Brass Napoleon Award How to Fire a Civil War Cannon

byron ed

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 22, 2017
Location
Midwest
Just an aside, a for instance, ask a reenacting artillerist how they justify their unit's #4 at-ready stance.
You'll get: facing forward, or facing backward, or standing forward and twisted backward, then with lanyard arm fully-extended ready to employ a body weight fall away, or lanyard arm cocked and ready to "snap" the lanyard, or lanyard arm fixed behind the back ready to twist or fall away, or lanyard hand held to pants ready for a knee buckle.​
Some want #4 facing forward to help verify muzzle flash and battlefield dynamic; some want #4 facing backward to visually verify the command to fire.​
Though nobody will tell them, newbys eventually learn that any one of those variations may be equally valid. It's understanding what the current drill is --whatever it is -- that matters most.​
 

byron ed

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 22, 2017
Location
Midwest
Of course all this is precisely WHY #3 is supposed to wear a thumbstall!

This isn't exactly an (of course !) type revelation.

Depends on your setting, your experience with it. For instance my unit wouldn't consider un-stopping the vent during ram home, yet to go by other posters here their units specifically un-stop the vent during ram home.

You know, it's quite likely that each of these units have a flawless safety record after a dozen years or more, so I won't call it. It's just not an inherently obvious (!) thing after all, imho.
 
Last edited:

byron ed

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Mar 22, 2017
Location
Midwest
The NPS drill requires unstopping the vent during ramming.

Actually, that's not specified in the NPS drill book (sec.1:21), which directs that during the command "load," while No. 1 "Rams the round after No. 2 is outside the wheel," No.3 is left with his last directive: "Covers the vent with the thumbstall on the left thumb."

It is not until No. 3's next specified action; "Turns clockwise and goes to the handspike after No. 1 has cleared the wheel;" that it's expected the vent is uncovered.

That's not to deny what you may have seen in NPS drills, and anyway as we both know, the NPS drill is its own critter. It's not to be considered the "end-all" of reenacted artillery practice.

Here's what's really ironic: those units who stop the vent during ramming don't want indication of air escaping (or they call "stop vent" and re-seat the thumb-stall). That's the exact opposite imperative of units leaving the vent unstopped during ramming, who want indication of air escaping during ramming.

From a safety and physics standpoint, both can't be right, right?
 
Last edited:

Virginia Dave

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
Location
Waynesboro, Virginia
Part II - Gun Drill
View attachment 116917

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!)

View attachment 116918

No. 5 has received the charge from the limber attendants and after showing it to the Gunner to make sure it's what he wants has brought it forward to hand it off to No. 2; note how he takes it over the wheel in order to stay behind the plane of the muzzle. All other cannoneers maintain their positions, observing always what is being done; this is because in the heat of battle in a noisy artillery battery consisting of up to six guns there are always sounds and for safety everyone needs to know exactly what's going on within their own gun crew!

View attachment 116919

No. 1 now rams home the charge, taking care to see it seats entirely all the way to the bottom of the bore; since this is a drill, No. 5 has returned to his normal position halfway between the gun and limber. (If this were a combat situation instead, he might've returned to the limber for the next charge.) The Gunner oversees what's going on while everyone else maintains their positions.

View attachment 116920

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.

View attachment 116921

The piece is now loaded and primed; the Gunner now completes the aiming, often using a pendulum hausse (not pictured here) to sight in the target; No. 3's thumbing being over, he drops back to the handspike, a short but stout wooden dowel fastened onto the trail of the carriage. At the Gunner's pats on the trail, No. 3 moves it to the right or left as indicated using the handspike. Once satisfied, the Gunner nods to No. 4 who steps to the breech, inserts the friction primer, and stretches out the lanyard - not taught, though, lest he stumble and jerk it accidentally! At the command Ready No.'s 1 and 2 lean away from the muzzle, still watching to make sure their piece discharges; No. 3 steps out of the way of the wheel to avoid its recoil; and No. 4 stands ready, also out of the line of recoil, to pull the lanyard and fire the piece; one hand raised as a signal.

View attachment 116922

Following the discharge of the gun, the gunners resume their post position, except for 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 while No. 3 resumes his thumbing of the vent; should he fail for any reason someone is to jar his memory or get his attention by calling out Stop Vent! In a combat situation, this would likely flow immediately into loading the next round; for drill everyone returns to the post position until the crew is rotated for the next session or dismissed, in which case a command Return Implements causes them to replace all tools.
Great demonstration and explanation. Thank you for posting. Not being familiar with canon procedures this was very informative. Thanks again.
 

Zack

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
Question about the No. 3 man -

When precisely does he take his thumb off the vent?

According to the 1864 manual here (page 114-115):
https://www.google.com/books/editio...ivil+war+artillery+manual&printsec=frontcover

"When the piece is sponged, and the charge inserted by No. 2, he jumps to the end of the trail handspike"

"No. 3 should be careful to keep the vent closed from the time the sponge enters the muzzle until the charge is inserted by No. 2"

So if I'm reading this right, as soon as No. 2 places the round in the muzzle, before it's been rammed down by No. 1, is when No. 3 moves to the trail handspike.

My cursory scans of 1845 (page 25 was inconclusive) and 1860 (I saw no school of the piece in Gibbon's manual) did not turn up anything on No. 3 and the vent.

Am I reading this right? Was this done in practice?

1845
https://www.google.com/books/editio..._Artillery_Horse_an/p2cDAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1

1860
https://books.google.com/books?id=Z...yoASX_YNw&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The NPS drill requires unstopping the vent during ramming.
No, it absolutely does not. #3 stops the vent anytime #1is inside the wheel. That is one of the questions that appears on the qualifying test.

The whole point of stopping the vent is to starve a smoldering ember from oxygen. Not stopping the vent while inserting the powder charge would defeat the purpose.

I am an NPS qualified gunner for black powder cannons.
 

drezac

Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
May 4, 2014
Location
Baltimore,Ohio
@Rhea Cole , interesting. I'll take a look at the NPS Drill. we were told by our officers that #3 was not to stop the vent during ramming with the NPS Drill. Thanks for pointing that out.
 

James N.

Colonel
Forum Host
Annual Winner
Featured Book Reviewer
Asst. Regtl. Quartermaster Antietam 2021
Joined
Feb 23, 2013
Location
East Texas
Question about the No. 3 man -

When precisely does he take his thumb off the vent?

... So if I'm reading this right, as soon as No. 2 places the round in the muzzle, before it's been rammed down by No. 1, is when No. 3 moves to the trail handspike.

... Am I reading this right? Was this done in practice?
No, it absolutely does not. #3 stops the vent anytime #1is inside the wheel. That is one of the questions that appears on the qualifying test.

The whole point of stopping the vent is to starve a smoldering ember from oxygen. Not stopping the vent while inserting the powder charge would defeat the purpose.
Zack, I hope Rhea's response answered your question. No. 3 moves to the trail handspike in order to "aim" the piece according to the direction given by the Gunner, who only approaches the breech AFTER the piece is completely loaded/rammed; therefore there would be no reason for No. 3 to be in place before the Gunner. Remember that in all cases commonsense safety is paramount today, just as it was then - except possibly for the lack of gloves!
 

Zack

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
Zack, I hope Rhea's response answered your question. No. 3 moves to the trail handspike in order to "aim" the piece according to the direction given by the Gunner, who only approaches the breech AFTER the piece is completely loaded/rammed; therefore there would be no reason for No. 3 to be in place before the Gunner. Remember that in all cases commonsense safety is paramount today, just as it was then - except possibly for the lack of gloves!

Apologies - I'm still a little confused. Doesn't the gunner begin aiming almost immediately after the piece has been fired? I don't mean in modern NPS drill - I mean in the period drill. In fact, as the manuals indicate, the reason the No. 3 man holds his arm at a 90 degree angle with his fingers off to the left when stopping the vent is to allow the gunner to aim over his thumb.

On page 108 of the 1864 manual it reads:
"On receiving the command, or signal to commence firing, he gives the command LOAD; takes hold of the handspike at the end with his right hand, and at the centre with his left; places his left knee against the left hand, bending over it, the right knee slight bent; looks over the top of the piece, and gives the direction. He then steps to the breech to give the elevation, which he does by placing the hausse on its seat, taking hold of a handle of the elevating screw, drawing back his right foot, bending over his left knee, and sighting through the slit in the hausse."

"When the piece is loaded and pointed, he removes the hausse, gives the command READY, and, stepping clear of the wheel to that side where he can best observe the effect of his shot, gives the command FIRE."

I can't seem to find Patten's 1861 manual, but his 1863 manual
(https://www.google.com/books/editio...ry+drill+by+George+Patten&printsec=frontcover) includes the following illustration:
Screen Shot 2021-06-23 at 11.32.24 AM.png


As for the No. 3 man, Patten's instructions are the same in his 1863 manual as the 1864 manual I found: "When the piece is sponged and the charge inserted by no. two, he jumps to the end fo the trail handspike" (Page 32).

Since No. 1 is instructed to ram as soon as the round is introduced, it would appear that No. 3 moves to the trail handspike while the round is being rammed.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Apologies - I'm still a little confused. Doesn't the gunner begin aiming almost immediately after the piece has been fired? I don't mean in modern NPS drill - I mean in the period drill. In fact, as the manuals indicate, the reason the No. 3 man holds his arm at a 90 degree angle with his fingers off to the left when stopping the vent is to allow the gunner to aim over his thumb.

On page 108 of the 1864 manual it reads:
"On receiving the command, or signal to commence firing, he gives the command LOAD; takes hold of the handspike at the end with his right hand, and at the centre with his left; places his left knee against the left hand, bending over it, the right knee slight bent; looks over the top of the piece, and gives the direction. He then steps to the breech to give the elevation, which he does by placing the hausse on its seat, taking hold of a handle of the elevating screw, drawing back his right foot, bending over his left knee, and sighting through the slit in the hausse."

"When the piece is loaded and pointed, he removes the hausse, gives the command READY, and, stepping clear of the wheel to that side where he can best observe the effect of his shot, gives the command FIRE."

I can't seem to find Patten's 1861 manual, but his 1863 manual
(https://www.google.com/books/editio...ry+drill+by+George+Patten&printsec=frontcover) includes the following illustration:
View attachment 405694

As for the No. 3 man, Patten's instructions are the same in his 1863 manual as the 1864 manual I found: "When the piece is sponged and the charge inserted by no. two, he jumps to the end fo the trail handspike" (Page 32).

Since No. 1 is instructed to ram as soon as the round is introduced, it would appear that No. 3 moves to the trail handspike while the round is being rammed.
After the gun fired, #’s 1,2,3,4 grabbed onto the wheels & moved the gun back into line. The gunner would use the hand spike ( the piece of wood sticking up from the trail. ) to make a rough aim. After #1rammed the round & stepped outside the wheel, #3 turns to his right & steps to the hand spike. Using the pendulum haas sight, the gunner adjusts the elevation. He makes fine adjustments to the traverse by tapping the left or right side of the trail. #3 uses his knee or hands to follow the gunner’s instructions. When satisfied, the gunner makes a touchdown sign.

#3 returns to his ready position while the gunner steps back & outside the wheel. The gunner then calls, “Ready.” #’s 3 & 4 step sideways to the breech. #3 uses the priming wire to pierce the powder bag. #4 inserts the friction primer. In the CW drill, #3 places his palm over the top of the friction primer. In the NPS drill, #3 places his palm over the lanyard away from the vent/primer. (I know a man who insisted on following the CW drill until #4 stumbled & fired the primer through the web of his thumb.)

#4 maintains eye contact with #3 as he sidesteps with arm extended. When the lanyard is tight #4 nods & turns away. #3 side steps to his ready position. ( At this point reenactors follow a modern drill & cover an ear, lean over or even bend at the waist. These sometimes antic postures do not reflect 19th Century practices in any way.) Depending on the order given, #4 awaits the command to fire from a battery, section leader, or the gunner.

Upon the command, “Fire!” # 4 bends their left knee, the lanyard stretched tight & springs back. The The hook on the lanyard can really take a bite out of you, which is why #4 faces away. ( The occasional wild flailing one sees at reenactment does not reflect 19th Century practice.)

#’s 1& 2 watch the muzzle to make sure the gun fires. Preposterous as it might sound, during battery fire it is not always apparent that the gun has fired. (Obviously, someone bent over & turned away from the muzzle with their fingers in their ears cannot perform that function.)

The NPS drill is the late war US Army drill with some very minor safety adjustments. The most common re-enactment drill is a completely modern practice. The one guiding principle of both drills is to ensure safety, which is paramount.
 

Zack

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
After #1rammed the round & stepped outside the wheel, #3 turns to his right & steps to the hand spike.

Okay so No. 3 thumbs the vent until the round is seated.

So I guess, "No. 3 should be careful to keep the vent closed from the time the sponge enters the muzzle until the charge is inserted by No. 2" means "inserted all the way by No. 2 and No. 1?

If the idea of thumbing the vent is to stop the airflow, then I can see it going both ways. Once the barrel has been sponged and is therefore "safe" they don't need to consider thumbing the vent once the round is inserted into the muzzle.

On the other hand, I imagine the ramming of the round would push air towards the rear of the barrel, which could spark any missed embers. But that would happen whether the vent was covered or not.

The reason I keep asking is because I haven't found any period manual that says "No. 3 thumbs the vent until the round is fully rammed." The 1863 and 1864 manuals both say "until No. 2 inserts the charge." Given how crazy specific the manuals are, it seems an oversight to simply say "until the charge is inserted by No. 2" if what is meant is "until the charge is seated by No. 1"

If the act of sponging the barrel is meant to extinguish burning embers, then it makes sense to me that this would free No. 3 to move to the trail handspike as soon as this task is completed. However, it also seems weird to overlap ramming the round with moving the gun left/right. But then again, it appears the act of ramming would occur while No. 3 is moving from the breech to the trail handspike.

In the old Gettysburg NPS videos, they only thumb the vent until the barrel is sponged. They do not cover it during ramming. Their drill looks pretty solid aside from this one question mark (to me at least):
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Okay so No. 3 thumbs the vent until the round is seated.

So I guess, "No. 3 should be careful to keep the vent closed from the time the sponge enters the muzzle until the charge is inserted by No. 2" means "inserted all the way by No. 2 and No. 1?

If the idea of thumbing the vent is to stop the airflow, then I can see it going both ways. Once the barrel has been sponged and is therefore "safe" they don't need to consider thumbing the vent once the round is inserted into the muzzle.

On the other hand, I imagine the ramming of the round would push air towards the rear of the barrel, which could spark any missed embers. But that would happen whether the vent was covered or not.

The reason I keep asking is because I haven't found any period manual that says "No. 3 thumbs the vent until the round is fully rammed." The 1863 and 1864 manuals both say "until No. 2 inserts the charge." Given how crazy specific the manuals are, it seems an oversight to simply say "until the charge is inserted by No. 2" if what is meant is "until the charge is seated by No. 1"

If the act of sponging the barrel is meant to extinguish burning embers, then it makes sense to me that this would free No. 3 to move to the trail handspike as soon as this task is completed. However, it also seems weird to overlap ramming the round with moving the gun left/right. But then again, it appears the act of ramming would occur while No. 3 is moving from the breech to the trail handspike.

In the old Gettysburg NPS videos, they only thumb the vent until the barrel is sponged. They do not cover it during ramming. Their drill looks pretty solid aside from this one question mark (to me at least):
Lord have mercy, haven’t seen that that video in 20 years. Some of the videos that were created during the Centennial were later used to train gun crews as a test for spotting errors. Keeping #3 thumbing the vent anytime #1 is inside the wheel was a late war adaptation that is standard NPS practice. It is also important for safety.

After a couple of nasty accidents in the initial run up to the Centennial, the NPS has never had a traumatic amputation or fatal accident since. Sadly, outside the NPS, fatalities & traumatic amputations have occurred yearly. The safety record speaks for itself. As I would tell my crew at the start of a program, “We have three goals, safety, safety & safety. Everything else comes after that.”
 

Zack

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
Lord have mercy, haven’t seen that that video in 20 years. Some of the videos that were created during the Centennial were later used to train gun crews as a test for spotting errors. Keeping #3 thumbing the vent anytime #1 is inside the wheel was a late war adaptation that is standard NPS practice. It is also important for safety.

After a couple of nasty accidents in the initial run up to the Centennial, the NPS has never had a traumatic amputation or fatal accident since. Sadly, outside the NPS, fatalities & traumatic amputations have occurred yearly. The safety record speaks for itself. As I would tell my crew at the start of a program, “We have three goals, safety, safety & safety. Everything else comes after that.”

Ah gotcha. Late war adaptation.

I can't imagine how gnarly those accidents would be.

How would you rate the video overall?
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Ah gotcha. Late war adaptation.

I can't imagine how gnarly those accidents would be.

How would you rate the video overall?
It’s ok… they are all great grandads now. Google “black powder cannon accidents” & you will have all the gruesome details you could want. Seriously, people are very creative where it comes to dismembering themselves with muzzleloader cannon.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
It’s ok… they are all great grandads now. Google “black powder cannon accidents” & you will have all the gruesome details you could want. Seriously, people are very creative where it comes to dismembering themselves with muzzleloader cannon.
Hence today's safety line that didn't exist in the period manuals.
 

drezac

Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
May 4, 2014
Location
Baltimore,Ohio
Sponging will not always extinguish any embers. I have personally witnessed a misfire where the round went off 1/3 of the way down the tube. The sponge was dripping wet - verified by multiple witnesses. But their was still an ember in the tube. Even with the way we make the rounds ( multiple layers of foil) the round went off. The palm and bottom part of the fingers of the glove #1 was wearing was ripped off, he had wood splinters and burning powder embedded in his hand. After close examination, it was determined that during the moving of the limber out to the field, a copper nail that was holding in the dividers in the limber box had worked loose and somehow made it into the cardboard box that held the round ( we keep each round in an individual cardboard box). that had created a small pinhole in the round, too small to leak power but enough to let the ember set off the powder.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Sponging will not always extinguish any embers. I have personally witnessed a misfire where the round went off 1/3 of the way down the tube. The sponge was dripping wet - verified by multiple witnesses. But their was still an ember in the tube. Even with the way we make the rounds ( multiple layers of foil) the round went off. The palm and bottom part of the fingers of the glove #1 was wearing was ripped off, he had wood splinters and burning powder embedded in his hand. After close examination, it was determined that during the moving of the limber out to the field, a copper nail that was holding in the dividers in the limber box had worked loose and somehow made it into the cardboard box that held the round ( we keep each round in an individual cardboard box). that had created a small pinhole in the round, too small to leak power but enough to let the ember set off the powder.
During the Civil War, the sponging drill was changed to a dry sponge. Details in my post.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
During the Civil War, the sponging drill was changed. A damp or dry sponge became regulation. The purpose of dampening the sponge was to assure an air tight seal, not put out embers from the previous round. With #3 keeping a good seal on the vent, when the sponge is withdrawn it creates a partial vacuum. The resounding deep throated Blooommmm the sponge makes as it leaves the muzzle is very satisfying. Any residual live embers will be extinguished from the resulting lack of oxygen… of course, it isn’t perfect.

In the 1960’s Parks Canada did extensive testing to see how long a live ember would stay lit in the bore of a cannon. They lit all kinds of material & timed it. Nothing stayed lit for more than 7 minutes. The lack of circulation pit out the combination with oxygen starvation. The NPS rule is 10 minutes between shots, leaving an ample safety margin.

Parks Canada confirmed the discovery made by Civil War gun crews. The sopping wet sponge as described in this thread was the source of premature detonations. The liquid water chills the surface of the ember, forming a crust with a live ember inside. When the round is rammed, the crust is broken & the live ember can detonate the charge as in the example above. That is why NPS drill & instruction makes such a point of using a damp, not a sopping wet sponge.

I have a file folder full of premature detonations that occurred during rapid fire as is seen at re-enactments. The earliest one occurred when Army of the Cumberland soldiers were home on leave. Rapid firing a cannon resulted in a traumatic amputation for #1 & severe injuries among the spectators inflicted by the sponge rammer. Odds are, sometime this year, someone will reenact the sad experience of the A of the C veterans during rapid fire, but it won’t be in a National Park.

National Park Historic Weapons Manual is a public document that contains a wealth of information. It even covers Spanish American-Korean War weapons. Last time I looked, my wife is #2 in the center of the photo on the cover.

Google “Black Powder Cannon Accidents” for sobering up to date accounts of how dangerous not following safety procedures & drill can be.
 
Last edited:
Top