I learned something today, which is always a good thing. I find it inherently thrilling to find the historical meaning behind an everyday phrase. Today I discovered the origin of the term “shrapnel”. The dictionary definition of shrapnel is “fragments of a bomb, shell, or other object thrown out by an explosion.” It’s a word everyone knows, but few ever ponder how bomb fragments came to be called shrapnel. The answer to the origin of this puzzling term comes from the name of its inventor Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel.
Henry Shrapnel was born in 1761 in Wiltshire, England. Wiltshire County is in the southwest part of England, and home of Stonehenge. Henry was the youngest of several brothers, all of whom died relatively young. At the age of eighteen, Henry began his military career with the Royal Artillery as a Second-Lieutenant. He served abroad in Newfoundland, Gibraltar, and the West Indies, but did not see any action in the American Revolution. Over the course of his career as a gunner, Shrapnel began to experiment with the hollow spherical cannon projectiles that were designed to explode sending out small shot, usually musket balls. Up through the late 18th century, these explosives were crudely designed and imprecise. Grape Shot was the most common type of exploding projectiles used at the time. It was nothing more than musket balls tied up in a canvas bag and fastened to a wooden plug for firing out of a cannon. As the canvas bag ripped open after being shot from the cannon, it would spew its projectiles in a deadly swath, but with a relatively short range. Grape Shot got its name because it looks like a bag full of grapes.
Case or Canister Shot was a bit more complex with a thin metal cylinder filled with musket or iron balls. When fired, the thin cylinder would be peeled back by the force of the explosion, sending shards of the casing and balls with a killing range of about two hundred yards.
Henry Shrapnel realized that Grape and Canister Shot was lethal but imprecise. He wanted a shell that would explode at some point after being fired. He therefore came up with the idea for a timed fuse that would light a small charge of gun powder inside the hollow case with enough force to open the case and send the smaller musket balls out in the same trajectory as the exploded casing. His idea increased the scattered projectile range from 300 yards to 1000 yards. A significant and deadly improvement.
Shrapnel’s design was embraced by the British Army and used extensively in the Napoleonic Wars between England and France in the early 19th century. The only issue with Shrapnel’s design was the occasional premature lighting of the charge inside the spherical case which would ignite from the friction created as the casing traveled down the cannon barrel on discharge. Over the years, Henry Shrapnel’s design was improved upon but the basic design remained the same all the way through World War I.
Henry’s weapon was so revered by the British Army, and in particular General Arthur Wellesley – Duke of Wellington, that after Henry’s death in 1842, the British Board of War issued an order that the “spherical case shot” be called “shrapnel shells”. So the next time you’re watching that bloody war-time movie and someone says, “I caught a piece of shrapnel” you can know it’s all thanks to Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Shrapnel and his amazing and deadly invention.