Henry’s Invention That Transformed Warfare

Henry was an ambitious officer. He had his sights set on greatness. He wanted his name to be remembered by future generations.

He got his wish. This is the story of why you remember his name today, even if you didn’t know why you know it.

He was born on June 3, 1761, in Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, England. As the ninth child in an already-bustling household, he learned from an early age that the only way to stand out was to do something significant. What better way to earn a place in history than on the battlefield?

He enlisted in the army. Henry saw combat in 1793 at Flanders, where he was wounded in combat. His bravery, professionalism, and keen mind propelled him through the officer ranks. By the time he retired from the military, he had achieved the rank of lieutenant general.

It wasn’t for his exploits in combat that you remember his name, however. His fame can better be attributed to the frustrations he faced while he was a junior officer.

Henry was still a lieutenant in 1784. He was serving in the Royal Artillery. While working with the artillery, he lamented the limitations of the cannon. Yes, it was a formidable weapon and inspired fear among anyone on the receiving side. Even so, it was severely lacking in terms of being an anti-personnel weapon.

Cannonballs were great for blasting through fortifications. If fired at a large gathering of enemy soldiers, cannonballs could pack a powerful punch at the point of impact. Thereafter, they just bounced on the ground in a straight line. Henry thought the outcome was much too minimal to justify the time and effort it took to prepare a cannon to fire.

There was nothing wrong with the cannon, Henry thought. The problem was with the cannonball itself. He decided to try to improve the munition. He took a hollowed-out cannonball and filled it with lead shot. By making the cannonball fragile, it would burst before making contact with its target. If it worked, there wouldn’t be just one deadly object raining down on the enemy; there would be hundreds.

Henry used his own resources to bring his idea to reality. He called it “spherical case” ammunition. The tests surpassed even his high expectations. Not only did the spherical case increase the anti-personnel effectiveness of the cannon but it also increased its range. With Henry’s ammunition, a cannon could kill the enemy from over 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) away.

In one test, “more than one-third of the number of balls fired from the guns” in which “ten rounds were fired from two 5 ½-inch howitzers, four light twelve-pounders, and four light six-pounders, in thirteen minutes” found their mark. Three targets representing dragoons or cavalrymen were set at around 1,920 yards (1,756 meters). When the firing was over, the results were beyond impressive. 3,998 balls and 24 splinters of shells struck the three targets.

Diagram of Henry’s “spherical case” ammunition.

When Henry demonstrated his invention, his superiors were instantly impressed. The “spherical case” ammunition instantly changed the dynamics of warfare. On May 4, 1804, the British made use of Henry’s ammunition at the Battle of Surinam. The Dutch promptly surrendered when the first few shots decimated their battalions.

Henry’s brainchild even played a role in one of the most important battles in history. The British called it their “secret weapon” and used it to help them gain victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo on June 18, 1815. The innovative shells still caused havoc and wrecked the morale of the French infantry.

Despite the proven success of Henry’s invention, he was never reimbursed for the costs he incurred in creating it. Ultimately, however, the British government formally recognized his contribution to warfare by granting him a pension. In 1814, he was awarded a lifetime annual stipend of 1,200 pounds (about $128,000 in today’s money).

Henry retired to Peartree House in Southampton, England, where he lived until his death at the age of 80 on March 13, 1842. The fame he sought as a child was secured. His name would be remembered by all future generations and would inspire fear on the battlefield from that point forward.

His name is remembered, not for his bravery or exploits, but because of the terrifying thing he invented. It was a thing that was so revolutionary, that his name has become a part of the English language. You don’t remember his invention by the name he gave it — the “spherical case” ammunition. Instead, you know it by the name of its inventor: Henry Shrapnel.

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