Origins of the American 6-pdr Field Gun

To start the discussion about 6-pdr field guns used in the Civil War, let me first turn to the origins of that “class” of weapon.  Looking back to colonial times, combatants used 6-pdr guns in North America long before there was a United States.  The type remained in the active inventory through the end of the Civil War.  Over that span of time, the introduction of different makes and models of 6-pdrs reflected the advances in ordnance design.  Although the colonial, revolutionary, and early republic period guns were not actively used in the Civil War (that we know of), a look at the types provides a basis for discussing the later types that did see service.

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British Iron Light Field Gun of Colonial era

The 6-pdr “family tree” has roots with European weapons brought to the colonies from the earliest settlements.  These varied in size and caliber, with little uniformity.  Aside from weapons allocated to fortifications, the colonizing powers found a need for light, horse-drawn field artillery.  Considering the weight of ammunition, the British standardized 3-, 4-, 6-, 9-, and 12-pounder calibers.  I briefly discussed the 3-pdr caliber guns as the operational predecessor to mountain howitzers.  While common, these ultra-lights were not heavy enough for the field artillery supporting large infantry formations.  The 9- and 12-pdrs were considered “medium” guns, and the heavy hitters of the artillery park.  Iron and bronze 4- and 6-pdrs armed the “light” batteries.

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British Blomefield Light Bronze 6-pdr - War of 1812 vintage

While the majority of the surviving pieces today date to colonial or Revolutionary periods, a few are War of 1812 vintage.  The later represent the evolutions in British gun design in the Napoleonic era.

Of course the British guns were not alone in early America.  French, Spanish, and even Sweedish guns found their way into the artillery parks.  The French opted for 4- and 8-pdr field guns.  With different weight scales, their gun bores were slightly larger than comparable English measures.   One of the French 4-pdrs survives today at the Brandywine Battlefield visitor center and museum.

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French 4-pdr Field Gun at Brandywine

Another, longer, French 6-pdr forms the feature exhibit in the Revolutionary War section of the American History Museum, Washington, D.C.

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French 6-pdr - Presented by LaFayette

Note the “dauphins” or handles on the French gun, along with the rather intricate scrolls and crests on the top of the gun.  Later French guns retained the dauphins in a squared form, but reduced the artwork.

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French 4-pdr from THEIR revolution - Washington Navy Yard

While the Americans made wide use of European guns during the Revolutionary War, domestic foundries produced a noteworthy quantity of both iron and bronze guns.   Mount Aetna Foundry, near Hagerstown, Maryland produced several iron guns.  One at Boonesville, Maryland measures out as a 4-pdr (although my measurement notes are not exact, so this could be a short 6-pdr).

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Mount Aetna Gun at Boonesboro, MD

These guns followed British convention with regard to external form, including the low set trunnions.  The design reflects the writings of John Muller, British gun-maker from the mid-18th century.  Although I would point out that Muller recommended center-line trunnions and discounted the need for “rings” on the gun.  Another Mount Aetna gun is at Hagerstown, in a still unfinished state.

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Unfinished Mount Aetna Gun

The Americans produced bronze light field guns also.  Both Paul Revere of Boston, and Johnathan Byers of Philadelphia produced such guns.  Today the Charleston Museum, in South Carolina, displays two of Byers’ guns.

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American 6-pdr Field Gun on Reproduction Carriage

The first of the Charleston pair replaced the “royal crest” seen on European guns with an artistic “U.S.” over the breech.

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"U.S." Crest on Gun

The display of the second gun of the pair allows for a better profile view.

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Profile of American 6-pdr

The “U.S.” crest on this gun is slightly different.

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Breech and Crest on Revolutionary War 6-pdr

In the middle of the crest is a pike and a “liberty cap.”  Rather interesting for the symbolism chosen by a young America.  Note also in this view the pan around the vent, a common component when gunners used loose powder and linstocks.

Note also the ring around the knob.  In fact, all of the guns pictured here incorporated a multitude of rings at intervals.  Dating back to a time when metal hoops binding loose barrel components, gun-founders were reluctant to give up those features.  Many felt the rings strengthened the guns.  As time progressed, designers reduced and later eliminated the rings.

The two 6-pdrs at Charleston today sat out the Civil War.  Both were gate ornaments at Magnolia Cemetery during the “late unpleasantness.”  Around the time of the Revolution Bicentennial, interested organizations retrieved the guns and restored them.  The carriages are accurate reproductions of those used during the Revolutionary War.

By the War of 1812, the American Army used a variety of light field guns, of domestic and foreign origin, similar to those pictured here.  Standardization only began in 1818 with a “system of artillery.”  The Army’s ordnance officers began providing detailed designs and specifications for guns at that point.  From there, forty years of test, refinement, and evolution produced the field guns used in the Civil War.

6 thoughts on “Origins of the American 6-pdr Field Gun

  1. Hello. Nice page. I do have one question. The iron cannon in the first photo on this page looks familiar. I’m not sure why it is captioned “British Iron Light Field Gun of Colonial era.” I did’t know that the British used any light iron guns in the field and would like more info. The books I have on the subject of British artillery don’t mention one. I said it looked familiar, if it is the one at Washington’s Office in Winchester, VA, it is marked on the breech “Langley” which is not a known British cannon mark, but could be American. If anyone knows of an American iron founder named Langley I’d appreciate hearing about it.

    Thanks
    John Morris aka “cannonmn” on You-Tube

    • John, the gun is indeed the cannon on display at Washington’s office. The only marks I recall seeing were clearly post-manufacture embellishments. I included the photo here to reference the British patterns, documented in Peterson (Round Shot and Rammers), Manucy (Artillery Through the Ages), and of course Muller. Since posting this article I located “lost” photos of better examples of British iron 6-pdrs. Furthermore I’ve examined a British 6-pdr found in a colonial era shipwreck. Perhaps, given the weight, “field gun” is not the proper description, but rather “garrison gun.” Regardless, the early American iron guns inherited features from those British guns.

      Craig.

  2. Craig, thanks. One more thing I’ve belatedly recalled about the “Langley” iron gun at Washington’s Office was that it was cast on its side, with one trunnion up and the other down. You can tell this easily because there’s a clear mould-parting seam all along the top centerline of the gun. That’s the only iron cannon I can recall seeing with a mould-parting line in that position. I wonder if anyone else has seen one like that?

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