Cannon Breech Failure at Fort McHenry

On Saturday we took in the sights and sounds of the celebration at Fort McHenry for the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner.  One feature of the event was cannon firing.


Lots of cannon firing.


From a line up of cannons:

Ft McHenry 200th 004

At one point on Saturday morning the shots were fired every two minutes.  Granted those were not live rounds.  Rather the demonstration was with blanks.  But those still pack a wallop and command all the respect of a real projectile.

Case in point, today the National Park Service announced a failure of one of those guns:

At approximately 11:30 a.m. on September 16, the park’s living history gun crew used black powder to fire a salute to a passing ship as part of the weeklong series of events celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner. The firing of black powder in the reproduction cannon caused the breech to dislodge. The breech is the mass of metal at the rear end of the cannon.

There were no spectator injuries;one of the members of the cannon crew suffered minor flash burns on one hand.The cause of the accident is under investigation.

The NPS has suspended the black powder historic weapons firing program at Fort McHenry. The immediate area around the Water Battery remains closed but the rest of the park remains open.

The cannon crew was saluting the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle and The Pride of Baltimore II.

Thankfully, nobody was seriously injured. The press release points to a metal failure and not to anything the crew did.  From what I saw on Saturday, the crews were keeping to safe practices.  That was important given the rapidity of fire.  Though I write that while acknowledging the incident is still under investigation.

Anyone who has worked with cannons such as these knows the respect a crew has to show to the weapon.  Blank rounds do not alleviate the dangers.  In this case, even with no projectile to push, a blank charge brought about a burst gun. This was a gun made in recent years, with modern machinery, with benefit of 200 years of metallurgical advances from the time when similar guns fired real projectiles at real targets off the point at Fort McHenry.  Metal can and will fail.

One of my personal “druthers” is in regard to firing original guns.  Some folks do such, and I don’t have a problem there.  In most cases they’ve taken the time to check the guns and mitigated any risk.  But don’t ask me to pull that lanyard!  I’d rather not be the guy who turned a historical artifact into a pile of scrap.


6 thoughts on “Cannon Breech Failure at Fort McHenry

  1. To clarify the comment about shots fired every two minutes on Saturday morning: a round was fired every two minutes. However, each individual piece waited 10 minutes between rounds.

  2. Photos of the burst gun reveal very poor design, seemingly not intended to be fired. The bore goes way too far “aft” toward the breech. The cascabel blew clean off, as if you had removed it with a hacksaw. And right there is the back of the bore, WAY closer than it should be. There was said to be a liner in the bore, but apparently either no plug or cap on that liner or it was very poorly welded.

  3. Sounds like a very interesting and informative living history event. So glad to hear no one was injured in the cannon incident. I agree with the last paragraph of this post; I know some folks firing real Civil War cannons at re-enactments and they’ve done their research and safety checks, but still…would hate to see anything happen to them or their historic pieces.

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