Explosion in the turret: Parrott Rifle problems afloat

Parrott Rifles carry a bad reputation for failures.  I’ve mentioned and offered illustration of some failures on Morris Island (and there is more to come when time permits).  But some of those big Parrott rifles served on the monitors off shore.  The Army’s gun crews had the opportunity to place a barrier between them and the gun when firing.  As happened with the Swamp Angel, the Army’s crews could even fire the gun when failures were predicted and expected.  the Navy’s crews were in a closely packed space with little margin for safety.  On Nobember 2, 1863, the crew manning an 8-inch Parrott rifle on the USS Patapsco suffered a tragic incident, which easily might have proved catastrophic.  A report from Commander T. H. Stevens, commanding the Patapsco, offered a few details:

I regret to inform you that during the bombardment of Sumter this day William Cotter and John Morris, landsmen, were unfortunately killed by premature explosion of the rifle gun.

How the accident could have occurred I am unable to determine, as the gun had been fired but once since it had been washed out thoroughly, and the cartridge had just entered the gun when the explosion took place.

The two men killed were the second sponger and second loader of the gun.

Four other men in the turret suffered injuries from the blast, including Lieutenant-Commander Frank Bunce.  The Patapsco had fired ten XV-inch shells and sixty-three 8-inch Schenkle shells up to that moment of the day.  But after the explosion, the monitor cleared off from Fort Sumter and lay back in the channel.

From the description, my guess is the failure was due to an unextinguished ember.  Rifled bores offered several angles in which such embers might avoid the sponge.  The one pound charge of a 3-inch rifle is dangerous enough, but the sixteen pound charge of an 8-inch rifle is exponentially more so.

The Patapsco returned to the firing line on November 3, sending a dozen XV-inch shells and thirty-three 8-inch Schenkle shells towards Fort Sumter.  However, the monitor shuttled back to Port Royal for refit the next day.  This was not directly due to the premature explosion, but more so due to fouling on the hull.  (And while off the gun line, the Patapsco was used in experiments related of John Ericsson’s obstruction removing device – this time with explosive charges.)  While no direct order indicates the 8-inch Parrott was removed, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren noted, “It was necessary to replace the rifle gun of the Patapsco,” in a November 4 report.  In a post-war report to Congress (connected to an 1878 testimony by none other than Norman Wiard), the Navy recorded an 8-inch Parrott from the Patapsco which failed:

Navy Parrott rifle gun, No. 6 (150-pounder, caliber 8-inch), cracked in action, on the monitor Patapsco.

With no date given, the connection is speculation on my part.  But given the low registry number recorded and damage to the muzzle, there’s at least circumstantial evidence this was the same gun replaced at Port Royal.  So perhaps the explosion on November 2 weakened the gun to a point that later firings produced a crack, leading to replacement.

Another issue with Parrott Rifles, and with rifled guns of the Civil War in general, was premature explosion of the shells.  A table recording the fires from the USS Lehigh over October 26 to November 4 provided interesting comparisons between her Parrott and big XV-inch gun:


The premature explosion rate of Parrott rifles was 6% over that time.  That of the smoothbore was slightly higher at 8%.  But these are “damned statistics” with a very low sampling for the smoothbore.   No other returns offered a detailed list of shots fired with mention of premature explosions.  Nor do the returns from the Lehigh offer details about the fuses selected for the bombardment.

Questions about the Parrott rifle reliability remained at the fore of ordnance officers ashore and afloat.  For naval officers, the question was much more sensitive due to the nature of the employment in the turrets.  In spite of those concerns, the big rifles remained on the monitors and continued to do damage to targets like Fort Sumter.

(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 78, 79, and 82.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “Explosion in the turret: Parrott Rifle problems afloat

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