Self-propelled artillery (also called mobile artillery or locomotive artillery) vehicles are a way of giving mobility to artillery. Within the term are covered self-propelled guns (or howitzers) and rocket artillery. They are high mobility vehicles, usually based on caterpillar track carrying either a large howitzer or other field gun or alternatively a mortar or some form of rocket or missile launcher. They are usually used for long-range indirect bombardment support on the battlefield.
In the past, self-propelled artillery has included direct fire vehicles such as assault guns and tank destroyers. These have been heavily armoured vehicles, the former providing close fire-support for infantry and the latter acting as specialized anti-tank vehicles.
Modern self-propelled artillery vehicles may superficially resemble tanks, but they are generally lightly armoured, too lightly to survive in direct-fire combat. However, they protect their crews against shrapnel and small arms and are therefore usually included as armoured fighting vehicles. Many are equipped with machine guns for defense against enemy infantry.
The key advantage of self-propelled over towed artillery is that it can be brought into action much faster. Before the towed artillery can be used, it has to stop, unlimber and set up the guns. To move position, the guns must be limbered up again and brought — usually towed — to the new location. By comparison self-propelled artillery can stop at a chosen location and begin firing almost immediately, then quickly move on to a new position. This ability is very useful in a mobile conflict and particularly on the advance.
Conversely, towed artillery was and remains cheaper to build and maintain. It is also lighter and can be taken to places that self-propelled guns cannot reach, so despite the advantages of the self-propelled artillery, towed guns remain in the arsenals of many modern armies.
During the Thirty Year's War early 17th century experiments were made with early types of horse artillery. Batteries towed light field guns where most or all of the crew rode horses into battle. The gunners were trained to quickly dismount, deploy the guns and provide instant fire support to cavalry, and act as a flexible reserve. The Russian army organized small units of horse artillery that were distributed among their cavalry formations in the early 18th century. While not forming large batteries and employing only lighter 3- and 2-pound guns, they were still effective and inflicted serious losses to Prussian units in the Seven Years' War. This inspired Frederick the Great to organize the first regular horse artillery unit in 1759. Other nations quickly realized the capability of the new arm and by the start of French Revolutionary Wars in 1790s Austria, Hannover, Portugal, Russia, France, Great Britain and Sweden had all formed regular units of horse artillery. The arm was employed throughout the Napoleonic Wars and remained in use throughout the entire 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century, when advances in weapons technology finally made it obsolete.
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