Washington Naval Yard railwaygun #Railwayguns

nicholas robinson

Another from the archives

The Railway Gun & Armoured Train Web-museum

For enthusiasts of Railway guns & Armoured trains of all sizes.



(Originally published in March 1994 issue of The Virginia Creeper, newsletter of the Old

Dominon Division, Railroad Enthusiasts)

Written by Sam Hopper, Herndon, Virginia


It’s big and heavy and a rare survivor of a once widespread species. It isn't "Barney," it's a rail-

road gun from World War I. It lurks in the Washington Navy Yard beside the old Naval Gun

Factory where it was designed 76 years ago.


The gun, officially a "14-inch Naval Railway Battery Mark I," was made by combining an

existing 14-inch battleship gun of 50 calibers (the length of the gun tube is 50 times the bore

diameter, in this case 700 inches or about 58 feet) with a railroad mounting made by Baldwin

Locomotive Works. The complete gun in operating order weighed over 260 tons and could

accurately fire a 1400 pound projectile over 23 miles.


The first mount rolled out of Baldwin on April 25, 1918, only 120 days after design work

began. Baldwin also produced locomotives for the gun trains and Stancard Steel Car Company

produced the cars. Five batteries were ordered. Although they operated on land, the batteries were

self contained like a ship. Each consisted of a Consolidation locomotive ("Pershing Class") and

tender, the 14-inch gun car, two ammunition cars, three berthing cars, and one each headquarters

car, kitchen car, fuel car, workshop car, sand and log car, construction car, and construction car

with crane.


Naval Rail Guns at War


While the equipment was under construction, the Navy organized the crews. The commander

had a most appropriate name for the leader of an outfit hurling large objects: Rear Admiral C. P.

Plunkett. Men and equipment were shipped from Philadelphia to St. Nazaire beginning in late

May. Upon arrival in France, the gun mounts were rapidly reassembled but it was not until 6

September that the first round was fired at a German target


In operation, a battery traveled to its firing positions at a speed of 6 mph due to fear induced in

railroad authorities by the weight of the gun mount. The French had constructed numerous curved

spurs (epis) behind the front for railway gun positions. Once it was switched on to an epi, the gun

was located on the curve where it was pointed at the target. A pit foundation was constructed to

provide a stable base and room for the gun to recoil. This took about two days, but was not a

problem given the gun's great range, the stationary targets, and the normally slow moving tactical



The gun had about 5 degrees of traverse available for weather corrections and adjustments and

could be elevated up to 45 degrees for maximum range. Loading was aided by an air powered

mechanism, however lowering the gun for loading and elevating it for firing was done by hand by

relays of sailors. This limited the rate of fire to once every three to five minutes, depending on

how high the gun had to be elevated.


All told, the Navy batteries fired 782 rounds at the Germans, inflicting considerable damage.

For instance, "one hit . . . was sufficient to wreck a railroad line of three tracks for a distance of at

least 100 feet, tearing the rails up, shattering the ties, and blowing an enormous crater in the

roadbed." The high effectiveness is remarkable because only about ten percent of the missions

were fired with adjustment by aerial observers. Most were fired using "predicted fire," computing

the distance and direction mathematically and applying meteorological data to ballistic tables—a

tough gunnery problem even today with computers.


The last round was fired on November 11, timed so that it would impact a few seconds before

the 11 am. cease fire time. Following the Armistice, the batteries were quickly disbanded and the

men and equipment were returned to the U. S. The Navy was sent back to sea from its excursion

onto Army turf, even though a much improved version of the 14-inch gun had been developed.


Other Rail Guns


The gun in the Navy Yard is identical to the naval batteries that operated in France, but it never

saw actual combat. It was constructed for the Army as an add-on to the original Navy contract

and was being erected in St. Nazaire at the time of the Armistice. It and the other guns were

shipped back in 1919, turned over to the Army for coast defense use, and stored at Fort Eustis

[Virginia]. However, Naval Battery #3 must have been at the Navy Yard at one time—the bronze

plaque in front of the current gun was originally displayed with #3. All mounts except one were

scrapped in the thirties or immediately following WWII. One survived because it had been given

to the Naval Weapons Laboratory at Dahlgren [Virginia] in 1922, presumably for experimental

use. The gun tube was replaced at some time since the one now on the mount is a 1941 model of

the 14- inch gun.


The Army continued development of railway guns almost to the end of WWII, primarily as

coast artillery that could be moved to repel enemy invasions outside the range of the fixed harbor

defenses. Building on the Navy experience, a very mobile 14-inch mount was developed and also

smaller 8-inch rifles, 12-inch mortars, and 3-inch antiaircraft guns were put on railroad mounts.

Railroad artillery was stationed on the East, West, and Gulf coasts of the U. S., in Hawaii (36

inch gauge), in Panama, and in the Philippines (42-inch gauge). Early in WWII, some 8inch rifles

on railroad mounts were deployed to Bermuda. Although the American guns saw little or no

action in WWII, the Germans used railroad artillery extensively, including some true monsters

deployed against the Russians. At the end of WWII, railway artillery vanished into the steel mills.

According to a Navy memo in my files, there are only three of the large guns left in the world.

The Navy 14-inch [in Washington Navy Yard] and the German 28 cm "Anzio Annie" at

Aberdeen Proving Ground [Maryland] are two, and there is supposed to be a 1918 12-inch rifle

on a sliding mount still at Dahlgren. [since confirmed] (also a K5 gun at Calais, France)


[An officer involved in the development and fielding of the 280mm "Atomic Cannon" in the

1950s told me that railroad mounts for that monster had been deployed to Germany. Made good

sense given the extensive rail network in southern Germany where the 280mm units had their

wartime positions. The 280s had some spectacular mishaps on the Bavarian roads in the 1960s –

I do not know why they never used the railroad mounts. Might have been the difficulties of

dealing with the DBB who were a real bunch of stinkers when it came to loading and carrying

military equipment]


If you would like to find out more about the Navy's railroad excursion, the Government

Printing Office has reprinted the 1922 booklet "Naval Railway Batteries in France." Good

information on U. S. railway artillery in general is found in Charles S. Small's "California's Rail-

way Guns," '`Two-Foot Rails to the Front," and "Military Railroads of the Panama Canal Zone"

from Railhead Publications. I got the particulars on the Navy Yard gun when I was providing

Army assistance to Lucian Phinney and other Navy employed railfans working to get the gun

moved from Dahlgren to Washington.


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