Cannon Lore

According to an old saying, “Artillery lends dignity to what might otherwise be a vulgar brawl.” In serving this function, it has had a major effect on the history of the world. The big guns, beyond their function, served symbolically as well. Major Robert Stiles, Confederate artillery officer, put it this way: “The gun is the rallying point of the detachment, its point of honor, its flag, its banner. It is that to which men look, by which they stand, with and for which they fight, by and for which they fall. As long as the gun is theirs, they are unconquered, victorious; when the gun is lost, all is lost.”

For a wonderful overview of the history of artillery in America, get hold of a copy of “Round Shot and Rammers, an introduction to Muzzle-loading Land Artillery in the United States”, by Harold L. Peterson. It is available in soft cover edition from South Bend Replicas, Inc. You can access their website through our links page at “Contact Us”.

The United States of Europe

Napoleon Bonaparte started his career in the artillery, which he viewed as the cutting edge of military technology. One of his lasting contributions was helping to develop the tactic of firing solid shot to hit the ground just in front of the opposing infantry and bouncing it into them. Additionally, this would throw rocks and gravel as additional shrapnel. Although this was generally very successful. it led to his final defeat at Waterloo.

The night before his encounter with the British forces under Wellington, it had rained heavily. It had always been Napoleon’s preference to start a battle with an artillery barrage just after dawn, but on this day the ground was too wet. The shots would have been buried in the mud. Against his better judgment, he determined to wait for the ground to dry, and the battle was joined just before noon.

He had defeated the Prussian army and driven them from the field days before, but rather than return home in defeat, they had circled out about twenty five miles and returned for a second attempt. They arrived on the scene early that afternoon, in time to reinforce the weakened British. Heavily outnumbered, and facing strong opposition on two fronts, Napoleon spent his reserves in a fruitless series of attacks. His fate was sealed.

Had he been able to commence operations at dawn, the British could have been easily defeated before the Prussians arrived on the scene. Being battle weary, and having just completed a long forced march, it is probable that they too would have fallen. Napoleon’s hold over Europe might have held, and history would have been quite different.

Confederate gun spiked while in action

On the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, Captain Hugert Dilger (Battery 1, First Ohio Light Artillery), Deployed two of his six Napoleon Twelve Pounders “on some high ground midway between the Hagy orchard and Carlisle Pike” with the remaining four guns held in reserve. He was soon engaged in a duel with Page’s battery of four Confederate Napoleons, located on the eastern slope of Oak Hill. Page was quickly reinforced by four 3-inch rifles from Reese’s battery. The disparity in guns (8 Confederate vs 2 Federal) persuaded Dilger to bring his remaining four guns into action.

The first shot from Dilger’s battery went high and missed the Confederate battery completely. This was followed by shouts and waves of Derision from the Confederate gunners. Dilger sighted and fired the next gun himself, which dismounted a rebel gun by hitting the wheel. Captain Dilger then sighted and fired a second gun but no effect was visible to the naked eye. Colonel Brown of the 157th who was nearby asked “What effect, Captain Dilger?” After careful examination through his glass, Dilger replied, “I have spiked a gun for them plugging it at the muzzle.”

After the battle a wounded soldier from the 17th Connecticut who was taken prisoner saw this cannon with its muzzle plugged by an artillery shot and later wrote about it. An account of the incident in Clark’s History of North Carolina Regiments, says that the muzzle was “split”. (From “Gettysburg July 1”, by David G. Martin)

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel.

You may have noticed that the gun carriage wheels appear to be concave, or “dished”. We have the Romans to thank for this. The Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians all had war chariots, but with flat wheels (spokes, hub and rim in the same plane). These could run at high speed behind a team of horses, but could not be turned without stopping, dismounting and leading the team around to point in the new direction of travel.

When cornering, all the weight of a vehicle transfers through the axle to the outside wheel hub. The higher the speed, the more force is exerted. Putting pressure on the hub of a flat wheel would cause it to fail; they lost a lot of charioteers that way. The Romans looked at this situation and, with their superior engineering abilities, developed the concept of the dished wheel with an iron tire heat-shrunk onto the rim. With this design, the hub was braced by the spokes; there was not enough force generated in high speed turns to induce failure. For the most part, all wheels were made this way, including those for cannon carriages, up until the beginning of the twentieth century.

More on the Dished Wheel.

This may not have anything to do with artillery, but it’s a great story...

The Imperial Roman Bureaucracy lived by exacting specifications, and all their war chariots were built to the exact same gauge, as were their carts, wagons, etc. The Romans conquered England and, as they did throughout their empire, built roads connecting major cities and towns paved with the local stone.

Over the course of their occupation, traffic eroded ruts in the soft stone. When the Romans left, the English built wheeled vehicles of their own, all matching the standard gauge of the Romans, so they could be used on the old rutted roads. This continued for centuries. About three hundred years ago, they started hooking several coaches together pulled by teams of horses. To extend this early form of mass transit to other cities not connected by Roman roads, the built tracks of wood, with a strip of iron on top, and added flanges to the coach wheels.

With the advent of the steam engine a century later, the horses were retired, the rails became solid iron to handle the increased weight, and the first real rail roads came in to being. Here in America, early railroads were built by expatriate British engineers, so they followed the same standards. To this day, most railroads around the world are built to the same “standard gauge” of four feet eight and one half inches between rail heads. This sounds like an odd measurement until you realize that it was the gauge of a Roman chariot.

Specifications and bureaucracies live forever, so the next time you are handed a set of specifications to be followed, and wonder what horses ass came up with them, you may be right. The Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two horses.

Still More on Roman Wheel Standards.

When we see a space shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two booster rockets prominently attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRB’s, and they are primarily responsible for getting the shuttle off the ground. These SRB’s are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah.

The engineers who designed the SRB’s might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRB’s had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The tunnel is slightly wider than the standard freight cars running on the track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ behinds. So, the major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horses ass. Don’t you just love engineering?

Just How Cold Is It?

This explains the origin of an old saying that probably never made any sense before...

Every Sailing ship had to have cannon for protection. Cannon of the times required round iron cannonballs. The ship’s master wanted to store the cannonballs such that they could be of instant use when needed, yet not roll around on the gun deck. The solution was to stack them up in a square-based pyramid next to the cannon. The top level of the stack had one ball, the next level down had four, the next had nine, the next sixteen, and so on.

Four levels would provide a stack of 30 cannonballs. The only real problem was how to keep the bottom level from sliding out from under the weight of the higher levels. To do this, they devised a small brass plate, or “Brass Monkey”, with one rounded indentation for each cannonball in the bottom layer. Brass was used because the cannonballs would not rust to the “monkey”, but would rust to an iron one.

When the temperature falls, metals contract in size, but brass contracts faster than iron. As it got cold on the gun decks, the indentations in the brass monkey would become closer together than the rows of cannonballs they were holding. If it got cold enough, the bottom layer would pop out of the indentations, spilling the entire pyramid over the deck. The sailors had a term for this situation: it was, quite literally, “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”.

Why “Jefferson” Armory?

Over the years, there have been several attempts to form a new state consisting of parts of southern Oregon and northern California; the most recent and best known occurred in the fall of 1941. This included a constitutional assembly, selection of Yreka, California, as temporary state capital, and the election and inauguration of a Governor. A contest was held to come up with a state name and Jefferson was selected; the winner received two dollars. Travelers were stopped on Highway 99 and given copies of a “Proclamation of Independence”. Newsreels were filmed of all these proceedings and were to be released nationally on Monday, December 8th, 1941. Needless to say, the attack on Pearl Harbor put the rebellion on hold for the duration of the war.

Although officially shelved, the Idea still fires the imagination of local residents and the mythical State of Jefferson exists for many of us, at least as a state of mind. To honor this local historic oddity I have decided to title this enterprise the Jefferson Armory.
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The First shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired on Lexington green, Massachusetts, in April of 1775. These were followed several hours later by the battle of the old north bridge in Concord, as described in Longfellow’s famous poem. Even though Paul Revere never made it any further than Lexington, the word did get through.

Growing up in the adjacent town of Lincoln, one of the high points of my youth was the annual commemoration of these events with a parade through Concord and a service at the (rebuilt) bridge. A group called the “Concord Independent Battery” took part in the celebrations. Consisting of two original twelve pounder bronze guns, model 1857 Napoleon field pieces, mounted on reproduction carriages. They were each hooked to a limber and pulled by teams of four horses; these were the hit of every parade. Once at the bridge, the two gun crews would deploy their pieces and fire a twenty one gun salute. Standing next to them was an awesome experience, and I never quite got the smell of black powder out of my system.

Early Efforts

In the fall of 1961, as a sophomore in high school, I needed year-long research projects for both physics and history. It was the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, so what could be better than studying the history, construction and ballistic properties of artillery from that period? Remarkably, the project was approved; two months later the research was done, and by the spring of ‘62 I had constructed a working replica of a smoothbore muzzle loading siege gun (no wheels) with an inch and a quarter bore, and produced ten pounds of black powder. By May, the powder was gone, but I had pages of ballistics tables, charts, graphs, drawings and photos. I received an “A” on both aspects of the project but, more important, I had more fun than anyone is supposed to have in high school!

That gun saw plenty of use over the next several years before it was finally sold. I went to college, spent some time in the service, got married, raised a family, pursued careers in both graphic arts and fine woodworking, and relocated to Oregon. For years, my black powder shooting was limited to a fifty caliber percussion Hawken rifle. Great fun, but just not a big enough bang.

Recent Events

In 1994 I finally gave in to the urging of my friends and built a new cannon. My woodworking skills had improved over the years, so the prospect of building the wheels for a field gun carriage no longer seemed impossible. I had no intention of starting a business, only a hobby. My research eventually led me to a company in Michigan that offered a reproduction of the original plans for the Model 1841 field gun carriage; over 100 pages of 11” x 17” drawings with every nut, bolt, screw and washer.

What could be a better place to take a cannon than a black powder competition? The public shooting range in Merlin, Oregon, no more than forty miles away, hosts the annual Jedediah Smith Rendezvous. I assumed that mine would probably be the only cannon there, so I was surprised when the first question they asked at the gate was if I needed directions to the artillery competition. Turns out I’m not the only one interested in replica artillery; there are at least a dozen competition shoots within easy driving range every year, with categories for smoothbore, rifled guns, and mortars (including those firing bowling balls). I signed up with our local club, the Northwest Territories Light Artillery Volunteers, and have been a member ever since. There are similar clubs and competitions held all over the country.

The thing about a cannon is that you can’t take one anywhere without gathering a crowd, and before long I had orders; after about a year and a half I decided to try building these guns full time as a profession. This has turned out to be one of the best moves I ever made. If my customers have half as much fun owning these guns as I have in building them, then they should be well satisfied. By the way, I still insist that anyone who buys from me join our club if they live within five hundred miles of Oregon.
Our club membership is still increasing.

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