James Rifles, Part 1

In my view, the James Rifle was an early war “fad” that came and past.  Much like a teen pop star’s popularity passes quickly, everyone wanted a James Rifle in 1861.  But by 1863, the fad had passed and the weapons were generally discarded in favor of Napoleons, Parrotts, or Ordnance Rifles.  And just as the later piece is erroneously called “Rodman” by many otherwise well versed historians, the James is often misidentified or incorrectly cited.  Part of the confusion within the contemporary accounts, and what precisely should be classified as a James Rifle.  On the other hand that there was not just “one” type of James Rifle.

The weapons are attributed to Charles Tillinghast James, of Rhode Island.  Born in 1805, James was a self-made man.  In spite of limited education, he rose to prominence in the milling industry, and served a term in the U.S. Senate (1851-57).  In the Rhode Island State Militia, he held the rank of Major General.  Apparently in that capacity, he became interested in the firearms industry, and with his background in machinery and design, began to experiment.  These experiments expanded to include cannon, and led to among others Patent Number 14,135, offering specifics for a new type of projectile.

Charles T James
Charles T James

The advancement cited in James’ patent was the use of “fibrous material” were others used soft metal.  Cannon projectiles, unlike musket balls, could not be formed of solid lead.  So to force a solid iron projectile to take to the rifling, contemporary designers often used a soft metal cup at the base of the projectile or a band of similar soft metal around the mid-section.  James felt the metal used would detach in the bore, or perhaps leave a residue behind, which would foul the rifling.  This he opted for, as stated in the patent, hemp to form a sabot around the base of the projectile.  The original patent used a mandrel to force the material outward to engage the rifling.  However, it appears later the mandrel was dispensed with.  Instead James projectiles had a tail section with ribs forming a “cage” of sorts.  Over this cage the “fibrous material” was fitted.  On firing the pressure would force gas into the cage, expanding the material around it, and thus engaging the rifling.

An example of an early pattern James Projectile is on display at the Shiloh NMP visitor center along with a Hotchkiss projectile for comparison:

Hotchkisss (left) and James (right) projectiles
Hotchkisss (left) and James (right) projectiles

Collectors and historians often call these James Pattern I projectiles.  There is not much to go on with regard to James’ experiments, as his notes have never surfaced.  But clearly he found hemp wanting as composition for his sabot.  While the example at Shiloh is missing the sabot, specimens found intact use lead with a greased canvas covering.  The problem was, when fired, the lead tended to break apart.  Shortly after leaving the muzzle, this lead became a danger to any friendly troops nearby.  (Yes, not unlike the danger encountered with modern day sabot rounds from tank main guns.)

So James further improved the design, resulting in the Pattern II.  The cage was dispensed with, and the ribs simply formed off the sides of the projectile body, without the ring at the base.  Tin was used to prevent the breakup of the lead.  However, this in turn brought back the original problem James encountered with rifled weapons – bore erosion!

James projectiles were designed for use on weapons with flat lands and grooves (as opposed to the slant-hook, notched, or other types of early rifling).  The projectiles were produced in calibers ranging from 6-pdr (3.76-inch) up to 42-pdr (7-inch).  Generally since the projectile weighed double the smoothbore of the same caliber, contemporary accounts become confusing when referencing such pieces.  A rifled 6-pdr became a 12-pdr or 13-pdr, for instance.  But through this all, James remained focused on developing the projectile, not the gun.

So to say any particular piece is a “Charles T. James rifled cannon” is technically in error.  Perhaps the best way to put things, these were rifled cannon that used the James system. In particular older iron siege guns ranging from 12-pdr to 42-pdr caliber were rifled in a form compatible with James’ projectiles, to provide useful service in the early stages of the war.  A collection of 24-, 32-, and 48-pdrs were present at the reduction of Fort Pulaski in April 1862.  The weapons impressed all observers at Fort Pulaski.  Chief Engineer Quincy Gilmore wrote in his report of the action,  “In regard to the James guns, the admirable manner in which the rifled motion is imparted to the projectile, the large mass of metal thrown, and the shape of the shot, seem to leave little to be desired in a breaching gun.”  But Gilmore was less impressed with the Parrott 30-pdrs on hand, complaining of a “wabbling motion in flight” and less penetration due to the lighter weight of shot.

Likely this was the high spot in the service life of those old iron guns.  More widely used (and encountered today among the survivors) were the various field guns, typically bronze, which used James projectiles.  But here also enters the issue of nomenclature.  Since James did not produce the guns himself, and since the guns could and did use projectiles of different designs over time, then what is the litmus test for a piece to be called a “James Rifle?”  Some historians have used the caliber as the discriminator.  James specifically designed a 3.80-inch diameter projectile, known commonly at the time as a 14-pdr, for field use.  Thus if there can be a simple specification that defines a “true” James rifle, perhaps the caliber is a proper one to settle upon.

That said, for future posts along this thread, I will explore the following categories within the range of James Field guns:

1.  “True” James Rifles, 3.80-inch or 14-pdr, bronze, cast to the Model 1841 Field Gun pattern, produced by at least four foundries

2.  “True” James Rifles, 3.80-inch or 14-pdr, bronze, cast to the Model 1861 Ordnance Department form, all produced by Ames of Massachusetts.

3.  “True” James Rifles, 3.80-inch or 14-pdr, iron/steel, cast generally like the Model 1861.

4.  Rifled 6-pdr Field Guns and similar types which, incorrectly or not, have been grouped with the James Rifles.

And as a reminder, in addition to these four types mentioned here, a fifth type likely designed to use the James system was the Rifled 12-pdr Napoleons, which were the subject of a previous post.

Bore of a 3.80-inch James Rifle
Bore of a 3.80-inch James Rifle


Aside from on site notes and links provided above, sources consulted for this post were:

Hazlett, James C., Edwin Olmstead, and M. Hume Parks. Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War, Revised Edition. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

Ripley, Warren. Artillery and Ammunition of the Civil War, 4th Edition. Charleston, S.C.: The Battery Press, 1984.

7 thoughts on “James Rifles, Part 1

  1. […] The James Rifle was born in part out of the desire on the part of the military to quickly enter the rifled gun era. Named after inventor and militia general Charles T. James, who worked with the Ames Manufacturing Company until his untimely death in October 1862. There were several models or types of James rifles. Most of these were cast in bronze and fired the James projectile. The Type 1’s were rebored 6-pounders with rifling. The challenge with rifling bronze is the rapid wear on the rifling soon led to inaccuracy of the piece and loss of power, hence range. The James projectile fell out of favor and was replaced by the Hotchkiss projectile. I suggest reading an excellent piece by Craig Swain, a fellow blogger, which provides information on the James rifle (chick here). […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.