Sangamon County Rifle Association
Right Reason on Second Amendment Rights
Springfield, Illinois




Phil Davis



The big guns
Artillery of the Civil War era

 Phil Davis
SCRA meeting, August 2004
September 2004 GunNews









Phil Davis, a local resident and Civil War re-enactor came to the meeting as our tech time speaker for August and discussed big guns - otherwise known as artillery of the Civil War era.

He brought a model of a cannon, along with cannon balls, along with some illustrations of early shells.

During Civil War times,  cannons were mobile and used in conjunction with infantry and each side's goal was to capture the other man's artillery pieces.  As Napoleon was supposedly once asked,  "Emperor, is God on our side?"to which Napoleon replied,  "My dear friend, God is on the side of the man with the most artillery."

Civil War era-artillery was typically crewed by seven and had ranges out to 2000 yards.

There are three sorts of artillery pieces from this time.  The gun - a flat-shooting, smooth-bore piece, a howitzer - an indirect-fire, smooth-bore piece that lobs its shell overs much longer distances, and "rifles" which used a rifled cannon barrel to achieve greater accuracy and range.  Indeed, the rifles "Parrott Rifles" were very accurate and the favorite of the troops.

Now there were also a variety of other rifles used.  The old bronze smooth-bore guns, some of them were rifled at the beginning of the war to try to gain accuracy, but because the bore was made of a soft metal, the rifling would wear off in a few hundred rounds at most.

Artillery shells
How many people think that Civil War cannons only fired iron cannon balls?  There  is no dishonor in thinking this.  That's what most people think.

But this lack of understanding also gets several people killed every decade.  Civil War ordnance is still deadly and dangerous. 

Davis then passed around a solid iron shell weighing twelve pounds.  "So what good is a single iron ball?" he asked.  First of all it's a battering ammunition.  It penetrates.  Furthermore, it makes a "ripping" sound as it goes through the air, adding to the psychological effect against enemy troops by scaring the living snot out of people near the shell on the receiving end.  By firing it at the front of the rows of opposing troops, the iron ball traveling at 2300-1600 fps would shred everyone it hit as it "bounced" its way through the ranks.

Did Civil War artillery projectiles blow up?  Yes.  When the powder charge went off, a jet of fire would shoot around  that projectile, lighting a fuse that was driven into the shell.  It was important that the loaders properly load an explosive shell into the cannon, because if the fuse hole was facing the powder charge in the breech, there would be no delay.  The shell would explode in the cannon, causing the cannon crew a really bad day.

Davis brought a case shot as well.  This was invented by Captain Lewis Shrapnel.  It is a shell body filled with musket balls or ball bearings with a smaller bursting charge.  Shrapnel realized that you don't need that huge amount of powder inside a shell to cause casualties because of the shell's velocity.  All that is needed is for the powder charge to break the shell open.  From that day forward, when you were hit by the fragments of an exploding shell, you were hit by shrapnel.

Solid shot for rifled cannons penetrated twice as deeply against a target, but would not bounce like solid shot fired from smooth bore cannons.  Some explosive shells were rifled, enabling a priming fuse to be affixed to the nose of the shell. When the nose of the shell impacted, it would detonate.  Many others still relied on the "timed" fuse that would be ignited by the flash of the powder charge that fired the shell.  There was a major problem with this (and hence the reason for so much unexploded ordnance from the era) as the base would expand, preventing the flash from igniting the timed fuse.

Davis said he found a twenty pounder Parrott shell in Vicksburg, Mississippi when he was a teenager.  "I was walking behind the motel I was staying at.  The Vicksburg battlefields are huge.  I tripped over something.  I started to kick it and stopped because I suddenly realized what I was about to kick.  It was the base of a twenty-pound Parrott shell."  He dug it up ad took it to the hotel lobby.  The manager tells him to get out of there with that shell, so he wrapped it up in foam and brought it back home(!).

He took it out to a barn behind his house, drilled a hole and shook the powder out.  His dad didn't think the powder would be any good after 125 years, but it burned just fine.   That shell was still as deadly as the day it buried itself in that mud in 1863.  Why?  Because it had a timed fuse that didn't light.  And when it hit, that mud sealed that cavity on the front, making it an airtight compartment.

In 1966 outside of Washington, D.C., a family had moved to the country to get away from the hubbub.  When they were digging the foundation for their house they found a bunch of cannon balls.  Not knowing what they were they thought "Oh cool, those would be neat to set into our mantle piece."

So when they put the mortar in they stuck these cannon balls into the mortar.  Some weeks later, they sat down to have their family bonding moment in their brand new house in front of their brand new fireplace with their really old artillery cannon balls in it (because everybody knows that Civil War cannon balls don't explode, right?) Soon, the shells reached that flash point for black powder and kaboom! When one of the shells exploded, it sympathetically detonated the two others that were there.  The father caught a chunk of shell that took the corner of his head off.  The son lost an eye.  Everyone else was deafened.  Lesson learned the hard way:  Civil War-era shells can still kill you.*

Davis also brought some canister shot.  It's a tin cylinder that looks like a Campbell's soup can full of ball bearings.  It has a fixed powder bag attached to the back of it.  If you think double-ought buckshot is wicked, this is its great, great grand daddy.  When this goes off, the force of the explosion shatters the tin sylinder, and the balls leave the muzzle like a giant shotgun.

Pickett's Charge
Gettysburg,  1863
by Phil Davis
On one side of the field is Picket, McCloud and Armstead.  On the other, behind a stone wall lies a dug-in Union infantry and a battalion of artillery with both smooth-bore and rifled guns.  The Confederates had to cross a mile and a quarter of open field and a road that had picket fences on both sides of it, go up an incline and over a stone wall to achieve victory against the Union line.  General Lee was sure he could do it.  However some of his subordinates like Longstreet were saying "General, that's not a great idea.  Knock out a flank and make them come to us."  Lee was a wonderful strategist, but a lousy tactician on the two occasions he had battlefield command.

The third day of Gettysburg was one of those occasions.  The confederates stepped out of the woods that morning.  They were silent and they dressed their ranks at four and six feet.  Great stirring speeches were given by the generals.  Drums played.  Fifes played.  People played bagpipes and marched off towards the union lines they could see in the distance.

For the first three to four hundred yards nothing happened.  It looked like a grand parade.  Take the point of view of a man walking across that field.  If you can close your eyes and imagine a mile to the left and a mile to the right were thousand and thousands of men in gray and butternut uniforms, starry flags fluttering, bayonets polished to a bright sheen, rifles gleaming in the sun, all marching in straight ranks almost like it was a parade.

All of a sudden he can see puffs of smoke.  He doesn't hear anything yet.  Then he starts to hear muffled booms as it takes a while for that sound to carry a mile and a quarter.  Boom, Boom, Boom.  One hundred and twenty seven pieces of artillery have opened fire with solid shot.  Large balls come riping through the sky at 1200 feet per second.  They hit the dirt right in front of you.  Puff.  If you see a streak you're alright.  But if you're that poor fellow who sees a dot come up and down - that's because it's coming right at you - bouncing, skipping and then ripping men to pieces as it bowls through the ranks.  It literally just carves a line.  The army of North Virginia was good infantry.  They dressed ranks shoulder to shoulder and they kept going forward and for about fifteen minutes while these paths were carved.  And behind these great paths they were literally rows of broken men where the solid shot had ripped through.

When they got to a thousand yards from the Union lines, they crossed the road.  At this time, the smooth-bore guns stopped firing solid shot.  The rifled guns had been firing impact fuse shells at the Confederate artillery  since the smooth bore guns started shooting at the advancing infantry.  Of course, the Confederate rifled guns had also been shooing at the Union artillery lines as well.  Some of those poorly timed shells exploded overhead, some very close.  Men were falling left and right as cannon balls shredded men.  But like good infantry, they closed the ranks.

However, what once was a mile in each direction is now about a half mile in each direction.  the men are starting to get broken up and disorganized, but they keep going because they know that if they turn around they've got to walk back through that same fire.  When it gets to about eight hundred yards, the Union switches to case (canister) shot.  It sends this iron hail out upon the advancing troops.  Now imagine those little half-inch hail stones are not made of ice, but they are made of case iron, lead or ceramic.  The ceramic ones were the wicked ones because they hit bone and shattered.  These things come ripping through the sky and look like someone took a scythe and carved a swatch through the Confederate soldiers.

But these  men were determined.  They were ordered by their General, whom they believed the word, the truth, came from God to General Lee to them directly.  When General Lee said "You can take that hill."  They said, Absolutely, we can take that hill if you say so, sir."

They pressed on.  They got within two hundred yards -- two football fields away.  The artillery stopped shooting momentarily.  Then the Union infantry raised up from behind the stone wall and started to pepper them with .58 caliber rifle muskets.  The sound of mini balls zipping by permeated the air.  "Zip! Zip! Zip! Zip!" and every once in a while "Smack!" That was the sound of a mini ball hitting somebody.  Above all this there was a Confederate officer who remembered hearing the artillery commander in the center of the battery give the command, "Battery load canisters."  He said, "My blood ran cold."  He knew that he was going into the mouths of those big guns...nothing more than giant shot guns, being loaded with shot.  He ordered his men "Double quick, get there before they load!"

They'd gotten almost halfway across that open space, a hundred yards away, when the guns erupted.  Kaboom!   He said it looked like his men had been pole axed - just dropped in place.  He fell back and another Virginia regiment came through.  He heard another command that again made his blood run cold.  "Battery load canisters, double!"  As that Virginia regiment closed, they fired.  For some reason, the Confederates didn't take as many casualties this time.  As the Virginia regiment continued to close on Captain Cushing's battery, he gave the third command - the one that is not in the book - "Battery load canisters, triple!"  They loaded three canisters.  There were three hundred men bursting into that area, less than one hundred yards from the guns, and they knew victory was theirs if they could get to those guns before they fired.

They didn't, and those charging three hundred soldiers disappeared in a pink mist that day.  Literally, disappeared.

That's what Pickett's Charge was like from the point of view of the Confederate soldier on the battlefield.  Artillery was the main killer of the Civil War on an open field battle.


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