Predecessor of Great Guns: Griffen’s Wrought Iron 6-pdrs

As I have related in previous posts, even while the American Army held the  Model 1841 6-pdr as its standard for some twenty years, the existence of experimental, special purpose and non-regulation types, along with the limited production Model 1861, allude to continuing efforts to improve field guns.  Another thread in the 6-pdr story offers not only another variation in gun production, but a foundation for a weapon among the war’s best – the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.

Earlier, I introduced Daniel Treadwell’s work with wrought iron cannon and the promising, yet inconclusive testing.  The failure of a gun on the USS Princeton in 1844 put a damper on official efforts with wrought iron.  However even a casual review of the patent files demonstrates plenty of minds continued experiments with wrought iron cannons.  R.F. Loper of Philadelphia, Salmon Hunt of Connecticut, and Albert Eames of Massachusetts filed patents along with additional patents by Daniel Treadwell from 1843 to 1855.   Few, if any, of these designs progressed beyond the patent office.

In 1854, iron worker John Griffen, calling on experience with iron supports then in production for lighthouses, suggested a new method for the use of wrought iron.  Griffen approached Samuel Reeves, president of the Phoenix Iron Company, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania,  to produce cannons using this new form.  I’ve covered the details of Griffen’s construction technique in an earlier post (along with later developments that improved the construction technique).  Briefly, Griffen wound hot iron bars around a central mandrel in a spiral pattern with three layers.  The workers then put the hot mass into a rolling press to weld the iron and force even joins.  After rolling then milling, the workers attached trunnions with additional welding and bored the gun out to the appropriate caliber.  In accordance with patent No. 13, 984 granted in 1855, the boring removed most, if not all, of the mandrel.

Illustration from Patent Number 13,984

What emerged after milling was a gun weighing about 700 pounds, but likely resembled the regulation bronze guns in exterior appearance.  The first of Griffen’s guns went to Fort Monroe for tests in 1854. Not until 1856 were tests concluded.  After passing a regulation proofing, the gun survived 500 more rounds showing no damage.  Tests continued with increasing levels of powder charge and number of shot.  Only with seven pounds of powder and thirteen shot did the gun fail.

The Ordnance Department ordered additional guns of this type for further tests.  One of those survives today on display at Phoenixville in a display shelter.  Historians have used the identification “Griffen Gun, Type 1” to classify this weapon and others used in the early tests.

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Griffen Gun, Type 1

Dimensions and weight put this gun closer to the “light” bronze 6-pdrs.  The display prevented measurement of the exterior, but the base ring appears smaller than the Model 1841 guns.   The gun retained the chase ring and muzzle swell of the bronze weapons.

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Muzzle of Griffen Gun Type 1

And the muzzle moldings. (And you gotta love the unification theme in the background!)

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Muzzle of Griffen Gun Type 1

While promising, no orders immediately followed the tests of Griffen’s guns. Phoenix did sell one example, formed to a 3-pdr caliber, to the Russians.  But no other purchasers came forward.  Then on the eve of the Civil War, the U.S. Ordnance Department ordered four guns produced using Griffen’s technique, but with a 3.5-inch bore.  The guns were for testing rifling, with additional boring done after delivery to the Army.  Delivered in August 1861, little is known of their tests and none survive today.

Presumably these lead to the next logical evolution of the type, which bore fruit as the famous 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.  The question does arise about the external form.  Were these four test guns simply repeats of the Griffen Type 1?  Or were they machined to a simpler exterior form?

Adding some weight to the later premise are surviving 6-pdr smoothbore wrought iron guns from Phoenix, all produced in 1861.  One of those guns, in an unfinished form, is on display at Phoenixville near the original Griffen gun display.  Historians identify this gun and similar pieces as “Griffen Gun Type 2.”

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Unfinished 6-pdr Griffen Gun Type 2

Note the lack of any rings or moldings.  The reinforce is a plain cylinder.  From there, the gun gradually tapers to the muzzle, with perhaps the last eight inches with a very slight flair.

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Breech of Unfinished 6-pdr Griffen Gun Type 2

The knob remains unformed, without a neck, thus alluding to the block insertion mentioned in Griffen’s original patent.  Note also the “tabs” on top and bottom of the breech, similar to those used on 12-pdr Napoleon bronze guns.

One finished gun of this type is displayed today at the Pennsylvania Military Museum.

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6-pdr Griffen Gun Type 2

The finished gun’s muzzle face and bore appear more so a smaller version of the familiar 12-pdr Napoleon…. only smaller.

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Muzzle of the Griffen Gun Type 2

These wrought iron 6-pdrs weighed around 1020 pounds each.  The guns measured 75 inches overall with a 63 inch bore.  The diameter around the breech was 10.5 inches.  Such particulars put the weapon more to the size of the 12-pdr field gun than its lighter 6-pdr cousins!

Another example stands outside the “Wax Museum” at Gettysburg.

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Griffen Type 2 at Gettysburg

The outdoor photos show the lines of the reinforce cylinder and the very slight muzzle swell in contrast.

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Muzzle of Griffen Gun Type 2

No US acceptance marks appear on the surviving Type 2 guns.  These are believed to be among the guns purchased by Pennsylvania to arm the state militia in response to invasion threats during the war.  Regardless of their service history, the Griffen Type 2 more resemble the 12-pdr Napoleon more than any of the 6-pdrs produced for Federal contracts.  The heavy size may allude to intended use on the testing ranges and thus may link the survivors to the four ordered by the Ordnance Department in 1861.

While probably not fit for field service, the Griffen guns provided the basis for the outstanding 3-inch Ordnance Rifle.  Thus the wrought iron 6-pdr field gun leads into another great technological theme of Civil War artillery – the rifled field guns.  And that, of course, leads us beyond the thread discussion of 6-pdrs.

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3-inch Ordnance Rifle at Gettysburg

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

Hazlett, James C., “The 3-inch Ordnance Rifle“, Civil War Times Illustrated, December, 1968.  Pages 30-36.

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.

Olmstead, Edwin, Wayne E. Stark, and Spencer C. Tucker. The Big Guns: Civil War Siege, Seacoast and Naval Cannon. Alexandria Bay, NY: Museum Restoration Service, 1997.

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

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