From the Artilleryman: Live fire, field test of canister… surprises or affirmation?

Earlier in the spring, while tied up trying to provide day-by-day summaries of several campaigns at once, I flagged an interesting article in The Artilleryman Magazine for note.  So let me circle back to that article as I circle back to my “missed opportunity blog posts” list.

And, just a short endorsement – if you don’t subscribe to the Artilleryman, I do recommend for those with an interest in all things related to artillery.  The magazine recently changed publishers and you will notice several subtle updates to the feel and form.  But the tradition of quality attention to the subject is maintained.

The article I am referring to appeared in the Volume 36, Number 2, Spring 2015 issue.  It is titled, “Event inspires Burrough’s Battery to conduct live fire canister tests,” written by Steve Cameron.  The background is that, at the 150th Battle of Resaca event, reenactors of Burrough’s Battery made some observations during a tactical scenario.  The battery, manning a 12-pdr field howitzer, had a formation of Confederate infantry advance upon them from an unexpected flank.  Though they wheeled and fired a blank round at range of 50 to 75 yards, none of the infantry fell as mock casualties.  Soon the infantry marched over the position with the usual “we got you!” remarks.  Later the battery resumed fire at the main body of infantry, again at close range, with those blanks imagined as canister.  Of course, no notional casualties to the notional canister.

What do you expect?  It’s a reenactment… not reality.  And furthermore, since the last survivors to see exactly what 12-pdr canister would do to a formation of infantry is long gone, we have a hard time visualizing – and thus depicting – what effect that weapon had (has?) when used on the battlefield. Cameron took this as inspiration for some testing on the range:

What wold the effect of canister be at these ranges, fired from this howitzer at live-sized targets?

We decided we would conduct a live fire experiment and find out.  I have shot many rounds of field howitzer canister and am familiar with its effects. It is a thing of beauty.

Now before we go too far, a lot of folks have live fired canister at targets… to include Cameron.  You can find several videos on YouTube showing the “dusting” of canister out on the range… such as this one:

And there have been several good ballistic studies over the years as to the effect of canister on infantry formations.  So Cameron was not (and I don’t think he was claiming to be) covering any new ground.

But what he and his battery-mates did do is setup a comparison between 12-pdr smoothbore and a 3-inch Parrott Rifle.  Again, I’m not saying they were looking at this from some fresh and new perspective. Plenty of reports of canister fire from both types of weapons.  However, what caused me to flag the article for consideration and comment here on the blog are the comparisons made between the two types of weapon.

For the 12-pdr howitzer, the battery used a faithful reproduction of a standard howitzer canister, including 48 one-inch iron shot.  Each of those shot weighed 1,120 grains. They used a one pound propelling charge.  Very much “standard” stuff.  The targets were plywood and cardboard silhouettes, 5 to 7 feet tall, arranged in formation of 24.

For the Parrott, the battery produced a canister constructed with a sabot, aluminum plates, and 88 .69-caliber lead shot.  The lead shot weighed 412 grains. The materials were selected so as to not damage the rifling.  But otherwise a fair representation of what would have been used during the war.  These were used against similar targets as the howitzer.

The battery fired each gun twice at 100 yards range. Then fired two more at 200 yard range.  Cameron’s article provides a detailed summary of how many targets were hit, type of hit (leg, torso, head), and some ballistic detail.  But let me pull out one set of figures for discussion – the number of projectiles that hit the respective targets:

  • Howitzer – 61 of 192 (4 times 48) shot hit the targets – 31%.
  • Rifle – 115 of 352 (4 times 88) shot hit the targets – 33%.

Cameron also pointed out that the sabots and plates also hit among the targets.  But we’ll set those aside for discussion purposes.  The bit I want to focus on is the relative accuracy of both types of projectiles.  As Cameron says while prefacing the tests:

I have heard over and over that rifled guns are less effective at firing canister than smooth-bored ones.  The rifling spins the mass of shot and it leaves the bore in an erratic pattern…..

And his conclusion was:

I was very impressed with the Parrott. The howitzer I expected to work well, but the Parrott exceeded my expectations.

I would say that I hear the comment about canister from rifled guns in nearly every serious conversation on the subject.  Historian Paddy Griffith alluded to the “scattering” as a reason rifled artillery was less of an impact on the battlefield than we might presume.  However, every “field test” that I’ve seen offers contrary evidence.  And I would be pressed to find a primary source which complained of the scattering canister when fired from rifled artillery… and as we all know, men like Henry Hunt were not shy about complaining on such topics as weapon efficiency.

Some “physics” of this all must be held in consideration.  The heavier projectiles from the 12-pdr would arrive on the target with more force.  But even the lighter lead balls of the rifle would have lethal force at the ranges indicated.  And the rifle had more “bits” in the air at the target area than the smoothbore.  The rifle’s canister stack started out in a more compressed package, compared to the smoothbore.  And a small wildcard here is the use of aluminum plates with the rifle to avoid pressing into the rifling (though I would point out that Civil War issue canister for the rifles was purposely designed to avoid taking the grooves also).  Still, the results bring us to a point to consider – the percentage of projectiles put into the target area did not significantly differ between smoothbore and rifled weapons.

Point being, there is a lot of untested “conventional wisdom” which floats around in regard to Civil War artillery.  I’ve mentioned a few here on the blog.  Here we have another – canister from rifled artillery scattered and was less effective.  Is there any basis in fact – either from the primary sources or from live-fire field tests, that support that inference?

Regardless of how you answer the question, you must agree that standing in front of those guns – smoothbore or rifled – was an unhealthy place.