WASHINGTON - It "volley'd and thunder'd" in the romantic 19th-century verse of Tennyson. Even Josef Stalin waxed poetic about its effect on the advancing Nazi hordes, terming it "the god of war."
It launched the career of a gunnery cadet named Napoleon Bonaparte - and last week nearly dashed the career of Army Secretary Thomas E. White.
Artillery has been dubbed the "King of Battle" for its destructive power. During the two world wars, the majority of American casualties were the result of enemy forces hurling explosive shells toward the U.S. lines.
In 1954, Vietnamese peasants took apart their 105 mm and 75 mm howitzers and carried them into the hills above Dien Bien Phu, producing a hellish rain of steel that soon ended French rule in that country.
A decade later, an outnumbered Israeli army was able to turn back a concerted Arab attack with a mixture of planes, tanks and, yes, artillery.
Well into the 20th century - after nearly 800 years of refinement - the reign of the artillery piece was still unquestioned. Today, there is a question: How much more refinement does U.S. artillery need?
The debate over that question caught up White and plans for a computer-age howitzer called the Crusader.
"Artillery in the 20th century has played a more lethal role than it did in the 19th," says Lawrence M. Kaplan, a historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History at the Pentagon. "Artillery came into its own in the 20th century."
A long bamboo shaft, stuffed with gunpowder on the orders of Chinese Gen. Ch'en Gui, is thought to have launched the first shell in the early 12th century somewhere in Hopei province, though it is unknown whether the shell struck its intended target.
The artillery concept soon spread to Europe, where bamboo was replaced by bronze and cast iron, with some of the raw material coming from melted-down church bells. The early cannons were used primarily as siege weapons, smashing the thick walls of castles.
Stone cannon balls gave way to iron, and the artillery was lightened so it could shift quickly around a battlefield. Pulled by horses, the guns fired shells that began targeting people more often than buildings. Napoleon was the first to make mobile artillery a full partner in his cavalry and infantry force.
In the middle of the 19th century, rifled barrels and steel shells changed artillery from a line-of-sight weapon to one that could shoot over the horizon. Spotters on the ground, and later in aircraft, made sure the shell met its mark.
From those humble origins, the artillery piece has evolved into the Crusader, a 40-ton, fully automated mobile howitzer that could be accurate more than 30 miles from its target - if it is ever built.
Today's howitzer (a howitzer is a cannon that fires in a high arc) is far more than a simple rifled tube of steel that can lob a shell.
"We're putting brain inside the gun and eliminating the brawn," says Doug Coffey, a spokesman for United Defense, the contractor that has proposed building 480 of the 155 mm guns for the Army.
That brain is pricey. Each gun would cost $11.2 million. The company's brochure talks of the Crusader's "software-controlled robotic ammunition handling equipment" and "an actively cooled advanced solid propellant armament system."
In essence, the gun's innards, an array of microprocessors, sensors, radar and composite materials, would make it the world's most advanced and quick-firing artillery piece. The three-man crew could shoot up to a dozen 100-pound shells per minute, quickly shifting among multiple targets.
And unlike generations of artillerymen who stood next to the gun, fed it a shell and pulled a rope to make it fire, the three-member crew in the Crusader would sit in a high-tech cockpit and simply push two buttons. That air-cooled cockpit would also protect the crew from chemical and biological weapons.
The Crusader was designed to replace the Paladin, a gun developed in the early 1960s as the Army's heavy artillery weapon. Loaded by hand - the shell coupled with a bag of propellant - the Paladin would be familiar to a gunner from World War I, the high-water mark of artillery fire. For four years, the Allies and the Axis powers drubbed each other with artillery shells, churning the fields of France into a treeless and pockmarked bog.
White, the Army secretary, told Congress in the fall that the Crusader was a "must field for the Army" to replace the Paladin and to provide round-the-clock precision fire support.
He continued to press Congress for the gun until last week, even though Pentagon officials signaled their plans to kill the $11 billion Crusader program and shift some of that money to lighter, more high-tech weapons.
White's salesmanship angered Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who took a chagrined White to a news conference Wednesday and bluntly and formally stuck a sword in the Crusader.