Firepower

The Guide (logo and link)

Now closed – page left up for posterity

Firepower – The Royal Artillery Museum, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich


Firepower exterior corner
Exte­ri­or view of the muse­um

The ord­nance store and gun wharf at Hen­ry VIII’s Roy­al Dock­yard brought the first gun­ners to Wool­wich in the 16th cen­tu­ry.

In May 1716 the first two per­ma­nent com­pa­nies of Roy­al Artillery were estab­lished by Roy­al War­rant. Each com­pa­ny num­bered 100 men and their head­quar­ters was Tow­er Place, in what lat­er became the Roy­al Arse­nal. A mil­i­tary acad­e­my was estab­lished at Wool­wich in 1720 to pro­vide train­ing for Roy­al Artillery offi­cers.

The unit was renamed the Roy­al Reg­i­ment of Artillery in 1722, though it’s still com­mon­ly known as the Roy­al Artillery or the RA. By 1757 the RA had grown to 24 com­pa­nies, divid­ed into two bat­tal­ions. Each new war in which Britain played a part brought anoth­er expan­sion in the size of the reg­i­ment, accom­pa­nied by advances in artillery tech­nol­o­gy. By the time of the Sec­ond World War more per­son­nel served in the Roy­al Artillery than in the entire Roy­al Navy.

The Roy­al Artillery’s bat­tle hon­our (and Twit­ter hash­tag) is Ubique – ‘Every­where’ – and its mot­to is Quo fas et glo­ria ducunt – ‘Where right and glo­ry lead’.

In May 1778 the Roy­al Mil­i­tary Repos­i­to­ry – Firepower’s fore­run­ner – was estab­lished at the Roy­al Arse­nal (as it was called from 1805) by a war­rant issued to Cap­tain William Con­greve RA by George III. Since then, the col­lec­tion has moved home three times, always remain­ing with­in Wool­wich. Its present base was for­mer­ly part of the Arsenal’s Roy­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry Depart­ment, which over­saw the design, man­u­fac­ture and test­ing of ammu­ni­tion.

One of the high­lights of the muse­um is its colos­sal col­lec­tion of can­nons, most­ly made in Britain – with some notable excep­tions like the blood­cur­dling Burmese drag­on gun, shown below right.

A cannon and a Burmese dragon gun

Fire­pow­er is divid­ed into sev­er­al themed sec­tions. The His­to­ry Gallery dis­plays his­toric artillery, instru­ments, mod­els, uni­forms, books, illus­tra­tions and gun­ners’ per­son­al accounts of bat­tle. The Gun­nery Hall has weapons and vehi­cles from the 20th cen­tu­ry, from light and medi­um artillery to rock­et launch­ers and mis­siles. Shown in the pho­tographs at the end of this arti­cle, the Field of Fire pro­vides an immer­sive expe­ri­ence of artillery in action.

There’s also a Medals Gallery con­tain­ing a small selec­tion from the museum’s col­lec­tion of over 9,000 pieces and telling the sto­ries of the hon­oured indi­vid­u­als, whether they were field mar­shalls or foot sol­diers – the lat­ter often being more inter­est­ing. This is the only part of the muse­um in which pho­tog­ra­phy is not allowed.

Through­out the muse­um there are dis­play cas­es mount­ed on the walls and in oth­er avail­able spaces, con­tain­ing all man­ner of minor items, includ­ing those shown below.

Display case items, including a flowerburst shell case and a model cannon

The muse­um has some weak­ness­es – par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Mod­ern Gun­ner exhi­bi­tion (cov­er­ing the major cam­paigns in which the Roy­al Artillery has recent­ly oper­at­ed, from the trou­bles in North­ern Ire­land to the war in Afghanistan) – but Hid­den Lon­don isn’t inclined to focus on these fail­ings in view of Firepower’s forth­com­ing clo­sure [which has now hap­pened]. Instead, let’s accen­tu­ate the pos­i­tive. The Roy­al Artillery Muse­um isn’t just an unri­valled col­lec­tion of his­toric hard­ware, it’s a repos­i­to­ry of mil­i­tary mem­o­ries brought to life in well pre­sent­ed and infor­ma­tive­ly labelled dis­plays, with a smat­ter­ing of mul­ti­me­dia sup­port, and input – if you want it – from some very knowl­edge­able staff.

If you’ve ever served in the armed forces Fire­pow­er should fas­ci­nate you – and non­com­bat­ants will prob­a­bly find it more engag­ing than they’d expect.

Postcript

Arguably the world’s old­est mil­i­tary muse­um, Fire­pow­er’s life in Wool­wich end­ed on 8 July 2016 but this page has been left up as a his­tor­i­cal record. After the clo­sure a per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tion devot­ed to the Roy­al Reg­i­ment of Artillery opened at the Green­wich Her­itage Cen­tre. But that whole place closed in July 2018. Fire­pow­er itself was sup­posed to reopen at a new pur­pose-built her­itage cen­tre close to the Roy­al Regiment’s home at Larkhill on Sal­is­bury Plain. How­ev­er, this project does not seem to be pro­gress­ing as smooth­ly or rapid­ly as was orig­i­nal­ly promised.

Field of Fire photographs