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Artillery - Mid-19th Century

In 1855, England's Lord Armstrong designed a rifled, breech-loading cannon which meant the beginning of the end for the old, cast iron, round-shot, muzzle-loading carnnon. This particular design was the first to use a cast tube with exterior hoops shrunk on over the tube to reinforce the metal, thus permitting longer ranges from lighter weapons.

At the time of the Civil War artillery put little more figure than cavalry. The infantry arm was all-important. During the Civil War artillery was used extensively by both sides and, judged by the standards of that period, was effective and served the purpose well; but, had the same sort of artillery been employed in the Great War of 1914, it would have been of little value, and, in many instances, a positive hindrance to the troops in the field.

The cannon of the Civil War were, for the most part, of cast iron and smooth bore, and were loaded at the muzzle. Spherical castiron projectiles weighing 6 pounds, 12 pounds, and up to 42 pounds, were used effectively at ranges between one-half mile and 1 mile; shrapnel or spherical case shot between 500 and 800 yards; grape and cannister shot for less distances even down to 150 yards. High-explosive and gas shells were unknown. The cannon were fired point blank at the visible enemy. Both direct and ricochet firing were employed; indirect firing against an invisible target, which plays such an important role in modern artillery practice, was unknown. Distances were estimated by the eye and by observing the fall of projectiles. Range-finding devices were considered to be of little value and were not employed.

The guns were pointed by means of open metal sights attached directly to the cannon barrel; the sight resembled in many respects the sights on the modern rifle. The gunner pointed the gun by looking through a peephole in the rear sight and aligning the front sight near the muzzle of the gun with the target. After having leveled the gun by a simple spirit level, obtained the line of sight and estimated the distance to the target, the gunner elevated his cannon to the proper angle, which he measured by means of a gunner's quadrant that consisted essentially of a wooden frame with plumb line and bob combined with a graduated circle, or by means of a graduated vertical bar on which the peep sight was arranged to move.

ColumbiadThe Columbiad was the Army's first gun capable of firing a heavy projectile. George Bomford began his military career as an engineer officer. Bomford developed a new weapon in 1810 which he called a Columbiad. Until Bomford’s gun was adopted, the American weapons arsenal had consisted either of cannon which fired solid shot horizontally or howitzers and mortars which propelled shells on a very high trajectory. Bomford’s Columbiad, thought by many historians to the first important development in American ordnance, had some of the characteristics of both earlier weapons, with a range that fell somewhere in between. When the Ordnance Corps was reestablished, Bomford was made its Chief with the rank of colonel. The main problem was that it proved impossible to secure sufficient numbers and varieties of European ordnance for comparative purposes.

Bomford had greater success in updating his old columbiad concept and in making improvements in the nation's coastal defenses. His "new columbiad" of 1844 was constructed like a howitzer, but had a longer barrel. Able to propel both solid shot and explosive shells to a distance of about 2.85 miles, the new weapon rendered all existing coastal artillery obsolete.

In 1844 the U.S. Navy decided to show off their newest acquisition, a steam-powered, propeller-driven war ship with a 12-inch experimental gun. On February 28, President John Tyler, members of congress, newspaper reporters and other guest boarded the USS Princeton at the Washington Navy Yard. The group enjoyed a leisure cruise down the Potomac while the Princeton demonstrated her maneuvering ability and armament. On the return trip the ship passed Fort Washington as Captain Robert F. Stockton prepared to fire one last round form the 12-inch, 225-pounder gun called "Peacemaker". When fired the gun burst wounding many guests and killing five observers including Navy Secretary Gilmer, Secretary of State Upsher and Congressman.

A Board of Inquiry found that no person could be held responsible for the mishap but they did find fault with the gun. They also concluded that the present technology could not produce a safe large gun. Large gun manufacturing ceased and for a while is seemed that ship builders had won the war against the gun. Admiral John A. Dahlgren, of the U.S. Navy, believed the the manufacturing process had no affect on the strength of a gun a blamed gun failures on thin barrel design. He developed a bottle-shaped cannon with a thick breech to absorb the extreme pressure created by large powder charges.

The "Columbiad" nomenclature is ambiguous, as prior to the American Civil War, Ordnance Corps officer Thomas Jackson Rodman developed an improved version of the columbiad, which became known by his name.

Dahlgren GunJohn Adolphus Bernard Dahlgren, the “father of American naval ordnance,” was assigned to ordnance duty at the Washington Navy Yard and within a year, was responsible for all ordnance matters at the yard. Dahlgren decided that in order to make safer, larger-caliber guns for the Navy, he needed to have stronger and thicker metal around the breeches; giving them a bottle shape. These types of guns and cannons became known as “Dahlgren Guns.”

The Dahlgren gun was developed in 1851 and became the standard U.S. gun. These guns were made of cast iron and were smoothbore cannon. Dahlgren's were shaped like beer bottles, with the thickest part of the barrel at the points of greatest stress. The Dahlgren smoothbore proved to be the most effective weapon of the day and was used for many years.

Overstressed wrought iron appeared to simply split open rather than fly apart like cast iron. The larger the caliber the greater the danger of the gun bursting. The tensions or strains arising from unequal cooling during the fabrication of the enormous masses of metals required for modern guns are of greater and greater intensity in proportion as the size of the mass is increased, as is well known.

The Dahlgren gun being cast solid and cooled entirely from the exterior, embodying adverse initial tensions of such force as to expend three-fifths of the strength of the structure in assisting tho direct pressure of tho gases of the gunpowder charge to enlarge the boro and burst the gun by cracks extending from the surface of the bore outward.

Rodman GunThe effectiveness of these guns was aided with the development of the hollow casting process developed by Major Thomas Rodman in 1860. The hollow mode of casting of the Rodman system and the band of wrought iron applied to tho Parrot gun were intended to utilize the force of contraction by assisting the strength of the iron to restrain the pressure of the powder. It was afterwards noticed that several of the Rodman guns cast hollow and cooled from the interior burst in the foundry from the excess of this force of contraction.

Rodman made the greatest "breakthrough" for muzzle-loading artillery in over 700 years. Basically, his method was to pour molten cast iron around a water-cooled core. The inner walls of the bore solidified first and were compressed by the contraction of the outer metal, which cooled down more slowly. This resulted in a tube which had much greater strength to resist explosion of the charge.

If the force with which metals contract when cooled is shown to be so potent as to break the gun from the inside when cooled from the outside, and from tho outside when cooled from the interior, it can be seen that if the gun be in a state of tension, which has the tendency to compress the metal of the interior and extend the exterior, the heat afterwards communicated to the surface of the bore by tho burning powder, or by the friction of tho moving chargo, would assist the pressure of tho powder to break the gun, especially if tho gun should bo fired a number of rounds in quick succession.

In those days all muzzle-loading cannons were cast with a rear projection known as the knob. Ropes were attached to the knob to lift ordnance during manufacturing and mounting operations. When Fort Pitt was experimenting with the 10-inch gun they broke a number of knobs making it difficult to move and mount the cannon. Rodman developed a knob that was almost as large as the base of the piece and had only a narrow grove to accommodate lifting tackle. The button-shaped knob, with its lifting notches, is a distinctive feature of the large Rodman cannons and makes them easy to recognize. Rodman also developed instruments for measuring the internal pressure of cannons and in 1856 he invented "Mammoth Powder". These large pellets of powder had holes to allows the charge to burn smoothly while the projectile traveled down the barrel giving the cannon more accuracy and range.

Parrott gunRobert K. Parrott became Superintendent of the West Point Foundry at Cold Spring, New York in 1836. During the period 1836 to 1867, he invented and manufactured the Parrott guns and projectiles. By utilizing the process of hollow casting and cooling patented by General Rodman, he devised a method of employing shrunken hoops of wrought iron to strengthen the breech of big guns at the peak pressure area. He was able to perfect the first United States rifled cannon in 1861. The cast iron made for an accurate gun, but was brittle enough to suffer fractures. Hence, a large wrought iron reinforcing band was overlaid on the breech to give it additional strength. His guns showed exceptional durability in the Civil War and were extensively used in several calibers. He also developed an expanding projectile for use with the guns. The 8-inch Parrott gun was termed “the most formidable service gun extant” by some ordnance experts. There were 10-, 20-, and 30-pounders and a 15-inch (400 pounder) with a range of 5,700 yards. Parrott's gun starled the world with its range and accuracy. However, the heyday of the cast iron weapon was short-lived.

Infantry, armed with a far-ranging rifle, as in the American Civil War, kept the guns beyond case-shot range, compelling them to use only round shot or common shell. Shrapnel replaced grape-shot, which was effective at 300 yards or less, being ineffective at longer ranges in the same way that shot from a shot-gun will not carry. In that war, therefore, attacking infantry met, on reaching close quarters, not regiments already broken by artillery, but the full force of the defenders’ artillery and infantry, both arms fresh and unshaken, and the full volume of their case shot and musketry.

At Fredericksburg the Federal infantry attacked, unsupported by a single field piece ; at Gettysburg the Federal artillery general Hunt was able to reserve his ammunition to meet Lee’s assault, although the infantry of his own side was meanwhile subjected to the fire of Confederate guns. Thus, in both these cases the assault became one of infantry against unshaken infantry and artillery.

On many occasions, indeed, the batteries on either side went into close ranges, as the traditions of the old United States army dictated, but their losses were then totally out of proportion to their effectiveness. Indeed, the increased range at which battles were now fought, and the ineffectiveness of the projectiles necessarily used by the artillery at these ranges, so far neutralized even rifled guns that artillery generals could speak of “idle cannonades” as the “besetting sin” of some commanders.

The long-established idea, that who wishes to live long must enlist in the artillery, appeared to be no longer true, for it was evident that skirmishing from a distance was the most effective way of combating artillery; and where is the battle-field in which there could not be found capital cover for skirmishers within 600 yards from any possible artillery emplacement? Against advancing lines or columns of infantry, artillery had thus far always had the advantage; a few effective rounds of grape, or a couple of solid shot ploughing through a deep column, had a terribly cooling effect. Against cavalry, coolness gave the advantage to artillery. If the latter reserve their grape to within 100 yards, and then give a well-aimed volley, the cavalry will be found pretty far off by the time the smoke has cleared away.

In the American Civil War artillery was used as an effective weapon in every battle. It was considered folly to charge breastworks or fortifications without first sweeping them with artillery, and a six-gun battery was the usual allowance for every 3,000 effective men. In the battles of the Civil War artillery playing on infantry at short range with grape and canister did frightful execution, of which there was plenty of evidence at Shiloh; but at a distance, and firing with solid shot or shell, it simply made a big noise, and if it killed anybody, it was more an accident than otherwise.

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Page last modified: 12-04-2019 09:43:08 ZULU