The Book of Armaments:
Soviet 122mm Howitzers
Among many other lessons, the Russo-Japanese War taught the Imperial Russian Army that it needed heavier artillery support for its infantry. The older guns could not deliver high-angle fire against enemy trenches or damage the concrete-reinforced field fortifications built by the Japanese. A caliber of 119mm (47 “lines” in the Imperial artillery’s old scale of measurement) was considered the minimum necessary to deliver a concrete-piercing shell. After the war ended in 1905 and the following civil unrest eased, the Imperial Army issued tenders for a new light field howitzer.
The Russian entry, the Obukhov-designed Model 1904, failed to meet the basic requirements which left two choices, 122mm weapons offered by the French firm Schneider and German firm Krupp. They differed in breech design but gave similar performance, and in typical Russian practice of the period the Imperial Army’s procurement team chose both rather than give up the chance to collect bribes from both suppliers.
Each Russian infantry corps began the Great War with a battalion of 122mm howitzers, giving them a serious firepower advantage over the Austrians but not the Germans, who countered with more and bigger howitzers. The two models remained in production throughout the war at three Russian factories, and just under a thousand of the Model 1909 and slightly more Model 1910 howitzers survived the conflict to serve the new Red Army.
Gunners of the Russian 12th Infantry Division with their 122mm Model 1910, April 1915.
Modernization began in the 1930’s, to convert all of the existing weapons to the Model 1910/30 standard. Those without one received a gun shield, the 1909 models received the same breech as the Model 1910, and both now had reinforced carriages and new sights. The modernization took place at the Motovilikha Artillery Plant in Perm.
The plentiful supply allowed the Red Army to give its rifle divisions unparalleled artillery support, at least on their paper tables of organization. By the outbreak of war in 1941 each division had 60 artillery pieces: a dozen 76.2mm field guns, a dozen more 152mm medium howitzers, and thirty-six 122mm light howitzers. The 105mm leFH18 that equipped opposing German battalions considerably out-ranged the old Soviet piece, but tossed a lighter shell.
The modernization could not remove the fact that the Model 1910/30 was a generation behind foreign weapons. Most pieces still had wooden spoked wheels and could not be pulled by trucks or tractors, despite the mass effort to mechanize Soviet agriculture in the 1930’s (in the wake of large-scale deaths of draft horses during the horrific famines of the period). A few received pneumatic tires, but most rifle divisions needed horses to move their howitzers. And while the howitzer could be unlimbered and emplaced for firing very quickly, its fire could only be adjusted very slowly.
Red Army gunners with a 122mm Model 1910/30 howitzer. Odessa, August 1941.
Not until the late 1930’s had Soviet industry advanced to the point where it could produce new, first-rate artillery pieces. When these finally did begin to roll off the production lines, they were outstanding weapons that greatly out-classed what the Axis had in their armory.
The first attempt at a new-model 122mm howitzer failed. The Model 1934 was designed with significant German assistance, but proved much too complicated for serial production in Soviet factories and further orders were cancelled after just eleven units had been delivered. The Motovilikha Artillery Plant switched to manufacturing new examples of the Model 1910/30 in 1937, identical to the refurbished weapons, and pumped out an additional 3,395 howitzers by 1941.
To replace both the old howitzers, the Main Artillery Directorate decided not to pursue a lighter but more maneuverable 107mm light field howitzer and requested new designs retaining the 122mm caliber. Three design teams submitted proposals for a new howitzer, with the M-30 drafted by the Motovilikha Artillery Plant internal design bureau winning the competition. Designated the Model 1938, the new 122mm howitzer shared a number of parts with the new 76.2mm Model 1936 divisional gun and retained the breech of the old Model 1910/30.
A 122mm Model 1938 howitzer limbered for transport.
While the F-25 design had a number of superior qualities, the M-30 had a more rugged carriage and did not require a muzzle brake, which meant that it did not throw up as large a dust cloud when fired. By re-using the breech block from the old howitzer, it assured that there would not be a lengthy teething process while a new mechanism was adopted.
The new howitzer entered production in 1940, and 1,500 of them had rolled out of the three factories producing them when the Axis conducted their sneak attack in June 1941. Red Army inventories showed 1,341 with front-line units on 1 June 1941. Production continued with some interruptions until 1955, by which point nearly 20,000 of them had been made, some 16,000 of those before the end of the war (more than the Germans managed to produce of their 105mm howitzer or the Americans of their deadly 105mm M2 and disappointing M3 combined).
The Model 1938 steadily replaced the Model 1910/30 in the rifle divisions, though as the war ground on the number of artillery pieces steadily dropped in the rifle divisions as skilled gunners could not be replaced. Tank, motorized and cavalry divisions had a dozen howitzers each, while the new rifle brigades received a battery of four howitzers. Another 638 Model 1938 howitzers were mounted in SU-122 assault guns, and about two dozen more in SG-122 self-propelled mounts adapted from captured German tanks.
The howitzer saw service throughout the Great Patriotic War, in the armies of the Warsaw Pact afterwards and in the Arab-Israeli conflicts. The People’s Republic of China produced a licensed version, which was supplied to North Vietnam and North Korea. The Model 1938 remains in service in many armies, with the Russian Federation still holding thousands of them in storage.
Romanian gunners align a 122mm Model 1938 howitzer, April 2008.
The Model 1938’s longevity is due to its many fine qualities. It was an extremely accurate weapon, that threw a heavy shell at a greater range than the German leFH18 105mm howitzer and could do so at a more extreme angle of fire, allowing its shells to plunge into enemy positions more easily (the true purpose of a howitzer). It was a fairly heavy weapon, requiring a great deal of steel in production, but was easy to manufacture, reliable in service and fairly easy to use in the field. The Model 1938 was a war-winning weapon.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published eleventy-million books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog Leopold.
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