Firearms for a very long time were fairly simple things. A barrel of some sort with two holes. One at the front for the projectile to come out. One in the back to light the powder that sent the projectile out.
Starting from there, people would go on to add different kinds of trigger mechanisms. Matchlocks which actually used a piece of burning cord to light the fuse. Flintlocks which used sparks to light the fuse. Percussion caps and the modern trigger mechanisms of today. All showed an evolution but didn’t do much to help the main issue that a smoothbore firearm had. Range and accuracy. You could aim at a target but hitting anything more than a couple of dozen yards away was a matter of luck more than skill. This was why armies stood in long lines real close together and firing all at once became the way wars were fought. The more muskets pointed in a direction, the better the odds were one would hit a target.
That all changed with the invention of rifling. Rifling, which is adding a series of groove to the barrel of a firearm, was first done in what would be Germany in the late 15th, early 16th century tough it would not become standard until the nineteenth century. The grooves in the barrel cause the projectile to spin which greatly stabilizes the flight due to centrifugal force. With its flight more steady the projectile more often than not would go to where it was aimed greatly increasing accuracy. Suddenly a bunch of men standing in line a few yards from each other became less of a good idea. Unfortunately, it would take a bit for tactics to catch up with technology and a lot of people dies needlessly. That is a story for another time though.
The pic above shows the rifling grooves on a Civil War-era cannon, looking down the barrel you could see the spiral pattern that imparted the spin which gave the guns the greater range and accuracy.
Picture someone firing a cannon. What do you picture coming out of the barrel? Probably a round ball, which would make sense because that is often how it’s portrayed. During the Civil War, the art of artillery, and of designing munitions entered a new age. The picture above is a collection of many of the different types of projectiles that were used during the war.
You had the solid round shot, which is what you were picturing. It was effective in knocking things down and were often heated in ovens until red-hot so that when the hit something, like a house, ship or fortification, it could set it on fire.
There was “canister” which turned your canon into a giant shotgun peppering the enemy with small round projectiles.
You had timed fuses for shells that could cause them to either burst in the air and rain shrapnel down on the enemy, or they could be set to detonate some time after hitting the ground effectively acting a type of land mine.
Then came the rifled projectiles (the ones that look like giant bullets). They could travel further and could be outfitted with fuses or set to explode on contact.
Every situation had a special shell that could be used. If you would like more information on each individual type of ammunition produced I would recommend this website, Civil War Artillery Projectiles. They break down the many different types well.
So the next time someone asks what a cannon fires, ask for more detail because there are many, many different options…
In the picture is actual shot from a swivel gun mounted on the Royal Savage. The quarter is there to show scale. So, what makes this so special? Well, it starts with a name you probably recognize, Benedict Arnold. In 1776 Arnold led an American fleet on Lake Champlain against the quickly advancing British. The Battle of Valcour Island was fought on October 11, 1776 and it was a stunning loss to the Americans. Or was it?
On the heels of their retreat from the failed campaign to turn Canada into the fourteenth colony, the Americans gathered every ship they had on the lake to take a stand against the oncoming British forces. Command of the makeshift fleet fell to Benedict Arnold who as an experienced ship captain as well as one of the “heroes” of the invasion of Canada, looked to have the best chance to make the stand.
In the end, the American fleet was almost totally destroyed, but even so, Arnold managed to accomplish an incredible fleet. He had managed to convince Guy Carlton, the British commander, to take a slower pace on his advance. Carlton came to the decision that it was too late in the year to continue his invasion of New York. The British withdrew back to Canada until the following year. Had they continued they would have found very little in the way of defenses. They could have made it all the way to Albany without much of a fight.
The Royal Savage was one of the ships in Arnold’s fleet, commanded by David Hawley. The ball in the picture was forged at the Skeene Foundry and was sized for one of the lightweight swivel guns on the vessel. Usually several of these balls were loaded into the canon. This turned it into a sort of giant shotgun.
As a part of my personal collection, it is a reminder of Arnold on his ascent. The battle at Valcour was just one in a series of episodes where Arnold very well may have saved the revolution.
Those heavy iron beauties in the picture above are examples of a Rodman Gun. They were designed during the Civil War by Union artilleryman Thomas Rodman. The ones above are located at Ft. McHenry in Baltimore.
The main innovation with these pieces was in the way they were cast. Traditionally artillery pieces were cast as one solid piece with the bore drilled out after cooling. This solid piece method meant that as the piece cooled, it did so from the outside in. This allowed small cracks and imperfections to form. While many of these imperfections would be taken care of during the drilling of the bore, there was always the possibility that others existed.
The Rodman method consisted of casting the piece as a hollow tube with a cooling tube in the center. This allowed the metal to cool from the inside out, which allowed for it to be stronger with fewer imperfections. Here is an article that gets into some of the small details. Basically, it made the gun stronger and allowed for heavier projectiles to be fired.
This casting method became the standard during and after the war and Rodman Guns were produced in many different sizes. Attempts were made to cast the unit as rifled pieces, with the spiral grooves in place, but it was not very successful. Later on, most of the guns were rifled.
The cannons above could fire a projectile weighing up to 444 pounds close to a mile. With that kind of power and distance, they became the go-to for coastal defense. Though several thousand of this style of artillery were made during the Civil War, very few if any actually were fired in combat. The two in the picture above in Baltimore harbor have only been fired for holidays and special occasions.
This picture is from the Yorktown Battlefield park and was taken from the American and French lines on the right side of the battlefield, not far from Redoubts 9 and 10.
A couple of things to point out in this photo.
First thing. Notice the path and how it seemingly goes between two huge mounds of dirt off into the distance? That is the result of digging the siege lines. The dirt that was moved was used to create the large berms. So digging down not only made it safer, but provided the material needed to make the fortifications. The American forces during the Revolution were very good at digging these fortifications and many times amazing works like this would be created over night, leaving the British dumbfounded.
Second thing. The cannons closest to us are mortars. During a siege the enemy usually were behind some kind of fortifications. Sometimes stronger than any artillery you may have on hand. Mortars are designed to lob shells over the fortifications and into the enemy or the civilians behind the lines. They can be very effective but were not used in regular field battles.
The cannons in the background would be used for direct fire, aimed at a target and fired at it. During a siege, they would batter the fortifications hoping to break them down so the infantry could take a run at it. In normal field battles these would be used to great effect. We will see many more of these on the site and get into their uses. It was just neat to see bot types of artillery in one picture.
You now how it is when you read about something and then when you see it in reality you are sort of taken aback? That was the feeling when I came across this V-1 rocket. During WW2 the Germans rained these down on Britain. In all almost 10,000 were produced and fired. Even with only about 25% hitting anything close to a target they were an effective and cheap method of warfare that allowed Germany to harass British soil after the Blitz had been turned back.
Power by a pulse jet engine it made a very distinctive sound and became known as the buzz bomb. The guidance system was sate of the art for the time, weights pendulums and gyroscopes, flight control given by compressed air this “autopilot” system meant all you had to do was point in the general direction and watch it fly. If you were lucky the almost 2000lb payload would hit something important. If not, then just hearing them in the air was enough to rattle the civilians.
An Effective Distraction?
Where the V-1 was most effective was in sapping resources from the allied war effort. Not only did Britain have to concentrate on the methods and tactics of intercepting and defeating them, but almost a quarter of all the strategic bombing missions that the Allies carried out on the mainland centered around the underground bunkers that housed the launch and building facilities in Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. On March 29th, 1945 the last V-1 struck British soil and brought the buzz bomb era to an end.
There were lessons learned from these instruments of terror. In a way we still use these weapons today. Everything from the Tomahawk Cruise Missiles to the drones that current are being used to great effect.
The picture above is of a gabion, basically sticks woven together to form a rough barrel. These structures were originally used during the Middle Ages as a sort of mobile fortification. They were light weight and easily transported. Often various sizes would be made to fit within each other so they would stack like plastic cups.
When they arrived where they were intended to be used they would be filled with dirt, rocks, or anything. Suddenly they would transform into a strong fortification. They would be used to protect artillery and infantry positions and could even be found along the edges of the trench works during a siege. If they needed to be moved that would simply be emptied and moved. True mobility.
Used in conjunction with fascines and even bales of wool or cotton, these were commonly used in the Americas during the American Revolution up through the Civil War. In fact, in some places around the world gabions are still used to protect military bases. When used with a little imagination they could also be used to build actual structures. Small houses and even latrines!
Today the gabion is used in various forms for landscaping and erosion control. Whether still made of sticks and dirt, or hi tech plastic and metal, the gabion is still a fixture in the modern world.
The gabions you see above are from the model Continental Army camp at Colonial Williamsburg. Scattered throughout the camp are various examples of fortifications and battlefield accouterments from the period. We’ll see more of those later.
Have you ever wanted your own person Atomic Weapon? Why bother with missiles and bombs when this little beauty will allow you (with help from a couple of friends) lay the smack down on your neighbors, stray cats, or that pesky town down the road that never has enough parking when they put on their farmers market.
What you see above is the M29 Davy Crockett.
This 155MM short-range nuclear weapons system allowed the infantry to get into the atomic fun at a maximum range of 2.5 Miles and warhead that was equivalent to 40 tons of TNT.
It could fire both directly at targets or be lobbed for greater range. It was designed to be used against enemy infantry, armor or against fortified positions.
Two versions of the system were deployed. One was mounted on a jeep and could be fired from that platform. The other was deployed in an armored personnel carrier, when at the firing location the launcher would be set up on a tripod. A later variant was employed at the end of its service by the US 82nd Airborne Division. This version was attached to 1/2 ton truck and could be airdropped wherever it was needed.
Production of this piece started in 1956 and in the just over 2,000 were made and were deployed in units from 1961 through 1971.
Tested several times with live rounds (read as atomic warheads), and more often with depleted uranium rounds, they suffered from very poor accuracy and while they did provide a big boom, their most devastating effect was radiation. From the point of detonation to 500 feet the radiation dosage would be lethal, and probably lethal out to about a quarter-mile. Which really gave the crews very little margin for error.
That just goes to prove, close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and portable atomic warhead launchers. Like its namesake though, I am fairly certain it could take down a bear.
The above shell is from a Whitworth Breechloading Rifle a nice piece of lang range artillery. The gun (and consequently the shell) are classified as a 12 pounder, was made of steel and manufactured in England. They saw most of their Civil War service with the Confederate army and approximately 50 were known to be in service.
These guns had exceptional range, up to 10,000 yards and due the fact the barrel was rifled it was incredibly accurate. A 1864 magazine stated that in a test one of these guns fired 10 shots with a deviation of only 5 inches. This kind of accuracy made them incredibly effective in counter-battery fire (against the opponents artillery) and in this regards they were employed almost the same way that a sniper rifle would be deployed by the infantry.
Most of the units in service were imported via Britain through the US Naval blockade of the South, though in 1861 a single battery of the guns was fielded by the US. As effective as these guns were they did come with a number of draw backs.
The ammunition, such as that above, was difficult to manufacture and the cost of importing through the blockade made the gun very expensive to operate. It could not fire the standard ordinance of the day so it would never reach the heights of popularity. The projectile was actually a long bolt that was twisted to conform with the barrel’s rifling, so it was less of a shell and more of dart.
The second draw back had to do with mechanical issues. Originally the gun was designed as a breech-loader meaning that it was loaded from the rear. This method was faster and actually safer for the crews. However many of the guns in service developed issues with the breech as the mechanism jammed. This caused the gun to revert almost back to the muzzle-loading of a standard cannon. This combined with the cost of ammunition meant the Whitworth was doomed to be a footnote in the war’s history.
What you see above is one of the biggest grasshoppers you will ever see! This six pound cannon, called such because of the weight of the projectile, is a recreation of the small and relatively light model used by both sides during the American Revolution.
This particular one is at the Cowpens Battlefield park and is based on one that the British used during their attack on the Americans under General Daniel Morgan. This model was used a lot by the light infantry on both sides and though it lacked the punch of some of its larger brethren, it could often turn the tide of a battle but firing solid shot, canister or basically anything that would fit down the barrel it was deadly, especially at close range.
So, why was it called a grasshopper?
When moving the cannon into position the crew would often use two long poles that connected to axle. With these poles they could push or pull the piece up and down hills and over rough terrain. It maneuvered much easier than the larger cannons. These poles would be removed once the cannon was in its final position. While they were in they provided the cannon with unique appearance. I tried to find a photo of the cannon with the polls in place, but that is a little elusive. So I will provide the next best thing.
That is about what it would look like, Except, you know, as a cannon and not an insect. At some point we will go over the story of the Race for the Grasshopper that happened during Cowpens. Stay tuned.
People, Places and Things from US Military History