How to Fire a Civil War Cannon


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James N.

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You left out a couple of important duties carried out by the #3 man - he covers the vent with his leather thumb stall while the gun is being sponged and rammed to prevent sparks from entering the vent, and after the gun is loaded, he inserts the vent pick into the vent to puncture the cartridge, which allows the flame from the friction primer to set off the round.
"At the command by the Gunner (or Sergeant or officer conducting the drill) Take Implements, the crew faces inward toward the piece (gun); at Load, No. 1 places the sponge head of the rammer to block the bore from any sparks or other impedimenta that may be blowing about; No. 2 steps between the tube and the wheel, taking care to stand behind the muzzle face as a precaution lest the gun discharge prematurely; unseen in this picture, No. 3 has stepped to the breech (back end of the gun tube) and placed his thumb over the vent hole to prevent a draft and seal off any excess air in the bottom of the bore; No. 4 has taken a friction primer from the brown tube pouch worn on his waist belt and attached it to a hook on the end of the lanyard and is standing with the primer in one hand and the lanyard handle in the other; meanwhile the Gunner is beginning to lay or aim the piece in the general direction he wishes to fire. In the background No. 6 and No. 7 have opened the limber box and are preparing the charge. (In practice, for safety the box is ONLY opened when the charges are being readied and never simply left standing open!)...

At the Gunner's command Prime, No. 3 removes his thumb from the vent, taking a long brass rod called a vent pick and inserts it down the vent to punch a hole in the (usually) linen bag containing the powder charge."


It's there - just buried among the duties of the other members of the crew! Interestingly enough, this particular No. 3 was the then teenage son of our battery commander and has since retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a colonel and instructor at Quantico.
 
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James N.

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BTW, do you use earplugs? I know that isn't 'authentic' but don't want to go deaf.
Yes, we did - but in my case, it's now too late to worry about! I have permanent tinnitus (ringing in the ears) that comes and goes but it's not from artillery. It's more likely from being stupid enough to be in the front rank of infantry with muskets going off on either side of my head! I usually wore them then too, but there were several times when I forgot!
 

James N.

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Not to steal any of James' thunder, but if any of you are interested in details of mounted artillery batteries I've written an article that can be read here:

http://civilwartalk.com/threads/composition-and-operation-of-mounted-artillery-batteries.124643/
Very nice and comprehensive, John! I must confess to writing from memory and a few scanty notes I had stored with the photos when I scanned them. As reenactors in the 1970's we used a manual reproduced in a small handbook titled The Complete Cannoneer; I forget the author, but it was in 2 parts, Patten's drill and a second part about care and maintenance of reproduction guns as used by reenactors and North-South Skirmishers. Long ago I loaned my copy out and of course never got it back; but since it's what I learned from have tended to remember even if I may have made a few small errors.
 

John Winn

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Very nice and comprehensive, John! I must confess to writing from memory and a few scanty notes I had stored with the photos when I scanned them. As reenactors in the 1970's we used a manual reproduced in a small handbook titled The Complete Cannoneer; I forget the author, but it was in 2 parts, Patten's drill and a second part about care and maintenance of reproduction guns as used by reenactors and North-South Skirmishers. Long ago I loaned my copy out and of course never got it back; but since it's what I learned from have tended to remember even if I may have made a few small errors.
Why, thank you sir ! Coming from you that's an especially nice compliment.

My knowledge is almost all book-learned but with a little input from a few with actual experience. I once got to be #4 - for one round only - on a repro ordnance rifle firing a 4 ounce blank at a local demonstration but that's as much hands on as I can claim. It's a fantasy of mine to see some pieces being fired with real ammunition and full powder charges. An even more fantastic fantasy would be to be on one of those crews. You are a lucky man James.

And I, too, have hearing loss but it's from a combo of being too stupid to use hearing protection while shooting and getting too close to the speakers at rock concerts. Oh well, it also kept me from being drafted right after the Tet offensive (I failed the hearing test; had to take it four times) which would surely have resulted in being in the infantry.
 

James N.

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... I once got to be #4 - for one round only - on a repro ordnance rifle firing a 4 ounce blank at a local demonstration but that's as much hands on as I can claim. It's a fantasy of mine to see some pieces being fired with real ammunition and full powder charges. An even more fantastic fantasy would be to be on one of those crews. You are a lucky man James.

And I, too, have hearing loss but it's from a combo of being too stupid to use hearing protection while shooting and getting too close to the speakers at rock concerts. Oh well, it also kept me from being drafted right after the Tet offensive (I failed the hearing test; had to take it four times) which would surely have resulted in being in the infantry.
Congratulations for also missing Tet/Vietnam - when I reported for my pre-induction physical I had a mysterious pinkish raised rash across my back that neither itched nor burned but caused the examining physician to say "Contact dermatitis - come back in six months." Fortunately I was never called back!

A gun-owner friend of mine and his brother each owned reproduction ten-pounder Parrott rifles made by South Bend Replicas and I had the pleasure once of acting as the gunner firing at targets a mile or more away on the U.S. Army's artillery range at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. I also had an experience similar to yours at Ft. Jackson at Savannah, Georgia, when I got to be No. 2 on their 42-Pounder:

savannah-005-jpg.jpg


Of course, No. 2 does extremely little, actually nothing other than inserting the powder bag into the muzzle for No. 1 to ram (no projectile used for demonstration firing) - but on such a large gun, even the blank was a full pound of black powder!
 

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Are the 2 wearing gloves in your photos the only 2 that usually wore gloves in actual combat?
There are changes made to the original drill for reenactments and demonstrations. I like to say these are due to a different mission rather than just say for safety. The original drills were designed to be efficient in combat with an acceptable risk to the gun crew. Also, in the event of a premature discharge, you would still be sending everything towards the enemy. For a reenactment, our mission is different as our mission is the demonstration of the guns . We have no acceptable risk to the crew and if an accident does happen, it's our friends downrange.
some of the changes for the reenacting mission:

1. Gloves on #1 and #2

2. somewhat faster ramming with only one hand - keeping the hand away from the muzzle as much as possible. we are only seating a blank charge in foil, not a 6-pd round with a cartridge bag in a fouled bore.

3. the rounds are made with multiple layers of foil to protect the powder from any burning embers that may remain, which leads to item 4

4. #2 worms the bore after each shot to remove the remaining foil. In combat, the worm was usually left attached to the carriage and was mainly used to extract a round by snagging the metal bands holding the round to the sabot.

5. When the round is rammed, #3 moves their thumb from the vent to the rim - the appearance is the same but keeps #3's hand out of harms way when the round is being rammed.

I'm sure I will think of a few more right after hit post..
 

James N.

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... some of the changes for the reenacting mission:

1. Gloves on #1 and #2

2. somewhat faster ramming with only one hand - keeping the hand away from the muzzle as much as possible. we are only seating a blank charge in foil, not a 6-pd round with a cartridge bag in a fouled bore.

3. the rounds are made with multiple layers of foil to protect the powder from any burning embers that may remain, which leads to item 4

4. #2 worms the bore after each shot to remove the remaining foil. In combat, the worm was usually left attached to the carriage and was mainly used to extract a round by snagging the metal bands holding the round to the sabot.

5. When the round is rammed, #3 moves their thumb from the vent to the rim - the appearance is the same but keeps #3's hand out of harms way when the round is being rammed.

I'm sure I will think of a few more right after hit post..
Sometime after the photos illustrating the drill were taken another of our gun owners decided to make the appearance of his replica howitzer (not the one in these photos) more authentic and sent the tube back to the foundry to be bored out about 2/3 to the breech to the proper diameter for a 12-pounder. This left a smaller chamber at the rear to contain the charge, which then required No. 1 to ram very s l o w l y and carefully so as to not turn the foil-wrapped charge and accidentally wedge it in crooked where No. 3's priming wire would miss it altogether!
 
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I am a Cpl/artificer with Morton's Battery Forrest Cavalry Corp. We have been in existance since 1960 and are still going strong. We have done several movies, numerous park movies in the southeast, and a documentary for the history channel. We are proud of our portrayal of Capt Morton's artillery unit. We try to be period correct and are always ready to interact with the crowds at reenactments and at living histories. I also do a Confederate Naval impression and really enjoy letting people know that the South had a navy and that it did pretty well despite it's limited size and lack of resources. We are always looking for new recruits. We have members from TN, MS and Ark. We are headquartered out of Memphis. If you are interested or just want to chat about our guns, I'm willing. We have 2 original 12 lb Napoleons (yankee), 1 Macon arsenal 12 lb Napoleon (Confederate) and 1 repro 3" ordinance rifle.
 

James N.

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I am a Cpl/artificer with Morton's Battery Forrest Cavalry Corp. We have been in existance since 1960 and are still going strong. We have done several movies, numerous park movies in the southeast, and a documentary for the history channel. We are proud of our portrayal of Capt Morton's artillery unit. We try to be period correct and are always ready to interact with the crowds at reenactments and at living histories. I also do a Confederate Naval impression and really enjoy letting people know that the South had a navy and that it did pretty well despite it's limited size and lack of resources. We are always looking for new recruits. We have members from TN, MS and Ark. We are headquartered out of Memphis. If you are interested or just want to chat about our guns, I'm willing. We have 2 original 12 lb Napoleons (yankee), 1 Macon arsenal 12 lb Napoleon (Confederate) and 1 repro 3" ordinance rifle.
Welcome to the forums, John! I was almost run over by Morton's at Spring Hill back in October, 2004 during the 140th anniversary reenactment of Franklin-Nashville. I was then doing Confederate medical and was part of a field hospital in the rear of the Confederate lines at "Nashville" between the earthworks and the crowd - right where Morton's thundered through! We had to quickly move out of their way. In the photo below from that event the battery is passing behind me on their way to set up for the Franklin scenario on Saturday.

image-22-jpg.jpg
 

ucvrelics

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Neat Video. I don't reenact but we do shot them. Also, I just got thru build another CS 6lb Howitzer.

 
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Welcome to the forums, John! I was almost run over by Morton's at Spring Hill back in October, 2004 during the 140th anniversary reenactment of Franklin-Nashville. I was then doing Confederate medical and was part of a field hospital in the rear of the Confederate lines at "Nashville" between the earthworks and the crowd - right where Morton's thundered through! We had to quickly move out of their way. In the photo below from that event the battery is passing behind me on their way to set up for the Franklin scenario on Saturday.

image-22-jpg.jpg
 

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Of course as a female reenactor I am far away from the guns, but at least some reenactments have a demonstration firing of a cannon for the spectators. Like the inevitable ladies' fashion show and medical demonstrations (lots of fake blood), it fills in the time between battles.
 

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Awesome explanation and great pictures, James N. ! Now I have a better idea how a cannon was fired. :smile:

No. 1 who uses the wet sponge end of the rammer to sponge - never SWAB! - the bore to quench any remaining sparks or embers and remove any remnants of the linen powder bag
Sorry for this stupid question but I'm hitting a language barrier here: to sponge vs to swab - what's the difference here? From the translation options my dictionary provides, both verbs seem to mean the same. :confused:

And did I understand that correctly that one end of the rammer is always wet? Didn't that dry pretty quick at hot days?
 

John Winn

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Awesome explanation and great pictures, James N. ! Now I have a better idea how a cannon was fired. :smile:


Sorry for this stupid question but I'm hitting a language barrier here: to sponge vs to swab - what's the difference here? From the translation options my dictionary provides, both verbs seem to mean the same. :confused:

And did I understand that correctly that one end of the rammer is always wet? Didn't that dry pretty quick at hot days?
Sponging and swabbing are the same but I've not seen the use of "swabbing" (not that I remember, anyway); always referred to as "sponging". The sponge is on the opposite end of the rammer. There was also another tool called a worm that could be used to remove a round or other large debris. There was a water bucket with gun that was used to wet the sponge. I'm sure they did have to wet the sponge frequently.
 

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Great information. Thanks. I did see a couple demonstrations over the years, however we just found a 3x Grand Uncle who served in the 3 PA Heavy Artillery so it increases my interest. Need to do some more research on the artillery including his regiment.
 

luinrina

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Sponging and swabbing are the same but I've not seen the use of "swabbing" (not that I remember, anyway); always referred to as "sponging".
So James just meant with "sponge - never swab" that the term for cleaning the bore after each round was "sponge", not "swab". Got it. Thanks, John!
 

James N.

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So James just meant with "sponge - never swab" that the term for cleaning the bore after each round was "sponge", not "swab". Got it. Thanks, John!
One of the most interesting artillerymen I ever met in the hobby was the late John Hooper (second from the left below) who was a member of the Greatest Generation and had been a teenaged soldier in Normandy in 1944-45. He was the owner of the original 3" ordnance rifle seen here and a limber he had restored himself using original materials. He always said that SPONGE was what gunners did to their pieces - that SWAB was what sailors did to their ships' decks and expected the men of his gun crew to know the difference!

image-25-jpg.jpg
 
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