Military Biography Weapon Maker Lt. Henry Shrapnel

About British soldier Lt. Henry Shrapnel, history and biography of the man who developed the fragmenting explosive.


LT. HENRY SHRAPNEL (Great Britain, Peninsular War)

Shrapnel's shell, or Shrapnel's shot, as it was first called, was the brainchild of Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842), a British artillery officer who held the rank of second lieutenant and had only turned 22 when he began work on his deadly contrivance in 1783. Shrapnel had joined the army at the age of 18 and had served in Gibraltar, the West Indies, and Flanders under the Duke of York. He devoted all his spare time and money to developing his invention, the shrapnel shell, consisting of a spherical projectile filled with lead musket balls and a small charge of black powder that was set off by a time fuse, exploding the shell in midair and scattering the shot in an ever-widening sheaf over a large area. This antipersonnel weapon, which laid low everyone in its path, was finally adopted in 1803 due to Shrapnel's persistent efforts, and he was promoted to regimental lieutenant colonel the following year.

The British first used shrapnel when they seized part of Surinam from the Dutch and established British Guiana in South America. But its most important test came 11 years later, in 1815, when it was employed during the Peninsular War by Wellington's forces and helped to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. By this time Shrapnel was an inspector of artillery at the royal arsenal at Woolrich, where he began to develop other weapons, including improved howitzers and mortars. Shrapnel's shot had already become known as "shrapnel," and over the years added velocity would be imparted by a large powder charge embodied in the missile, enabling the bullets now used in place of shot to cover an area 250 by 200 yd.

Although the shell itself wasn't used during W.W. II, the term "shrapnel" was and still is applied loosely to shell fragments from any high explosive, whether artillery, bomb, or mine. Henry Shrapnel, who had been promoted to lieutenant general in 1837, died five years later, age 81. He had never been paid a cent for his important invention, and the government refused even to compensate him for the several thousand pounds of his own money that he had spent in developing the weapon.

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