The American Mountain Howitzer

In my survey of the field and siege howitzers used in the Civil War, I’ve thus far neglected the smallest of the Federal regulation howitzers.  What the 12-pdr Mountain Howitzer Model 1835 lacked in size, it more than made up for in versatility and handiness in action.  The story of this weapon actually begins in the early years of American history.

Mountain howitzers (or guns for that matter) are special artillery intended for use in rough, broken terrain where lack of roads which would restrict movement of conventional field artillery.  The key to mobility for a mountain howitzer is weight reduction.  The cannon itself was a fraction of conventional artillery.  Special carriages allowed easy breakdown into pack loads when towing was not an option.   These features made the mountain howitzer useful for small military expeditions where regular formations would not be met.  However, I should point out while mountain howitzers were able to pass difficult terrain, their small wheels reduced their movement speed over open ground.  That, along with reduced range, put mountain howitzers at a disadvantage when facing traditional field artillery.

In the early days of the United States, practically all of the country was rugged woodland without proper roads.  During the American Revolution, light British 3-pdr guns, used by both sides, filled the role somewhat.  Called “Grasshoppers” and “Butterflies,” these weapons required one or two horses, but a contemporary sketch depicting the “Irish method” indicates eight men could shoulder the piece.  But the weapon lacked throw weight to make it worth the effort involved. [Note 1]

British "Grasshopper" on Display at Cowpens, SC

Among the first artillery pieces cast for the new United States were a series of 2 3/4-inch howitzers cast by Daniel King in the 1790s.  These were very light weapons, mounted on small carriages.  Some accounts indicated the option to pack the weapon and carriage on horses instead of towing.  General “Mad” Anthony Wayne used some of these weapons on the early frontier, notably the Battle of Fallen Timbers.  These howitzers remained in the frontier inventory through the War of 1812.  But like the 3-pdr guns, the King howitzers lacked throw weight.  [Note 2]

In Europe, many warring powers during the Napoleonic Wars found a need for a light howitzer to operate in the mountainous regions.  In particular the French developed a 12-pdr (4.8-inch bore) light howitzer, which saw service in the Iberian Peninsula.  Appearing in 1810, the French system included a carriage designed for breakdown into three mule loads, which included ammunition chests.  The entire setup weighed under 500 pounds.  Weapons of this type saw service in Spain, Italy, and North Africa.  Under the post-Napoleonic revisions, the mountain howitzer remained largely unchanged, and was included with the Valée system implemented in the 1820s.  [Note 3]  Some sources cite this as Obusier de 12 de Montagne, Modele 1828.

French 12-pdr Model 1828 Mountain Howitzer (Wikipedia Commons)

In the 1830s, the Army faced a series of campaigns on the frontier, from the swamps of Florida to the mountains of the west.  To meet the needs, Secretary of War Lewis Cass approved the design of a 12-pdr mountain howitzer based on the French type. [Note 4]    The American design featured center-line trunnions, but retained the recess over the chamber as on the French design.   Otherwise the example below, on display at Fort Washington, Maryland, follows the form of its French ancestor.

US 12-pdr Mountain Howitzer Model 1835

Confusion exists regarding the model year of the howitzer.  Based on contract documentation, the Army designated the first batch from Cyrus Alger of Boston as “Model of 1835.”  However the 1862 Ordnance Manual lists the type with an 1841 year model.  Since Alger maintained a single series of registry numbers for weapons of the type produced from 1836 through at least 1870 (!) likely the older year model is correct.  Alger produced 326 of these howitzers, with just under half as Civil War contracts.  The only other Federal vendor of the type was Ames of Chicopee, Massachusetts, with 112 delivered on wartime contracts. [Note 5]

Outside of official Army purchases, both Ames and Alger produced examples for state, militia, and private customers.   Alger delivered two examples to the U.S. Navy for 1847 tests which lead to the boat howitzers used in the Civil War.  On the Confederate side, Tredegar cast a small batch, likely less than twenty-five total.[Note 6]   The Columbus Arsenal in Georgia produced a small batch, evidenced by a surviving piece.[Note 7]

Initially the Army prescribed a carriage which could be towed by a single horse, or packed on two horses.  In either case, another horse packed the ammunition chests.   In this configuration, the howitzer and carriage weighed 515 pounds.

12-pdr Mt Howitzer in Pack Configuration

12-pdr Mountain Howitzer in Pack Configuration

However, after experience in the west, the Army opted for a wider carriage with an iron axle.  This allowed faster towing, but sacrificed the option to pack the weapon.  A single horse could draw the carriage with caisson, but the tree was provisioned for two horses in tandem.   The new carriage, with limber, drove the total weight up to 940 pounds. [Note 8]

12-pdr Mountain Howitzer on Prairie Carriage

The mountain howitzers fired the same projectiles as a 12-pdr field howitzer – shell, case, and canister.   The later was considered particularly useful in the close quarter situations often met on the frontier.  But performance of the shell was also impressive.  In his Artillerist’s Manual, John Gibbon noted, “The total range of the mountain howitzer sometimes reaches 1200 yards, after the shell has ricocheted three or four times.  The 12-pound shell breaks into twelve or fifteen pieces, which are sometimes thrown 300 yards.” [Note 9]

Adopted for service, the mountain howitzers saw wide spread service.   With all due respect for the Napoleons, Ordnance Rifles, Parrotts, and 6-pdrs, the little mountain howitzer was the most important artillery piece in American service during the 19th century.  John C. Fremont brought an example along during his expeditions in the 1840s.  During the Mexican War, Lieutenant U.S. Grant placed one of these howitzers in the belfry of a church to command the nearby streets.  Mountain howitzers appeared in all theaters of the Civil War.  Post-war the mountain howitzers defended far-flung frontier posts and supported operations against the Indians.  At the Battle of Big Hole, Montana in 1877,  John Gibbon, employed one of the mountain howitzers only to have it overrun.

The little howitzer soldiered on well into the 1880s.  Gradually, the Army introduced the Hotchkiss 1.65-inch Mountain Guns, which was another French design, to replace the howitzers.[Note 10]  The 1.65-inch, or 2-pdr as they are sometimes called, saw service in the American west, Spanish-American War, and the Philippine Insurrection.

Hotchkiss Mountain Gun (From Wikipedia Commons)

Hotchkiss 1.65inch Gun (Wikipedia Commons)

To supplement the Hotchkiss guns, the Army purchased several British-produced Vickers 2.95-inch mountain howitzers in 1899-1904 for use in the Philippines.  These weapons saw service through the World War I period (though not in combat).  UPDATE:  A few of these guns saw service in World War I, and were also in action in the Philippines in World War II!  An additional “stable-mate” for the Vickers gun was a 3-inch howitzer cited as Model 1906, 1911 or even 1920 by different sources.  Apparently the howitzer fell victim to tight budgets.

The story of the American mountain howitzer does not end there.  In 1920, based on World War I experiences, the Army sought a light weapon intended for use in broken and remote terrain.  After many years of development and refinement, in 1927 the Army standardized the “Howitzer 75mm Pack M1” placing it on “Carriage M1,” which easily broke down into four 225 pound mule loads.  Echoing the “prairie carriage” of old, “Carriage M3″ appeared for use in the Army’s last horse cavalry divisions.  The M3 carriage used a split trail and pneumatic tires, but without the option to break down into mule loads. [Note 11]  This weapon served with distinction in World War II in all theaters of war – from the Airborne landings in Europe to the jungles of New Guinea.  Post- World War II service included Korea, Vietnam, and many smaller operations in between.

M1 75mm Pack Howitzer (Wikipedia Commons)

In fact, many US Army installations today have one or more of these 75mm howitzers.  Re-designated M116 in the 1950s, these howitzers now perform ceremonial duties as saluting guns.

Oh, and one more “This story ain’t done yet” note.  In 2005, the Army adopted a new lightweight gun system for use in difficult terrain where self-propelled artillery could not venture.  At 7,000 pounds, the 155-mm M777 Howitzer is not lightweight compared to its ancestors mentioned above.  It goes to war, not pulled by horses or mules, but slung beneath a helicopter or towed by a truck.  Different means, but the same concept – get a howitzer to a point up in the mountains or far away from roads, where the enemy does not expect to find one.

And I think even John “He Who Limps Twice” Gibbon would be impressed with the modern howitzer’s 24,000 yard range using GPS enabled, precision guided munitions.

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Notes:

1.  In addition to the link, also see Grasshoppers and Butterflies:  The Light 3-Pounders of Pattison and Townshend, by Adrian B. Caruana, Museum Restoration Service, Bloomfield, Ontario, 1979.

2.  A short summary of the King Howitzers appears on page 72, Round Shot and Rammers, by Harold L. Peterson, South Bend Replicas, Inc., South Bend, Indiana, 1969.

3.  Anthony L. Dawson, Paul L. Dawson, and Stephen Summerfield, Napoleonic Artillery, The Crowood Press, Wiltshire, UK, pp. 161-165.

4.  William E. Birkhimer, Historical Sketch of the Organization, Administration, Material, and Tactics of the Artillery, United States Army, James J. Chapman, Washington, D.C., 1884, p. 282.

5.  James C. Hazlet, Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks, Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, Revised Edition, University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2004, pp. 134-7.

6. Ibid. pp. 137-8.

7. Edwin Olmstead, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker, The Big Guns:  Civil War Siege, Seacoast, and Naval Guns, Museum Restoration Service, Bloomfield, Ontario, 1997, Appendix D124, p. 332.

8. Instruction for Mountain Artillery, Prepared by a Board of Army Officers, Gideon and Company, Printers, Washington, D.C., 1851.  The manual is also the source of the illustrations provided.

9.  John Gibbon, The Artillerist’s Manual, D.Van Nostrand, New York, 1862, p. 268.

10.  Birkhimer, p. 295.

11.  Ian V. Hogg, British & American Artillery of World War Two, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, 2002, p. 51.

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3 responses to “The American Mountain Howitzer

  1. Pingback: Origins of the American 6-pdr Field Gun | To the Sound of the Guns

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  3. 1st SGT C. Brulle 13th MO Light Artillery CSA

    Having experience with using a horse drawn mountain howitzer in field for over 15 years I can tell you about the shock that comes when cavalry or infantry suddenly find out they are facing a cannon in the field feels and looks. We currently have one and are building another. We have been doing artillery like this since 1995. You should see us.