6-pdrs from Liège – A walk-around

Earlier I introduced this fine bronze cannon and it’s peculiar origin:

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This cannon represents the 8th Indiana Battery at Chickamauga.  Let’s do a formal walk around this Belgian cannon, noting the features and markings.  As mentioned in the earlier post, the intent was to use this cannon to test European metal within an American pattern.  So the exterior form is very much “American”:

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We see a slight muzzle swell, chase ring, a single reinforce extending just past the trunnions, a base ring, then a simple cascabel at the breech.  One could easily mistake this cannon for a 6-pdr Model 1841 Field Gun.

Looking close to the muzzle:

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From the face, there is a simple cavetto and a fillet to join with the muzzle swell.  The chase ring is a full astragal with fillets on each side.  No other adorning features.

The trunnions themselves are simple forms also.  That on the right has no markings:

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Turing to the left side, there are markings to interpret:

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“No. 1 // 369 K”  The top line indicates this was the first of the set.  The second line may indicate the weight – 369 kg = 813.5 pounds.  Perhaps?  But that would put the 6-pdr about 65 pounds lighter than a Model 1841 of the same caliber. But close to the weight of a Model 1840 6-pdr.

Or 369 K might refer to a foundry sequence number?  There’s more markings to consider.

Normally on American weapons of this period, we’d find the weight stamped on the breech face, below the knob:

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A little hard to read, but this stamp is 889.  That number, in pounds, conforms to the weight of a standard Model 1841 6-pdr.  Keep both these stampings (left trunnion and breech face) in mind when we look at the second Belgian gun.

We already discussed the nice label atop the base ring “Liège 1841”:

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This is very much European in look.  Note also the vent, which is bouched.

We also looked at the muzzle in the earlier post:

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No so much a “brag” here, as many guns would fire eight times that number during the Civil War.  “Fired.1000.Rounds. // 1842” was, I think, intended to mark this gun as the control example in testing.  After all, 1000 rounds was not a full life-cycle test.  That in mind, the bore diameter measures 93 mm, or 3.66142 inches. Giving allowances for my field measures and such, that’s very close to the standard 6-pdr bore specifications.

Moving to the other surviving example, on the north end of the Chickamauga battlefield, representing Douglas’s Texas Battery:

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Again, a familiar exterior form.

This example has no markings on the muzzle face:

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And about that muzzle, I measure it at 98 mm in diameter, or 3.85 inches.  And that is what we might expect for a cannon subjected to a great number of test fires.  The bore, however, is relatively smooth:

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Looking aside from the mud-dauber nest and the bottle seated in the chamber, there’s not a lot of scratches.  Though the stress lines give the appearance of use.

The left trunnion has markings:

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“No. 4 // 370 K”   The first, of course, indicates this was the last of the set purchased in Belgium.  And 370 kg would be 815.7 pounds.  Again, closer to the Model 1840, which would be the pattern in hand when the board was in Belgium, than the Model 1841.

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Yes.  But it reads “1063”.   And that is NOT the weight of the piece.  So “might be” and “could be” on the stampings.

The base ring on No. 4 has the same label as the first gun:

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However, note the vent.  This vent was cleared after what appears to be a lot of wear.

I didn’t have my full field kit in hand when visiting these guns.  So I didn’t get a chance to take overall measurements.  However, conveniently sited next to No. 4 is a standard Model 1841 6-pdr, registry number 146, cast by Ames in 1844:

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The base ring sits directly atop the elevating screw.  The same as on the Belgian cannons.  These National Park Service reproduction carriages tend to be very uniform in dimensions.  So my first inclination is the Belgian guns match the Model 1841 in terms of length.  At least from the trunnions to base ring.

But if we go with the trunnion stamp as the weight in kilograms?  Hard to reconcile that with the dimensions.  One of these days I’ll return to the Belgian guns to give an exact number on the dimensions.  (Or perhaps a reader with a tape measure might save me the trip!)  And that might help discriminate the stampings.

Questions of weight and dimensions aside, there are two of the four Belgian bronze guns surviving – number 1 and number 4.   If we accept No. 1 as the “control” for experiments on endurance…. and No. 4, with all that bore wear, as subjected to substantial firings… then might we suppose No. 2 and No. 3 were destroyed in the process?

Though I’ve never run across a formal report of testing for these Belgian guns, I do know William Wade used the results in other experiments.  And for the next few years Wade would work to perfect the alloying process for bronze and other fine points of casting.  The result that played out on battlefields of the Mexican-American War.  Then later the Civil War.

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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.)