Civil War Artillery

Artillery Glossary

Arsenal – Used to store and upgrade small arms, Ordnance, and ordnance stores. Where construction and repair of ordnance takes place. It is a military installation.

Battery – A group of at least two artillery pieces, in the field, working together. An emplacement of artillery. In the Civil War, a Union Battery was six cannon, usually of similar caliber. For the Confederacy, a Battery was most likely only made up of four cannon.

Bore – The size of the opening of a gun barrel, its inside diameter.

Breech – The rear part of a gun barrel, not where the projectile come out.

Breech-Loading – A gun that has its projectile and powder charge loaded at the rear of the barrel. Breech Loading greatly lowers the time it takes to reload, a good thing when you are in a battle.

Caisson – Used to transport two chests of ammunition. The number of rounds in the chest depended on their Caliber.

Caliber – The size of the Bore of a gun’s barrel, the diameter of the bore. Is a decimal fraction in hundredths or thousandths of an inch. Is also used to describe the size of a projectile.

Carriage – A two-wheeled cart used to move field artillery. They were light and easy to move, this meant artillery could go with an army into the field.

Friction Primer – Used to fire a cannon. Was made up of two small brass or copper tubes, and a serrated wire. The larger tube was filled with gunpowder and the smaller tube was soldered onto the larger at a ninety-degree angle. The smaller tube had fulminate of mercury in it. The Friction Primer acted like a match.

Fuse – There were three kinds of fuses in the Civil War, timer-fuses, percussion fuses, and combination fuses. A fuse causes an artillery shell or case shot to blow at a certain set length of time after firing from the cannon.

Limber – A two-wheeled cart that was attached to the Carriage. The Limber had one ammunition chest, it was used for fast, immediate gun supply. The Limber and the Carriage combined to make a four-wheeled cannon mover

Muzzle – Is the front end of the gun barrel. where the bullet or artillery round comes out.

Muzzle Loader – A cannon (or other small arm) that is loaded by pouring a powder charge down the barrel and then seating the bullet or artillery round on top. A primer percussion cap at the Breech was used to ignite the powder charge.

Ordnance – Used to describe all weaponry, its ammunition, and needed equipment to maintain it.

Rifling – Rifling is when grooves or channels have been cut into the inside of a gun barrel (the Bore). The rifling will give spin to the projectile and this spin creates greater accuracy and range.

Smoothbore – This type of a gun barrel has no grooves (Rifling) cut into it.

Smooth Bore vs. Rifled

“The difference in accuracy, is the smooth bore gun can hit the barn at a mile’s range, the rifled gun can hit the barn door.”

Light Artillery

Field cannon were often pulled into place by a team of horses, the number of horses depending upon the size and weight of the cannon (or gun). After the gun was unlimbered, the horses and caissons were moved back to the relative safety of the rear or perhaps other nearby safe spot. The gun’s crew would then align the aim and trajectory by hand, load and fire. A competent crew might fire its cannon twice a minute, but under the heat of battle and with the adrenaline pumping, four canister shot a minute was known to occur. When the cannon fires, it would recoil from a few feet up to maybe a dozen yards, all depending on the particular powder charge amount and ammunition used. The gun crew would swab and load the gun as it is rolled back into place by hand.

How the Guns Were Fired

Here is a typical and general process of firing a muzzle-loading artillery weapon:

  • One soldier drops a bag of gunpowder down the gun barrel. The gunpowder weight or amount has been chosen for the particular target.
  • Another soldier rams a projectile down the barrel so it seats on top of the gunpowder charge.
  • A third soldier at the back of the gun puts a friction primer into the breech. The friction primer has a lanyard, it will ignite the gunpowder charge.
  • A fourth soldier pulls the lanyard and the gun fires, hopefully it is not a dud round and the target is hit.
  • Now another soldier cleans the gun barrel out with water by using a sponge/swab on the end of a pole. A very important step because any remaining embers must be extinguished before the next gunpowder charge is placed into the barrel. A premature powder charge explosion because of remaining embers was a very bad thing.
  • While the cannon was being fired, other soldiers would be busy holding horses, carrying ammunition to the gun, and performing other support duties.


Swabbing the cannon barrel was a very important step that could not be eliminated. Swabbing cooled the barrel and put out any remaining sparks that would ignite the next charge prematurely … injuring or killing the gun crew. Black powder was used, so billowing, great clouds of smoke would soon fog the battleground as multiple artillery pieces fire.

The cannon and their ammunition were dangerous to the crew, plus enemy infantry regarded an artillery battery as a prime target. Capture of a cannon was a great prize and the gun crews were targets for enemy bullets. When a gun was being limbered up for movement, attacking enemy would often shoot the horses and then the gun would have to be abandoned. If a cannon was going to be captured, then the crew would spike it by driving a piece of metal into the firing vent, this would make the cannon useless to the enemy for a period of time, until the metal spike could be removed. Gun crews would even shoot the horses themselves if cannon capture was unavoidable in order to prevent the enemy from moving the piece.

Gettysburg Artillery

On the third day of the battle at Gettysburg, the Confederates unleashed a huge artillery bombardment. This artillery fire was directed at Cemetery Ridge where the Union troops held a strong defensive position. This artillery fire came from close to 150 guns and it lasted for nearly two hours. The noise from this massive artillery fire was heard in Pittsburgh, 140 miles away. At the time, this was one of the loudest sounds ever heard on the North American continent.

Acoustic Shadow

Acoustic Shadow is a strange thing. It is a phenomenon where sound, such as artillery, is unheard close to the cause of the sound, but the same sound is heard a far distance away from its source. The distance that the sound is heard may be great, even hundreds of miles, yet nearby, mere miles away, the sounds are not heard. Battles where the Acoustic Shadow phenomenon occurred in the Civil War are Gettysburg, Seven Pines, Iuka, Fort Donelson, Five Forks, Perryville, and Chancellorsville.

Artillery Ammunition

The ammunition for field artillery during the Civil War generally fell into four categories; solid, shell, case (or shrapnel), and canister. Each was used for a specific purpose.

This was simply a solid iron shell, like a bowling ball. In fact, the solid shot acted like a bowling ball. It was fired at enemy cavalry, or at infantry aligned in column or at its flank. The solid shot was like a deadly bowling ball rolling through pins, only the pins in the Civil War were men and horses made of flesh and blood. As the solid shot bowled through the line of enemy in position of column or flank, man after man would be bowled down, the result was often slaughter.

Explosive Shell
Shell was a hollow projectile filled with black powder. They had fuses that were cut in length to time the explosion of the shell after it was fired from the cannon. Usually the shell could be timed to explode in 0 – 50 seconds and the firing charge of the cannon lit the fuse. Targets for shell were often enemy fortifications and artillery.

Case or Shrapnel
General Shrapnel of the British Army came up with the idea of case shot. It was similar to shell shot, but differed in that it was filled with iron balls in addition to the explosion charge inside its shell. This ammunition was used against infantry positioned at long range of over 400 yards. It was most successful when it could be timed to explode at about 15 feet above the target so it could rain its iron ball shrapnel downward.

Think of a thin-walled metal can(similar to a coffee can) packed with iron or lead balls in sawdust. As canister was fired from a cannon, the can would disintegrate as it left the gun muzzle and then it would act like a blast from a huge shotgun with the iron or lead balls plowing through the enemy. Canister was effective against attacking infantry.

All this artillery ammunition was effective when it worked, but it was not reliable. Results were variable, but duds were common, sometimes as much as half the cannon fire were failures.

Various Cannon Types

12-pounder Napoleon
A commonly used cannon in the Civil War was the 12-pounder Napoleon. Napoleon cannons were muzzle-loading and bronze barreled of a ninety percent copper and ten percent tin mixture. They were used as field artillery. Napoleons could fire four canister shots a minute and killed infantry efficiently. These cannons weighed 2,600 pounds and it took a crew of six men to man each cannon. Six horses were needed to pull the cannon and its caisson.

The Napoleon was officially named the “Twelve-Pounder Field Guns, Model 1857.” The French emperor Louis Napoleon (he was Napoleon III) began this cannon’s development in France. It is the most widely used cannon of the Civil War. Approximately 40% of the artillery used by the Union Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were Napoleons. Napoleons were manufactured in both the North and the South, the North made more than 1,000 and the South somewhere between 500 and 600. Southern Napoleons can be identified because they don’t have a muzzle swell as the Northern Napoleons have. The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia made Napoleons of iron, instead of bronze. Because the Napoleon was a smooth-bore it was not as accurate, nor did it have the range of a rifled gun. However, they could be loaded fast and were very good at defending against enemy infantry.

Napoleon cannons were smooth bored. The 12-pounder Napoleon was named such because the weight of one round of its solid shot was 12 pounds. Because of its smooth bore design, Napoleons had a low muzzle velocity. Their range was under a mile (1700 yards) for solid shot and for shell under 1300 yards.

At Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, Union Napoleon cannon had crushing effect against Rebel soldiers in Pickett’s Charge.

Texas Tides Reenactors Fire Three 12-Pound Napoleon Cannon

Whitworth Guns
The Whitworth Gun (also called the Whitworth Rifle) was a breech loading cannon with a rifled barrel. The Whitworth had a unique hexagonal bore and fired an elongated projectile that was called a bolt. Various calibers were found, and with the breech loading, a tighter rifling was possible. This meant these artillery pieces had increased range and accuracy. Whitworth Rifles were brought into the South through the blockade from England, but they were never available in sufficient numbers for the South. The bolts used by the Whitworths were an elongated twelve-pound shell that emitted a strange whine during its flight toward a target. Interestingly, the Whitworths imported after 1863 were muzzle-loaders instead of breech.

Whitworth Civil War Cannon at Gettysburg

Parrott Gun
This was also called the Parrott Rifle. The Parrott Gun was a rifled and muzzle loading cannon. The barrels were cast-iron and this made them apt to burst. To strengthen the guns, a reinforcing band of wrought-iron was added around the breech where the pressure of firing projectiles was greatest. Robert P. Parrott developed the wrought-iron breech reinforcement band of the Parrott Gun. Compared to smoothbore guns, the Parrotts were less expensive to make and because they were rifled, more accurate. The reinforcing band of wrought-iron gives the Parrott cannon a very distinctive look. They are easy to identify when you visit the various Civil War battlefields, like Gettysburg. Both the North and the South used the Parrott guns in the Civil War. Despite the reinforcement near the breech, Parrotts still had a tendency to burst. Ten-pounder and twenty-pounder Parrotts were available and popular.

3-Inch Ordnance Rifle
3-Inch Ordnance Rifles were light-weight and long-ranged cannon made by wrapping boiler plate around a core. They were patented by John Griffen in 1855 and made of wrought iron. Their barrels were much stronger than the Parrott. Horse Artillery used 3-Inch Ordnance Rifles because their barrels weighed only 820 pounds, making it 100 pounds lighter than the Parrott. Although 3-Inch Ordnance Rifles had a range of about 1,835 yards, the Parrott had a range of around 2,000 yards (both using a five degree elevation). This cannon was also a favorite
of regular army artillery batteries. It was a muzzle-loader and had a range of approximately two miles (4,000 yards).

The Napoleon, the Parrott, and the 3-Inch Ordnance Rifle were the three guns that made up most of the artillery of the Civil War.

How Artillery Was Organized

Union – The Union artillery batteries were usually made up of six guns that were used in three, 2-gun sections. There were left, middle, and right sections. Because the North had a better a supply system and great resources, all of the guns in a battery were of the same type. This made supplying ammunition easier. Around a hundred men made a Union battery.

Confederate – A Confederate battery was made up of four guns. They usually had a mixture of different guns, so the Confederate ammunition supply to artillery batteries was very difficult. Around sixty-eight men made up a Confederate battery.

Learn More About Civil War Artillery With The Swamp Angel…

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