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In the late 1700s, a King of India developed rocket artillery that fired swords in order to fight the British

Nick Knight

Mysorean rockets were the first iron-cased rockets successfully deployed for military use. Hyder Ali, the 18th century ruler of Mysore, and his son and successor, Tipu Sultan used them effectively against the British East India Company during the 1780s and 1790s.

Their conflicts with the company exposed the British to this technology, which was then used to advance European rocketry with the development of the Congreve rocket in 1804.

Hyder Ali’s father, the naik or chief constable at Budikote, commanded 50 rocketmen for the Nawab of Arcot. Tipu Sultan brought the concept of using sword and blade thrust rockets in their military force to fight the advancing British army. There was a regular rocket corps in the Mysore Army, beginning with about 1,200 men in Hyder Ali’s time. At the Battle of Pollilur (1780), during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, Colonel William Baillie’s ammunition stores are thought to have been detonated by a hit from one of Hyder Ali’s rockets, contributing to a humiliating British defeat.

Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan deployed them effectively against the larger British East India Company forces during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. These ‘missiles’ were fitted with swords and traveled several meters through the air before coming down with edges facing the enemy.

A soldier of Tipu Sultan's army, using his rocket as a flagstaff (Robert Home, 1793/4).

A soldier of Tipu Sultan’s army, using his rocket as a flagstaff (Robert Home, 1793/4). Source

The British took an active interest in the technology and developed it further during the 19th century. The Mysore rockets of this period were much more advanced than what the British had seen, chiefly because of the use of iron tubes for holding the propellant; this enabled higher thrust and longer range for the missile (up to 2 km range). Although rockets existed also in Europe, they were not iron cased, and their range was far less than that of their East Asian counterparts.

While these hammered soft iron rockets were crude, the bursting strength of the container of black powder was much higher than the earlier paper construction; thus a greater internal pressure was possible. In battles at Srirangapatam in 1792 and 1799 these rockets were used with considerable effect against the British”.

The rocket men were trained to launch their rockets at an angle calculated from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance to the target. In addition, wheeled rocket launchers capable of launching five to ten rockets almost simultaneously were used in war.

Rockets could be of various sizes, but usually consisted of a tube of soft hammered iron about 8 inches (20 cm) long and 1.5 to 3 in (3.8 to 7.6 cm) in diameter, closed at one end and strapped to a shaft of bamboo about 4 ft (1 m) long. The iron tube acted as a combustion chamber and contained well-packed black powder propellant. A rocket carrying about one pound of powder could travel almost 1,000 yards (~900 m). In contrast, rockets in Europe, not being iron cased, could not take large chamber pressures and as a consequence, were not capable of reaching distances anywhere near as great.

The entire road alongside Jumma Masjid near City Market and Taramandalpet, Bangalore was the hub of Tipu’s rocket project where he had set up a laboratory.

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