Congreve rocket

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Launch of a Congreve rocket from a tripod mount

The Congreve missile was a British military missile weapon designed and developed in 1804 by British artillery officer and engineer Sir William Congreve . He used war rockets from India as a model .

It was used for the first time in the autumn of 1805 against the French fleet waiting in front of Boulogne-sur-Mer , then also during the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807. The rockets were also used by other states in various wars. The Congreve rockets, which had been further developed several times, were used until the 1860s and later replaced by the technically fundamentally improved Hale rocket .


Missiles have been known as weapons in India since ancient times. In the Battle of Panipat (1761) , the Afghan - Mughal side ( Ahmad Shah Durrani ) used rockets against the Marathon army; During the Mysore Wars , the Indians used missiles as a weapon against the British. Inspired by reports of its effectiveness, Lieutenant General Thomas Desaguliers (≈1725–1780), chief fireworker at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, carried out several unsuccessful attempts shortly before his death in 1780. After further experience in the Second , Third and Fourth Mysore War , several Mysore missiles were sent to London , where William Congreve, 1st Baronet (1742-1814) was in command of the Royal Arsenal.

When the Third Coalition War broke out in 1803 , a French invasion fleet gathered in French ports along the English Channel and threatened England. The son William Congreves Sr., Will Congreve Jr., actually a lawyer and editor of political writings, saw it as his duty to do his best to defend England. First at his own expense, later with the support of his father and the Royal Arsenal, Congreve was able to devote himself to improving missiles from 1804.


Congreve's missiles, from his own work
Tip of an early Congreve rocket

After initially using cardboard, the rocket casings were made from sheet iron. The composition of the propellant was similar to that of black powder . However, it was not a loose powder, but a solid mass. The propellant charge was hollowed out cylindrically in the middle , with the purpose of increasing the surface area of ​​the burning charge in order to generate enough gas pressure to propel the rocket. Right from the start, Congreve consistently relied on the currently developing industrial mass production .

By 1813, the rockets could be divided into three classes:

  • "Heavy" - explosive missiles, the largest weighing 300 pounds (136 kilograms); about two meters long, with a rod length of up to eight meters
  • "Medium" - 24 to 42 pounds (11 to 19 kg); about one meter long, with a stick length of 5 to 7 meters
  • “Light” - 6- to 18-pounders (3 to 8 kg); 40–65 cm long, with a stick length of 2.5 to 5 meters

The medium and light rockets could contain a cartridge , an explosive device , an incendiary device or a flare device as a payload or warhead .

Before use, the missile body had to be connected to the stabilizing rod. To make it easier to transport, the stick was divided into 1.2 m long pieces. They were fixed by means of metal clamping sleeves, which had to be crimped with special pliers .

The 32-pounders were used with a range of about 3000 meters mainly for a bombardment over greater distances. The usual type to support infantry and cavalry , the 12-pounder, was loaded with grape ammunition and had a maximum range of around 2000 meters. The missiles could be launched from a wheeled launch pad, a portable tripod, or even a shallow ditch or embankment. The accuracy was poor for technical reasons. On the one hand, the center of gravity shifted during the flight because the propellant burned off; on the other hand, the thrusters were rarely completely symmetrical. But the biggest problem was the wooden stabilizing bar. Back then, a stabilizing rod was the only known means of keeping a missile on course. This rod made the rocket susceptible to wind and was an additional weight. The rod was always a bit flexible and rarely completely straight. The external fastening of the rod was aerodynamically disadvantageous. Therefore, in December 1815, Congreve presented a new design of the rocket in which the rod was fixed in the center of the rocket base. To prevent the wooden stick from catching fire, the part on the rocket casing was wrapped in brass. The aiming accuracy was increased, the shape of the rocket now also allowed the launch from tube-like launchers.

The model with the centered stick was used from 1817 to 1867, until it was superseded by the Hale rocket , which rotates in flight and therefore no longer needs a stick due to the stability created in this way.

The Congreve missiles had several advantages over the guns of the time. For one thing, which is about twice the range and a considerably higher had cadence of about four missile firings per minute. On the other hand, the rocket troops were much more mobile, since the heavy artillery was not necessary.


Use of a missile ship
Austrian Congreve missiles with various warheads, from top to bottom: HE grenade, grenade, incendiary device

The first demonstration of the Congreve solid fuel rocket took place in September 1805. They were used for the first time on November 20, 1805, against the French fleet waiting in front of Boulogne-sur-Mer . Under the command of Sidney Smith , an officer in the Royal Navy , 12 boats shot down around 600 rockets in a large volley under cover of darkness , but without any significant success. Critics criticized the missiles' poor aiming accuracy, while Congreve blamed the wind and the sea. The next attempt was made on October 8, 1806 under the command of Edward Owen (1771–1849), 24 boats shot down approximately 400 rockets. In contrast to the first attempt, no one volley was fired. As a result, the attack lasted longer, at half an hour, but allowed the sailors to better align the boats. The effectiveness of the second mission was also controversial, but Congreve was able to record it as a success.

Congreve rockets were also used in the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 (again it was an attack from ships), in 1809 in Vlissingen and in the siege of the French fleet at the Île-d'Aix . In the Napoleonic Wars , the rockets were used in the sieges of Danzig and Wittenberg in 1813, and by English land forces, for example. B. in the Battle of the Göhrde and the Battle of Nations near Leipzig .

Also in the British-American War (1812-1815) there were missions on the part of the British. At the Battle of Bladensburg , they were able to use the Congreve missiles to rout outnumbered American troops and then conquer Washington . The most famous missile use was probably at the Battle of Baltimore . The shelling of the American forts by rocket ships to have been so impressive that he Francis Scott Key to the following line in his song The Star-Spangled Banner , which later became the national anthem , the United States, inspired: And the rockets' red glare , to German: And the rockets bright red light .

Other states such as the United States , many European nations, as well as some in Latin America and the Middle East , took an example from the Congreve missile and introduced similar missiles. In Austria , the Feldzeugmeister Vincenz von Augustin introduced rockets like the Congreve in 1814.

During the American Civil War , they were occasionally used by both sides, both Union forces and Confederate forces .

Lifelines thrower

Based on Congreve's rockets, the Englishman John Dennett (1790-1852) developed a rescue device for ships in distress near the coast. With the rocket, a lifeline could be fired from the bank to the wrecked ship.


  • A. Bowdoin Van Riper: Rockets and Missiles: The Life Story of a Technology , JHU Press , 2007, ISBN 978-0-8018-8792-5 online
  • William Congreve : The details of the rocket system , London, 1814 online
  • William Congreve: A Treatise on the General Principles, Powers, and Facility of Application of the Congreve Rocket System, as Compared with Artillery , London, 1827, online
  • Bernard Cornwell : The Sharpe novels, especially in the first three volumes
  • Josef Schmölzl: Supplementary weapon theory: a textbook for the knowledge and study of modern firearms , Cotta Verlag , 1857, online

Web links

Commons : Congreve rocket  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. "... the rocket men with their magical powers consumed the thread of life of the heroes of the battlefield by firing their hawk-winged arrows ... the only fear of the famous, brave warriors was cannon balls and the approach of a rocket"; Muhammad Jafar Shamlu, eyewitness and chronicler of the battle, cit. after Henry Miers Elliot . John Dowson : The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians. The Muhammadan Period . Volviii. London: Trübner 1877 (ND ND Oxford UP 2013), chapter ciii, p. 153 online edition
  2. " During war, the Indians use a kind of fire arrows called foguetes [port. 5 cm] thick; at one end a heavy iron quiver is filled with powder which is ignited through a small hole in the can, whereupon the rod flies away with constant rotation at astonishing speed, sometimes killing or seriously injuring five to six people There are special people who handle these fire arrows, and it takes some strength and skill to steer them properly and give them a horizontal direction "; Jacob Haafner : Reise in einer Palankin (1808), p. 160. - "They also use large rockets that are eight to ten inches long and have a sharp, sickle-shaped blade at the tip. They are fired horizontally and are supposed to disorder bring the cavalry units. They are less effective than our hand grenades, but go much further. According to the Indian authors, these missiles, called vana , were used very early on "; Jean Antoine Dubois : Lives and Rites of the Indians , (1825), chap. III, 9, p. 542. - In the Battle of Pollilur (September 210, 1780) they were decisive when the British powder wagons were blown up. An eyewitness reports: "... except for an arrow of fire that fell in the middle of the square, smashed a powder wagon and blew it up together with three others. This terrible incident confused the ranks"; Haafner, Palankin , pp. 158 ff. - The use of missiles in India since ancient times is described in On the Early Use of Gunpowder in India . In: Elliot / Dowson, History of India , Vol. 6, Appendix Note A, pp. 455-482 online edition
  3. a b Simon Werrett: William Congreve's rational rockets . In: The Royal Society (Ed.): Notes & Records of The Royal Society . tape 63 , no. 1 , March 20, 2009, doi : 10.1098 / rsnr.2008.0039 ( online [accessed January 26, 2015]).
  4. ^ New Mexico Museum of Space History via William Congreve [1]
  5. ^ Mario Christian Ortner: The development of modern war missiles in the 19th century [2]
  6. a b Frederick C. Durant III, Stephen Oliver Fought, John F. Guilmartin, Jr .: Rocket and missile system . Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 20, 2015.
  7. ^ Karl Theodor von Sauer: Grundriss der Waffenlehre , Munich, 1869, Cotta'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung , p. 467 ( limited preview in the Google book search)
  8. ^ Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, pp. 15-16.
  9. ^ Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, p. 18.
  10. ^ Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, pp. 17-18.
  11. a b Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, p. 17.
  12. ^ Britannia or Neue Englische Miszellen, Verlag Metzler, 1825 (original from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek); P. 214 ( limited preview in Google Book search)
  13. ^ Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, p. 16.
  14. Vlissingen municipal archive ; Congrevesche rockets on Vlissingen ; Westerschelde. Portreet van an open zeearm . Kloetinge: De Groote Roeibaerse 2018. pp. 56–57, with illustration of a missile launched from the ship shortly before the impact.
  15. a b Pierer's Universal Lexicon of the Past and Present . 4th edition. Verlagbuchhandlung von HA Pierer , Altenburg 1865 ( [accessed on January 21, 2020] lexicon entry “Brandraketen”).
  16. ^ Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, p. 16.
  17. ^ Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, pp. 16-17.
  18. Anton Dolleczek: history of Austrian artillery from the earliest times to the present , 1887, p 349 online
  19. ^ Riper: Rockets and Missiles , 2007, p. 19.
  20. ^ GI Brown: Explosives: History With A Bang , The History Press , 2011, ISBN 978-0-7524-7614-8 , p. 64 online
  21. ^ Warwick William Wroth: Dennett, John in Dictionary of National Biography , 1885-1900, Volume 14 online