Artillery Speed Shifter

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

One of the tactical mainstays of the Vietnam war was the firebase:

Sometimes permanent and sometimes carved out of jungle, rice paddies, or rough terrain in a matter of hours just for a particular operation, these relatively small outposts were dedicated to providing artillery support to infantry units anywhere within range. And therein lay the challenge, for in the absence of the front lines common in a more typical conflict, the tubes in this unconventional war had to be able to fire in any direction at a moment’s notice. The standard 105-mm. howitzer was reasonably well suited to this role, but its heavier towed 155-mm. cousin was not. If a mission were outside the latter’s existing fan of fire (limited to 800 mils or 45 degrees), the crew had to lower the piece from its firing jack, lift the trails, swing it into the new position, and get it set again to fire. Even with a full complement of eight soldiers and optimal conditions, this cumbersome procedure could take several minutes — precious time when American and allied infantrymen were engaged with the enemy. But a complete crew was seldom on hand, and more often rain and mud created an unstable ground surface that made the howitzer extremely difficult to move.

A solution would come from 1st Lt. Nathaniel W. Foster Jr., a champion cross-country runner and Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate of Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. In 1966 Foster was serving in Vietnam as the executive officer of Battery B, 8th Battalion, 6th Artillery — a 155-mm. towed outfit of the 1st Infantry Division — and was certain there had to be a quicker more efficient way to shift the howitzer to respond to the fast-moving requirements of combat. He was aware that U.S. Army Weapons Command was looking at some form of pedestal to bear the weight of the piece so it could spin more easily and rapidly, but he took it upon himself to find an immediate answer in the field rather than waiting for the bureaucracy at home to develop the perfect solution. He attacked the problem methodically, determining that the first order of business was to find the point of balance of the howitzer. He and his soldiers started with the tube of the test weapon at an elevation of 300 mils, the standard setting when initially aiming it. They simply kept moving the firing jack until their experiments revealed that the point of balance of the howitzer was two feet seven inches to the rear of the standard location for the jack.

Artillery Speed Shifter

With that knowledge in hand, the officers and men of the battery began work on a prototype speed-shifting device. Because they did not have the proper tools, they had to take a howitzer during downtime to a maintenance shop, where Pfc. Charles Harkness of the battery’s fire direction center did the welding. The initial attempt was very simple, a metal collar fixed under the howitzer at its point of balance and a pedestal consisting of a torsion bar welded to the base of a firing jack. When the soldiers lowered the piece from the regular firing jack onto the tip of the torsion bar, they found that they could shift the howitzer with a minimum of physical effort using handspikes in the appropriate sockets of the trails. Two could move the 155-mm. through an entire 360-degree circle in just nineteen seconds. Even adding in the time to raise and lower the firing jack before and after the shift, the job could be completed faster than other tasks required to execute a firing mission, such as computation of the firing data.


  1. Dan kurt says:

    Heard from a former special forces officer during the 1970s.

    Problem with 105s (Fire Bases) was green officers who more often than not “ran by the book” fire requests. Namely, first few rounds would be SMOKE for ranging before firing for effect. Delay caused loss of targets as the enemy dispersed. Request for fire mission would have been much more effective if educated guess by fire base as to aiming point request had been permitted with massed salvos (multiple tubes engaged) with adjustments in aim for subsequent salvos. Green officers feared censure if they deviated from standard procedure.

    This is another reason the US lost. It sure hurt morale to see opportunity lost again and again.

  2. Slovenian Guest says:

    No, it was pretty much a top-down loss, Vietnam. Watch Reasons for Failure — Why the U.S. Lost.

  3. Dan Kurt says:

    If you are truly a Slovenian you must be young enough to not have lived under Communism. Usually those who lived under Communism are inured against Statist Propaganda. The film is pure agitprop. Learning the truth about Viet Nam from it is akin to learning about the Free Market from the films of Michael Moore.

    In the event you are merely ignorant rather than malicious, read Richard A. Gabriel and Paul Savage, Crisis in Command: Mismanagement in the Army, ISBN-10: 0809001403.

  4. Slovenian Guest says:

    Hold your horses, matey, calling this agitated propaganda goes a tad too far.

    It has a fair share of problems in contrast, but it’s interesting never the less.

    The author’s concept of “technowar” is spot on and even current.

    How the only thing that counts is economics, ergo it’s theoretically impossible for an un-technical peasant country to beat the United States. McNamara’s production model of running the war like a Ford motor company, how we can compare search and destroy operations to an assembly line, and so on.

    The ignorance of country and language, the self-serving behavior of the officer corps in sacrificing troops for their own careers, the corruption, waste, and all the rest…

    And the book you mentioned… covers similar things! How the military valued management skills over leadership, which was lacking at all levels.

    And if I had to choose, definitely ignorant; you can only get so far by reading Wikipedia and watching YouTube videos. Maybe further by reading this site, I certainly hope so.

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