Site news | Site map | About this site | About the author | Testimonials | Mailbox| ADVERTISE! | DONATE!

The Congreve missiles

In India, Mysorean princes began using battlefield rockets in the 18th century, particularly in the battle of Serigapatam against the British in 1799. The exotic weapon looked impressive enough to the British military to initiate its own rocket research. The son of a leading British artillery specialist William Congreve took on the effort to improve upon the Indian designs and organize production of rockets at the Woolwich arsenal near London.

Bookmark and Share


Woolwich Arsenal in London


After their initial appearance in Europe in the 14th and the 15th centuries, rockets apparently saw little application or development during the second half of the 17th and most of the 18th century, with the exception of fireworks. But in India, the army of Hyder Ali, Prince of Mysore (Mysuru), began using black powder rockets in the second half of the 18th century.

The 18th century Indian rockets received casings made of soft hammered iron, which replaced the paper, carton or wood traditionally used in rocket design. The metal body allowed a much higher density of the propellant, resulting in higher combustion parameters and, therefore, increased the range of the rocket. The combustion chamber of the Indian rockets was around 60 millimeters in diameter and 200 millimeters long. The traditional stabilizing stick, often made of bamboo would be attached to the side of the missile, but Indian metal workers also began using sword blades as stabilizers. (919)

Hyder Ali's army counted 1,200 rocket troops, which grew from the earlier 50-men unit apparently formed during his father's rule. The subsequent Indian army of Tipu Sultan had 5,000 rocketeers. Their rocket "launchers" included multiple firing ramps installed on wheeled carts.

British military specialists made the first attempt to evaluate the exotic weapon in 1770, when Capt. Thomas Desaguliers examined rockets brought from India at the Royal Laboratory, in Woolwich, England. However, his experiments failed to reproduce the reported range or accuracy of Indian missiles. Some of the projectiles would not even lift from their stands.

In the 1780s, Mysorean rocketeers from Hyder Ali's army fired iron-cased rockets against troops of the East India Company. The missiles had a mass from 2.7 to 5.4 kilograms and a range of 2.4 kilometers. Their stabilizing sticks were between 2.4 and 3 meters long. (213)

In the battle of Pollilur on September 10, 1780, rockets were credited with setting on fire a British ammunition dump, which apparently contributed to the Indian victory. (919)

The description of rockets used by Indian troops appeared in "A Narrative of the Military Operations on the Coromandel Coast..." by Innes Munro published in London in 1789.

In 1792 and 1799, British troops again found themselves under fire by Indian rockets near the city of Seringapat.


Rockets used by Mysorean troops in India at the end of the 18th century. The body of the rocket was made of metal and wrapped in leather. Some of the Indian rockets used sword blades instead of bamboo sticks as stabilizers.

William Congreve

Enters William Congreve, the son of Sir William Congreve, who led the development of artillery in England during late 18th and early 19th Century. The older Congreve served as superintendent of the Royal Military Repository in Woolwich from 1778.

In 1799, the Board of Ordinance requested an evaluation of the potential of rockets and the younger Congreve took charge of what would become the first rocket development and production program of the industrial age in Europe.

By 1809, the younger William Congreve succeeded in reproducing the Indian rockets and improving upon them. He also developed semi-industrial methods for the production and testing of unguided missiles which had a range of up to 1,800 meters, or nearly two kilometers.


A scale model of the Congreve-designed carriage for firing 12-pounder rockets and transport of 40 rounds of ammunition.

The British military adopted the new weapon into the armaments and even formed special artillery units to operate the missiles. Thanks to the absence of recoil, there were attempts to put Congreve rockets on small maneuverable boats. Congreve's missiles saw action in multiple campaigns of the British Army, including the battles of Leipzig and Waterloo. During the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, the Royal Navy fired missiles at Fort McHenry near Baltimore, inspiring the famous "rockets' red glare" mention in the US national anthem, written by Frances Scott Keys, who witnessed the event himself.


Experimental missile clusters designed by William Congreve.

Congreve also experimented with various missile combinations including clustered designs, which never became operational but provided a glimpse into the future of rocket technology. (917)

In an attempt to get rid of the heavy stabilizing stick of the rocket, Congreve attempted placing the exhaust nozzles in front of its body, instead of the tail, so that the rocket's own body could serve as a stabilizer. The missile called Fire Bolt was fired at Woolwich on December 24, 1817, but the experiment did not ultimately succeed.

Around 1823, Congreve patented a design involving small revolving fins on the rocket's tail, again trying to do away with a stabilizing stick. It was believed to be the first patent for rocket technology in Britain. (918) Several scale models of the rockets accompanied the application, likely the first example of the prototyping process which would become the hallmark of the rocket and spacecraft development.

In the course of the 19th century, the Congreve rockets spread to other European armies and beyond, becoming an almost common weapon alongside the artillery.

After Congreve


Background: one of the most successful Hale rockets developed around 1865. The scaled rocket prototypes by William Congreve are on the foreground. They probably accompanied a patent application.

Back at Woolwich, other engineers continued work on improving the Congreve missiles. In 1844, William Hale patented a rocket which used rotating metal vanes driven by the rocket's own exhaust gas. With it, the stabilizing stick could finally be dropped. One of the most successful versions of the Hale rocket developed around 1865 was in use by the British Army for more than 50 years.

Edmund Boxer designed a thicker casing and more powerful mix of black powder around 1862. The British Army used Boxer rockets until 1867 before selling the remaining stock to China. However the British coast guard continued using Boxer-type rockets for life-saving operations until 1948. (918)


The 19th century rockets: bottom right - cross section of the explosive Congreve rocket, above - cross section of the incendiary Congreve rocket.



Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: October 6, 2020

Editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: August 3, 2020

All rights reserved


insider content


Cases for Congreve rockets built around 1810. Differed by their diameter (caliber) and mass these missiles range from a 6-inch rocket and above. Black bands and pipes were designed for fitting a stabilizing stick. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


Experimental missile clusters designed by William Congreve. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


A mockup of the early 19th century launcher with Congreve missiles. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


Congreve's Fire Bolt experimental rocket fired for the first time on Dec. 24, 1817. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak


Various designs of Boxer and Hale rockets. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2010 Anatoly Zak



Rockets used by the Spanish army in the first half of the 19th century. Copyright © 2014 Anatoly Zak