Naming names: Conventions when classifying rifled projectiles

When establishing a pattern to present the summary reports, I opted to include several pages from each quarter which detailed the projectiles reported on hand for each battery.  This added four more “snips” per section.  But I felt the return on that labor investment was of value.  In particular, since we read of preferences between the different types of projectiles, this may – stress, may – provide a data baseline to consider.   Did the Federal batteries use more of one pattern of projectile?  How much canister were in those ammunition chests?  And similar questions might be addressed, or at least approached. Then again, given some data irregularities, which I try to point out during the presentation of each set, we must “work” with the data.  The ‘grain of salt’ rule need apply.

A by-product of constructing and transcribing those projectile sections is the need to review the column headers.  Specifically, there is a need to understand the nomenclature (leading down some fun research paths to destinations such as the Tatham Brothers).  For the smoothbore projectiles, there is some variation that need be discussed.  But nothing like the veritable full spectrum presented across several pages detailing rifled projectiles.  Far from generic “rounds” for rifled artillery, each column speaks to a particular design, function, and caliber.

Keep in mind what we “know” about rifled projectiles.  We have source material which helps explain these variations.  But that is not complete, leaving unanswered questions.  We also have artifacts on hand that speak to variations not documented.  So for any discussion of artillery projectiles, we must adopt a hybrid between wartime designations and classifications adopted by later-day authorities.  And when I say “we”, I’m referring to authors of reference materials, along with those who discuss these matters, and, of lesser significance, those of us who blog about the subject.

The short version of this all, we have five basic attributes to consider when classifying rifled projectiles:

  • Caliber – For rifles, I prefer to use the diameter of the weapon’s bore as opposed to the projectile diameter.  This is a clear unit of measure as opposed to the “pounder” designation.  Different authorities used different standards when using the pound caliber designation. So those suffer precision. In contemporary writing, a “6-pdr”, “12-pdr”, or “14-pdr” James rifle may actually be the same caliber… maybe.  That said, I often refer to the 10-, 20-, and 30-pdr Parrott rifles, as that was actually stamped on the guns.  I find such nomenclature does well to delineate the very slight differences in calibers (i.e. 2.9-inch vs. 3-inch Parrotts, also 6-pdr smoothbore and rifles from the 20-pdr Parrotts).
  • Design – Referring to the inventor, patent, or in some cases the manufacture.  For example – Hotchkiss, Schenkl, Dyer, Parrott, James, and Tatham.  Beyond those “Federal” types, we need expand the list for Confederate, foreign sources, and many experimental or limited use designs.
  • Payload – Start with four basic categories – solid shot/bolt, shell, case shot, and canister/grape.  There are sub-categories within these, but those are the four familiar to any student of the Civil War.  An example of a sub-category is “cored shot” used by larger caliber Navy guns.  Another is “bullet shell” as a form of case shot.
  • Fuse – While issued to the battery separate from the projectile, there are reasons to use the fuse type as an attribute.  Namely, the Ordnance Department tracked projectiles by the fuse intended for use.  And different fuses were used for effect on the battlefields.  That said, the high-level fuse categories are time, percussion, combination, and concussion fuses.  Of course there are plenty of variations, sub-categories, and types within the category designations.  Bormann fuses are time fuses, for instance, and should be considered distinct from paper time fuses.
  • Pattern Variation – This attribute is mostly defined and applied by us after the fact.  The inventors improved their projectiles over time.  There were manufacturing variations.  And, sometimes, there were simply differences to note.  While some of these may be documented by way of patent applications or correspondence, others are just variations noted from close examinations of surviving projectiles. Most projectile reference books offer type-numbers for these.  Of course there are sub-pattern and other classifications which further complicate precision.  I would also put in this attribute’s measure variations such as “long” and “short”; or “pointed” and “flat.”

I present those five attributes for classification here, yet write in a direction to avoid a “down in the weeds” discussion of projectiles at this juncture.  Rather, my intent is to offer a simple bridge for those “just interested” over to those willing to engage in a deeper, more detailed, discussion. It is important, I think, that we at least get the names correct.

As I follow Indiana Jones’ view in regard to artifacts (“It belongs in a museum”) and keep no “stash” myself, my focus is how those projectiles were processed, issued, handled, and used.  So I use the classification and naming conventions to reconcile the documentation to what we “see” and “know” today.  This makes the last-listed attribute (Pattern variation) less necessary, though still useful.  Likewise, fuses are not often directly mentioned in wartime conversation about ammunition.  So my convention is to simply start with the caliber, design, and payload.  From there, I’ll expand the nomenclature where clarity is required. A few examples that will illustrate even that simplicity has pitfalls:

  • 3-inch Hotchkiss case shot – straight forward classification.
  • 4.2-inch Schenkl shell – We might want to add a reference to “James” or “Parrott” here.  The 12-pdr siege guns converted to James, or the 30-pdr Parrott were of the same bore size.  So consider 4.2-inch Schenkl “James” Shell as more precise, but cumbersome.
  • 10-pdr Parrott Shell – While the 10-pdr designation probably would suffice, let us keep in mind the slight bore change between the early and later Parrotts of that size.  Maybe add “2.9-inch” in parenthesis if there is any ambiguity?  But the risk of redundancy shows up here.. should this be a 10-pdr (2.9-inch) Parrott “Parrott” Shell?  Sometimes too much clarity lends to confusion.

But often even that is not sufficient.  Consider the Hotchkiss columns from the summaries:


The clerks in the Ordnance Department were told to track separate columns for shells with different fuses.  They list “percussion shell” and “fuse shell”.  And with some conjecture, those can be interpreted to percussion fuse and time fuse.  Though, “fuse shell” could also refer to combination fuses.  So we really can’t pin it down with certainty. Still, we know the powers-that-be wanted to track shells with different types of fuses. It mattered to them, so it must have been important at some level.

Other questions arise from review of the columns.  Wiard’s name is associated with 2.6-inch and 3.67-inch calibers.  But were all projectiles in those calibers for Wiard’s limited production run of guns? And how we have to reconcile the payload “bullet shell” against “case shot” which are indicated separately?

Again, we are at a point demonstrating that names of things matter.  Towards that end, I’m going to weave in a few posts to provide my “take” on the column headers for these rifled projectiles.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: