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Is it actually possible in a 19th century setting to build horse-propelled, non-steampunk tanks?

This would mean armoured carriages with gatling guns and artillery on them, with several people sitting inside.

Also, how would could the horses and the person steering the carriage be protected?

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  • $\begingroup$ Something like this? $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Feb 23 '15 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ Isn't that pretty much what a chariot was, minus the artillery? $\endgroup$ – Ajedi32 Feb 23 '15 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ @kSmarts - All arty was pulled by horses then. "Horse" artillery also included horses for the cannoneers to ride rather than walk alongside. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Feb 23 '15 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ this may only obliquely help you to answer the question for yourself, but you should read Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Specifically, there's a story called "Her Majesty's Servants" which describes all of the uses of animals in a 19th century military. Several artillery towing animals are among the main characters. It may serve as a source of inspiration for you. $\endgroup$ – user7437 Feb 24 '15 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ I would imagine to protect the horse, you could have the war wagon have no floor, and the horses are on the inside, propelling the tank Flintstones style, attached to a harness. The war wagon will obviously have wheels, so the weight of the war wagon is not resting on the horse $\endgroup$ – grimmsdottir Feb 24 '15 at 2:57

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It's not only possible, it has actually been done in the Middle Ages. Check out the Wikipedia page on the Hussite War Wagon, essentially an armored cart with heavy weapons (cannons, guns, or crossbows) inside. It contains additional information on how these were used, if you need to go more in-depth.

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    $\begingroup$ I'll give points to a war wagon for what it was...but a tank it was not. These wagons had their uses in the 1400's, but 19th century Gatling gun / artillery unit would have a simple time disposing of these. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Feb 23 '15 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ The horses were on the front of the wagon, so either had to be removed and placed inside a ring of wagons, or deftly pivoted away from harm. By the 19th century the power of small arms and cannon made a war wagon need to be much heavier, beyond what a reasonable team could move. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Feb 23 '15 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ The machine gun isn't old enough to make a gattling gun in that setting possible though. But for a single cannon, you may be right. $\endgroup$ – Mast Feb 24 '15 at 7:51
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    $\begingroup$ Hussite war wagon (nice try, but...) was not a tank, but wall component of a movable fortress $\endgroup$ – Peter M. Feb 27 '15 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ In today's terms it was an IFV, not a tank. $\endgroup$ – vsz Nov 25 '18 at 15:11
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Horse-pulled artillery actually did exist in the 19th century and earlier. However, as the emphasis was on mobility, they usually were lightly armored or unarmored.

From what I can tell, vehichle armor in the 19th century consisted of several inches of iron plate, backed by wood, and was used on ships and trains. The weight of such armor would be prohibitive for use with horses. However, this armor was made to withstand cannon fire. If you only needed to stop bullets or musket balls, you could do with a lot thinner armor, that might be more practical. Of course, if they're vulnerable to cannon fire, they wouldn't be especially useful as battle tanks. However, there are other roles for armored vehicles that might have a horse-drawn alternative.

Your best bet for function is something similar to an infantry tank, which is a relatively slow-moving tank designed to support infantry attacks. For this, you wouldn't want artillery on your carriages, since you'll be too close to the enemy for that to be of much use. You could still have small cannons, like swivel guns, that are lighter and designed as anti-personnel weapons. Also, breech-loading versions existed at that point, meaning soldiers don't have to get out of the carriage to reload them, which is a plus.

Armoring the horses themselves is impractical, at least if you do it directly. However, you could have them carry a sort of armored wall, like a mantlet, around with them. The design of this is a bit tricky, since it needs to be flexible or segmented to get over rough terrain, but you don't want gaps in the armor. Just having some overlap between segments should be enough. You will also want them to be able to turn easily, to be able to bring the guns to bear once in range.


The real question is whether this sort of vehicle or structure would be worthwhile. Anti-cannon armor is too heavy for horses, but a lightly armored version is still a fairly large and slow-moving target. Enemy artillery would be a serious threat. Still, if the vehicle stayed in motion firing broadside, it could be useful.

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    $\begingroup$ An armored car in WW1 with light armor (5-7mm steel) used to weigh approx 5 tons, and is too small to fit a horse inside - and a horse isn't really enough to pull 5 tons. It would seem that even a single steel plate that covers protects a side of a horse (either directly or as a part of a "tank" wall) would be too heavy for that horse to pull unless you're always only rolling downhill. And forget about cannons, if you need to penetrate such armor, you'd build anti-tank rifles as armies did historically - a larger caliber rifle with a more powerful round would allow infantry to penetrate it. $\endgroup$ – Peteris Feb 23 '15 at 20:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Peteris I know that the armored horse-and-carriage isn't the most practical option for gunpowder-era combat--if they were useful, they probably would have been used. However, I think you are overstating things. That 5-ton figure includes a lot more than just armor. At 5mm thick, 5 tons of iron could cover about 115 square meters--plenty of room to cover multiple horses, especially if it's open-topped. The rifle ammo most used in the Crimean and American Civil wars, the Minié ball, was soft lead, and may not even need that thick of armor to stop. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Feb 23 '15 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ There may be a risk of anti-tank rifles, but those weren't developed until partway through WWI (after the introduction of tanks). I don't know how well they could be made decades, or even a century, earlier. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Feb 23 '15 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @ksmarts - early in the US Civil War, armored breastplates were sold for soldiers to wear. Minie balls punched right through and they were discarded almost entirely. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Feb 23 '15 at 22:53
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Having looked at it from an engineering point of view, I will just add something from a horsemanship point of view: Horses are animals that live and survive through movement. They are uncomfortable being enclosed- to the point that some horses do not tolerate being stabled particularly well- even the equipment required for regular carriage driving is relatively hazardous ( and wrecks involving it tend to be very dangerous for humans and horses ) and sudden loud noises and strong odours tend to scare them, making them more inclined to try and run to safety.

Placing an animal of this type into a small box in the middle of a war zone and expecting it to behave like a mechanical engine is both cruel and exceedingly unlikely to offer you any practical benefit. You are more likely to have an armoured box full of panicked horses desperate to escape at any cost. This is probably one of the reasons that the tank required a mechanical engine before it's invention. From what I can tell of the armoured wagons mentioned in other answers, their purpose was more that of a mobile fortification- they probably would have been used to create a defensive structure quickly rather than as a mobile weapon.

You also have to consider the weight of armour, which would need to be supported by wheels ( the advantage of driving horses is that they carry no weight, only offer forward motion ) so you start to run into trouble the moment you get into muddy or wet terrain where your horses are stuck in a box that can no longer be moved. Or you go down a hill and start to accelerate under gravity. Or you go up a hill and can barely move due to the weight.

Putting it all together I fear this adds up to a somewhat impractical invention, but also consider why the tank arose at all: Even until 1914 cavalry were still a practical force on the battlefield, able to traverse ground rapidly and deliver fast and intimidating assault, although by the turn of the twentieth century they were more strategically deployed as a way of getting light dragoons into place fast. The inventions that limited that effectiveness were the machine gun and barbed wire, along with the standing front-lines of trench warfare. If you don't have those, then the necessity that lead to the invention of the tank is somewhat mitigated.

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  • $\begingroup$ I hesitate to add to the cruelty aspect. With a WARNING about maybe offending your sensibilities, I'll just mention this - from an article about the cruelty of bull-fighting. "The horses are blind-folded to prevent them from becoming terror stricken at the charge of the bull. It is commonly believed that their ears are stuffed with cotton-wool to prevent them from panicking and their vocal cords cut to stop them screaming with fear at the bull’s attack." horsetalk.co.nz/2013/03/11/… - Thank goodness Spanish bullfighting is becoming condemned. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Nov 26 '18 at 16:40
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Before machine gun, you do not need tank, because plain cavalry was more mobile, can pass over obstacles easier (horses do not have enough "horse power" to move armor around).

After machine gun, but before combustion engine (reliable and powerful enough to move tank), you have cavalry with machine-gun chariots.

And once you have combustion, it is over for cavalry.

In war, it is not only about firepower and armor (protection against firepower). Mobility (and reliability) is also extremely important.

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It would really depend what you have in mind when you think of a tank.

A quick internet search brings up a number of examples of armored horse drawn carriages which would have been used in the 19th century.

The 1967 film The War Wagon featured an armored horse drawn stagecoach which transported gold and other valuables.

These kind of carriages have some aspects of tanks, but they aren't true tanks like we think of today. They did not carry heavy artillery and they had wheels instead of tracks. They were also much more lightly armored than a modern tank because they had to be light enough to be drawn by horses.

If you are designing a tank which would fit that era, there are a couple of things you would need to keep in mind. Steel was a rare and very expensive material in the 19th century. Iron was much more plentiful. Welding was also rare in the 19th century. It didn't become widely available until the turn of the 20th century. The armored panels would most likely be joined with hot rivets. Iron was, and still is very susceptible to rust, so the panels should be painted.

Since it is horse drawn, you would need to pay special attention to the weight. A team of horses can comfortably pull a carriage 2-3 times their weight over smooth surfaces for several hours without much risk of injury.

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I think this gets into a definition of a tank. Horse drawn artillery is not really a tank...it's artillery, there is quite the difference. Horse drawn artillery such as cannons date back to the 1700's pretty readily, probably further back than that. The horses were not armored and relied on the standard tactics of artillery for defense (stay in the back and depend on indirect fire). Incidentally, it was horse drawn artillery, not artillery fired from a wagon...Artillery comes with quite the recoil and I'm not fully sure if a wagon could hold up to it.

The interesting part that you throw in here is 'Gatling gun'. Ultimately it was these rapid fire guns that did away with horses and cavalry in battle and relegating horses to a transportation role instead. This small gunfire that did away with horses was the driving need behind a tank...something that could resist this small arms fire with negligible effect. Having horses pull around a tank is a bit counter intuitive as the tank is meant to replace the unarmored horse that's pulling it. Had the horse been able to be armored to a degree where it could pull around the tank and resist small arms fire, then the tank wouldn't be needed and you'd simply ride around on the well armored horse.

So a mixed answer for you...when it comes to horses pulling wagons equipped with artillery, then yes...all for that as it's an artillery piece thats not meant to engage in direct fire. A horse pulling around a Gatling gun is also effective as the Gatling isn't very mobile and could use a horses help to get to where it's needed...but neither of these are really 'tanks' by definition. A tank needs to resist the small arms fire that slaughters horses so very well...having your tank dependent on what it's intended to replace isn't very helpful

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  • $\begingroup$ Even the three shot per minute rifled musket of 1861 reduced cavalry's role to scouting alone, for the most part. Repeaters late in the war made a small comeback, but Cavalry needed to dismount to fight when infantry was around. When Infantry got repeaters, Cavalry was done for battlefield use. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Feb 23 '15 at 22:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat Cavalry were still used well into the first world war, but horses don't respond well to artillery and barbed wire, so they quickly fell out of use on the western front. As weird as it seems, horsemen with lances were still in use into the 20th century. $\endgroup$ – pluckedkiwi Feb 27 '15 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ For scouting yes. Against formed infantry at any time, no way past the mid 1860s with any success. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Feb 28 '15 at 1:12
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Lets take a look at this from an engineering perspective.

We'll take the original Mark-1 tank, the first tank to be called a "tank" (the name came from the fact that they were shipped to the front lines disguised as "water tanks").

It's around 27 tons with a 105 horsepower engine. And it barely managed to crawl with that power. So let's round the numbers up and say that 100 horses can pull a 30 ton tank.

A small 10 ton tank would require around 33 horsepower to crawl slowly.

Leonardo da Vinci's "tank" weighs in at around 5 tons. So let's be generous and say that it could be pulled to crawl slowly with 16 horses. That 5 ton "tank" can barely fit one horse inside it. It was designed to be pushed by humans.

Which means, for horses, it's impossible to build any steel armored carriage to be pulled by horses with all the horses inside the armor. Simply because any size you build would need at lest 10 times the space to accommodate the number of horses needed to pull it.

Any horse-drawn solution requires the horses to be outside the tank.

So it depends on how you want to define "tank". If the horses need to be protected as well then no, it's simply not possible. If you can accept exposing the horses to enemy fire then yes its possible (in fact, as mentioned in another answer, it actually exists historically).

I don't have the calculations for elephants though. Anyone know horsepower to elephantpower conversion?

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  • $\begingroup$ I have never heard ep (elephant power) units. Just kidding $\endgroup$ – Kristian Feb 27 '15 at 14:14
  • $\begingroup$ The horsepower of an engine doesn't even have the slightest relation with the number of horses needed to pull the vehicle. I would bet that less than 10 horses would pull a 500 horsepower Ferrari backwards even with the Ferrari's engine on full forward, as its wheels would turn in their places. $\endgroup$ – vsz Nov 25 '18 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ @vsz Yes it does. You know full well that that Ferarri can be driven just fine on a 2 horsepower lawnmower engine - just not fast. The Mark 1 tank however could only crawl with a 100 horsepower engine, to drive that tank like a Ferarri you'd need something like a 5000 horsepower engine but like you said you don't need 5000 horses to move it, only 100. $\endgroup$ – slebetman Nov 26 '18 at 2:32
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    $\begingroup$ You know, that's actually a very good point. Tanks (the modern ones) generally need more engine power than speed to move around in all terrain anyway. Yes there are many that can go fast as well, but those tend to be prohibitively expensive and have insanely powerful engines, ones that can't be emulated with horses. Beside, we used horses mostly because they are fast, and smart. Since those qualities are meaningless in a tank, oxen make more sense. $\endgroup$ – Nam Nguyen Hoang Nov 28 '18 at 8:27
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A solution similar to a tank (everyone is protected) would require the horses to be inside (or rather underneath) a shell, but horses are not strong enough to carry the weight of the armour plus crew and weapons.

Here you can find a list of the strongest animals http://www.onekind.org/be_inspired/top_10_lists/strongest/

What about an armoured elephant? They can carry up to 9 tonnes and there is already history of using them in battle. You could "dress" them with a thick armour, hang gatling gun on the sides and have some one sitting in a cabin on top of the elephant.

Next option would be an ox, or bison. In that case the armour would have to be thinner and the weapons smaller, but could be faster compared to the elephants. The rider could lay on the back (as on a bike) to be enclosed in the armour and have small guns poking out of the shield. The structure of these animals, with a shorter neck than the horse, would facilitate such a solution.

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  • $\begingroup$ Elephants and bison would likely spook at the noise of gunfire/artillery coming at it or even the noise of the weapons on it firing...you'd need an exceedingly well trained beast for this. Last thing you'd want is a rampaging elephant with guns on it blazing. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Feb 27 '15 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure I've seen elephants used as transport for safari, with the hunters firing without dismounting. Maybe not that hard to train. $\endgroup$ – algiogia Feb 28 '15 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ Big difference between hunting rifle vs gattling guns...and incoming artillery rounds. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Feb 28 '15 at 1:31
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    $\begingroup$ They don't need to carry it. It can just be on wheels and open to the ground underneath with a chain-mail skirt. $\endgroup$ – chasly from UK Nov 26 '18 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ You know, that's actually a very good point. Tanks (the modern ones) generally need more engine power than speed to move around in all terrain anyway. Yes there are many that can go fast as well, but those tend to be prohibitively expensive and have insanely powerful engines, ones that can't be emulated with horses. Beside, we used horses mostly because they are fast, and smart. Since those qualities are meaningless in a tank, oxen make more sense. $\endgroup$ – Nam Nguyen Hoang Nov 28 '18 at 8:28
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There used to be something similar called horse drawn artillery. barding would provide some sort of protection, but considering the power of guns it would be rendered next to useless. I have no evidence for past use, but I am sure some sort of metal box could be placed around the "charioteers" and the artillery. Holes could be drilled in the sides big enough for a machine gun barrel.

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  • $\begingroup$ Horse drawn artillery could not fire when limbered up to the horses. It had to unlimber at each fire position. $\endgroup$ – Oldcat Feb 23 '15 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ It is the closest thing that came to mind. I had recently been researching early modern weapons anyway. $\endgroup$ – JDSweetBeat Feb 25 '15 at 20:47
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Leonardo da Vinci dabbled with this and I believe his first thought was that the horses would be inside. Later he rejected that idea because they might panic and replaced it with human power.

enter image description here enter image description here

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Treadmill.

Enclosed treadmill

http://www.flickriver.com/photos/31068574@N05/15622416604/

Depicted: the horse treadmill from the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland. You could enclose something like this within the tank. The horses would be protected in there. The horses would walk around and around, just like they do in the mine, and the rotary motion would be turned by gears into a motion to move the tank around. Oxen might be even better for this because they are stronger and more docile. If you are worried about them being spooked by war sounds, use deaf animals. Horses do fine without seeing much which is what blinders are for; the depicted horses here have them on.

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