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The 17-Pounder Anti-Tank Gun in Canadian Service

The 17-Pounder Anti-Tank Gun in Canadian Service Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review January 2010 Title The 17-Pounder Anti-Tank Gun in Canadian Service
Author Doug Knight Publisher Service Publications
Published 2009 ISBN 1-894581-53-0
Format 24 pages, softbound MSRP (CDN) $9.95


There are two guns which rise to the top when one discusses World War II antitank guns: the German 8.8 cm L/56 and L/71 guns, either mounted in tanks or on carriages; and the British designed 76.2mm gun better known as the “Seventeen Pounder”. This new little book by retired Canadian artilleryman Doug Knight covers the history of the latter – something sadly missing in comparison with the reams written about the German weapons.

When tanks were invented in WW I it did not take long before the Germans realized it would take specialized guns to knock them out. Originally the early tanks were so poorly armored that a direct hit from a standard 77mm field gun would either stun the crew or knock the tank out completely, but it was only after the war was over serious consideration was given to sch a class of weapons.

In the 1930s all of the major countries developed antitank guns – Germany and the USSR developed a joint 3.7 cm design (which the Soviets later boosted to 45mm), the US worked on a 37mm one, France and Czechoslovakia created 47mm ones, and Britain created a 40mm weapon known in service as the 2-pounder due to the weight of the projectile it fired.

But while all of these worked on prewar tank designs, once the war began and the thickness of armor protection began to escalate they were found wanting. The British had figured some of this out early on and created a 57mm weapon, the 6-pounder, in 1938, but even so it too was soon found to be limited in its capabilities.

In November 1940 the British decided to work on a dominant weapon, and after some trials and testing a 76.2mm weapon firing a 17-pound projectile was seen as most promising. But high power means large size and there was some argument over the size and bulk of the carriage for this weapon.

Nevertheless the “Ordnance Quick-Firing 17-pr” (Quick-Firing in British parlance meaning it used unitary rounds) was developed and adopted for service in May 1942. Over the course of production seven different barrel designs were created for use on towed carriages, self-propelled mounts, and with some modification, in the mount for the 75mm M3gun in the M4 Sherman tank series and also the 3-inch gun in the M10 gun motor carriage.

While a large propellant charge and long barrel imparted velocity to the gun, its real achievement was in the design of the projectile used. Initially using a hard steel slug (AP shot) it began to fall off against face hardened armor. The result was the development of a soft metal cap added to the tip of the projectile (APC shot) that helped with penetration, but caused a loss of velocity. As a result an improved ballistic cap was added to the soft metal cap and the result (APCBC) became the standard shot for the rest of the war. But as monsters like the Tiger II and Jagdtiger began to appear, the British went back to their 1942 research and were among the first to use a discarding sabot projectile (APDS) in which a small hard core tungsten projectile is inserted in a full caliber shoe (sabot) for firing, exiting the barrel at much higher velocity but with better accuracy due to the use of the sabot, which fell off immediately after exiting the barrel. This round could penetrate any armor on the battlefield at ranges of up to 1825 meters in 1944-1945.

As with many other purpose designed antitank guns, the 17-pounder was not good at general artillery functions due to high velocity and low projectile weight, so its HE ammunition was not the preferred choice.

The Canadian Army used all of these antitank guns during WW II and formed seven antitank regiments, one for each Canadian division and one extra for each Canadian corps,. Each regiment had four 12-gun batteries or 48 guns per regiment, with the guns allocated by troops of four guns each. In 1943 each infantry division regiment had two troops of 6-pounders and one of 17 pounders per battery (e.g. 32 6-pounders and 16 17-pounders per regiment) with all four batteries in armoured divisions 17-pounder-equipped - two towed, two self-propelled. Each towed gun had a crew of seven.

The carriages were low but heavy and could not easily be moved by the crew once detached from their tractors. They were also quite long which made movement of any sort in tight quarters or rough ground problematic. Occasionally the No. 27 limber (same as with the 25-pounder field gun) was used for extra ammo storage, but it did increase the overall length of the gun under tow).

Probably the most famous of the 17-pounder installations was its fortuitous mating with the Sherman tank as the Sherman Firefly, signified by adding a “C” after the British designation. Most conversions were on the M4A4 chassis (Sherman VC) but there were also some added to the composite M4 model (Sherman IC). The bow gunner was deleted from the crew and his position used to add extra ammo. As these were quickly identified by the Germans as Panther-killers, they were prioritized for elimination and to counter that attempts were made to disguise the much longer barrels. At least one in every four Shermans in Canadian regiments was a Firefly.

Canadian units had success with the Firefly, one tanker knocking out five Panthers with five rounds in June 1944 and in April 1945 a troop of Shermans managed to knock out a Tiger II with the use of their Firefly.

The Canadians kept their 17-pounders after the war and did some work to develop new ammunition, but it did not enter production. They also used them in Korea with the 25th Canadian Brigade.

Overall this book is a nice, concise history of the weapon as well as its Canadian service.

Thanks to Clive Law of Service Publications for the review copy.