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Tintype of our boys at Charlton Park 2008 

Image by W.C. Badgley


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Image - Captain John Hughes

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A Primer on Civil War Artillery Reenactment

                                                   Originally Written for the
                                                  Instruction and Edification
                                                                 of the
                                                 Civil War Infantry Reenactor
                                               being Composed of a Series of
                                          Responses to Questions posed by a
                                                             Virginia Lady
                                      desirous of Mending the Breech caused by
                                                 The Late Unpleasantness

                                                       by Chuck TenBrink

As you may be able to tell from the extended tongue-in-cheek title, this primer was first prepared for Kathie Rankin of the 42nd Virginia.  The idea is to provide infantry reenactors with some basic information about artillery at reenactments. It is reprinted here because these are fairly common questions asked at reenactments and it's just plain interesting.

1. What are the most commonly used reenactment guns? Does present-day reenactment usage bear any resemblance to what was actually used during the War?

Civil War reenactors, like most people, are attracted to the unusual, and this is reflected in the wide variety of guns seen at reenactments. This makes broad generalizations difficult, but it is safe to say that most of the guns will be of a few basic types:

Smoothbores 6-pounders - originally in bronze, with a few made of cast iron, the typical view on a reenactment battlefield will reverse this historical ratio. Light 12-pounders (the "Napoleon") - the same observation applies 12-pounder mountain howitzers - this is a very popular small weapon among reenactors because it is so much less expensive than the larger guns.

Rifled Guns
10-pounder Parrotts - one of the most popular designs of the War years, these guns are easily recognized by the distinctive reinforcing band covering the rear of the piece. 3-inch ordnance rifles - this favorite of the period artillerists is noted for its sleek, "modern" design. Of course, we also see a sprinking of Nobles, Wiards, Williams guns, and even Gatling guns.

There are many deviations from historical accuracy in the mix of guns usually seen in modern reenactmens. On the Federal side, there tends to be a very great preponderance of rifles over smoothbores, whereas the Federal armies of the Civil War typically had a ratio of about three rifles to two smoothbores by the mid to late War. The tendency to render the smoothbores in iron rather than bronze has also been noted. However, the chief deviation from reality is the overuse of the 12-pounder mountain howitzer. This piece was all but unknown to Federal service during the War. Although it was included in the system of ordnance described in the Confederate Ordnance Manual of 1863, the recorded cases of its use are extremely rare. Although it is an important point of entry into reenacting this branch of service, its use is tolerated rather than encouraged.

To take a late-War data point, of the 253 pieces of field artillery with the Federal armies on the Atlanta Campaign, there were 86 Napoleons, 89 3-inch ordnance rifles, and 44 10-pounder Parrotts, with fewer than a dozen each of 12-pounder field howitzers, James rifles, and 20-pounder Parrotts. The Confederate armies had 176 field pieces, including 94 Napoleons, 34 3-inch ordnance rifles, and 46 12-pounder field howitzers. There were no mountain howitzers in either army.

It's worth noting that most reenactments have discouraged or even banned the use of guns of less than full scale. The use of Gatling guns is also discouraged; although they had been invented in 1862, they were present on only one field. Unless you are recreating Butler's Bermuda Hundred campaign, best to leave them home.

2. How does a battery decide what sort of gun it wants? Is it based on what its historical counterpart had, what it can afford, what's easiest to work with, or some combination of the preceding?

The first consideration is the expense. Even a mountain howitzer is several times more expensive than equipping an infantryman for the field, and economics often rule over realism. The ideal for most reeanctment groups is to recreate the appearance of the battery on which they base their impression, and this usually extends to the type of gun being used. For field pieces, the same drill applies to nearly all types of guns, and the weights are not so dissimilar as to make them difficult to maneuver, so the ease of use is not really a factor.

3. How do the uninitiated tell one gun type from another?

Some description of the typical guns has already been given. The reinforcing band on the Parrott, and the aerodynamic profile of the ordnance rifle, are easily recognized. The mountain howitzer is distinctive for its small size. The 6-pounder is chiefly distinguished from its big brother, the Napoleon, by its moldings. There is a flat molding around the breech (the rear of the gun) and moldings on the muzzle face and around the throat, just before the muzzle swell. The Napoleon is about six inches longer and lacks these moldings.

Bore size and design often fail to identify the model of a reenacting piece. Replica guns may be constructed with a smaller bore than their historical counterparts, to save on powder, or rifles may be cast as smoothbores to save the expense of rifling.

4. We know what it costs to equip a infantryman. What sort of extra expenses does a battery incur in purchasing and maintaining its gun and related equipment? How about storage, transportation to and from an event, and maintenance in between events and during the off-season?

A gun and its carriage can vary enormously in price, depending on the compromises made in manufacture. In particular, the cost of bronze is all but prohibitive; see the Cannon LTD. and Steen Cannon web sites, or consult the South Bend Replicas catalog, for price lists. To give a specific example, one can buy a 10-pounder Parrott tube alone (no carriage) for about $9000. (Compare this to the wartime cost to the Federal government of about $180.) A gun with its carriage, limber and ammunition chest, all implements and accoutrements, and a trailer on which to tow this equipment can easily cost in the neighborhood of $36,000.

Maintenance is less expensive, but hard work. Ideally, even if the gun is stored under cover, it should be painted annually, the wheels greased, sponge covers replaced, and so forth. Minor repairs to the woodwork must be done regularly to defer the major expense of replacement. The cost of transportation is usually shared by the group, as it requires a sturdy tow vehicle which usually gets low mileage. Storage is not much of an issue, as the cannon can handle typical outdoor weather; for the long-term, we usually cover them with a tarp or store them in a barn or an enclosed towing trailer.

5. How do you recognize an artilleryman at a reenactment? What is distinctive about their uniforms, and how do they compare with the uniforms actually worn during the War?

We avoid the temptation to respond that one recognizes an artilleryman by asking him a question and waiting to see if he cups his ear and says "eh?!?"

Red is the color of the artillery, as light blue is for infantry and yellow for cavalry. An officer with red shoulder boards, or an enlisted man with red trim on his shell jacket, is likely to be an artilleryman. Confederates may wear a kepi trimmed in red. Zouave uniforms also use red, but are sufficiently distinctive that there is little likelihood of confusion.

Artillery Uniform Coat

Reenactment practice does a fair job of tracking historical reality, with the usual oddities. A Federal crew was spotted at Gettysburg wearing identical red fireman shirts and no uniform jackets. The use of red kepis by enlisted Confederates is also common, without substantial historical justification.

Many batteries will have at least some men dressed in common infantry uniforms, like sack coats or plain shell jackets. This mirrors the reality of the period, in which infantrymen were frequently detailed to serve the guns when battles or illness sapped their crews. It was critical to keep the guns in action, and while a company of infantry can continue to function with almost any number of men, batteries must be maintained at something near their normal numbers.

6. How do you prepare a horse or mule to be part of a battery, which one is a better choice, and are they a help or a hindrance at a reenactment?

Like cavalry horses, artillery horses need to be acclimated to the sound of gunfire, but it requires somewhat less training because guns are not generally being fired by their riders. As a very general rule, cavalry horses with prior battle experience are preferred, and it is always better to start with a mild-mannered and equable beast in the first place. Mules were seldom employed to carry the guns during the War, but since any critter pulling the gun is more realistic than having the men haul it all around the field, this is one of the better compromises made in reenacting. Our experience with mules has been excellent; they required virtually no training, and quickly learned the right point to brace themselves during firing.

The presence of horse-drawn artillery on a reenacting field requires a high degree of vigilance. However, it is an overwhelming advantage for the cannoneers to have the work of hauling the guns done by the animals for which it was designed.

7. What's actually rammed into a gun and fired? How dangerous is it to work with whatever it is? How expensive is it?

It's a large quantity of black powder, and it is dangerous. Units will vary, but reenacting charges are typically on the order of a half-pound of powder, and the friction primers cost about 95 cents a piece. This means that each shot from a cannon costs about $6, which adds up over the course of a season.  Live firing is even more expensive.  Adding the solid ball, sabot and extra powder can make each shot cost as much as $15.

8. What are the safety precautions for the gun crew?

Because the use of any explosive is dangerous, there are detailed rules. Reenactors typically rely on those set forth by the North-South Skirmish Association, which has an impressive safety record. Without setting those rules out in exhaustive detail here, these include such precautions as always thumbing the vent whenever anything is being placed in the muzzle of the gun; worming after each shot to remove any detritus from the bore; double-sponging with a moist (not dripping wet) and a dry sponge after each shot; following precise drill procedures (such as never stepping in front of the muzzle, and never gripping sponge-rammer or worm staffs with a closed hand); using properly constructed charges with no foreign substances; observing rules about the time intervals between loadings; and so forth.

This is an example of firing at a reenactment - this is NOT live firing.  The power and effects of black powder must be respected and safety of the cannoneers and bystanders is of paramont importance.

9. What does the average infantryman need to know to insure his personal safety around an artillery piece?

First and foremost, stay clear of the front of the guns. Fifty feet is the absolute minimum distance at which an infantryman should approach the guns, unless a very specifically scripted scenario has been planned out ahead of time and approved by all the officers involved on both sides. Many people prefer 50 yards. It is best to imagine a 50-foot square box, with one side centered on the muzzle of the gun, and stay out of that box. Second, have ear protection with you (all reenactors on the field should keep this available) and use it. This is especially true if you have been stationed near an artillery piece. Third, familiarize yourself with the signals used by artillery crews. It is to be regretted that these are not universal, but we work at making them so. A rammer held vertically on one hub of the gun carriage indicates that the piece has been loaded.

Ready for Firing

Rammers crossed over the gun indicate that a misfire has occurred; in other words, that the gunners do not have complete control over the piece, and it is possible that it will fire without warning.



A rammer left in the bore of a piece indicates that it is safe.

Our Own Captain John Hughes With A Safe Cannon

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Rusk


Reprinted from the Artilleryman magazine

Service of the Guns

In addition to strict adherence to the principles outlined in School of the Piece, a number of additional safety precautions must be recommended. Most important of all, haste must be avoided, without exception. Nearly all students of artillery history have read of the desperate artillery actions which took place during the Mexican War and the Civil War, in which well drilled gun crews achieved extremely high rates of fire, often firing four rounds per minute, or more. To attempt to duplicate such a performance, for any reason , is simply suicidal.

Even during Civil War battle conditions, such rapid fire was normally discouraged by Chief of Artillery, Henry Hunt. At Times, Hunt was willing to court-martial battery commanders who fired over one round per gun in two minutes. (There were many cases in which battery commanders were anxious to expend their ammunition supply so as to have an excuse to limber up and retire before opposing infantry could close in on them.)

In artillery competition, speed can and must be carefully controlled. The North-South Skirmish Association requires that 60 minutes be allowed in a program in which 12 rounds are fired per gun. A round of fire in excess of one round in three minutes is forbidden and results in disqualification. In demonstrations and mock battles, the temptation to speed up the artillery performance is a great danger. Accidents, including deaths and dismemberments, have happened in these kinds of activities in recent years, due to improper speed in reloading and other unsafe practices.

Tactical demonstrations have a valid purpose; they serve to attract an audience to historical subjects. It is important that simulations, including blank firing of artillery, be historically accurate and devote tome and attention to "sighting" process which will help to control the rate of fire. We have heard of attempts to justify rapid fire based on accounts of rapid fire in battle. Nonsense!

While historical accounts illustrate extraordinary speed in reloading and firing, they also tell us of the disastrous consequences of premature ignition from haste. No amount of "historical authenticity" can justify ignoring time and other safety precautions. The consequences of delay will not lose a battle now; the consequences of speed will still produce debilitating and life threatening casualties.