A trip to Europe, looking at foundries: The 1840 Ordnance Commission

Last week’s post about foreign 6-pdr field guns was a “resource” post, if not an outright setup posting.  Sort of a background discussion leading me up to some points about European cannons and influences upon American designs.  What I am leading up to is this cannon:

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This cannon marks the battery position for 8th Indiana Battery at Chickamauga (Viniard Field).  At first glance this looks like any old bronze 6-pdr.

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Liège…as in Belgium.

And there’s this bit of service history proudly displayed on the muzzle:

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This weapon’s history takes us back to the end of the 1830s when Joel Roberts Poinsett was Secretary of War.  Aside from introducing the poinsetta to the United States, Poinsett had a very active life as a public servant – Congressman (1821-25), Minister to Mexico (1825-29), and Secretary of War (1837-41).  And, standing apart from many of his fellow South Carolinians, was a strong unionist during the Nullification Crisis.  So Poinsett is an interesting fellow to say the least.

As Secretary of War, Poinsett was a reformer.  In brief, Poinsett proposed many changes to the system of regular and militia forces, aiming for more formality and standardization.  At the low end of reforms, Poinsett pressed for new manuals and better weapons.  But at the high end, Poinsett wanted concentrated Army garrisons, summer training maneuvers that incorporated the militias, and expanded weapon manufacturing facilities.  Some of these reforms got through Congress.  But those on the high end didn’t.

Looking specifically at artillery, the Poinsett years are marked by a series of model numbers for field artillery, easily traced with the history of the 6-pdr guns – Models 1838 and 1840 along with the Model 1841.  And in-between were many experimental types.  Much debate among ordnance officers, and with Poinsett himself, in those days as the Army struggled to find a suitable field piece (arguably, much of that because the Army wanted the “perfect” field piece).

This came to a head in March 5, 1840, when Poinsett wrote the Ordnance Board that he was “…not satisfied that the corps, collectively or individually, posses that practical knowledge which the importance of the subject, both to the country and the reputation of the corps, would seem to require.” Very damning assessment from the boss.  But Poinsett didn’t just call out a problem, he also brought a remedy.  On March 16, Poinsett sent a letter instructing the Ordnance Department to detail a commission of three officers, and one civilian, on a trip to Europe with the mission of gaining the said practical knowledge.  In his letter of instruction, Poinsett wrote:

In the first place, it will be the duty of the board to acquire, as far as may be practicable, all practical knowledge which actual observation may afford upon the following objects, viz:

  1. The process of moulding and casting iron and brass cannon.

  2. The nature of the iron ores and pig metals used, and the treatment of the metal before and during the casting.

  3. The kinds of copper and tin used, and the proportions composing the metal for guns.

  4. The description of furnaces, and the kinds of fuel used in them.

  5. The modes and regulations for the inspection and proof of iron and brass cannon.

These broad objectives meant the board needed to gather information about the process of cannon production from the mines up to the foundry and out to the field.  Continuing with the instructions, Poinsett also authorized the purchase of samples:

The board will likewise obtain, by purchase, iron and brass guns, according to patterns which they are authorized to establish, in numbers sufficient to form a few field batteries; and they will give as much of their personal attention to their fabrication as time will allow, taking specimens of the metals in proof bars, of suitable dimensions for the necessary experiments and tests.

It is that paragraph which authorized the purchase of the cannon pictured above.

The commission consisted of Major Rufus Lathrop Baker, Captain Alfred Mordecai, Captain Benjamin Huger, and former ordnance officer, William Wade (who maintained partnership in a foundry in Pittsburgh, which later became Fort Pitt Foundry).   After spending the summer and much of the fall in Europe, the board returned to provide a very lengthy, detailed report. No doubt, that detail served to impress upon Poinsett that the desired “practical knowledge” was indeed obtained and retained.

In the report, the board provided a full accounting of all purchases.  Specific to the 6-pdr types, there were:

  • Two 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from Gospel Oak works, Birmingham, England.
  • Four 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from foundries in Sweden.
  • Two 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of iron, from the Liège, Belgium foundry.
  • Four 6-pdr American pattern field guns, of bronze, from the Liège, Belgium foundry.

Of that last quartet, two were cast in clay.  The other two cast in sand molds.  As you can see, the secretary’s intent was carried out.  There were sufficient 6-pdrs to outfit three batteries.  And that’s just the light field guns, not counting the heavier 12-pdr field guns and howitzers also purchased at the same time.

These weapons were, as alluded to in the letter, not intended for service use.  Rather these were earmarked for testing.  Most of that, tests to determine the weapon’s breaking point.  Destructive testing.

In a report from March 1844, on the extreme proof of a 6-pdr iron cannon cast at South Boston Foundry (Cyrus Alger & Company),  William Wade mentioned the foreign iron guns.  He compared the performance of the 1844 South Boston gun to tests of at least some of the foreign 6-pdr iron guns between 1841 and 1842 at Fort Monroe:

Of the six guns tried, three were cast in at different furnaces in Sweden, one in England, one in Belgium, and one in the United States.  Two of these burst with the charge of 3 pounds of powder and two balls; one at the 38th, and the other at the 39th fire of the series.  Three of them burst with the charge of 3 pounds and 3 balls; two at the 47th and one at the 49th fire.  The other, one of the Swedish guns, endured once the charge of 6 pounds and 7 balls, and burst at the second, being the 52d fire of the series.  The force of the charge last mentioned, under which the Swedish gun failed at the second fire, is computed to be less than that endured by all the [1844 guns]; the weakest of which, endured that force a greater number of times than the Swedish gun.

So that accounts for five of the eight foreign purchased iron guns.  It also indicates American cannon manufacture progressed smartly in just three short years. Some of that due to Wade’s “practical knowledge” and further experiments.

But what of the bronze guns?  I have not found any details of the tests.  But one of the other Belgian guns survives and is also on display at Chickamauga on the north end of the battlefield, at Douglas’ Texas Battery:

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This one is marked as registry number 4.  That at the 8th Indiana Battery is registry number 1.  In my next post, I’ll provide a walk around of these two historic pieces.  For closing now, let us consider these as “artifacts” which speak to a time of reform within the US Army.  These were “samples” used to derive “practical knowledge” in the art of cannon production.

(Citations from Report of Select Committee, to Inquire Into the Propriety of Establishing a National Foundry for the Purpose of Fabricating Ordnance, Report No. 229, 27th Congress, 3rd Session, US House of Representatives, 1843, pages 242-6; “Report of the Manufacture and Proof of 6 Pdr Iron Cannon Cast at the South Boston Foundry: 1844,” by William Wade, from Reports of Experiments of the Strength and Other Properties of Metals for Cannon, US Ordnance Department, Philadelphia: Henry Carey Baird, 1856, pages 16-17.)

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Comparison: US and Foreign 6-pdr Guns

Those of us with Cold War experience may fondly recall the old ASCC reporting names for aircraft and missiles.  For those who were not gifted with such experiences, in short the NATO countries, along with allied nations around the world, standardized an artificial set of names for Soviet hardware.  Those artificial names served as a framework when discussing the perceived capabilities of the aircraft or missiles.  But not knowing with precision exactly what the Soviets called their weapons lead to a lot of misidentification and incorrect perceptions.  For the historian dealing with such things, we have to work from a perspective of “what did they know at that time?”… furthermore we must ensure that knowledge, or lack thereof, is used as the context when interpreting the sources.

In the 19th century, armies “looked over the shoulder” of their potential adversaries – and allies – just the same as today.  While perhaps not cloaked an air of “James Bond” and all, there was indeed some technical intelligence gathering going on.  With respect to field artillery, we find that manifested in a section within the US Army’s Ordnance Manuals with a title something like “Cannon of Foreign Countries.”

From the 1841 edition:

The materials for the following table have been collected, with few exceptions, from the latest manuals of artillery in England, France, Prussia, and Austria, and from memoranda obtained in Russia and Sweden.

The dimensions and weights are given in our own measures.

The column of exterior length shows the length from the rear of the base ring to the face of the piece, and the length of bore includes the chamber, when not otherwise mentioned.

In England, France, and Sweden, howitzers and mortars take their denominations, as with us, from the diameter of the bore, or from the caliber of a gun of corresponding bore; in Austria and Prussia, from the weight of a stone ball of the caliber of the bore; in Russia, from the true weight of the shell.

This introduction identifies the sources used, to which I would add some data was undoubtedly derived from examination of cannon – particular those captured from the British during the Revolution or War of 1812.  And that point is one good reason to have data on the cannon of other countries – should the situation arise that American officers need to use captured or otherwise acquired weapons.

The introduction also lets us know the data was converted to American standards.  Though at the same time we see just settling on “the name of a thing” was as difficult then as it is today.

In the past, I’ve used the tables to compare foreign and American 24-pdr howitzers.  There we were focused more on weapons imported during the Civil War.  If we switch over to the 6-pdrs, there were certainly some imports to consider.  But also we might use those tables to compare US weapon development to that of Europe.  Much of the American’s research, development, and test programs focused on the 6-pdr caliber between 1815 and 1855.  And some of the data, which made its way onto those Ordnance Manual tables, was used to assess American work.  That in mind, let us consider the data:

6pdrForeignComp

Please note the color coding here.  Green lines are field guns (many, even heavy types, specifically labeled field gun in the tables).  Rose colored lines are siege, garrison, seacoast, or naval guns.  And that one yellow line is for a mountain gun, included simply because the caliber rating in the manual. Entries from England, France (only the earliest manuals), Spain, Belgium, Austria, Prussia, Saxony, Russia, and Sweden.  To that I added listings for US models from 1919 up to the Civil War.  And for good measure, the experimental Griffen wrought iron gun.

As alluded to in the manual’s introduction, the table included bore diameter, exterior length (minus the knob), bore length, and weight.  There were also columns that rated the windage allowed.  While that was an important factor with field artillery, a lot of variables played in there. Worth discussion at a later time perhaps.

The columns for focus in our discussion today are those detailing the length and weight.  And to narrow that focus more, I’ve added a column to show the ratio between the length of bore (in inches) to the weight of the gun (in pounds).  In other words, how much metal was allocated against the length of travel down the bore?

Why that?  Well, length of bore factors into the interior ballistics of the weapon.  And interior ballistics in turn begets exterior ballistic performance.  Guns have longer bores than howitzers, of course.  But beyond that, when comparing a gun of shorter bore to one with longer bore, there are performance differences to keep in mind. And there are limitations that govern the practical length of the bore.  One of those is the weight of the weapon.  In a simple equation, one would desire the longest bore possible within a given weight.  But… we are reminded the thinner the metal, the more susceptible the gun to bursting or other metal performance problems.  All this said… and again, running the risk of over simplification for sake of brevity… the optimum 6-pdr gun would be one with the longest bore, yet with just enough metal thickness (around the breech, mostly) to ensure good performance and reliability.  But not one pound of metal more!  (lest we start discussing the ratio of horse power to pound of gun…)

But not all metals are the same, you say!  Correct.  In the scope of mid-19th century conversations, there was cast iron and bronze (steel, wrought iron, and other options, we’ve discussed before… were more novelties at that time).  Furthermore, prior to the 1840s, copper, the necessary base for bronze, was mined in only small quantities (Vermont was the leading producer, BTW).  But the early United States had plenty of iron!  Later, after the big Michigan copper rush, the War Department realized the US was gifted with plenty of both metals.

All that background in mind, what do we see with the ratio of bore length to weight?  Well, the Model 1819 “Walking Stick” cannon, of cast iron, had a lower ratio than many European bronze weapons.  In fact, it was almost as low, in ratio, to the British light bronze 6-pdr (which the Americans were very familiar with).   A longer bore, and with a much denser metal, yet the Americans left it relatively thin around the breech.  Only 75 pounds heavier and with about five inches more bore.  Would have been interesting to see range trials between those weapons.

On the other end of the time line, the last mass produced American 6-pdr, the Model 1841, was much heavier, by ratio, than the Model 1819 iron gun.  Nearly four pounds per inch of bore heavier!  This made the Model 1841 heavier, again by ratio, than the Napoleonoic era British and French guns.  (And that is a fine point that I lack space to fully develop here – the French and British move to 12-pdr guns as the century progressed.. topic for another day.)  Yet, the Model 1841 does not stand out as overly heavy compared to the other European powers. Particularly when considering the Belgian guns.

The thumb I’d put on the scales here is with respect to the model numbers.  We have documented efforts by the Americans to develop an acceptable (Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett might say “perfect” in the sense of perfection being the enemy of good in this case) field gun.  Acceptable in 1819 was a cast iron gun of relatively light weight.  By 1841, even a bronze gun needed more mass of metal – more than a third more, by ratio of bore to overall weight.

Why?  One word – gunpowder.  Despite having few wars during that first half of the Pax Britannica period, the technology of warfare did not sit still.  By 1861, there was nearly a half century of innovation and refinement to apply towards the grim task of warfighting.

Spanish 6-pdr, Part 2 – The Gribeauval Gun

In an earlier post I mentioned these two Spanish 6-pdr guns at Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida.

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Spanish 6-pdrs at the Castillo

As detailed in that earlier post, the gun on the left was cast in 1762 with a design dating back to the first part of the 18th century.  That gun came into American hands as a trophy from the Mexican-American War.  In this post I’ll look at the gun to the right, which is a Spanish Gribeauval 6-pdr.

That system of artillery is named for French General Jean Baptiste Gribeauval.  Established by royal decree in 1765, this was one of the first systems of artillery adopted by a major power.  And it was certainly the most influential of the 18th century.  While Gribeauval probably didn’t design the entire system himself, but rather directed the reforms.

The Gribeauval system called for lighter guns, weighing no more than fifty times the weight of the shot fired.  The system limited the length of guns to 18 calibers – or 18 times the diameter of the bore.  And Gribeauval removed most ornamentation, although retaining many rings and moldings.  The profile of a 24-pdr siege howitzer demonstrates the main components of the gun design.

24-pdr Gribeauval Siege from Napoleon III's "Studies in Artillery"

The Gribeauval system standardized French service calibers to 4-, 8-, and 12-pdrs for field use.  The system included larger calibers, such as the 24-pdr above, for siege operations and fortification garrisons.

The system also standardized the artillery carriages.  A reproduction example of one such carriage is seen below, from a display at Yorktown Battlefield. (The gun is actually an older Valliere pattern weapon.)

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French 4-pdr on Reproduction Gribeauval Carriage

Unlike the Civil War era carriages, which are more familiar to readers, the Gribeauvals mounted the gun between brackets.  For field guns, the breech lay on top of a shelf.  A hand turned screw under the shelf elevated the gun. And also note the second dip in the brackets.  When transporting the gun, the crew pulled it back to rest the trunnions there.

While successful, the Gribeauval system was not perfect.  Through the Napoleonic era, the French attempted to reform the system but never fully replaced Gribeauval’s in service.  With close family ties between the royal houses, the Spanish army adopted the French system.  However the Spanish opted to use British calibers – 6-, 9-, and 12-pdr in particular.  But the Spanish retained the exterior form.

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Spanish 6-pdr Gribeauval Gun

From muzzle swell back, the gun has a chase ring, rings for the first and second reinforce, and a raised base ring.  The reinforce rings incorporate ogees which are molded steps down on the forward edge of the ring.  Between the reinforce rings are the trunnions and dolphins.  The dolphins are simplified to squared off handles.  Notice the trunnions have rimbases, which helped center the weapon on the carriage.  These were very important where the crew had to move the gun between firing and traveling positions on the carriage.

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Muzzle and Chase of Spanish 6-pdr

Like many Spanish guns, this one has a name – “El Uenado” which I think translates to “stag” or “deer” in English.

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Breech and Inscripton on Spanish 6-pdr

The base ring on the gun contains a typical Spanish inscription set. The gun was cast at Barcelona.  I’m not an expert on the inscription styles used, but the date given appears to be December 18, 1767.  If so, this was among the earliest Spanish Gribeauvals.  The seal of King Charles III appears in front of the vent.  Notice the pierced knob, which may be a modification to fit non-Gribeauval carriages.

No plaques or trophy marks aid interpretation of this gun’s past.  A similar piece, down to the inscription and name, were reported in Cambridge, Massachusetts in a turn of the century guidebook.  Speculation at that time placed the gun as one supplied to the Americans during the Revolution. Very likely this gun served an ornamental purpose during the Civil War, if it was in the country at all.

Yet, from a Civil War artillerist’s perspective, there are a couple of reasons to mention this Spanish 6-pdr.  While few French Gribeauval guns found their way to North America, a fair number of Spanish guns ended up in the U.S. – particularly by way of Florida and Mexico.  I’ve already mentioned some 9- and 12-pdrs at the Navy Yard that saw limited employment during the Civil War.  Occasional references in wartime correspondence mentions “old Spanish guns” impressed for limited service.

The second reason to pay mind to the Spanish Gribeauval is to mention the influence of that system on American artillery design through the 19th century.  Lacking uniformity in the early days of the country, ordnance officers mimicked the French system in spirit, but not in caliber.  While using iron guns similar to British designs, the Americans opted for Gribeauval style carriages.  John Gibbon’s Artillerist Manual of 1861 gave mention to the Gribeauval system, noting modifications made by Americans to improve the carriages.  In reality, Gibbon is perhaps far too generous as the American “modifications” were more to adapt another French system, named for Sylvain Charles Valée developed in 1825-1831.   That system was heavily influenced by the British carriage designs, which Griffin dismissed in the text.

So while the two Spanish 6-pdrs highlighted here had no combat employment during the Civil War, each offers stories.  Those stories tell a bit more about the guns and the men who served them.

Spanish 6-pdr: A Mexican War Trophy with a Story

In light of my recent posts on 6-pdr field guns, foreign bronze guns, and St. Augustine, let me merge the three themes with a story from a Spanish 6-pdr gun.  The photo below shows two Spanish 6-pdrs on display at Castillo de San Marcos.

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Spanish 6-pdrs at the Castillo

Both these 6-pdrs are trophy guns.  The gun on the right is a 6-pdr cast in Barcelona in the later years of the reign of Charles III (1759-1788).  It is a Spanish version of the French Gribeauval type.  I suspect that gun is a Spanish-American War trophy, but particulars are unknown to me (UPDATE: A gun very similar to this one was reported in Cambridge, Mass in 1900).  More is known about the gun to the left – an earlier pattern cast at the beginning of Charles III’s reign.

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Spanish 6-pdr Cast in 1762

That older gun lacks the handles of the Gribeauval-type.  And it has both a trophy inscription and a plaque (and trophy tag) which indicate a little of the weapon’s history.

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Trophy Inscription

The inscription indicates this particular gun was at the battle of Molino del Rey, September 8, 1847.

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Trophy Plaque

The plaque elaborates more, indicating that the gun was cast in Seville in 1762.  Facts confirmed by the base ring inscription.

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Breech of Spanish 6-pdr

As the inscription and plaque show, Mexican troops used this gun at the battle of Molino del Rey outside Mexico City, fought in the closing stages of that war.

Battle of Molino del Rey

I’ll play along with what is likely artistic license and call out the Mexican batteries just left of center in the distance in front of the walls.

In addition to being one of the war’s bloodiest battles, Molino del Rey was one of few battlefield mistakes made by General Winfield Scott during the war.  Noting the Mexican Army was short of artillery and likely casting additional guns, Scott ordered an attack on what was thought to be a cannon foundry at Molino del Rey.

There was no foundry, but the Americans did capture a handful of Mexican cannons from the defenses.  The 6-pdr above was among that set.  There is a chance, although slim, that the three Mexican War vintage 8-inch siege howitzers at the Castillo fought against the 6-pdr during the battle.

The metal “tag” at the base ring of the 6-pdr is similar to that used in the West Point trophy collection.  Such alludes to a quiet Civil War for this particular 6-pdr (although some Spanish and Mexican weapons were indeed used by Confederates during the war).

So cast in Seville, used in battle around Mexico City, and now sitting at St. Augustine – and that is just the part of the story we know.

Imported for the Confederacy: Austrian 6-pdr Field Guns – Part 2

In part one, I introduced an old Austrian 6-pdr at Fort Monroe:

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Austrian 6-pdr Cast in 1812

The old gun resembles the Liechtenstein-system guns developed in the mid-1700s  that formed the basis of Austrian cannons through the Napoleonic Wars.  Beside this gun is an Austrian 6-pdr with a different, cleaner exterior form.

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Austrian 6-pdr cast in 1857

The “new” model 6-pdr retained the semi-circular handles, with round cross-section, along with the low set trunnions.

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Handles and Trunnions

But the Austrians dispensed with all but the reinforce step and muzzle swell ring, offering a very streamlined form.

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Vent Field of Austrian Gun

The vent has a rather generous grain.  Next to the vent is the stamp “No. 1CC” similar to that on the older gun.  Also present is the letter “A” in front of the vent.

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Left Side of Base Ring

Like that on the older gun, the base ring inscription has the administrative data for the cannon.  On the left side is “Nr. 280 729”.

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Right Side of Base Ring

To the right is “Wien 1857.”  An “S” appears below the sight pad.  And note the sight pad is similar to that seen on American weapons of the time.  The Austrian guns probably used a pendulum hausse type sight, not unlike contemporary American weapons.   The plaque at the base suggests the gun was originally a rifle, but bored out to smoothbore.  The lack of sight mounts to the side (seen on the rifled Austrian guns at the Washington Navy Yard) argue against this.   The bore diameter also rebuts the presumption about rifling.

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Bore Measure of the Austrian Gun

The bore diameter is not far off that of the older gun steps away.  Roughly 3-3/4ths inches (or 3.75 inches).  Such is close to the cited bore diameter in the Confederate ordnance instructions.  The line forming a circle around the bore appears to be a machining mark left behind by a turning lathe. But I wouldn’t count out the possibility the Austrians used a bore liner insert, particularly with the four spaced “dimples” along the line.

Mention of these Austrian guns in the Confederate instructions indicates the new owners considered the weapons “battle worthy”.  However, little mention is made of the type outside the ordnance manuals.  Like the 24-pdr field howitzers from Vienna, these 6-pdrs probably saw limited service in the backwater garrisons.

For comparison, consider two of the rifled Austrian field guns at the Washington Navy Yard.  Here’s a “new” pattern gun cast in 1854.

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"New" Austrian Rifled 6-pdr at Leutze Park

On the other side of Luetze Park is a rifle using the older form, cast in 1843.

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"Old" Austrian Rifled 6-pdr at Leutze Park

The artifacts on display at Fort Monroe and the Washington Navy Yard do tell a story about weapons development.  As the Americans did on this side of the Atlantic, as the Austrians first deployed rifled artillery they opted to reuse existing bronze gun patterns.  The Austrian guns are analogous to the bronze James Type I and II rifles produced here in the U.S.

In addition to about a hundred thousand Lorenz muskets, the Confederacy imported several dozen bronze field pieces from Austria.  A handful of surviving weapons tell the story of those imports today.

Imported for the Confederacy: Austrian 6-pdr Field Guns – Part 1

Earlier this year I made comparisons between the US Model 1841 6-pdr and weapons of similar caliber in Europe.

Although the Army purchased a handful of foreign made weapons for comparison tests, prior to the Civil War the American cannon market remained “closed” for the most part.  Of course the market opened with the start of South Carolina’s secession, and by the end of 1861 Confederate purchasing agents were buying up anything that could shoot.

Among those purchases were several bronze field pieces from Austria.  I’ve discussed the Austrian 24-pdr field howitzers and 3.75-inch rifles in earlier posts.  The later, as those familiar with Civil War artillery will quickly note, are simply rifled versions of the standard Austrian smoothbore 6-pdrs (perhaps using the La Hitte system, but that is for another post).  The Confederacy also imported smoothbore 6-pdrs from Austria.

Two of the rifled guns at the Washington Navy Yard are from a pattern used by the Austrians in the 1850s.  But a survey of surviving Austrian 6-pdrs in the U.S. today, and other rifled examples at the Navy Yard, indicates the Confederates acquired some older patterns also.   The Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe, Virginia has examples from both a pre-1820 pattern and the later 1850s pattern.  (ClarificationThe pre-1820 gun has most of the external forms used in the Austrian Liechtenstein system dating to the 1750s.  But as I am not familiar with the fine grained history of Austrian artillery, I will not attempt an authoritative identification.)

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Austrian 6-pdr Cast in 1812, background 6-pdr Cast in 1857

In profile, the 1812 Austrian gun has many features found on Napoleonic-era weapons.  The muzzle swells out sharply and has a ring around the thickest part.

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Muzzle Profile of Austrian Gun

Three reinforce rings, complete with ogees, decorate the back third of the gun.  Handles or dauphins on the 2nd reinforce are above the low set trunnions.

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Trunnions, Handles, and Reinforce Rings

The breech of the gun has a cascabel mounted on a broad neck with a fillet.  The neck itself has a fillet at the knob.  The breech face has several slight rings before joining the base ring.

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Left Side of Base Ring

Reading around the base ring, the inscription reads “Viet Nyey” on the left and “Major in Wien 1812” on the right.

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Right Side of Base Ring

Looking back at the vent field, the gun has stampings that read “No. 1 A” and “No. 1 CC”.  But their meaning is lost today.  Another stamp appearing to be the letter “A” is in front of the first reinforce ring.  Holes around the breech and vent indicate several sighting mounts and perhaps a hammer device at one point.

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Vent Field of Austrian Gun

Further forward, the reinforce ring below the handles indicates “N.171” which we take to be the registry number (or at least some administrative number).

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Handles and Stamps

That number appears again between the handles in a very crude inscription.  Above that, in another crude stamp is “6.C.82H” which should translate to the weight of 838 pounds (682 Austrian pounds multiplied by 1.23, converting into 838 English pounds).

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Bore Measure of the Austrian Gun

The bore measures just a bit under 3 3/4th inches – very close to the 3.73-inch measure indicated on reference tables in the Ordnance Instructions.  This measure is of course significantly larger than American 6-pdrs.  The Confederate instructions deal with this incompatibility noting “By having the balls enclosed in canvas, the ordinary ammunition issued for the approximate calibers in the C.S. service may be used with these guns….” (The Field Manual for the Use of Officers on Ordnance Duty, Confederate Ordnance Bureau, 1862, page 21).

At first, one might dismiss this old gun as unfit for service in 1861.  But the 1812 gun apparently showed up at Fort Monroe about the same time as many other weapons captured from Confederate troops at the end of the Civil War.  I would point out the Confederates made use of even older weapons in the Charleston area, banding and rifling some old English guns from the colonial period.

Granted those were guns already on this side of the Atlantic.  So why ship such this old Austrian gun from Europe? The 1812 6-pdr shows little wear, indicating limited use. So perhaps the gun was in good shape when inspected by Confederate purchasing agents.  Another point to make is the bronze in the gun was perhaps more valuable, due to the Confederacy’s limited supply, than the gun itself.

Regardless of why the gun was imported from Austria, the weapon offers a study to compare with another from the same source just steps away.

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Austrian 6-pdr cast in 1857

I’ll discuss that piece in my next posting on this topic.

The Basher from Liverpool – Blakely Rifle at Fort Sumter

On April 9, 1861 (yes 150 years ago today), Governor Francis Wilkinson Pickens wrote the Confederate Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker regarding a recent arrival at Charleston:

…There has just arrived on the bar a fine rifled cannon from Liverpool, of the latest maker (Blakely gun), an improvement upon Armstrong, of steel rolls or coils, with elevation of seven and one-half degrees to a mile.  It throws a shell or twelve-pound shot with the accuracy of a dueling pistol, and only one and one-half pounds of powder.  Such, they write me, is this gun, and I hope to have it in position to-night.  We expect the attack about 6 o’clock in the morning, on account of the tide…. [OR, Series I, Volume 1, Serial 1, page 293.]

Within a short time, Confederates placed the gun in the “Point Battery” (known as “Battery No. 1” by the Federals) on Morris Island, under the command of Captain J. P. Thomas.  This particular cannon was unique among those at Charleston not only being the only rifled gun in place but also the only foreign made piece.  Southerners in London at the time of secession purchased the Blakely as a gift to South Carolina.

Blakely at Morris Island, from Harpers' Weekly, May 18, 1861

The gun was the product of Captain Alexander Blakely, Royal Artillery, and among several similar weapons produced starting in 1855.  I cannot hope to improve upon the coverage of Blakely’s life and products than the presentation given on the Captain Blakely website.  In brief, Blakely designed rifled, composite construction guns, a rifling system, and projectiles.

Novices will proclaim Blakely’s banding system similar to Parrott or Brooke.  But detailed examination of the patent description demonstrates Blakely’s emphasis on metal tension to support construction of the rifles.  Blakely specified metal bands of different tensile strength in a particular order during the construction of the gun.  And Blakely’s bands consisted of “hoops” instead of rings or coils as seen on other banded guns.  Perhaps semantics at play, one might say.  But I would stress the patent office at the time noted the difference.

Blakely rifling, at least for the early guns, consisted of “hook-slant” or ratchet grooves instead of the flat type seen on Parrotts or James rifles (and other familiar types).  Projectiles featured a flange or ridge to conform to the grooves, with a copper sabot at the base.

There is some discrepancy with regard to the caliber of the gun used at Charleston.  In his 1865 Treatise on Ordnance and Armor, Alexander Holley noted the particulars as:

  • Total length of gun – 84 inches
  • Length of Bore – 73.5 inches
  • Diameter of Bore – 3.5 inches
  • Diameter of Cast Iron under the Hoop – 9.1 inches
  • Maximum Diameter of Hoop – 12.1 inches
  • Length of Hoop – 22.2 inches
  • Diameter of Muzzle – 6 inches

However, other reports indicate a bore diameter of 3.75 inches.

Presence of the plaque (seen in the Harper’s illustration above) leads many historians to identify a gun presently at Grant Park in Galena, Illinois as the Blakely in question.

The Sumter Blakely - courtesy Civil War Album

This particular piece measures 3.75-inches in bore diameter, but is reported as worn. So perhaps the answer to that trivial question remains open for interpretation.

Of the Blakely’s use in the battle, Major P.F. Stevens, commanding the batteries in that sector of the Confederate line, wrote, “the rifled cannon being but limitedly supplied with ammunition could do little, but its few shots were skillfully directed by Captain Thomas.” [OR, Series I, Volume 1, Serial 1, page 48.]  On the receiving end of those rifled projectiles, Captain John Foster noted with alarm the accuracy of the Blakely along with penetration of eleven inches (equal to that of 8-inch Columbiads).

A higher endorsement came from General P.G.T. Beauregard in correspondence to Secretary Walker, “We have a remarkable rifled cannon, 12-pounder, superior to any other here.  Others aught to be ordered.” [OR, Serial I, Series 1, Volume 1, page 316.]  And more were ordered.