AskDefine | Define shrapnel

Dictionary Definition

shrapnel n : shell containing lead pellets that explodes in flight

User Contributed Dictionary



From Henry Shrapnel, British army officer who invented an exploding fragmentation shell.


  1. A collective term for fragments and debris thrown out by an exploding shell or landmine.


collective term for fragments and debris thrown out by an exploding device
  • Finnish: sirpale
  • Portuguese: estilhaço
  • French: Shrapnel
  • Spanish: metralla

Extensive Definition

He called his device 'spherical case' shot, but in time it came to be called after him; a position formalised in 1852 by the British Government.
Initial designs suffered from the potentially catastrophic problem that friction between the shot and black powder during the high acceleration down the gun bore could sometimes cause premature ignition of the powder. This problem was overcome by placing the powder within a central metal tube, or a separate area within the hollow shell. As a buffer to prevent lead shot deforming, a resin was used as a packing material between the shot. A useful side effect of using the resin was that the combustion also gave a visual reference upon the shell bursting, as the resin shattered into a cloud of dust.

British artillery adoption

It took until 1803 for the British artillery to adopt it, albeit with great enthusiasm when it did. Shrapnel was promoted to Major in the same year. The Duke of Wellington used it beginning in 1808 against Napoleon, including in the Battle of Waterloo, and wrote admiringly of its effectiveness.
The design was improved by Captain E M Boxer RA in the 1840s and crossed over when cylindrical shells for rifled guns were introduced.

World War I era

The size of shrapnel balls in World War I was based on the premise that a projectile energy of 58 foot-pounds (US) to 60 foot-pounds (British) was required to disable an enemy soldier. At the velocity of a typical World War I field gun shell after travelling , plus the additional velocity from the shrapnel bursting charge, this was the minimum energy of a single half-inch lead-antimony ball of approximately , or 41-42 balls = 1 pound. Hence this was a typical field gun shrapnel bullet size. Hence the field gun shrapnel shell performed a role which today is typically performed by a .50 caliber machine-gun. For larger guns which had lower velocities, correspondingly larger balls were used so that each individual ball was lethal.
During the initial stages of World War I, shrapnel was widely used by all sides to attack troops in the open, though trench warfare reduced its use as high explosive shells became the predominant type of 'explosive' shell used. While shrapnel made no impression on trenches and other earthworks it remained the favoured weapon of the British (at least) to support their infantry assaults. It prevented the Germans manning their trench parapets and was less hazardous to the assaulting British infantry than high explosives. Shrapnel being non-cratering was also advantageous in an assault. Shrapnel was also useful against counter-attacks, working parties and any other troops in the open. However, shrapnel was unable to cut the barbed wire entanglements in no man's land, defeat troops under protection, or destroy positions all of which were required in the preliminary bombardment to an attack.
With the advent of relatively insensitive high explosives which could be used as the filling for shells, it was found that the casing of a properly designed high explosive shell fragmented effectively. However, this fragmentation was often lost when shells penetrated soft ground and because some fragments went in all directions it was a hazard to assaulting troops. For example, the detonation of an average 105 mm shell produces several thousand high velocity (1,000 to 1,500 m/s) fragments, a lethal (at close range) blast overpressure and, if a surface or sub-surface burst, a useful cratering and anti-material effect — all in a munition much less complex to make than the later versions of the shrapnel shell.
One item of note is the 'Universal Shell', a type of field gun shell developed by Krupp of Germany in the early 1900s. This shell could function as either a shrapnel shell, or high explosive projectile. The shell had a modified fuse and instead of resin as the packing between the shrapnel balls, TNT was used. When the fuse was set to time, the fuse functioned in the normal way, ejecting the balls and igniting (not detonating) the TNT, the TNT giving a visual puff of black smoke. In impact mode the TNT filling was detonated, so becoming an high explosive shell with a very large amount of low velocity fragmentation and a milder blast. Again due to its complexity, it was dropped in favour of the simple high explosive shell.
When World War I began the United States also had what it referred to as the "Ehrhardt High-Explosive Shrapnel" in its inventory. It appears to be the same as the German design, with bullets embedded in TNT rather than resin. Douglas Hamilton mentions this shell type in passing, as "not as common as other types" in his comprehensive treatises on manufacturing Shrapnel and High Explosive shells of 1915 and 1916, but gives no manufacturing details. Nor does Ethan Viall in 1917. Hence the US appears to have ceased its manufacture early in the war, presumably based on the experience of other combatants.

World War II era

By World War II shrapnel shells, in the strict sense of the word, fell out of use, the last recorded use of shrapnel being 60 pdr shells fired in Burma in 1943. A new shrapnel shell, Mk 3D a steamlined shell had been developed for 60 pdr in the early 1930s, it contained 760 bullets of 41/lb size. There was some use of shrapnel by the British in the campaigns in East and North East Africa at the beginning of the war where 18-pdr and Howitzers were used. In 1945 the British conducted successful trials with shrapnel shells fuzed with VT. However, shrapnel was not developed for any of the post World War I guns.

Vietnam era

Although not strictly shrapnel, a 1960s weapons project produced splintex shells for 90 and 106 mm RCLs and for 105 mm Howitzer where it was called 'Beehive'. Unlike the shrapnel shells’ balls, the splintex shell contained flechettes. The result was the 105 mm M546 APERS-T, first used in the Vietnam War in 1966. The shell consisted of approximately 8,000 half gram flechettes, these arranged in five tiers, a time fuse, body shearing detonators, central flash tube, smokeless propellant charge with a dye marker contained in the base and tracer element. The functioning of the shell was as follows; the time fuse fires, flash sent down the flash tube, shearing detonators fire, and the forward body splits into four pieces, body and first four tiers dispersed by the projectile's spin, last tier and visual marker by the powder charge. The flechettes spread, mainly due to spin, from the point of burst in an ever widening cone along the projectile's previous trajectory prior to burst. The round is a highly effective anti-personnel weapon — soldiers report that after beehive rounds were fired during an over-run attack, many enemy dead had their hands nailed to the wooden stocks of their rifles, and these dead could be dragged to mass graves by the rifle — but complex to make. It is said that the name beehive was given to the munition type due to the noise of the flechettes moving through the air resembling that of a swam of angry bees.

Modern era

Though shrapnel rounds are now rarely used, there are other modern rounds, apart from the Beehive shell, that use, or have used the shrapnel principle. The DM 111 20 mm cannon round used for close range air defense, the flechette filled 40 mm HVCC (40 x 53 mm HV grenade), the 35 mm cannon (35 × 228 mm) AHEAD ammunition (152 x 3.3 g tungsten cylinders), RWM Schweiz 30 × 173 mm Air-Bursting munition, 5-Inch Shotgun Projectile (KE-ET) and possibility many more. Also many modern armies have canister shot ammunition for tank and artillery guns, the XM1028 round for the 120 mm M256 tank gun being one example (approx 1150 tungsten balls at 1400 m/s).
At least some Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABMs) use shrapnel like warhead instead of the more common blast/fragmentation (blast/frag) type. As with a blast/frag warhead, the use of this type of warhead does not require a direct body-on-body impact, so greatly reducing tracking and steering accuracy requirements.
At a predetermined distance from the incoming re-entry vehicle (RV) the warhead releases, in the case of the ABM warhead by an explosive expulsion charge, an array of mainly rod-like sub-projectiles into the RV's flight path.
Unlike a blast/frag warhead, the expulsion charge is only needed to release the sub-projectiles from the main warhead, not to accelerate them to high velocity. The velocity required to penetrate the RV's casing comes from the high terminal velocity of the warhead, similar to the shrapnel shell's principle.
The reason for the use of this type of warhead and not a blast/frag is that the fragments produced by a blast/frag warhead cannot guarantee penetration of the RV's casing. By using rod like sub-projectiles, a much greater thickness of material can be penetrated, greatly increasing the potential for disruption of the incoming RV.

Gallery of images

Notes and References

shrapnel in Bulgarian: Шрапнел
shrapnel in Czech: Šrapnel
shrapnel in Danish: Shrapnel
shrapnel in German: Schrapnell
shrapnel in French: shrapnel
shrapnel in Hebrew: רסס
shrapnel in Dutch: Shrapnel
shrapnel in Polish: Szrapnel
shrapnel in Russian: Шрапнель
shrapnel in Swedish: Splitter
shrapnel in Walloon: Chrapnel

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

ball, bar shot, bird shot, buckshot, bullet, cannon shot, cannonball, case shot, crossbar shot, duck shot, dumdum bullet, expanding bullet, grape, grapeshot, langrel shot, manstopping bullet, pellet, rifle ball, round shot, shell, shot, slug, split shot
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