203-mm Howitzer Model 1931
The heaviest of the field-type weapons used by the Soviets between 1941 and 1945 was the 203-mm Howitzer Model 1931, also known as the B-4. This was a powerful but heavy weapon that is now generally remembered as being one of the few artillery weapons to use a carriage that ran on caterpillar tracks. This was an outcome of the huge Soviet investment in tractor factories during the 1920s and 1930s, and the use of these tractor tracks was thus an obvious and economic measure for the Soviet carriage designers to take. The use of these tracks meant that the Model 1931 could traverse very bad or soft terrain where other weapons of similar weight could not venture.
This was an important point for the Model 1931, which was a heavy piece. It was so heavy that although most versions could be towed for short distances in two loads, long moves involved the breaking down of the weapon into as many as six separate loads. Some versions could move in five loads but there were about six different variants of the Model 1931. All of them used the tracked carriage but varied in the way they were towed. Movement of the Model 1931 involved the use of a limber onto which the split trails were lifted to be towed, usually by some form of heavy tracked tractor with (again) agricultural origins. Some of these limbers used tracks again but others had large single road wheels. Others had twin road wheels of smaller diameter.
To the soldier at the front all these variations made little difference as the howitzer itself remained much the same throughout its service life. It was rather a ponderous weapon to use in action, and the rate of fire was usually limited to one found every four minutes, although higher rates could be attained. It made a powerful barrage weapon but was also used for the demolition of heavy strongpoints, a heavy 100-kg (220.46-lb) high explosive shell being provided for the role. But essentially it was a weapon for static use as it was a ponderous beast, being limited on the move to a maximum speed of no more than 15 km/h (9.3 mph). Not surprisingly, whenever mobile warfare was possible the Model 1931 was at a disadvantage and consequently many fell into German hands as they could not be moved quickly enough. The Germans were so short of heavy artillery that they used as many as they could, mainly in the Soviet Union but also in Italy and in North West Europe after 1944, under the designation 20.3cm H 503(r).
After 1945 the Model 1931 appeared to fade from service but in recent years it has once more emerged. It is still part of the equipment of the current Red Army heavy artillery brigades and is still used for the destruction of strongpoints and any fortresses that might still be encountered. It has now lost the tracked travelling arrangements and has in their place a new wheeled road-wheel suspension with two wheels in tandem on each side. It is now very likely that this form of carriage allows the Model 1931 to be towed in one load, and it is also believed that this veteran will be replaced in the near future by a new 203-mm (8-in) howitzer on a selfpropelled carriage.
Specification Model 1931
Calibre: 203 mm (8 in)
Length of piece: 5.087 m (16 ft 8.3 in)
Weight: in action 17700 kg (39,022 lb)
Elevation: 0∞ to +60∞
Muzzle velocity: 607 m (1,991 ft) per second
Maximum range: 18025 m (19,712 yards)
Shell weight: 100 kg (220,46 lb)