparatory to firing actual practice. The men familiarize themselves with the parts and mechanism. Each man is issued a manual on the 16-inchers, for study purposes. After they have familiarized themselves with the mechanics of the big 16-inch rifle, the men receive sub-caliber firing practice, by means of a 3-inch gun which is fixed permanently to the barrel of its big brother, Fig 2. The procedure is the same, except for the difference in loading operations. Using the smaller sub-caliber weapon saves wear and tear on the big gun, also saves cost of ammunition. The men are drilled intensively until the battery commander is satisfied they are letter-perfect.

Next, Fig 3, the gun crew learns to elevate and traverse (from side to side) the huge weapon. This is usually done by electric controls, although they learn the procedure manually in the event of mechanical failure. One man handles the elevation, another the traversing, upon order of the gun commander, who is usually a non-commissioned officer.

The boys are getting near the real thing now; they are drilled with dummy ammunition and powder. As shown in Fig 4, they roll up a shell for loading. A 16-inch projectile weighs over a ton; it needs teamwork to handle these big babies. The powder charge weighs between 700 and 800 lbs. It is broken down into a number of smaller bags, for convenience in handling. The men are drilled and drilled - clocked with stop watches - even the number of steps each man takes is figured out in advance. The 40-odd members of a gun crew are trained in separate groups; powder detail, breech detail, etc., before they are "teamed" together. Precise coordination must be assured.

After consultation with the battery commander, a time is set for firing practice. The actual firing depends upon weather. The men are on "alert" status until the practice is over. A final "shakedown" drill is run through the day of the firing - the men go through the entire procedure - except the actual firing. The powder is kept ready at a safe distance. A few days previously, a thermometer is stuck into one of the powder kegs - taken out just before firing, for a reading. Powder temperature is extremely important - the higher the temperature, the more propulsive power.

The observer "safety detail" takes a position on an elevated spot when firing is about to begin, Fig 5. They maintain two-way radio communication with the Army tug that is towing the pyramid-shaped raft target some 15 to 25 miles off shore. The safety detail's primary job is to determine when the field of fire is safe - that there are no fishing boats, for instance, in the firing area - and that visibility is clear. At shorter ranges, they can see the target and the splash of the missile, and correct the fire visually. Other observing parties are on the job at nearby high elevations. An airplane is also used for "spotting" during practices. "Neutral" battery people are on the tug to "umpire." A red flag denotes that firing is going on.

The "azimuth setter," in non-technical language, actually "points" the gun, setting it in left-to-right position, electrically. His partner records the various data received from the battery commander, for checking later on. Next to the gun commander, the setter's job is the most important; his duties necessitate cool, clam nerves, unaffected by the tremendous noise and concussion. He raises his hand to signal "all ready."

"Fire!" The telephone operator, Fig 6, receives the signal from the battery commander's station and the gun commander shouts the command to fire. A moment later the big gun rocks to the blast of the explosion.

Pressing a lever, the man shown in Fig. 7 fires the big gun. Seven shells from each of two 16- inchers were fired at 90-second intervals. The big guns have a 50-foot barrel and are the biggest guns in existence.

"On the way!" could be a title for the scene in Fig 8. All stations are notified - the aerial observer gets a radio signal; observing parties watch for the 30 to 60 seconds that it takes for the shell to travel its 15- to 25-mile journey. Cold air jets are used to blow out any remaining burning particles of powder remaining in the chamber. Inside of 90 seconds the big gun will speak again. At the moment this photo was taken the shell was about a half a mile away.

After the firing schedule has been completed, the batteries clean up their guns by means of a long rammer stave tipped with burlap dipped in an oil and sal solution, Fig 9. This is done every day until it is certain that no more particles of powder or other extraneous matter remain in the barrel. Another "cleaning" operation immediately follows the firing, when the men of this particular battery dump the "non-coms" into a tub of water. This is about the only time when the men can get away with something like this.

Photo captions:
Fig. 1. The business end of a 50-foot coast defense gun.
Fig. 2. Practicing with a smaller gun on the big one.
Fig. 3. Electricity or manpower moves the gun into position.
Fig. 4. Rolling up the one-ton shell and 800 lbs. of powder.
Fig. 5. Safety detail determines when field of fire is safe.
Fig. 6. "Fire," shouts the gun commander, whipping down his arm.
Fig. 7. And here is the boy who "pulls the trigger."
Fig. 8. At this second the shell is one-half mile away.
Fig. 9. Cleaning the gun after firing schedule is completed.

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