Category Archives: Artillery

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.

Fort Johnston Photo Analysis, Part V: Looking across the fort from the east… and maybe a Rebel Ram?

Our next stop on this look at Fort Johnson, as it was in 1865, takes a few steps around that 10-inch Rifled Columbiad and looks back at the face of the works from the east side:


I’ve labeled the location where this photo was taken as FJ4 in the diagram below:


You can see from the two green lines extending from the octagon, FJ4 offers a different perspective of the fort.   The view is slightly elevated.  Based on the perspective of the 10-inch Rifled Columbiad, the camera must have been over, or at least adjacent to, the 8-inch siege howitzer seen in FJ3.

As with many of these photos, there were duplicates made as part of a stereo view.  The Library of Congress has both digitized.  Here’s the second of the set, which is somewhat worse for the wear in some ways… yet more detailed in others:


There’s our old friend in the foreground.


One detail that stands out better in this view is the finish of the metal:


The cannon is in sharp focus, so what do we make of the scruffy looking finish here?  I think we are seeing brush lines from a coat of paint or lacquer applied to the metal.  We may also be seeing tarnish or rust over that finish.

Oh, and earlier I mentioned the missing truck wheels… well while snipping from the photo last night, I noticed for the first time….


So after removing the trucks, the Confederates laid them in the gun pit?  Or was this the first step as the Federals dismounted the gun for movement?  I’m still thinking the former.  The Federals never moved this weapon from Fort Johnson.  So why bother pulling off the truck wheels?  A small puzzle of the sort that prompts me to keep looking at these photos… hopefully you share that foible.

The negative is a bit damaged, but we can still see the details of the barrel placed beside the cannon:


Implements, such as this maneuvering bar, remain in place about the columbiad:


Looking behind at the walls of Fort Johnson, this view, more than the others, gives away the construction technique used for the earthworks:


Perhaps that is because this particular face was oriented towards the harbor mouth and thus caught more of the weather.

Looking down that line, this is the view that causes hearts to flutter over on the blackpowder artillery forum:


A Brooke Rifle, two Confederate columbiads, and three mortars. Wouldn’t you like to have those in your back yard?

And this guy “owned” them as of April 1865:


No sack coat.  Just his shirt, suspenders, trousers, and brogans.  Sleeves rolled up.  Must have been warm that spring day.

Looking beyond our friend at the Brooke, there is a team of horses and a sling cart.


Keep in mind the location of that sling cart.  It shows up in other photos.  I’d speculate that the sling cart was most recently employed to move one of the mortars now laying at the waterfront.


These have the distinctive profile of the 10-inch Seacoast Mortar, Model 1840.   No weapons of that type were in Fort Johnson when the Confederates left Charleston.  However, Battery Simkins, just southeast, had three.  So these could be the three mortars from Battery Simkins, which were very, very active against the Federals on Morris Island during the siege of Charleston.

To the right of the mortars are a couple of large beams.


These show up in the perspective of FJ5, which I’ll look at next.  So these are important placemarks in the photo. Otherwise, it is a stack of wood… very large pieces of wood.

But let’s look beyond those mortars and wood beams to see what is in Charleston Harbor:


No vessels waiting in the “roads.” But there is what appears to be a smoke stack and debris.  So what is that?

When the Confederates left Charelston, a number of vessels were scuttled or left derelict.  Three ironclads were scuttled in the direct vicinity of Fort Johnson – CSS Palmetto State, CSS Charleston, and CSS Chicora.   Of the three, the Chicora lay closest to Fort Johnson’s wharf and jetty.   Describing that wreck, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren wrote, “The Chicora alone is visible in any part, and that only a few inches of the casemate at low water.”  I think it is safe to assume that if the casemate was barely at water level, the smokestack was above water.  The Coast Survey team did not annotate the location of the Confederate ironclads on their survey of the harbor.  So we cannot put a name on that wreck, at least to satisfy my standards.  But the smokstack is in the right place to be the remains of the Chicora.

Looking beyond that interesting wreckage, we see the distant shoreline.


This should be parts of Charleston proper and the inner harbor.  But the lens did not capture many details.  At some points on the horizon, we can just make out buildings and piers:


But as you can tell from the small size of this cropped area, the digitized copy degrades to pixels as we zoom down further.   Disappointing, as that would be another interesting study.

Let me close out this stop by returning to our friend at the Brooke:


This gentleman posed like this for at least a couple of moments, knowing his image would be captured on glass plate.  He knew that the photographer was recording him, standing in front of those Confederate guns, as a small testament to the triumph of Federal arms in the Civil War.  This isn’t a stiff, parade-ground pose.  His body is relaxed.  As mentioned above, his dress is very casual, more so that of one on a work detail than a guard or escort.   He has one hand tucked in the waist, and the other as a prop against the Brooke.

But I sense something stern about his facial expression.  Maybe it is the thought of hefting all those heavy mortars, as he marks time until the return home.  Or maybe he just wanted his “war face” preserved to impress those viewing his pose 150 years later.

Fort Johnston Photo Analysis, Part III: Brooke 7-inch Rifle in the third gun pit

Continue along with me in this “virtual” walk… back in time… to Fort Johnson as it appeared in the spring of 1865.  We move now to the second photo of the set:


I’ve given this photo the label of “FJ2” on the diagram below, so that we know the perspective from which we are looking:


Please note the photo we are using here is not a scan from the original glass plate.  Rather it is a scan from a mounted print. Still that affords detail worthy of discussion.

The “star” of this photo is a 7-inch Brooke Rifle.


Throughout my sesquicentennial narrative covering Charleston’s siege, I’ve written about the 7-inch Brookes.  These featured prominently in the Confederate defense of Charleston, particularly against the Federal ironclads.  Brookes of this caliber did substantial damage to the ill-fated, ill-designed USS Keokuk.  This particular example in place at Fort Johnson at the end of the war was a double-banded, as opposed to the single-band seen early in the production run or the triple-band version used on Sullivan’s Island.  The 7-inch Brooke at Fort Johnson was one of six at Charleston through the winter of 1865.

Looking at the gun and carriage in detail, we see, like the 10-inch columbiads, the Confederates used axes to damage the carriage:


While this could be repaired, the damage at least ensured the Federals could not make immediate use of the big rifle.  We can’t see any details of the vent.  But I’d assume that was jammed.  I’ve often wondered why the Confederates did not do more to disable the weapons.  But we an be thankful they did not blow up the guns, magazines, and forts. Not only did that save lives at the time, but left a lot of artifacts behind for our viewing.

The relatively intact carriage allows us to peruse other details.  Notice the trunnions and trunnion plate:


This was a standard 10-inch columbiad carriage, but used an adapter with the trunnion plate for the smaller trunnion of the Brooke.  Notice no cap square on the seacoast carriage.  Notice also the square nuts for the ties.  Those on the trunnion plate do not have washers.  But the transverse tie (below the trunnion, facing us) has a washer-like fitting.

Shifting back to the breech, we see a good profile of the Brooke with bands and blade cascabel:


At the top of the breech is the rear sight base with brackets and fittings:


The Brooke casabel was pierced for an elevating screw.  Such was standard outfit for naval mountings.  On land, the seacoast carriage was not easily adapted for use of the elevating screw.  So we see in the photo an anachronistic throwback:


Yes, a quoin wedged in there under the breech.

As for the forward sights, the sight base over the trunnions is bare:


There is another sight base on the muzzle:


Also note the tampion in the muzzle.  Again, I’m amazed that the Confederates would leave the weapon’s accouterments in place.

Beyond the Brooke is the last gun position in Fort Johnson and an 8-inch siege howitzer.  Even with the lower resolution of this scan, we can see one of the posts in the line between Battery Simkins and Fort Sumter.


Also within range of this resolution are the details of the turf making up the fort’s walls:


Bricks or cut sod?

The crown of this portion of the wall is already showing harm from neglect and wear:


And beyond Fort Johnson, we have another glimpse of Fort Sumter:


The resolution does not provide many details.  Perhaps the masted vessel seen to the right of the fort in FJ1 had moved on by the time the photographer snapped FJ2.

Before leaving this photo, let me mention the “star” of this photo as a possible survivor.  The Charleston Museum’s archives include a photo of what may be the same Brooke Rifle (or at least a similar one) being excavated at the fort.  That photo is undated, but likely from the first quarter of the 20th century.  The gun in the photo was later placed in “The Battery” at White Point:

Charleston 4 May 10 035

I’d give it about 90% odds that the Brooke in the wartime photo is the same pictured being excavated and thus is the same on display today.  As if you didn’t have enough reasons to visit Charleston’s Battery, there’s a chance to connect with a wartime artifact with a story to tell.

Next up, we’ll “walk” a bit further down the line to the last gun position at Fort Johnson.