An Armoured Train

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 5 January 1886


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/1, p. 45

Kipling’s interests in weapons and in professionals at work combine in this account, laid out with great expository skill. This is an early example of his life-long fascination with technical details, as later manifested in such stories as “The Devil and the Deep Sea”, “Black Jack”, and “With the Night Mail”.
The armoured train reappears in “The Courting of Dinah Shadd”, which opens on the scene of army manoeuvres:

[….] mounted infantry skirmished up to the wheels of an armoured train which carried nothing more deadly than a twenty-five pounder Armstrong, two Nordenfelts, and a few score volunteers all cased in three-eighths-inch boiler-plate.


The Article

(From a Correspondent)

The armoured train should be ready for its duties at the Winter Manoeuvres about the 15th of this month; and should be at Delhi on or about the 18th for inspection by H.E. the Commander-in-Chief. Meantime, the guns which it carries have been mounted in their places, and on Friday forenoon a series of exhaustive firing experiments were carried out by Captain Moberley, R.A., under the supervision of Lieutenant-Colonel Wallace, R.E. Several important matters prevented the entire train and engine being run down to some secluded spot on the line for trial; so a range of 250 yards was chosen, not a quarter of a mile from the Railway workshops where the train had been put together; and a temporary line of rail was laid down. A large brick mound, slightly to the right of the Shalimar road level-crossing, afforded a splendid situation for a target and ensured safety in case a forty-pounder shell should take into its head to go astray. Captain Moberley, R.A., had charge of the trials and devoted himself more particularly to the big siege gun; and Lieutenant S. B. Von Donop, to the twelve-pounder Field Service gun. A five-barrel Nordenfeldt was in a third truck; the ten-barrel one being stripped for cleaning in the Railway workshops. A Nordenfeldt, as every one knows, is a fragile-looking little weapon, something between a sewing machine, a stocking-knitter and an organ in appearance — but of this later on.

In addition to Lieut-Col. Wallace, R.E., Captain Moberley, R.A., and Lieut. Von Donop, R.A., there were also present on the ground Mr Sandford, Mr W.S. Bocquet and Mr Ticknor, all keenly interested in the success of the experiments. Seeing that these three gentlemen stood god-fathers, as it were, to the train and had cheerfully and ungrudgingly devoted much time, labour and thought to it, this was only natural.

As I have said before, a special siding had been made for the trucks to run on. This siding was a curve of about 278 feet radius with a dip of 1 in 75.
The target lay to the right of the center of the curve, so that the gun truck, on leaving the straight, would get one shot end on; a second by slewing the gun round to the right and thereafter as many more as were necessary until the truck came to the end of the siding, when the gun would be at right angles to the truck. (This extremely technical and scientific description requires thought.) The question at issue was simply whether the truck would be too much for the gun, or the gun get the better of the truck. And opinions were fairly divided. The Artillery officers, knowing the recoil of a forty-pounder Armstrong breech-loading rifled cannon in a confined space was no trifle, seemed inclined to prefer the guns; the officers of the North-Western Railway, bearing in mind the fashion in which wagons full of stone were shunted and knocked about on the line, fancied the trucks, and the result proved that they had good reason for their prophecy. About one point only did these gentlemen seem to have any misgiving. It was just possible that the truck springs might not stand the strains. Arrangements were made for recording the depression, and at about twenty minutes past eleven the forty-pounder was run into position for its first shot — with full service charge and plugged shell — at the target on the brick mound 250 yards away. The gun pointed dead ahead and, whatever might come after, could only drive the truck back. Seven inches of the gun’s heavy wooden carriage-tail had been sawn off together with the hind wheels; and tackle running through eyebolts fitted into the bows of the truck, kept gun and carriage within bounds.
The charge was fired by lanyard from without the truck, in case of the unforeseen; and, as the shell dug itself a neat trench, nine feet long, three feet deep and four wide at the foot of the target, the great truck ran back and disappeared in a cloud of smoke. The gunners clambered into the the carriage while the officers of the railway investigated the truck, and Captain Moberley the recoil of the gun. Here is the result of their investigations: —

Recoil of truck on line 2 ft. 10 in.
” of gun in truck 2 ” 11 ”
Average depression of springs
(the suspected weak point
above noted) 3/8 in.

Nothing could have been more satisfactory — especially as regards the mistrusted springs. Still no side shots had been fired; and the question which Colonel Wallace had set himself to find out — videlicet whether the gun would tilt the truck, or the truck retain the gun — remained unanswered. The carriage was run about a hundred and fifty feet further down the siding, and the gun slewed round twenty degrees to the right. Here of course things were against it, by reason of the ‘super-elevation’ (one must use a technical term now and then) of the right rail of the curve. Again the gunners adjusted the tackle (few things are finer than the way in which these big men handle big guns, especially in a confined space) and again the target disappeared under a cloud of dust as the truck ran back. After investigation of chalk marks within and without, these results were made known: –

Recoil of truck 3 ft. 10 in.
” of gun in truck 2″ 0″
Average depression of springs 1/4 in.

I should be afraid to say how far the springs go down when a ten-ton truck is loaded in the ordinary course of things; but it is safe to aver that the recoil of the Armstrong kept several inches on the safe side. The fourth and last shot was the crucial test. ‘If this does nothing’ remarked the designer of the armoured train, ‘nothing will.’ There were several things open to the choice of the forty-pounder.

Its heavy body lay ’thwart ships as the truck was brought to the extreme end of the siding. It might, therefore, quietly kick its way out behind if it broke the tackles; or, restrained by its heel-ropes, knock out the plates in front of it; or, failing this, jerk the truck over into a hole ‘contagious’ to the left of the line. While the gun was being got into position, the practical minds of the artillerists discovered that the side of the truck was a trifle too high; allowing no depression of the piece. Ordinarily of course a forty-pounder would not fire at two hundred and fifty yards range, but there might be occasions in actual warfare when a round of grape at even closer quarters would have a salutary effect on an attacking party attempting to ‘rush’ the train. Therefore it was decided that the armour was to be cut down an inch, or perhaps two. The incident was a slight one, but it showed in what a thorough spirit the armoured train is being built. After a little the gun was brought round, leaving twenty inches between the shortened carriage tail and the left side of the truck. Then the audience stood respectfully aside, and listened to the convincing argument of the forty-pounder as it hurled conviction into the bowels of the target. Naturally the truck did not run back, but it shook and — here an explanation is necessary. Between railway wheel flanges and the rail, play is allowed to the extent of one inch and one quarter. The truck had been shifted leftward one inch; bringing the flanges of the left wheels up to the side of the rails. And that was all. No smashing of plates; no upheaval of the truck — nothing except that slight lateral shift leftward and a slightly higher average of spring depression, due to the pressure falling almost exclusively on the left fore and hind springs. The readings were as follows: —

Recoil of truck Nil.
Recoil of gun in truck 1 ft. 8 in. (all
it could get)
Average depression of springs 0 22/32
Depression of left forespring 0 1 15/16
Depression of left hind . . 10

The truck had vindicated itself against the gun. It only remained to fire the twelve-pounder service gun and see what happened there. The smaller piece, by reason of its wheels, can recoil in most lively fashion; but the results of the first discharge showed that neither recoil nor depression of springs [was] worth recording. The gun of course was tackled like its big brother; and thanks to its long bodied trail — the arsenals never having contemplated the fact that it might be hoisted into a cattle-truck — was not so easy to handle. This will, however, be remedied before the 15th, and in all likelihood both the forty and twelve-pounder will be enabled to command more than 90° of the horizon. The second shot of the twelve-pounder showed how the men would be protected from fire in actual warfare, and was witnessed by most of the party on the ground either in or on the truck itself. The effect produced by the recoil is merely as if the carriage were passing over points; the most unpleasant portion of the business being the dense smoke which fills the truck. Lieutenant Von Donop fired yet another shot with the gun as nearly at right angles as the trail would permit, and having proved satisfactorily that his protegé was ‘sound and free from vice’, turned his attention to the five-barrel Nordenfeldt in the third truck. For those interested in matters military, this last display was a very pretty ending to a most successful series of ‘exhaustive experiments’. There is something specially and diabolically vindictive in a machine gun beyond all other engines of death. The five-barrel gun was cheerfully pronounced by the experts on the ground as ‘obsolete — quite an obsolete pattern you know’, and the unprofessional observer wondered what on earth the perfected articles might be like. Every one knows roughly the mechanism of the Nordenfeldt — how solid-drawn brass cartridges of Martini-Henri bore are put into a hopper; how a wrench of a lever drops five of them into place and the return of the same lever discharges them fast or slowly at the operator’s will; but it is an impressive thing to see all this actually in practice. Most impressive of all to see the weapon feeling its way foot by foot to the required range, and marking each step with a little cloud of dust three hundred yards distant; finally settling upon the target with a volley of venemous precision.

But the Nordenfeldts are, after all, minor details. The problem was to determine by experiment to what extent a moveable railway truck detached from a train which could serve as a counterpoise, could be relied upon to furnish a platform for artillery fire; and the event showed that though made for a peaceful purpose, the ordinary goods-wagon can be converted into a battery all the more formidable from its perfect mobility; and so far as a mere outsider can judge, the results of the experiments should give complete satisfaction to the gentlemen who carried them out.

One other point — not exactly connected with the firing — remains to be noticed, and that is the fertility of resource, and what Mrs Malaprop calls ‘artifice and ingenuity’ with which the building of the train was marked. The conditions upon which it was armoured seem to have been that existing railway materiel only was to be utilized, and when done with was to be returned to stores as intact as possible. The Railway officials above mentioned entered into what must have been a wholly novel task with interest and enthusiasm; and fitted the train with ‘notions’ for the comfort and convenience of the firing party — by the Commander-in-Chief’s sanction to be composed of Railway Volunteers — which must be seen to be properly appreciated.

If the Indian Government ever decide upon regularly building for offensive purposes, armoured trains, the Lahore workshops ought to be able to turn out the best possible specimens. Even with converted cattle-trucks, the present ‘Armadillo’ has no reason to fear the criticism which is inevitably awaiting it at Delhi a fortnight hence.