Field Gun Run

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A field gun run demonstration in 2000.

The Field Gun Run was a tribute to the Royal Navy’s action in the relief of Ladysmith during the Boer War in 1899, when cannons from HMS Powerful and Terrible were hauled to the town by the ship's Naval Brigade to defend it against the Boer forces. On returning to Britain, the men of the Naval Brigade paraded the guns through London and demonstrated their actions at the Royal Naval and Military Tournament. The first competition took place at the Royal Tournament in 1907.[1] The competition involved teams from Her Majesty's Naval Base (HMNB) Portsmouth, HMNB Devonport and the Fleet Air Arm. Teams from Chatham dockyard and the Royal Marines also occasionally competed. It has been described as "trying to achieve an almost impossible task in a ridiculously short time with too few men on an unsuitable track", and "the toughest team sport in the world".[2][3] The last official competition took place in August 1999, afer which the Ministry of Defence axed the event due to budgetary constraints. In 2001 the sport was resurrected by ex-field gunners and civilians who wanted to prove a civilian field gun crew had the ability to perform competitive field gun runs using the same drill, the same equipment, and over the same course as their Royal Naval former gunners did for a hundred years.[4]


At the outbreak of the Boer War, the towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith, were besieged. Ladysmith was the most vulnerable of the three towns and had it fallen a great moral victory could be claimed by the Boer forces. At anchor off Capetown were the cruisers, HMS Terrible and Powerful; the British Commander in Natal, General Sir George White VC, signalled the ships for assistance, particularly long range guns. Captain P. Scott RN of Terrible was a gunnery expert, and he quickly designed a carriage for 12-pounder naval guns for transit and in action.[5]

"Equipped with two 4.7-inch and four 12-pounder guns, Captain the Hon H Lambton, RN, and his Naval Brigade of 280 men from Powerful, marched and fought over extremely rugged terrain with the guns to relieve Ladysmith. On several occasions their speed and skill in bringing the guns into action saved them from capture from the Boers. When their oxen died, the sailors (known as Blackjackets) dragged and manhandled the guns themselves. The public were so taken by these exploits that the Field Gun Run was begun and a course constructed to depict the obstacles and hazards which confronted the Blackjackets in their overland march. The qualities shown by these sailors were courage, discipline, alertness and tremendous spirit, and these are qualities that tend to be developed during training for this display. Perhaps the reason that this display has survived... is that these qualities are still highly valued in today's modern Royal Navy and still appreciated by the public at large."[6]


See 5 minute "YouTube" video with commentary here
The Royal Naval Museum Library information sheet details the requirements of the competition:[7] "The gun run is divided into three sections. The first section is called the run out. The guns are pulled from the start line and manhandled over a five-foot "home wall". Wooden spars weighing 170 lb are erected and wires rigged across a 28-foot "chasm". The first men are hauled across, then a pair each carrying a 120 lb wheel for the gun carriage. The gun carriage and gun barrels (900 lb) follow. The remainder of the gun carriages' wheels and limbers are pulled through a hole in the second wall, called the "enemy wall". Each gun crew then "engages" the enemy by firing three rounds. The stopwatch stops as the third round is fired.

The second section is the run back. All the men and the field gun have to be carried over the enemy wall, and back across the chasm. The combined weight of the gun barrel and gun carriage is 1250 lb, and it has to be taken over the wall in one piece. As soon as the last man of each gun crew (nicknamed the flying angel) is across the chasm, the rig is collapsed, and three rounds are fired to simulate a rearguard action. The stopwatch is paused again on the third shot.

The third section is called the run home. At the sounding of a bugle the final phase is to take all their equipment through the narrow gaps in the home wall. the gun is then reassembled and the gun crews race to the finishing line.

The average time for the run out is one minute twenty-five seconds; for the run back one minute and for the run home twenty-one seconds. All three stages' times are added later to give the official time for each crew. Each crew competes seven times against each of the other crews. Only two crews run during each performance. A four-minute run was first recorded in 1948, and three minute run in 1962. Nowadays runs in less than three are fairly commonplace. The fastest time ever was set by the Fleet Air Arm in the final competition.

The last ever official Gun Run took place on 2 August 1999 between Portsmouth and the Fleet Air Arm. The Field Gun crews all wore black arms bands, contrary to their military orders. They had been told that a two-second penalty for each of the 18 men in the team wearing an arm band would be given. Both teams wore arm bands so that neither would lose due to penalty points, but ultimately no team was penalised.

Equipment weights

  • Barrel 900 lbs
  • Limber Boxes 74 lbs. each
  • Limber Frame 215 lbs.
  • Carriage 312 lbs.
  • Wheels 120 lbs.
  • Sheerlegs 170 lbs
  • 10 ft Spar 70 lbs
  • 28 ft Spar 100 lbs.[8]


  1. The Field Gun Run Royal Naval Museum. Accessed 7 January 2008.
  2. Field Gun Wellington College. Accessed 7 January 2008.
  3. Portsmouth Action Field Gun PAFG. Accessed 7 January 2008.
  4. Portsmouth Action Field Gun op cit.
  5. Field Gun A Century of History. Accessed 7 January 2008.
  6. Field Gun: A Brief History Accessed 7 January 2008.
  7. The Field Gun Run op cit.
  8. The Field Gun Course Fleet Air Arm Field Gun association. Accessed 7 January 2008.