Brass Napoleon Award How to Fire a Civil War Cannon


Forum Host
May 4, 2014
I would like to add that after the accident, we changed our procedures. Now we do not transport the rounds in the limber. The rounds remain in the tow vehicle until the gun is placed, then are transferred to the limber to prevent the rounds from bouncing around in the limber. All dividers have been removed from limber boxes that had them. We now have 3 inspections of the round: when it is removed from the limber ( before it is placed in the haversack), by the gunner when the round is advanced, and by #2 before he inserts the round. for each inspection, the round is rotated so that all surfaces are examined for any anomaly, deformation or leakage.


2nd Lieutenant
Aug 3, 2019
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 With #3 keeping a good seal on the vent, when the sponge is withdrawn it creates a partial vacuum.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.
Good material. An interesting precedent was Royal Artillery practice at the time of the AWI (which I assume - but can't confirm - was also followed on the American side). That was to discourage the sponge being "too wet". I say "practice" because until the mid-19th century there was no official manual for the RA - just notebooks kept by officers who graduated the academy at Woolwich and were supposed to (but generally did not) update their notebooks based on actual experience.