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Americans Built a Dynamite Gun for the Spanish-American War

A new lightweight artillery piece went into combat.

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  • General Toral’s surrender of Santiago to General Shafter, July 13th, 1898.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

There was no love lost between Spain and the United States when war finally broke out between the two countries in 1898. Despite the exaggerations from so-called “Yellow Journalism” in the U.S., Spain really had committed some atrocities against the Cuban people on the island, and the Cuban Independence War was harming the U.S. economy.

When war finally came, however, the United States wasn’t really ready for an overseas conflict. The U.S. Army had only 28,000 regular soldiers and state militias were poorly trained and under-equipped. To meet the needs of the war, the U.S. increased its military spending and called for volunteers to fight the Spanish. Americans responded: 290,000 men answered the call for 125,000 troops. 

The Americans had the numbers but they were also outmatched, at least on paper. In Cuba, the Spanish had 160,000 men using the latest smokeless infantry rifles and Cuba was a primary Spanish training area for its army. The Americans, in contrast, were using a hodgepodge of infantry rifles, including some obsolete black powder rifles, wore woolen winter uniforms, and were under-prepared for the logistics of training and moving large numbers of men and materiel. 

Luckily, the Americans did have something going for them: their new Navy. The U.S. Navy was filled with steel-plated cruisers and battleships that were faster, more resilient, and better armed than any ship in the Spanish Navy. With a U.S. blockade around Cuba, the Spanish could not reinforce their position.

When volunteers, like Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, did arrive in Cuba, they brought with them some interesting new weapons. The most famous of these weapons would have to be the Gatling Gun, a swivel-mounted automatic machine gun that could fire 700 rounds per minute. Less famous, though equally interesting, would be the Sims-Dudley Dynamite Gun. 

The Sims-Dudley Dynamite Gun was an advanced, lightweight kind of artillery piece that had not yet proven itself in battle with the Americans like the Gatling Gun had. Despite its name, it did not actually fire sticks of dynamite. It used compressed air to fire gelatinous explosives, not dynamite. Its original design used compressed air to fire the projectile. The version that went into combat against the Spanish in Cuba was much different. 

Sims-Dudley’s version of the gun did not have an air compressor, so it required a small black powder charge to fire its explosive rounds. The rounds themselves were a kind of gel-like nitroglycerin, primed with a time or percussion fuse. If firing a nitroglycerin-based explosive, primed with a percussive fuse from a weapon that uses black powder as a propellant sounds crazy, you’re not alone. Its early adopters weren’t thrilled about the idea either. 

Frederick Funston, an American serving the Cuban insurgency, actually received one of the Sims-Dudley guns in 1897, before the Spanish-American War broke out. Funston used the weapon in an August 1897 assault on the Spanish-held town of Victoria de las Tunas. He described the first shot as follows:

"There was no little uneasiness as to what would happen when the uncanny weapon was fired, and there was not much of a tendency to stand too close to it. When the lanyard was pulled, the gun gave what sounded like a loud cough and jumped a little."

But the weapons performed as intended for the Cubans, creating a hole in a brick wall large enough to drive a truck through and sending debris some 50 feet in the air. The result of its success with the Cubans was that the U.S. Army brought at least ten of the Dynamite Guns to Cuba for its invasion. 

But it didn’t perform for the Rough Riders the way it worked for the Cubans. The gun was at the Battle of San Juan Hill, but the ammunition had been misplaced. When it was reunited with its ammo in time for Roosevelt to lead the attack on Santiago de Cuba, it was prone to breakdowns, had poor range and didn’t quite have the power it did at Victoria. 

"...it was used as a like a mortar from behind the hill, it did not betray its presence, and those firing it suffered no loss. Every few shots it got out of order and the Rough Rider machinists....would spend an hour or two setting it right,” Roosevelt wrote. 

Since the Spanish-American War was short-lived, and more stable, less complex artillery pieces became available, both with improved accuracy and better range, the Dynamite Gun was ultimately shelved indefinitely.