Congreve 32-pounder Rocket


  • The Congreve 32-pounder war rocket was the most widely used of the gunpowder-propelled war rockets of the early 19th century devised by the Englishman William Congreve (1772-1828). The 32-pounder could be fitted with either explosive warheads for use against fortresses or incendiary warheads for use against wooden sailing ships of the period. Those with incendiary warheads were called "carcass" rockets. Those with explosive warheads had round or ogival warheads. Those with incendiary warheads had conical heads, which was also used to stick into the targets and then burn.
  • The rockets did not have fins as in today's rockets, for stabilizing them in flight. They had very long stabilizing sticks, or guidesticks as they were called, which balanced them during their slow flight. The guidesticks were originally mounted to the side of the rocket and was therefore called the side-mounted guidestick. From 1815, Congreve moved the guidestick so that it was screwed to the middle of the base plate in a threaded ferrule, around five equi-distant exhaust holes. This arrangement was called the central stick mounted rocket.
  • The maximum range of the 32-pounder was about 3,000 yards. The rockets were usually launched from tubes set on tripod stands or from special ladder-like frames and they could also fired from ships using special openings called scuttles.
  • The Congreve 32-pounder shown here, donated by The Science Museum, London, is a facsimile of a typical example of a central stick mounted rocket with an explosive warhead. Due to the long length of the guidestick, this specimen has part of the guidestick cut off.
  • Dimensions:
    • Length body: 3 ft 2 in.
    • Length complete rocket with stick: 16 ft. 6 in.
    • Dia., body: 4 in.
  • Construction:
    Cylindrical, sheet steel body, with wooden guidesticks, usually of fir. The incendiary or carcass rockets also had large holes cut at equi-distant locations around the warhead and fabric covering the holes, once the incendiary composition was placed in the warhead. The purpose of the fabric-covered holes around the warhead was to permit the flames of the incendiary composition to come through, once the rocket had landed and thus burn the target.
  • History:
    • Congreve war rockets were developed from 1804 by William Congreve, the son of Lt. General William Congreve (sr.) of the Royal Artillery. The younger Congreve was not a professional soldier himself though later in his career did receive an honorary rank of lieutenant-colonel and was often referred to as "Colonel Congreve."
    • Congreve was led to devise the war rockets as a means of thwarting Napoleon's invasion plans upon England. The first Congreve rockets were experimentally tried against a French invasion fleet at Boulogne, France, in 1805, but did not succeed, mainly because of poor weather. A second attempt was made in 1806 with good results.
    • Due to his father's connections, the younger Congreve was able to use the firing range and other facilities at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, England, to work the correct firing angles and to create the "Congreve rocket system" which comprised several calibers of rockets including the 3-pr., 6-pr., 9-pr., 12-pr., 18-pr., 24-pr., 32-pr., 42-pr., 100-pr., and 300-pr. The 100 and 300-pounders were found unpractical because they were too difficult to make, carry, and use. The 42-pr. was therefore considered the heaviest of the usual service rockets, the 32-pr. the "medium" size, and the other calibers the light sizes. Some of the latter were found to be too light and were abolished.
    • Congreve rockets were widely used during the Napoleonic wars as well as against the Americans during the War of 1812. In that campaign some 32-prs. were fired against Ft. McHenry in 1814 and therefore appear in the U.S. National Anthem, in the line, "And the rocket's red glare, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there."
    • The rockets were officially adopted by the Royal Artillery and rocket-equipped "Rocket Troops" were created, while the Royal Navy also used them extensively. Following the Napoleonic wars, Congreve rockets appeared in numerous wars until the 1850's when they were replaced with Hale "stickless" or rotary war rockets which eliminated the cumbersome guidesticks. Hale rockets were stabilized by the rockets rotating in their flight which deflected shifts of wind which sometimes caused the rockets to swerve. Congreve rockets were not always stable in their flight and because they were largely made by hand they were often unpredictable.
    • During their heyday, Congreve rockets were considered novel if unpredictable advances in artillery and many other countries copied England's example and created their own gunpowder war rocket systems and rocket troops. Among the countries which used Congreve type rockets were Denmark, Austria, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, France, some of the German states (including Prussia and Saxony), some of the Italian states (the Kingdom of Sardinia), Spain, Portugal, the U.S., as well as several countries in the Middle East and Latin America.

Ref.: #6n, #98 - update: 07.05.12 Home