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Artillery is a term for devices, their supporting infrastructure, techniques and personnel for propelling payloads or projectiles, over distances and obstacles, to hit a target. Usually, the target is a physical object such as a building, a tank, or an aircraft. The target may also be a location in space to which the payload will burst, scattering materials as nonlethal as propaganda leaflets, or as dangerous as fragmenting explosives or nuclear weapons.

Categories of artillery launchers

Artillery includes cannon, unguided rockets, and guided missiles. It can include aircraft cannon and unguided rockets, but is not usually considered to include gravity bombs or air-launched guided missiles. Artillery is most often fired from land, but also from warships.

Artillery existed before the invention of gunpowder and rocket propellants; medieval artillery used mechanical, rather than chemical, energy to propel projectiles.

Type Propulsion Guidance
Historical weapons (ballista, catapult, trebuchet, etc.) Mechanical energy from tensed rope or fiber, or counterweight Ballistic setting
Cannon Energy of propellant exploding behind projectile Note 1 Ballistic setting of cannon; some guided shells
Unguided rockets Propellant burning for at least part of the trajectory Ballistic, preset fins Note 2
Guided missile Jet or rocket burning for at least part of the trajectory Many types
  • Note 1: Some projectiles may have supplementary rockets, glide wings, or both, but the primary energy comes from the propellant gases in the cannon
  • Note 2: Some multiple rocket launchers are deliberately inaccurate, firing tens of rockets whose variations cover an area.

Artillery, of all types, falls into the general category of direct fire or indirect fire. Indirect fire needs either preplanned trajectories for specific targets, a forward observer giving corrections to the firing unit, or the use of precision-guided munition that will adjust their course to go-onto-location-in-space (GOLIS) or go-onto-target (GOT).

Most modern artillery must be operated by several people (i.e., crew-served weapon), and rarely can be moved by muscle power alone. It will be towed by a vehicle, lifted by a helicopter, or may be self-propelled artillery

Payload types

True artillery rarely uses direct fire except in final self-defense, although self-propelled artillery may assist assault troops in clearing obstacles.

Indirect fire

  • High explosive, producing blast and fragmentation effects
  • Cluster submunitions
    • "Dual-purpose" or antipersonnel
    • Antitank, often guided
    • Scatterable antitank mines
  • Smoke
  • Illumination
  • Propaganda leaflets
  • Chemical weapon, not known to be in the stockpile of any country
  • Guided shell

Direct fire

Fire direction

Modern artillery units have fire direction centers, often electronically linked to the artillery pieces, in which specialists compute the ammunition, propellant (if variable) and barrel elevation and azimuth, to hit the target. The fire direction computation may factor in weather effects, barrel heat and wear, and other factors.

There may be forward observers to give corrections, especially on moving targets.

Guided shells need general position, and will then home on the target. Until fairly recently, they were far too expensive to use for other than specialized missions. Typically, a guided shell homes on a laser designator, or goes to GPS-defined coordinates that were preselected or determined by an observer with a laser rangefinder and GPS.

Organization of artillery units

Modern artillery responsibilities include the actual firing of the guns, their supply and maintenance, and protection against counterbattery fire. For indirect fire, however, they go considerably beyond the guns themselves, into target acquisition, trajectory planning for individual rounds, and the direction of multiple firing guns and units.

Even an individual gun has multiple roles, some of which may now be automated: loading, pointing (i.e., setting azimuth) and training (i.e., setting elevation). Each gun, in many modern units, has its own support infrastructure, such as the M992 Field Artillery Ammunition Support Vehicle.

Artillery shells are not the only things moving through the air of the battlespace, so deconfliction is necessary. One organiation for doing so is the ADAM cell.