Tran on LeClair, 'The British Military Revolution of the 19th Century: The Great Gun Question and the Modernization of Ordnance and Administration'

Daniel R. LeClair
Tri Tran

Daniel R. LeClair. The British Military Revolution of the 19th Century: The Great Gun Question and the Modernization of Ordnance and Administration. Jefferson: McFarland, 2019. 286 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7499-5

Reviewed by Tri Tran (University of Tours) Published on H-War (March, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Daniel R. Leclair’s book is an impressive work of historical research in the field of science and technology that is in line with the current trend of historiographical renewal. Here, the technical field is widely opened to history by rooting its approach in a broader questioning of science and society. In the tradition of the philosopher and historian of science Thomas Samuel Kuhn, Daniel R. Leclair is interested in the question of the social soil of scientific and technological innovation in the firearms and gunnery industry. He analyzes how some technical issues affecting guns are treated by researchers and engineers; how various technical statements are validated by the scientific community and become the product of the formation of a consensus in public opinion.

Leclair wants to understand the fluctuating modernization of firearms in use in Britain’s army and navy between 1815 and the Great War. He justifies his questioning by his desire to understand a formidable paradox: How can one explain the delays experienced by the British army compared to other countries, like Germany, France and the United States, despite the dynamism of the industrial revolution, despite the advances of science and the numerous contributions of the engineers, technicians, inventors, and officers who worked for Great Britain’s arms makers? He approaches this paradox in a chronological and analytical manner. The first chapter covers roughly the first half of the nineteenth century: this first period is seen as a preparatory phase for its "military revolution.” During this period, the development of new munitions such as the explosive shell and the shrapnel shell between the 1820s and 1850s led to significant changes in the armor and propulsion of warships. In a similar way, guns evolved: the howitzer appeared, halfway between the mortar and the long-range heavy gun. The first rockets were developed. Light firearms were also upgraded: the Enfield rifle, then the Martini-Henry rifle, benefited from notable improvements (such as percussion mechanisms, the rifled barrel, the cylindrical or warhead bullet, etc.). Leclair has the gift of being very pedagogical and precise in his explanations. The text is enriched by contemporary illustrations taken from the archives, such as sketches and technical drawings extracted from manufacturers' catalogues or official reports and accounts.

The other five chapters cover the successive decades between the Crimean War and the years preceding the beginning of the First World War. It is in this second half of the century that innovation and modernization accelerate from a material and organizational point of view. The Crimean War appears as a moment of revelation, of salutary crisis also on the scale of the nation as a whole since it brings profound changes in the organization of the British army. Alain Gouttman, a French historian specializing in the study of the wars of the Second Empire, argues in his book La Guerre de Crimée, 1853-1856, that it was "the first modern war," fought with industrial means and marked by the extensive use of impressive heavy weapons, but, as Leclair explains, of old conception on the British side. However, their relative inefficiency during this conflict, a conflict which was covered intensely by Western media, brought about a period of modernization, albeit with some jolts. In the second half of the nineteenth century, and especially toward the end (at the time of the South African wars in particular), army leaders and public opinion became passionate about technical issues such as the improvement of the Enfield rifle by means of the Snyder device, or the merits of the new, breech-loading howitzers.

Contrary to what the title of the book might imply, Leclair does not confine himself to the purely technical and military dimension of his study: he places his subject in a national and international environment, putting this process of modernization into its scientific, political, economic, and social context. Without losing sight of the central subject, he shows that each key moment of this technological transformation resulted from a combination of factors linked to the state of international scientific research and to the military, political, and industrial spheres (which he calls the "military-industrial complex").

The novel aspect of the book, compared to other technical or military works, is to show how a multitude of military contributors (such as Edward Mourrier Boxer or John Henry Lefroy), civilians (such as Frederick Abel, William Palliser, or Thomas A. Blakely) and a number of British businesses (such as Armstrong, Bessemer, Enfield, John Brown, Hale, Vickers) and ones farther afield (such as Ehrhardt, Krupp, Gatling, Hotchkiss, Mauser, Nordenfelt, Pratt & Whitney) helped transform firearms, guns, and other "official" military technologies. These contributions were sometimes made possible by another nascent industry, the media, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century, as well as by the formation of the Ordnance Select Committee, a technical committee attached to the Ordnance Department, which instigated, received, studied, and evaluated hundreds of self-financed projects.

The press asserted itself both as an industry generating revenue through the dissemination of information, and also, at the time of the wars, as a fourth estate that conducted in-depth investigations. It thus elevated itself to the position where it did not hesitate to denounce the errors or inaction of political and military leaders.

Leclair's analyses are made possible by the cross-referencing of numerous and varied primary sources: parliamentary archives (reports, accounts, and debates), government archives (of the War Office, in particular the Proceedings of the Ordnance Select Committee [OSC]), and a large set of newspaper archives (local, regional, and national press). The latter obviously allow Leclair to shed light on the sometimes heated debates that agitated not only political and military leaders but more broadly British society, around the major military and strategic issues of the period. Leclair thus carries out a historiographical revision under the prism of cultural history, or more precisely the history of cultural mobilizations around issues of national importance, such as the armed forces, the nation, and the empire. The intense interest of public opinion in military matters in the Victorian era, particularly during the Crimean War or during the South African wars, can be explained by the notion of "war culture"—that is, a set of representations of war forming a system, giving war its deepest meaning, rooted in hatred of the other and shared by the populations of the nations at war, as Antoine Prost has highlighted for the First World War.

Moreover, all these archives, put together, allow us to understand, in the context of industrialization, the key role played by industrial partnerships between the private and public sectors in the arms industry. Thus we find highly talented men such as Armstrong, James Nasmyth, and Joseph Whitworth, who all came from the private sector, were hired by the government, before and after the Crimean War, to run departments in the Woolwich arsenal.

Leclair shows great mastery in his understanding of the workings of government administrations: the many successive reforms affecting the Ordnance Department and the War Office are explained in detail and placed in their historical context. Leclair brings to life the government's hesitations and errors concerning the OSC, created in 1856, abolished in 1868, and more or less recreated in 1881. Similarly, British naval and military operations are dissected through a double prism, technical and political, as in the case of the Crimean War. Leclair really seeks to show how light and heavy weapons truly changed the course of military conflicts and thus the course of world history in the nineteenth century. In the end, three main categories of factors seem to come together and explain this military revolution in the nineteenth century: remarkable men (such as genius inventors, statesmen, politicians), international rivalries between great powers, and exceptional events (accidents, political or institutional crises). Throughout his book, Leclair gives the reader a multitude of examples that fall into one or another of these categories.

Leclair's approach is thus innovative and commendable. However, while it is meant to be comprehensive, or at least more socially grounded, it does not always take into account the full complexity of the constantly changing political and social parameters. Leclair says that the modernization of British arms and arsenals was held back by government bureaucracy and rivalries between administrations, such as the Board of Ordnance and the Ordnance Department. This is certainly true to an extent. In his account, British institutions often seem inefficient, unresponsive, and unnecessarily fussy. Yet as the British historian Jose Harris has shown, British political institutions in the nineteenth century evolved a great deal: modern parties were emerging and reorganizing political life, the structure of government departments was constantly being reformed, and parliamentary practices were being better codified, as was the relationship between Parliament and the executive, all within the essential principles of the Constitution. It is not surprising, therefore, that political movements, and their elected representatives in Parliament, sought to assert their prerogatives and tussled for control over the country's arsenal with the executive.

Leclair often denounces inadequate military budgets that delayed the necessary modernization of arsenals and armaments, without linking these budgetary choices to the state of the British economy, notably the cycles of recession and expansion. To this must also be added the emergence of new public policies, fueled by the growing demand for state intervention in the social sector such as the financing of education from the 1830s onward or the financing of public assistance through taxation. There were also deeper political explanations, which touch on the national psyche: as Leclair himself says (in chapter 1), the very idea of a large standing national army was alien to British ways and was much distrusted by Liberals like Gladstone in the 1860s. The Duke of Wellington himself, who had an immense aura in the first half of the nineteenth century, understood this only too well and opposed the expansion of the War Office

The richness of the documentation sometimes hinders the clarity of the text, especially in the last two chapters, those concerning the years 1880-1910. The writing there seems less analytical, more narrative. Some things are clearer than others: the Stanhope reform of 1888 is well synthesized, but the reader can easily lose the thread of the argument in the profusion of factual details pertaining to the administrative organization of the War Office. One gets the impression of a very complex and tedious bureaucratic reform, whereas Stanhope aimed at centralizing governance (under the secretary of state for war) and pooling resources.

These few observations do not lessen the importance and quality of this extremely well-documented work, which is based on a rich and abundant set of primary sources. Andrew Porter and John Mackenzie have said that the maintenance and expansion of the British Empire depended not only on a powerful navy but also on deep popular support. Leclair's book enriches our knowledge of British history in the nineteenth century, making a technical subject accessible and showing us, through old British newspapers, its societal and national resonance.

Citation: Tri Tran. Review of LeClair, Daniel R., The British Military Revolution of the 19th Century: The Great Gun Question and the Modernization of Ordnance and Administration. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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