The War Office and Inventors

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The War Office and Inventors is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times on 22 february 1900.

The War Office and Inventors

The Times (22 february 1900, p. 10)


Sir, — the coming reform of the War Office there is one department which will, I trust, undergo a complete reorganization — or rather I should say organization since it does not appear to exist at present. I mean the board which inquires into military inventions. I have heard before now of the curt treatment which inventors receive it the hands of the authorities. As I have had a similar experience I feel that it is a public duty to record it.

The problem which I was endeavouring to solve was how to attain accuracy — or approximate accuracy — for a dropping, or high angle, rifle tire. It appears to me to be certain that the actions of the future will be fought by men who are concealed either in trenches or behind cover in the present war it has been quite unusual for our soldiers ever to see a Boer at all. Direct fire is under these circumstances almost useless. The most of your opponent which shows is only the edge of his face, and his two hands. When he is not firing he is entirely concealed. Under these conditions except at close quarters it appears to be a mere waste of ammunition to fire at all.

There is only one side upon which the man in the trench or behind the rock is vulnerable. That side is from above. Could a rain of bullets be dropped vertically all over the enemy's position your chance shot has the whole surface of his body to strike, while the direct chance shot has only a few square inches. There is no escape from this high angle fire. No trench or shield is of any avail. Human life can be made impossible within a given area.

In this system it is not the individual at whom you shoot, but at the position, the ridge, the kopje, whatever it is that the enemy holds. If you search this thoroughly enough you will find the individuals. For example, suppose that a kopje occupied is 1,000 yards long and 100 yards deep, 100,000 bullets falling within that nothing — only the contents of the magazines of 10,000 men. It can be judged then how untenable a position would be, if only fire of this sort could be made at all accurate.

But at present there is no means by which it can be regulated. If you were to say to the best marksman in the British Army "Drop me a bullet on that kopje 500 yards off" he would be compelled to look helplessly at his riffle and confess that there was nothing to enable him to do this. He might hold his gun up at an angle and discharge it, but it would be pure guess work, and the probability is that he would be very far out, nor could he correct his error, since he would have no means of knowing where his bullet fell.

My experiments have been in the direction of affixing a small simple, and economical apparatus to the rifle by which a man would know at what angle to hold his rifle in order to drop a bullet at any given range. It would weigh nothing, cost about a shilling take up no space, and interfere in no way with the present sights, so that the rifle could be used either for direct or high-angle fire at so discretion of the officer. Having convinced myself that my idea was sound, I naturally wished to have it examined at once in order that, if it should be approved, the troops might have the use of it. I therefore communicated with the War Office, briefly stating what my idea was, and my letter was in due course forwarded to the Director-General of Ordnance. I have just received his reply:—

"War Office, Feb. 16, 1900.
"Sir, — with reference to your letter... concerning an appliance for adapting rifles to high-angle fire, I am directed by the Secretary of State for War to inform you that he will not trouble you in the matter.
"I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
(Signature illegible)
"Director-General of Ordnance."

Now, Sir, my invention might be the greatest nonsense or it might be epoch-making, but I was given no opportunity either to explain or to illustrate it. It may be that the idea has been tried and failed, but, if that were so, why not inform me of it? I have shown it to practiced soldiers — one of them with a Mauser bullet wound still open in his leg — and they have agreed that it is perfectly sound and practicable. And yet I can get no hearing. No wonder that we find the latest inventions in the hands of our enemies rather than of ourselves if those who try to improve our weapons meet with such encouragement as I have done.

Yours faithfully,

The Reform Club, Feb. 19.