Thursday, February 10, 2011

A bit about Civil War weaponry and ammunition, part 2: Artillery

I admit that I am partial to artillery, because two of my living history groups - The 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company I and 1st West Virginia Light Artillery, Jacob's Meadow Battery (we're sort of a hybrid group at this point) - demonstrate the firing of a mountain howitzer on a semi-regular basis. I have also fallen in with other groups over the years, sometimes being part of their cannon crew as well. Any artillery reenactor will tell you that they have a blast (haha) at their impression.

Anyway...Civil War artillery.

Before the war began in 1861, the U.S. Ordnance Department showed little interest in improving the artillery its arsenals produced. To them, smoothbore cannons had been used heretofore with success, so why mess with a good thing? However, in Great Britain, inventors were encouraged to make improvements on their guns, most notably implementing the rifling system in artillery pieces. "Rifling" refers to grooves inside the barrel of a gun in order to make a projectile spin as it leaves the muzzle, thus improving the weapon's range and accuracy, therefore making it more deadly. The United States was beginning to use rifled muskets in their respective infantries in great numbers during the war (more on infantry weapons another day!).
When hostilities began, and without an arsenal of their own as yet (and only one working cannon foundry, Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond), the fledgling Confederacy seized any stashes of weapons they could find within their borders, especially United States Arsenals, where many women would work. Among these weapons were many outdated smoothbore artillery pieces as well as heavy siege and seacoast guns. The Confederacy would come to rely heavily on imports from Great Britain to supplement their artillery, which became increasingly difficult with the blockade of their ports, and also captured Union pieces.

The North had a great advantage in having not only more foundries with which to make new artillery pieces but also their own arsenals to make ammunition for them. At the beginning of the war, they accounted for 4,000 artillery pieces, with only 165 being field artillery.

Artillery can be classified in many ways: field (easily movable overland in battle), mountain (easily disassembled for use in rugged terrain), siege and garrison (most often used in defense of fortifications), and seacoast (difficult to move and usually used in forts or along coastal defenses). It can also be classified by barrel length, elevation, range, weight (light or heavy artillery), and types and weight of projectiles used (i.e., 10-pounder). Here, I will outline a few of the most popular types.

Artillery pieces fired several basic types of ammunition: solid shot (solid iron balls with no explosive charge; think a small bowling ball coming at you a thousand yards downrange), canister (the most deadly; picture a coffee can full of marbles being fired in your direction), shell (a hollow shell with black powder and a timed fuse), and spherical case, which fired shrapnel - often bits of any kind of metal that the men could find to fire.

Artillery groups were formed into batteries, which typically had six guns to it: 4 guns and 2 howitzers (shorter barreled cannons that were more portable and could fire at a higher elevation). Batteries were made up of about 100-125 men to man the guns. In battle, several batteries would be put in line together in order to fire in a row upon the enemy. A battery could fire off 2 or 3 shots per minute.

The most popular types of cannon used on both sides included:

*24, 12, and 6 pound howitzers - typically used in the field, designed to lob shells at higher angles rather than straight-on. Often discarded by Union artillery early on in favor of the Napoleon. Bronze. Smoothbore.
12-pound howitzer

* Napoleon, Model 1857 12 pounder - modeled after a gun commissioned by France's Napoleon III in the 1850s. Easily movable gun, often in the front lines, and a favorite of both sides. Bronze. Smoothbore.
*Parrott Rifle - An example of the newer rifled artillery very popular on both sides. Made of iron instead of the traditional bronze. Had band in rear for reinforcement. Weighed less than the Napoleon but twice as accurate. * 3inch Ordnance Rifle Model 1861 - Probably most popular piece of the war. Also known as Rodman rifles. Could use same ammo as the Parrott due to them both having the same sized larger bores. *Whitworth - a 12-pounder breechloading gun developed in England, which saw some use especially in the Confederate armies, including at Gettysburg. It had a hexagonal barrel and could only fire its own oddly-shaped projectiles, but up to 5 miles.

Pictures and information from

Other information from Lawrence T. Russell's Civil War Arms and Firepower.

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