This edited version of Major General H. W. Blakely's classic
article, "Shrapnel, Semantics and Such," reprinted from
the March 1952 Combat Forces Journal, explains in layman's
terms the differences between artillery shrapnel and shell fragments.
SEMANTICS, the science of the meaning of words, makes a strange
bedfellow for those two old veterans of many wars, ordnance and
gunnery. The editors of the Combat Forces Journal brought
the three together recently when they commented on the growing
use of the word "shrapnel" when actually "shell
fragments" is meant.
To start with the ordnance and gunnery side of the picture, the
simple fact is that today's journalists, historians, doughboys,
and maybe even young artillery shavetails don't know what shrapnel
is. It must sound like a good name for shell fragments. But that
is speculation; Let's get the facts first.
Shrapnel, and if anyone can find an essentially different definition
anywhere he is ahead of me, is "an artillery projectile provided
with a bursting charge, and filled with lead balls, exploded in
flight by a time fuze." It was named for its inventor, General
Henry Shrapnel of the British Army, who died in l842, so it is
no Johnny-come-lately in the fields of ordnance and gunnery...
In pre-World War II days, shrapnel was regarded as the most efficient
type of ammunition against troops in the open. The 75mm shrapnel
projectile contained 270 lead balls, each about a half-inch in
diameter, in a smoke-producing matrix. The 155mm shrapnel packed
a lethal load of 800 balls. Each projectile was practically a
shotgun which was fired, by means of the time fuze, ideally at
the height which would produce the maximum effect on the enemy.
At the moment of burst, the bullets shot forward with increased
velocity, normally without fracturing the case. The result was
a cone of bullets which swept an area generally much larger than
the area made dangerous by the burst of a high explosive shell
of the same caliber. Even for the relatively small 75mm gun, the
effective area at a range of 4,000 yards was about 35 yards wide
and 50 yards long. In addition, some balls with equally effective
velocity were scattered less densely over a zone roughly twice
as wide and several times as long. The height of burst had to
be adjusted by observation of the smoke puff produced at the moment
of explosion, and by proper changes in the setting of the time
It was not very effective in trench warfare of the World War
I type, and that fact influenced our decision to abandon it. But
shrapnel was abandoned primarily because it was difficult to get
the height of burst adjusted properly even under conditions of
good visibility, and impossible to do this in darkness or bad
weather. It also added to the complications of ammunition manufacture
and supply. With the proximity fuzes now available the problem
of adjustment of the height of burst could be overcome; the need
for a smoke producing matrix to permit observation of height of
burst would be eliminated; and sharp hard-metal missiles, not
unlike small shell fragments, might replace the round lead balls.
The complication of ammunition supply would remain as an objection.
My first experience with the use of the word "shrapnel"
to mean shell fragments was in Normandy about D plus 2. The 4th
Infantry Division had landed on Utah Beach on D-day with surprisingly
light opposition, but as we turned north toward Cherbourg we ran
into rough going that was to cost the division over 5,000 battle
casualties in the next three weeks. A surgeon mentioned to me
that one of our regiments, the 22d Infantry, was having particularly
high losses from shrapnel wounds. As division artillery commander,
I was very much interested. Were the Germans using what we regarded
as an obsolescent type of ammunition? Or did they have an improved
variant of it? I visited the regiment and asked questions everywhere.
No one knew of anyone wounded by shrapnel. When I hunted up the
surgeon who had first mentioned shrapnel, and told him that practically
all the casualties in the 22d were from shell fragments, he said,
"That's what I told you."
Since then I have frequently noticed the misuse of "shrapnel"
by newspaper men, radio commentators and historians...
This image depicts two shrapnel balls from a World War I era
75-mm. shrapnel projectile and a fragment from a World War I era
75-mm. high explosive shell.
The intended destructive effect of the shrapnel projectile against
men and animals came from the shrapnel balls. The projectile casing,
which merely acted as a carrier for the shrapnel balls, was not
designed to fracture or fragment. Some World War I era shrapnel
projectiles contained a mixture of two sized balls. The smaller
balls, intended for anti-personnel use, constituted approximately
ninety per cent of the shrapnel round. The remaining percentage
of larger balls were included to disable or kill horses.
The intended destructive effect of high explosive rounds came
from the action of the high explosive charge coupled with the
fragmentation of the projectile casing. Whereas a shrapnel round
was intended to kill or injure people and animals, high explosive
rounds were originally designed to damage or destroy inanimate
objects such as buildings and field guns.