Desperation and ingenuity in war often go hand in hand. The war in Syria was no exception. For members of anti-regime forces, especially in the heavy urban fighting of many Syrian cities, this ingenuity came in the form of weapons that could only be conceived when all other options had failed. What follows is an exclusive insight with one of the people behind one of the Syrian “Hell Cannons”, a device that not only functionally aided in fighting but also would become a symbol of resistance within the Syrian war itself.
Hell Cannon: A side that you didn’t know of the siege
The Hell Cannon story dates back to the beginning of 2015. This was the end of our last bit of hope to endure the siege.
The regime forces regained control of the western mountain of the Zabadani region, after two months of continuous battles.
Hope for external supply faded. The revolutionaries began to think of making something other than IEDs. They had a reasonable stock of these. I worked on documenting violations against civilians perpetrated by the regime forces in the areas of the revolution. We filmed a documentary about the battles of the revolutionaries in the western mountains.
I had an interest in weapons and read about them voraciously, plus there was a necessity of continuing to develop local weapons, no matter how simple and ineffective the projects were.
The friendships and relationships that I built with people working in the manufacturing workshop, built a wall of trust. However, it started to take a serious turn. Suddenly, they asked me to prepare a report about the workshop for the purpose of collecting donations.
I visited the workshop and saw what they were making. I got an idea of possibilities, and I thought that with these capabilities we could build something really beneficial for the cause.
The First Attempt
Our first attempt was to develop of grenade launcher mounted on the muzzle of a 12-gauge shotgun. The grenade weighed 300 grams. It had a diameter of one and a half inches and had a range of 200 meters.
It consisted of 3 parts:
- A cylinder of high fragment cast iron.
- A connection to a water pipe.
- A steel base.
The steel base allowed for an increase in range. As birdshot 12 gauge live ammunition replaced the blank ammunition, it propelled the base of the grenade upon launch, releasing high kinetic energy.
A delayed fuse activated the grenade and was mounted to a cup attached to the barrel via a thread. Shotguns with this type of thread at the muzzle were a better option. The cup replaced the flash hider on the barrel, so you would not have to modify the original weapon.
The weapon was effective several times during the Madaya siege and from its use in urban battles in the streets of Zabadani. The fighters were hopeful with the possibility of targeting enemy forces behind several blocks with these projectiles.
They were especially relieved when you consider that in the last moments of the battle we suffered from a lack of ammunition. We started using 23mm machine gun cartridges loaded with explosives for defence and to save their last shots. I know someone who went on his shift in defence, with one magazine in the AK and the 13 loose rounds in his pocket. Needless to say, the fighters highly appreciated this weapon.
The workshop team then received information about the possibility of developing a Hell Cannon from medical oxygen tanks.
Oxygen Tanks to Create a Hell Cannon
Oxygen tanks have stress-resistant steel and are available in two sizes that overlap tightly. So, the idea was that one of the cylinders would be a cannon and the other would be the projectile. This coincided with an important development in the workshop, where they were able to obtain some equipment through bribery to facilitate its passage, a larger lathe, and a nitrification device. So it became possible to manufacture nitrocellulose as a propellant in large quantities.
The Hell Cannon was manufactured and tested with experimental munitions and succeeded in firing the shells, but the cannon exploded when live ammunition was used.
Two cannons were manufactured, and two shells were made:
- One shell weighing 20kg.
- One shell weighing 35kg.
Both the 35kg shells were fired from the larger (heavier) so-called Hell cannon.
It consists of a top oxygen cylinder, a 6 mm thick rear base, and a short rear wing.
However, the current shells had a flaw in the design. Welding the base with the cylinder was always a weak point. The proposed solution was to form the shell from two opposite heads of oxygen cylinders to form what looks like an egg, but it was too late. The regime forces invaded the plain that separates Madaya and Zabadani. After 72 days of battle, the armistice agreement known as the Four Towns Agreement was signed. The artillery became useless.
The nature of the operations changed from offensive to defensive, so cannon shells were distributed on the defensive points as mines, and they were provided with detonators that were activated by tripwires.
The Recoilless Rifle: A Long-Running Secret
Looking at the above statements, you will realise that Madaya did not have an industrial base to start with, a village that depended on tourism and smuggling, with a weak educational system. The lack of equipment, raw materials, and expertise was the most prominent factor in the formation of resistance tools.
I would visit the workshop frequently, read military blogs.
- I felt that what we lacked was a cannon that we could shoot at the enemy with direct shells.
- To be cheap as we could mass-produce.
- To be light so that one fighter could carry and move.
And the answer we were looking for was the recoilless rifle. I contacted an Egyptian friend who ran a military blog, and he seemed to be an experienced person. We found the simplest design that we could copy, which was the M40 106mm recoilless rifle.
I explained the idea to my friends in the workshop, and they were so excited that they immediately started presenting their ideas about the barrel and chamber materials. They offered anti-corrosion water pipes with a diameter of 3 inches and a wall thickness of 6mm. They proposed to form the rear chamber from an oxygen cylinder and a steel back cover.
We came up with a 200 cm barrel, but we cut it out to 150 cm because of the vibration on the lathe.
When the cannon was tested, it didn’t have any effective pressure, so the shell only landed several meters in front of it.
The cannon has been modified by adding a rear funnel and counter funnel.
The Second Experiment
The second experiment was disastrous.
When it was tested for the first time, it unfortunately exploded.
The shell composition was of 2.5-inch tubes. This diameter perfectly fit the barrel of the gun, the steel base, and fins.
It weighed 4.5 kg empty and could hold 1,000 grams of explosive materials and a fuse.
The shell later got a steel base that was 4 cm thick, overlapped with a thread. Wielding supported it. I don’t even remember finding this steel in Madaya, and we had to carry long pieces of steel from Zabadani and sneak them in at night.
The cannon was not completely recoilless. We had to make a strong base reinforced with sandbags. Once it was installed, it could only be adjusted vertically.
The recoilless rifle was shooting the projectiles in a reasonably flat curve at a distance of 200 meters directly.
The impacts were accurate enough, and fighters used them several times during the siege. It remained secret even after the siege to the people of Idlib within the Four Cities Agreement.
Fuses that work and were safe enough to carry and fire
What hindered the manufacturing of munitions was the lack of casting. Further, another obstacle was present in the manufacturing of effective and secure fuses.
We found a simple but effective model. It relied on a screw, a spring, and a blank pistol shot with an ignition detonator. The fuse sat within a moulded pod of aluminium or a cone of plastic. It was very primitive, but it worked.
The explosives were a composition of ammonia nitrate and glycol nitrate, with the glycol nitrate in a liquid state.
These weapons were useful during the siege, but they did not make present an opportunity to make a difference in the battle.
We should not overestimate these weapons, even in the siege, it was not very reliable. However, if we look at the circumstances, I remember that the workshop was operating on a budget of $500 a month.
But really the development stages were full of hope. I can’t forget the video of the first test of the hell canon. When someone fired the first shell, a young man jumped up screaming and almost cried. These weapons gave us hope, and the value of hope was more important than their value as weapons on the battlefield.
(And the story of hope, is something I would like to tell you about.)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grey Dynamics LTD.