Tampella testing range at Niinisalo
Text: Vesa Toivonen
In 1950, the Weapons Department of Tampereen Pellava- ja Rautateollisuus Oy, more commonly known by its acronym Tampella, resumed the production of armaments, which had been suspended at the end of the Second World War. At this time, Tampella established a joint venture with the nascent state of Israel in Haifa, named Soltam Ltd. Their respective duties were that Tampella would manage product development while Soltam undertook mass production for selling on global markets through a company registered in Liechtenstein named Salgad.
With new and growing arms product development, Tampella had a need to reintroduce test firings. Up until 1944, these had been conducted by firing munitions from the factory waterfront out onto Näsijärvi lake, but this was no longer acceptable. The logical solution was to go to the artillery central test firing facility at Niinisalo, which is where most of the test firings for orders placed by the Finnish Defence Forces with Tampella had been carried out.
The Ministry of Defence was agreeable to the Tampella proposal, and an official agreement was signed on 11 December 1963. Under this agreement, Tampella was allowed – against a fee – to bring its own equipment and its own personnel to the test firing facilities of the Defence Forces at Niinisalo and Katajaluoto for test and demonstration firings. Such events were to be agreed with the commander of the test firing facility, who appointed a supervising officer to lead the actual firing in each case. The munitions required were initially prepared at the loading workshop at the test firing facility, and Tampella was given a designated storage unit. Tampella also gained the right, subject to a separate permit, to build temporary structures in the area as required for test firings.1
It soon became apparent that because of the scope of Tampella’s testing operations, permanent structures would be required. In early 1964, Tampella requested permission to build a direct fire range (for mortars) on the ‘old rifle range’ to the west of the principal firing range at Niinisalo. The request was granted on 24 October 1967, and an agreement was signed with a duration of 20 years, after which it could be renewed for one year at a time. What was interesting about the permission granted was that the Ministry of Defence reserved the right to cancel the agreement with immediate effect, in which case all the fixtures built by Tampella would become property of the Ministry of Defence with no compensation payable. The Defence Forces were guaranteed access to this firing range for a maximum of half of the time during which Tampella could use it for its own purposes.2 The Tampella testing range was thus established.
The testing range was much used. Since 1965, Tampella had been investing heavily in improving the internal and external ballistics of mortar rounds by grooving the surface of the rounds to reduce oscillation in the mortar tube. The effect of the various grooving designs on the deflection of the rounds was tested by firing them through cardboard templates at the firing range to measure the muzzle deflection. A stopping bunker was built in autumn 1969 to collect the inert projectiles that were retrieved for reuse. Between 1966 and 1970, there were 79 test firings, in which more than 1,300 rounds were fired using 60 mm, 81 mm, 120 mm and 160 mm mortars. The tests were successful, and the invention was patented in Germany on 8 March 1967 and in Finland on 7 March 1968.5
Tampella suffered a setback when the Defence Forces did not place a major order for the 122 K/60 field gun jointly developed by Tampella and the Defence Forces, opting instead to order a large quantity of equivalent artillery pieces from the Soviet Union. At the encouragement of Soltam, Tampella further developed this gun, which was unnecessarily robust in structure in view of its calibre, first into a 152 mm version and then into a modern 155 mm field gun, 155KAN68, which fires caseless rounds. Most of the test firings in developing this gun were conducted at the Tampella testing rage, as were the proof firings for the series of 12+12 guns sold through Soltam to Singapore, overseen by representatives of the Finnish Ministry of Defence authorised by the Singapore Ministry of Defence. The test firings in the development process that eventually produced the modern 155K83 field gun and the product development firings for the 130/53TK turret cannon designed for the Coastal Artillery were also conducted at the Tampella testing range insofar as they were not field tests,6 although it had been agreed in 1970 that it would be allowable to fire into the principal firing range from the emplacements on the Tampella testing range.7
The worst moment in the history of the testing range came at 12.30 on 6 May 1970, when an accidental explosion at the weapons maintenance shop of the central test firing facility killed two members of Defence Forces enlisted personnel. The two technicians were preparing for a test firing of mortar rounds with ‘Tampella grooving’ to improve their ballistics, in accordance with agreed procedures. Specifically, they were to fit a separate test grooving ring over the smooth casing. This ring was to be attached with glue, but because of a machining error the ring snapped, and the technicians began to weld it on. The 160 mm mortar round proved to be a live round loaded with TNT from the Niinisalo munitions dump that had erroneously ended up among the sulphur-loaded rounds delivered from Tampella. The heat from the welding caused the TNT to deflagrate and shatter the shell, with fatal results.3 Later, the storage and preparation of munitions was relocated to the Sääksjärvi weapons depot, which specialised in these functions.
Weapons production at Tampella began to decline after collaboration with Soltam had been discontinued by mutual agreement in August 1974. The Tampella testing range also saw less use, and as the financial position of Tampella became increasingly difficult in the late 1980s, resources for test firings were scarce. Accordingly, the property department of the Ministry of Defence gave notice on 15 May 1987 to terminate its agreements with Tampella concerning the firing range at the beginning of 1988. An agreement to this effect was signed on 18 December 1987.4,5 All fixtures became property of the Defence Forces, while all movables (munitions, weapons, measuring devices, etc.) were removed by Tampella, and some were sold to the Vihtavuori plant. Somehow – it is not known how – some of Tampella’s experimental mortar rounds showed up at a Defence Forces surplus shop in Vammala as recently as in the late 1990s.
Once Tampella had vacated the test firing facility, the present direct firing range was built in the area. The only relic of the occupation by Tampella is the former firing command bunker in front and to the left of the new firing command building.
The testing range was of great importance for Tampella in its day: without an ‘in-house’ testing range, Tampella could scarcely have achieved the technological advantage that it held entering the 1970s, particularly in mortar technology.