March 13, 1842: Henry Shrapnel Dies, But His Name Lives On
1842: Henry Shrapnel, inventor of the long-range artillery shell that bears his name, dies.
Shrapnel, a British lieutenant, was serving in the Royal Artillery when he perfected his shell in the mid-1780s. A shrapnel shell, unlike a conventional high-explosive artillery round, is designed as an anti-personnel weapon. The projectile is packed with fragments -- often sharp metal, lead balls or nails -- and detonates in midair, spraying enemy troops in the vicinity with what the British quickly christened "shrapnel."
In developing his shell, Shrapnel married two existing weapons technologies, the canister shot and the delayed-action fuse. Canister shot, in use since the 1400s, burst upon leaving the gun's muzzle and was originally used in small arms at close range against infantry. Shrapnel's refinement carried the shell intact to the enemy's lines, where it detonated above the heads of the troops with much more devastating effect.
The British army, not quick to embrace innovation, did not adopt Shrapnel's invention until 1803. It saw early action against the Dutch in Suriname but really came into its own after the Duke of Wellington demonstrated its effectiveness against Napoleon's army at several engagements, including the Battle of Waterloo.
Henry Shrapnel, by then a captain, was rewarded with a promotion to major and soon thereafter to lieutenant colonel. In 1814, the British government awarded him a lifetime annual stipend of 1,200 pounds (about $128,000 in today's money). Later, as inspector of artillery, Shrapnel also worked on improvements in howitzers and mortars. He ended his military career a major general.
The shrapnel shell was quickly adopted by the armies of all Europe's great powers. Armorers across the continent tinkered with the design, mainly looking for ways to improve range, but Shrapnel's original principle remained the basic blueprint through the end of World War I. By then, shrapnel shells could be hurled 6,000 yards and were being used in a variety of situations, including close infantry support.
By World War II, the day of Henry Shrapnel's shell was over, although variants saw action throughout that war, as well as in Korea and Vietnam. Modern arsenals still employ shells that use canister-shot projectiles based on the original shrapnel principle, but the nature of ordnance has obviously changed.
As for the word itself, shrapnel has long been used generically to refer to any shell fragment.