A reader’s question: Paint on the cannons?

Jeanette, a reader, posted a question yesterday on the page for Napoleon Guns:

The Iron and Steel guns would either have been painted or treated with the preservation methods you use for hand-weapons today (if they knew that process then), otherwise they would be rusting rather fast, giving the crew a lot of work removing the rust and oiling the gun, but that would leave a rather shiny surface, visible at very long distance.
Now to my question:
Would Bronze guns be painted too, or would they just be left to get their patina (starting with a matt brownish surface that after many years would get the greenish color you see today)?

Let me start to answer that with some details about coatings on iron guns. By regulation, iron guns received a coat of lacquer, or “lacker” as the Ordnance Manual of 1841 called it

Iron cannon should be covered on the exterior with a lacker impervious to water, the bore and the vent should be greased with a mixture of oil and tallow, or of tallow and beeswax melted together and boiled to expel the water. The lacker should be removed as often as requisite, and the grease, every year.

The manual gave the recipe and instructions for producing “lacker.” When applying the lacquer, the men cleaned the gun surface and applied a coat while the mixture was hot. The manual prescribed two thin coats. For removal the manual called for scraping and scouring, but warned against heating the gun. 5 gallons of lacquer could cover 100 guns.

And notice the instructions expressly avoided lacquer in the bore. The manual was written for smoothbore guns, but even then there was a great reluctance to coat the bore. Later, when rifled guns entered service, there were many accounts of excess lacquer on the projectiles, or in some cases painted on the bore, causing lodgements and thence a burst gun.

British manuals of the period refer to “browning” and “bluing” of iron guns. However I’ve not seen specific, official, references for such for American cannons (… small arms… a different subject).

But what about bronze? No coatings were specified for bronze. But the expectation was that metal was polished, or at least maintained without any tarnish. Certainly the “green” patina seen on most guns today was out of the question.

Did the artillerists worry about all those lacquered and polished guns giving away their positions? I’d say no (although, I can’t cite any direct sources). A great deal of the effectiveness of artillery was simply “being” on the battlefield at a key position. Remember this was before the days of smart munitions and lavish use of indirect fire. A couple of batteries with shiny guns on the high ground – perhaps with the sun playing off the muzzles as they protruded from field entrenchment embrasures – was indeed a deterrent. And the counter to those shiny guns would be hauling up some shiny guns of your own for counter-battery fire. Once such an affair started, any shiny guns were obscured by the smoke.

But there were exceptions to the rule. One of those occurred at ….you guessed it … Charleston, South Carolina! And that is a story saved for a September sesquicentennial themed post.