Congreve rocket

Congreve rocket

The Congreve Rocket was a British military weapon designed and developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804.

The rocket was developed by the British Royal Arsenal following the experiences of the Second, Third and Fourth Mysore Wars. The wars fought between the British East India Company and the kingdom of Mysore in India made use of rockets as a weapon. After the wars, several Mysore rockets were sent to England, and from 1801, William Congreve set on a research and development programme at the Arsenal's laboratory. The Royal Arsenal's first demonstration of solid fuel rockets was in 1805. The rockets were used effectively during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

Congreve rockets from Congreve's original work


Early Indian rockets

A military tactic developed by Tipu Sultan and his father, Hyder Ali, was the use of mass attacks with rocket artillery brigades on infantry formations. Tipu Sultan wrote a military manual called Fathul Mujahidin in which 200 rocket men were prescribed to each Mysorean rocket artillery brigade known as Cushoon. Mysore had 16 to 24 cushoons of infantry. The areas of town where rockets and fireworks were manufactured were known as Taramandal Pet ("Galaxy Market").

Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan organized Rocket artillery brigades known as Cushoon's against the British East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars.

The rocket men were trained to launch their rockets at an angle calculated from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance of the target. In addition, wheeled rocket launchers capable of launching five to ten rockets almost simultaneously were used in war. Rockets could be of various sizes, but usually consisted of a tube of soft hammered iron about 8 inches (200 mm) long and 1.5 to 3 inches (38 to 76 mm) diameter, closed at one end and strapped to a shaft of bamboo about 4 ft long. The iron tube acted as a combustion chamber and contained well packed black powder propellant. A rocket carrying about one pound of powder could travel almost 1,000 yards (910 m). In contrast, rockets in Europe, not being iron cased, could not take large chamber pressures and as a consequence were not capable of reaching distances anywhere near as great.[1]

Hyder Ali's father, the Naik or chief constable at Budikote, commanded 50 rocketmen for the Nawab of Arcot. There was a regular Rocket Corps in the Mysore Army, beginning with about 1200 men in Hyder Ali's time. Hyder Ali introduced the first iron cased rockets in warfare.

Second Anglo-Mysore War

At the Battle of Pollilur (1780), during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, Colonel William Braille's ammunition stores are thought to have been detonated by a hit from one of Tipu Sultan's Mysore rockets, which contributed to a British defeat.

Third Anglo-Mysore War

In the Third Anglo-Mysore War of 1792, there is mention of two rocket units fielded by Tipu Sultan, 120 men and 131 men respectively. Lt. Col. Knox was attacked by rockets near Srirangapatna on the night of 6 February 1792, while advancing towards the Kaveri river from the north. The Rocket Corps ultimately reached a strength of about 5000 in Tipu Sultan's army. Mysore rockets were also used for ceremonial purposes. When the Jacobin Club of Mysore sent a delegation to Tipu Sultan, 500 rockets were launched as part of the gun salute.

Fourth Anglo-Mysore War

During the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, rockets were again used on several occasions. One of these involved Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later famous as the First Duke of Wellington and the hero of the Battle of Waterloo. Quoting Forrest,

"At this point (near the village of Sultanpet, Figure 5) there was a large tope, or grove, which gave shelter to Tipu's rocketmen and had obviously to be cleaned out before the siege could be pressed closer to Seringapatam island. The commander chosen for this operation was Col. Wellesley, but advancing towards the tope after dark on 5 April 1799, he was set upon with rockets and musket-fires, lost his way and, as Beatson politely puts it, had to "postpone the attack" until a more favourable opportunity should offer. Wellesley's failure was glossed over by Beatson and other chroniclers, but the next morning he failed to report when a force was being paraded to renew the attack.[2]

"On 22 April [1799], twelve days before the main battle, rocketeers worked their way around to the rear of the British encampment, then 'threw a great number of rockets at the same instant' to signal the beginning of an assault by 6,000 Indian infantry and a corps of Frenchmen, all directed by Mir Golam Hussain and Mohomed Hulleen Mir Mirans. The rockets had a range of about 1,000 yards. Some burst in the air like shells. Others called ground rockets, on striking the ground, would rise again and bound along in a serpentine motion until their force was spent.

According to one British observer, a young English officer named Bayly:

"So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles ...". He continued: "The rockets and musketry from 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them'."

During the conclusive British attack on Seringapatam on 2 May 1799, a British shot struck a magazine of rockets within the Tipu Sultan's fort causing it to explode and send a towering cloud of black smoke, with cascades of exploding white light, rising up from the battlements. On the afternoon of 4 May when the final attack on the fort was led by Baird, he was again met by "furious musket and rocket fire", but this did not help much; in about an hour's time the Fort was taken; perhaps in another hour Tipu had been shot (the precise time of his death is not known), and the war was effectively over.[3]

After the fall of Seringapatam, 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets were found. Some of the rockets had pierced cylinders, to allow them to act like incendiaries, while some had iron points or steel blades bound to the bamboo. By attaching these blades to rockets they became very unstable towards the end of their flight causing the blades to spin around like flying scythes, cutting down all in their path.

William Congreve

The Indian rocket experiences, including Munro's book of 1789,[4] eventually led to the Royal Arsenal beginning a military rocket R&D program in 1801. Several rocket cases were collected from Mysore and sent to Britain for analysis. The development was chiefly the work of Col. (later Sir) William Congreve, son of the Comptroller of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, who set on a vigorous research and development programme at the Arsenal's laboratory; after development work was complete, the rockets were manufactured in quantity further north, near Waltham Abbey, Essex. He was told that "the British at Seringapatam had suffered more from the rockets than from the shells or any other weapon used by the enemy".[5] "In at least one instance", an eye-witness told Congreve, "a single rocket had killed three men and badly wounded others".[6]

Congreve prepared a new propellant mixture, and developed a rocket motor with a strong iron tube with conical nose, weighing about 32 pounds (15 kg).

Congreve published three books on rocketry.


The rocket was made up of an iron case containing black powder for propulsion and a "cylindro-conoidal" warhead. The warheads were attached to wooden guide poles and were launched in pairs from half troughs on simple metal A-frames. The original rocket design had the guide pole side-mounted on the warhead, this was improved in 1815 with a base plate with a threaded hole. They could be fired up to two miles, the range being set by the degree of elevation of the launching frame, although at any range they were fairly inaccurate and had a tendency for premature explosion. They were as much a psychological weapon as a physical one, and they were rarely or never used except alongside other types of artillery. Congreve designed several different warhead sizes from 3 to 24 pounds (1.4 to 11 kg). The 24 pounds (11 kg) type with a 15 foot (4.6 m) guide pole was the most widely used variant. Different warheads were used, including explosive, shrapnel and incendiary.

The rockets were launched using a flintlock mechanism, triggered by pulling a long cord.[7] They were manufactured at a special facility near the Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills beside the River Lea in Essex.[8]

Use of Congreve rockets

The weapon remained in use until the 1850s, when it was superseded by the improved spinning design of William Hale. In the 1870s the rockets were adopted to carry rescue lines to vessels in distress superseding the mortar of Captain Manby and rockets that had been in use since the 1830s.

Napoleonic Wars

Tip of a Congreve rocket of the Napoleonic Wars, on display at Paris naval museum

The British used Congreve rockets on several occasions during the Napoleonic Wars, first from boats and then on land. The Royal Navy equipped a number of vessels to fire them, and the Army established a Rocket Troop of the Royal Artillery.

"Use of rocket's from boats" - An illustration from William Congreve's book.

On 8–9 October 1806 Commodore Edward Owen attacked the French flotilla at Boulogne. Captain William Jackson of Musquito directed the boats firing 32 pounds (15 kg) Congreve rockets. As night drew in on the Channel, 24 cutters fitted with rocket frames formed a line and fired some 2,000 rockets at Boulogne. The barrage took only 30 minutes. Apparently the attack set a number of fires but otherwise had limited effect. Still, the effect was enough to lead the British to employ rockets on a number of further occasions.

In 1807 Copenhagen, Denmark was burnt by a British attack with more than 14,000 various missiles in the form of grenades, bombs and rockets of which about 300 were Congreve rockets.[9] In 1813 Danzig, Prussia, was similarly attacked, setting the city's food stores on fire and resulting in surrender.

The only British unit at the "Battle of the Nations" (Leipzig October 1813) was a detachment of Royal Horse Artillery armed with Congreve rockets. Captain Mercer described the use of Congreve rockets on 17 June 1815 during the retreat from Quatre Bras as follows:

"The rocketeers had placed a little iron triangle in the road with a rocket lying on it. The order to fire is given - port-fire applied - the fidgety missile begins to sputter out sparks and wriggle its tail for a second or so, and then darts forth straight up the chaussée. A gun stands right in its way, between the wheels of which the shell in the head of the rocket bursts, the gunners fall right and left… our rocketeers kept shooting off rockets, none of which ever followed the course of the first; most of them, on arriving about the middle of the ascent, took a vertical direction, whilst some actually turned back upon ourselves - and one of these, following me like a squib until its shell exploded, actually put me in more danger than all the fire of the enemy throughout the day." [10]

Ironically, the technology of metal-cylinder missiles developed by Tipu Sultan contributed to the defeat of his ally Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo.

War of 1812

During their confrontation with the US during the War of 1812, the British used rockets at the Battle of Bladensburg, which led to the burning and surrender of Washington, D.C.

It was the use of Congreve rockets by the British in the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the US in 1814 that inspired the fifth line of the first verse of the United States National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner": "And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air".

New Zealand Wars

During the period of the New Zealand Wars the British army used Congreve rockets to attack Māori fortifications—along with cannon-fire—and found that simple trench-warfare practices were sufficient to blunt their effectiveness so much that, like cannon, they were virtually useless.[11]

Surviving rockets

A wide variety of Congreve rockets, ranging in size from 3 to 300 pounds (1.4 to 140 kg), are displayed at Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum in South-East London.[12] The Science Museum has two 18th century Indian war rockets in its collection. The Musée national de la Marine in Paris also features one rocket.

Published descriptions

  • In the 1790s the Fathul Mujahidin was published. It is a military manual that was written by Tipu Sultan, a ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, who was considered to be the father of rocket artillery in battle for his use of iron-cased rocket artillery in defeating the British Army in the 1792 battle at Srirangapatna,[13] one of the battles of the Third Anglo-Mysore War, which is considered a technological evolution in military history.
  • In 1804, Congreve published: A concise account of the origin and progress of the rocket system.
  • A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System, by William Congreve, son of the arsenal's commandant, was published in 1807.[14]
  • In 1814, Congreve published: The details of the rocket system.
  • Congreve, William, Sir. (1827) A Treatise on the General Principles, Powers, and Facility of Application of the Congreve Rocket System. (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green).
  • The First Golden Age of Rocketry: Congreve and Hale Rockets of the Nineteenth Century, Frank H. Winter, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990.
  • In Timothy Mo's novel about the foundation of Hong Kong, An Insular Possession, Congreve rockets are used by Captain Elliot from the steamer Nemesis against Chinese forts on the Pearl River.
  • Werrett, Simon. ‘William Congreve’s Rational Rockets.’ Notes & Records of the Royal Society 63 (2009): 35-56.


  1. ^ Biography, Mysore History Tipu
  2. ^ Forrest D (1970) Tiger of Mysore, Chatto & Windus, London
  3. ^ Narasimha Roddam (2 April 1985) National Aeronautical Laboratory and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore 560017 India, Project Document DU 8503,Rockets in Mysore and Britain, 1750-1850 A.D.
  4. ^ Baker D (1978) The Rocket, New Cavendish Books, London
  5. ^ Von Braun W, Ordway III F. I. History of rocketry and space travel, Nelson
  6. ^ Ley E (1958) Rockets, missiles, and space travel, Chapman & Hall, London
  7. ^ British Rockets
  8. ^ Lewis, Jim (2009) From Gunpowder to Guns: the story of the two Lea Valley armouries, Hendon: Middlesex University Press, ISBN 978-190475085-7, page 68
  9. ^ Rolf Scheen, Flådens ran: tabet af den dansk-norske flåde 1807 (Copenhagen 2007)
  10. ^ Mercer, Cavalié, ’’Journal of the Waterloo Campaign kept throughout the campaign of 1815’’, first published 1870, Da Capo Press 1995, ISBN 0-306-80651-7, p 153
  11. ^ Belich, James (1996). Making Peoples. Auckland: Penguin Press. p. 178. 
  12. ^ Beckland; Millard (1992). "Congreve and His Works". Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (British Interplanetary Society) 45: 281–284. 
  13. ^ Henty, G. A. (George Alfred) (1902). The Tiger of Mysore - A Story of the War with Tippoo Saib. 
  14. ^  "Congreve, William (1772-1828)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 

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