The armament of the Saluting Battery
The Saluting Battery’s seminal role in the defence of the town and harbour ensured that it would get the best possible and most modern armament. This was most evident during the second part of the 19th century when its ordnance was changed almost every decade. This was to tally to an overtly impressive list of different types and calibre and can be seen from the list on this page.
Early years (1566 – 1798)
In the first two centuries of its existence, its guns represented a vast array of sizes and calibres as was the custom of the Hospitaller Knights before the rigid standardization introduced in artillery by the French in the early 18th century. Most of this ordinance would have varied anything from 3 to 24 pounds in calibre and would have mainly been mounted on traveling or field carriages. These guns would have fired a combination of stone and iron shot as attested in the lists of ammunition captured first by the French in 1798 and again two years later by the British. The Order’s artillery was principally made in Bronze according to the military maxims of its day. Most of these would have been cast overseas although there were examples which were locally cast at the Order’s arsenal in Valletta. The bulk of their artillery was made from one of a kind guns, usually heavily ornamented on its outside and in many cases representing a ‘dono’ (gift) to the Order by one of the rich Knights as was customary. Along with the bronze cannon there were also some iron ones mostly culverins firing a small calibre stone shot. These pieces were used to bombard targets at long distances and were capable of a long range and a flat trajectory.
The great upheavals taking place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries seem to have left little mark on the Order’s artillery which remained generally old, small and ineffective except for a few cases. In the mid-late 18th century several attempts were made by the Order’s Congregazione di Guerra to improve the Order’s artillery which resulted in the importation of several French-made artillery pieces of 18, 24 and 36-pounds. It is to be said, that given the Order’s maritime role the fleet always got the first pick of any new armament which would result in the relegation of their old armament for fortress use. Many of the serving Knights were themselves serving officers in some of the main continental armies which placed them in an excellent position to keep pace with the latest developments in war science and materiel. Still the Order’s resources were inherently meagre and over-stretched to allow her to adopt in the nick of time, the latest advances made except in the case of its fleet.
On inspecting their war-booty in 1798, the French were horrified to find that much of what had been inherited by them in terms of artillery was useless. A great number of gun barrels were found resting on their platforms with no carriages and those carriages found were in a state of incredible disrepair. No wonder that the Order decided to capitulate without firing a shot in the face of Napoleon’s mighty army and thus giving away what was considered to be one of the most impregnable fortresses anywhere in the world.
The French & British Periods (1798 – 1956)
During the brief French interlude, it appears, from artillery lists of the time, that some of the bronze artillery found at the Saluting Battery was repaired and put to good use. Although it could have been replaced with French bronze field guns of the same calibre. For when the British took possession of the fortress they found the same number and calibre of guns along with a large quantity of unmatched ammunition. This state of affairs did not last long for by 1803, all the armament was replaced and upgraded by the British with the introduction of 2 x 24-pdr carronades and an unspecified number of 24-pdr cannon, possibly captured French examples, were added to the battery’s old armament. The carronade was a French invention from the 17th century which was duly taken on board by the major maritime powers including the British. Its configuration defers from that of conventional cannon in being short and stubby, with a wide muzzle and is normally with no trunnions but pivoted on its underside. It was designed for use at very short ranges which made it ideal to carry on board boats and also to use as an anti-personnel weapon on a ship. The use of carronades in fortresses was usually restricted to flanking curtain walls or the sides of bastions or to defend ditches.
Until this time, the parapet configuration of the Saluting Battery stood en-barbette (or over-bank) with the exception of the right flank which was raised to cover three guns which fired through open embrasures. The presence of carronades went on until the mid-19th century albeit of a much bigger calibre. According to the Ordnance list of 1852, the armament at the Saluting Battery consisted of 10 x 24-pdr guns (main parapet), 4 x 32-pdr guns (right flank), 3 x 8-inch howitzers (left flank), 2x13-inch mortars (at the back of the parapet guns, on either side, on mortar beds) and 2 x 56 pounder carronades (located in the salient’s). This scale of ordnance represented a formidable selection of the best ordnance of the time which was suitable to wreak havoc on anyone attempting to force enter into the harbour. All pieces were designed to provide plunging fire onto the decks of vessels which would either sink them in an instant or set them alight. It was also at around this time that the parapet at the two salient’s was increased to a height of about six feet to offer protection to the crews manning the traversing guns installed there. The advantage of a carriage and slide is one which combines ease of manoeuvre and speed. Its mounting on racers makes traversing much easier and quicker than inching a conventionally trucked gun around with a handspike.
The Crimean War (1854-56) brought with it great changes in the way that modern wars were to be fought. One of the principal advancements was the introduction of the rifled breech-loading gun invented by Lord William George Armstrong of Newcastle. Although arriving late to make any difference in this conflict, this new invention heralded a new chapter in the design and manufacture of artillery. Unlike any other guns, Armstrong’s gun could load from an open breech secured by a screw piece which shortened the loading procedure by about two-thirds of the time usually taken. This was a great achievement which resulted in increased rates of fire but perhaps the best part of Armstrong’s innovation stood in his introduction of rifling inside the tube of the gun which caused an elongated shot to leave the gun spinning on its own axis thus flying straight in its path onto its target. This brought about incredible levels of accuracy in hitting a target which till then were largely unthinkable. With rifling a gun could be used as an individual weapon as opposed to smooth-bore artillery which was to be used in battery you achieve any agreeable results.
Despite all the clear evidence, it took time for the British services to accept, let alone adopt, the new principle. A number of Rifled-Breech-Loading pieces were adopted by the navy and army but after a while these were stopped following a series of accidents with their breach sealing systems. These difficulties were enough for the conservative lobby in the services to pounce back to reclaim the re-introduction of muzzle loading gun technology. But the advantages of rifling were far too great to ignore causing a compromise to be reached. A new breed of ordnance was born – the Rifled Muzzle Loader, a muzzle loading gun with a rifled tube which allowed the firing of an elongated shell from it. This decision brought about the entire demise of all smooth-bore guns from front line service, except for a few examples which were kept for saluting purposes as happened at the Saluting Battery. All modern guns of 32 pounds and upwards were sent out for conversion at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich where their bores were enlarged to receive a rifled steel tube.
These innovations caused important changes in the armament of the Saluting Battery too. The increasing power and better rate of fire of the new pieces made it possible to reduce the number of existing guns to a 2 x 64-pdr RML guns mounted on traversing platforms in the salient angle and 11x24-pdr SBML guns for saluting purposes lined up along the front parapet. However, the quick pace of industrial advancement in the realms of war did not stop here. In 1886, yet another earth-shaking invention was made this time by one of Armstrong’s men and closest colleagues, Captain Andrew Noble who invented slow burning powder. Until then, guns used black powder which had hardly changed since its first invention by the Chinese possibly in the 12th century. Black powder is made from a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate (saltpetre) and it was notorious throughout its long history for burning inefficiently leaving much of it to go wasted. This was due to its mixture which burnt too quick. In making the new gun powder the dosage of charcoal and potassium nitrate was increased to allow the gun powder to consume itself better albeit taking longer to do so. This resulted in longer ranges and greater hitting power than was ever imaginable. It also meant that greater economy in the use of gun powder could be gained from it. But there was one fundamental snag in the story. Given that the new powder needed more time to burn that meant that longer barrelled guns were needed. The existing RMLs were too short and stubby for such a purpose and lengthening them was technically impossible. Furthermore, muzzle loading guns were notorious for being double and at times triple charged in the heat of battle resulting in some spectacular disasters. These factors combined convinced the artillerists of the time to go back to Armstrong’s original invention of the breech-loader albeit significantly modified, this time with an interrupted screw-breech which was both strong and safe. This new type of artillery was baptised with the acronym ‘Breech-loader’ to distinguish it from the earlier RBLs. This system still employed a detached gun powder charge packed in fabric and a separate shell. But in just a few years, another improvement was made when the Quick-firing gun was born. This used a conjoined metal cartridge and shell which was capable of astonishing rates of fire. The introduction of this type gun represents the apex of artillery development which in principle remains fundamentally unchanged to this day.
The new Q.F. guns brought greater challenges in defending closed harbours for their increased power could easily cause death and damage within restricted defence sectors. In Malta’s case all guns were removed from inside the harbour leaving those with clear range out at sea. This meant the end of the defensive role of the Saluting Battery which had existed for centuries. From then on it was relegated to its ceremonial and time-keeping roles. As a result, its armament was changed again, this time to 11 x 32-pdr ML guns strangely enough mounted on timber trackless carriages (from traversing platforms). These remained in place until about 1901 when they were changed again to 8 x 32-pdr SBBL guns. This gun was a peculiar one in having started its life as a normal smooth bore muzzle loader and on being converted into a breech-loader in the 1880’s for the defence of fortress ditches.
As has always been the practice in the military, some of the obsolete guns are retained for saluting purposes. Towards the end of the 19th century, military engineers started doubting the safety of having caponiers and counter-scarp galleries defending fortress ditches with some of them reasoning that they simply represented a weakness the overall design of a fort and a possible easy way in for an attacking enemy. Hence, they were abolished and their armament dismantled. This sealed the fate of the 32-pdr SBBL which was no longer needed and that is how it found its way overlooking one of the world’s prettiest harbours - the Grand Harbour.
The number of saluting guns was dictated by their rate of fire. Hence, in the case of muzzle loading guns a minimum of eleven guns were needed. With the introduction of breech-loading guns this number was decreased to eight and with Quick-firing guns this number was brought down first to four, then increased again to six but again reduced to four later.
These guns remained at the Saluting Battery throughout the Great War up to about the 1924, when the battery was partially reclaimed by the civilian government for public leisure. At around this time the number of 32-pdrs was reduced to just one serving as a signal gun to sound alarm in emergencies. Four new 18-pdr Q.F. field guns were introduced instead. The number of 18-pdrs was later to increase to six following the removal of the old 32-pdr.
The 18-pdr gun is, by far, one of the most successful British artillery designs. It is essentially a Victorian creation for it was during the Second Boer War of 1899-1901 that Britain realised ,to its own detriment, how far behind its field artillery had fallen in relation to that of continental armies. To fill the gaps, Britain obtained a number of German built 15-pdr BLC (Breech-loading Cup) Erhardt Field guns which whilst good for their purpose were rather odd to operate. A new design was laid for a modern quick-firing field gun at Woolwich which eventually led to the creation of two different versions – a 13-pdr one for Royal Horse Artillery use and a heavier piece for the field artillery which could fire an 18 pound shell. Thousands were made of the two varieties during the First World War and it went on to be used during World War Two albeit modernised (with a new shield, different trail and pneumatic tyres). The success of this gun was great enough to cause the next generation of British field gun to be largely based on it – the 25-pdr Q.F. The latter also resulted into a very effective design to the extent that it is still in use with some armies around the world today – a good eighty years since its inception.
For a brief period in WW2 (1940-43), a Bofors 40mm light-anti aircraft gun was mounted in the right salient of the battery. This formed part of the harbour and dockyard defence. The Bofors gun represents the main light anti-aircraft element of British artillery. A Swedish design from the 1930s, this gun was adopted by the British and manufactured in great numbers throughout the conflict at several British and Commonwealth plants. It enjoyed great agility, accuracy and also a phenomenal rate of fire. The mark mounted at the Saluting Battery was an early one of the static type fixed to a ground plate. Later in the war, motorised and radar-aided versions were also made.
Both 18pdr and 25pdr guns saw service at the Saluting Battery, the former up to the outbreak of the last war when all guns were removed for beach defence and the latter for a very brief period between 1945 and 1954 when the battery was finally closed down. With its last type of armament, the Saluting Battery concluded a long journey across several centuries throughout which it charted the full history of artillery evolution from the primitive stone thrower all the way up to the modern and awesome quick-firing gun which remain unaltered today.
Heavy bronze pieces from the 16th century taken from a period woodcut. The guns are mounted on field or traveling carriages, the same type as employed at the Saluting Battery for centuries before being gradually replaced by more modern standard guns in the 18th century based on the French Model.
French 12-pdr bronze field artillery gun. 16 of these were found at the Saluting Battery by the British on the surrender of the French in 1800 (Osprey Books).
Early British cannon mounted on iron garrison carriages on Porta Reale Curtain, Valletta. The guns are possibly early Armstrong SB guns (Brockdorff).
A 10-inch Shell Gun and an 8-inch Howizer at the Saluting Battery during the 1860s. (FWA Collection).
A 64-pdr Rifled Muzzle Loading gun at the Saluting Battery. It is mounted on a wooden traversing carriage. In this photograph the gun and carraige are shown full retracted backwards.This position served for both cleaning and loading the gun (Richard Ellis Collection).
24-pdr Blomfield Smooth-bore Muzzle Loader. FWA (Saluting Battery Collection).
32-pdr Smooth-bore Muzzle Loading gun, Monk Pattern. ( FWA Saluting Battery Collection).
32-pdr Smooth-bore Breech Loading gun. (FWA Saluting Battery Collection).
Vickers 18-pdr Quick Firing field gun. (FWA Saluting Battery Collection).
Bofors 40-mm Light Anti-aircraft gun MKII. (FWA Saluting Battery Collection).
25-pdr Q.F. MKI. at Fort St. Elmo (Soldier Magazine).
The Saluting Battery Ordnance Collection
Since its starting of the Saluting Battery Restoration Project in 2000, FWA has been busy collecting at least one example of each and every piece of armament that has once been mounted at the Saluting Battery. Following are the ones so far obtained.