Artillery Pieces
of the
Civil War


Artillery generally falls into three basic categories; guns, howitzers and mortars. The principle difference between them being the trajectory of the round fired.

A gun has a high muzzle velocity and a very flat trajectory. Normally a gun is used in a direct fire mode where the target can be seen and penetration is desirable. Good targets for a gun would be things like brick or earthen fortifications, ships (especially iron-clads), buildings, and targets in tree lines. Note the example below of how a gun fires its shell.

animated canon

Howitzers have a somewhat lower muzzle velocity and arc their shells onto a target. They are used in both a direct fire and indirect fire mode. (Note: keep in mind with the limited range of the pieces available during the Civil War there was no indirect fire such as we know it today ... targets were generally always within the line of sight of the artillerymen) This is especially useful when an enemy is concealed behind a prepared position or the artillerymen desire to have a shell explode over an enemy's head. The air-burst does less damage to hardened targets such as masonry walls, abatis and redoubts, but causes many more human casualties due to the shrapnel covering a large area. Note the higher arc depicted below.

animated howitzer

Mortars have a very pronounced arc of flight. They have a relatively low muzzle velocity and are unsuitable for direct fire. Their principle value comes from being able to lob shells behind an obstacle...such as a fortification or a hill. Unlike modern mortars, those used during the Civil War were cumbersome devices and mounted at a fixed angle -- usually between 45 and 50 degrees. They were not very accurate and depended solely upon the amount of propelling powder to determine their point of impact (guns and howitzers could be elevated or depressed to some degree in order to aim them at a particular target). Note the example below.

animated mortar


13 inch MortarThe short squat mortar had changed little from the time when they were first used in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks. They were well adapted, however, to hurling shells where other cannon could not -- over the walls of a fort or enemy field works. Mortars were used principally by the Union, although both sides made some use of them in combat. They ranged in size from a 'mobile' 300 lb Coehorn mortar with a 5.8 inch bore that hurled an 18 pound shell to the immense 13 inch seacoast mortars (shown here) that weighed 17,120 lbs and could fire a 220 pound bomb 4,325 yards. Siege mortars came in 8 inch and 10 inch bore diameters and fired 44 and 88 lb shell respectively. Naturally devices of this weight were not very easily moved about a battlefield. Mortars in the Civil War were primarily siege weapons or mounted on ships and scows for subduing enemy fortifications. They saw a good deal of use in the campaigns on the Mississippi River. At the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip (April 1862) 19 schooners, each mounting a 13 inch mortar, pounded the Rebel forts for six days before capturing New Orleans.

Mountain HowitzerHowitzers were manufactured in different projectile weight classes. The 12-pounder (pictured at left) weighed 1,700 lbs and could propel a 9 lb explosive shell more than 1,000 yards. The 24-pounder howitzer weighed 2,500 lbs and could hurl an 18 lb shell more than 1,400 yards. The 32-pounder and 42 pounder howitzers were also used. Unlike guns that fired on a flat trajectory, the smooth bore howitzer, commonly made of bronze, could fire in a curved arc, allowing the shells fired to drop behind the enemy walls and other battlements. The explosive shells ranged from six to 18 pounds and could be fired with a lower charge than the high-trajectory mortars that fired a solid ball. Both North and South used these weapons, usually mounting them on wooden 2-wheeled carriages.A Mountain HowitzerSix lb Field Gun

(Here on the right is a 6 pound field gun. Pictured on the left is a bronze mountain howitzer)

1857 NapoleonThe Model 1857 Gun Howitzer (Napoleon) was the most popular, common, and deadly field piece of the Civil War. The barrel was of bronze and smooth-bored designed originally in France.

A Napoleon fired a 12.3 lb projectile and had a maximum effective range of about 1,600 yards. The barrel with its carriage weighed 2,445 pounds, light enough to be hauled by men for short distances, however, the usual method of transportation was by a six-horse team with a driver aside one of each pair of horses. Union Napoleons had a slight swell at the muzzle of the 4.62 inch bore. Confederate made pieces werebronze Napoleon generally tapered and some had a band-reinforced breech. Artillerymen favored Napoleons because their bronze barrels were stronger and safer than those made of iron -- thus there was less chance the gun would burst during firing killing or wounding the crew.

A Napoleon was able to fire all of the four basic types of ammunition. The solid shot, shell, and case rounds were all spherical and were used against enemies at distances greater than 600 yards. For shorter distances the gun was loaded with canister, which turned it into a giant shotgun with lethal effects.

Point of Interest: The most accurate shot ever fired by a Napoleon was most likely made on Dec 13, 1862, at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Confederate MAJ Braxton and LT Marye fired solid shot at a Union color bearer almost 1,600 yards away. Their first shot killed the man beside the color bearer, the second was a direct hit.


3-inch Ordnance Rifle The 3-inch ordnance gun, a rifled cannon made of wrought iron was, along with the 12 pounder smooth bore Napoleon, the mainstay of field artillery batteries.

While the Napoleon was the weapon of choice for short-range fighting, the ordnance gun was valued for its long range accuracy. A one lb charge of gunpowder could accurately propel a 10 lb elongated shell a distance of 2,000 yards at only 5 degrees of elevation. Longer distances, but less accuracy, could be achieved with higher elevations. The rifle usually fired either Hotchkiss or Schenkl projectiles, though if need be, it could fire 10-pounder Parrot ammunition. It could also be used to fire cannister but, as a rifle, it was not as effective with this round as was a howitzer or Napoleon.

Schenkl RoundHotchkiss Round The Schenkl used a paper-mache sabot that slid up an expanding shank when the weapon was fired, thus catching the rifling. The Hotchkiss round used a lead band between the actual round and an iron 'tail'. The lead band was thus expanded and forced into the rifling when the gun was fired.

3-inch Ordnance Rifle Artillerymen preferred this piece because it did not have the tendency to explode upon firing as cast iron cannon did. The North produced more than 1,000 3-inch ordnance rifles during the war at a cost of about $350 each. Cannon for the South were made by Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works and a foundry in Rome, Georgia. The gun was constructed using sheets of boiler iron wrapped around a core. This created a weapon which was inexpensive yet so strong that breech reinforcing was unnecessary. Although sometimes called a six pounder rifle or a "Rodman", neither of these terms are accurate.


Parrott Rifle Rifling a cannon to improve its performance was a well known principle prior to the war. Problem was that most cannon were constructed of bronze, which although had good strength characteristics, would quickly wear to the point of uselessness when rifled. A harder metal was needed.

Cast iron was the natural choice but this metal is very brittle and prone to crack -- especially after hard use. Cannon made of it tended to burst occasionally when fired, killing or wounding the crew. Robert Parker Parrott was the first to successfully turn out quantities of rifled cast iron cannon thru a new method of attaching a reinforcing wrought iron band to the breech end of the gun.

The wrought iron band was allowed to cool in place while the gun was rotated, which allowed the band to clamp uniformly about the breech. The resulting cannon could be produced quickly at a cost of about $187 each. Although the breech was reinforced the rest of the gun was not, giving them the tendency to burst at the muzzle.

The Parrott gun became the workhorse of the artillery for the first years of the war, and continued to be produced in quantity even after the introduction of the 3-inch ordinance rifle. These weapons were used primarily by the Union forces, although the South created a copy called a Brooke Rifle (see below).

(Below left is a 20 lb Parrott Rifle, below right is a 10 lb Parrott Rifle)
10 lb Parrott Rifle20 lb Parrott Rifle

Whitworth Breech-loaderThe Whitworth Breech Loading cannon was an English model gun imported by the Confederacy during the early months of the war before the blockade was tightened enough to be effective. It was the most accurate of the South's artillery weapons with a bore of 2.75 inches and was unique in that it was loaded from the breech. An engineering magazine wrote in 1864 that, "At 1,600 yards, the Whitworth gun fired 10 shots with a lateral deviation of only 5 inches". This high degree of accuracy made it a prime candidate for counter-battery fire. It was not, however, popular as a weapon for use against infantry targets.

The Whitworth's bore, instead of using rifling groves, was a spiral hexagonal shape. Ammunition for this cannon had to have the same shape as the bore. When fired, the projectile made a distinctive sound which could be easily distinguished from other cannon rounds.

Whitworth Rifle Rebel artillery in particular, was a hodge-podge of various pieces of equipment and manpower. For the most part the only plant capable of producing ordinance for the South was the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. A good portion of equipment used during the war by Southern forces was captured from the Union during the early battles and that obtained from ordinance stores when the Confederate government seized coastal guns and forts in the opening days of the war. It was extremely rare at any period during the Civil War to find a Confederate artillery battery with uniform equipment.


Brooke Rifle3 in Brooke RifleThe Brooke Rifle, named after its developer John Mercer Brooke (CSA), closely resembled the popular Parrott guns used by the North. The Brooke Rifle was a breech loading gun which had a long, heavy tapered barrel constructed of cast iron -- reinforced with bands made of wrought iron. The bands were unusual in that they were not welded in place as was normal for other cannon of this class. The Rifle came with one, two or three of these 6 inch bands and was rifled in the manner of the British made Blakely guns. This rifling greatly increased the gun's range and accuracy. Some smooth-bores were made, but these were earmarked for service on ironclads where the gun was only needed to fire heavy, solid shot a short distance. Brooke Rifles came in a variety of calibres, 6.5; 7; 8; 10 and 11 inches, but it was the smaller 3 inch field piece (top left) that became the backbone of the Southern artillery. The 3 inch cannon weighed 900 lbs and could fire a 10 lb shot 3,500 yards and its relative lightness required fewer horses to pull it. The gun was produced at Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works and the Naval Ordinance Works in Selma, Alabama. The iron was much cheaper to use for construction than was the bronze used in earlier cannon. As the war progressed, however, the quality of the iron declined and the later guns were prone to exploding upon being fired.

Rodman GunRodman is actually a manufacturing process rather than a cannon; developed by LT Thomas Rodman in the mid-1840's for casting large iron cannon. The process made the guns stronger, longer lasting, and less likely to develop cracks. Previous to this new process, large cannon had been cast in a block, cooling from the outside in, then they would be bored and finished. Rodman's process had the gun cast about a hollow pipe in which water was pumped during the cooling process while the outer part of the casting was kept hot by live coals. This allowed the cooling layers to shrink onto each other creating a stronger barrel which was less likely to explode. Rodman's process permitted larger guns to be manufactured than was previously possible. The 1861 Model Columbiad guns were made using the Rodman process, and the Union ordered 8; 10; 13; 15 and 20 inch calibre Rodman Columbiads. The 15 inch Rodman Columbiad was the largest actually used by the Union during the Civil War. It was bottle shaped and weighed in at 25 tons. LT Rodman also improved the gunpowder used in the large guns. The prismatic and perforated-cake gunpowder he invented burned evenly -- thus the gases expanded in a controlled fashion. This meant less chance of a sudden shock that could burst the barrel of a cannon killing or injuring the crew. 15 inch Rodman guns were capable of hurling a 440 lb shot more than four miles. Columbiads, such as the one pictured here, were among the largest of the guns of the period and used in coastal defenses and fortifications. They were capable of firing a large shell or ball up to several miles and were excellent defensive weapons. They were not, and never meant to be, mobile -- often weighing in excess of 20 tons.

Eight inch Armstrong The Armstrong was a large rifled cannon invented by an Englishman, Sir William George Armstrong in 1854. It's most noticeable feature was the series of graduated coils over a lengthwise tube, causing it to look like a giant collapsible telescope pulled out in overlapping circles. Because exploding guns were a constant problem, and potentially devastating for the man who lite the charge as well as those around him, the Armstrong design was a huge success. The compressed inner tube in the cannon enabled it to better resist the force of firing. The cannon was imported by both sides in four-inch and 16-pounder models, then was manufactured in the United States using Armstrong's design. It was made in both muzzle-loading and breech-loading designs and came in sizes ranging from three to 13.3 inches, with the three-inch size being the most popular. 3 inch muzzle-loading Armstrongs fired a grooved projectile which weighed 12 pounds out to a distance of 2,200 yards. 3 inch breech-loading Armstrongs fired a 12 pound projectile (also grooved) out to a distance of 2,100 yards. In both cases this is using and elevation of 5 degrees.

Blakely CannonThe Blakely cannon, imported from the British by the South along with the Whitworth and Armstrong guns, was invented by English Captain Alexander Blakely. The most commonly used Blakelys had a bore of 3.1 to 10 inches and used a variety of ammunition, including flanged and studded projectiles. Used in small numbers by the Confederates, the 12 pounder Blakely was constructed of steel and iron, had a bore of 3.4 inches and a tube that weighed 800 pounds. Using a one-pound charge, it fired a 10 pound projectile at a muzzle velocity of 1,250 ft/sec. The largest Blakely had a 12.75 inch bore and fired projectiles weighing 470 pounds nearly 2,000 yards (at 5 degrees of elevation). The large eight-inch Blakely was imported by the South for use in its coastal defenses in South Carolina. As with its sister cannon, the Armstrong, the Blakely's rifled design helped absorb the impact of firing. However, because of its 'bucking back' when firing it did not remain as popular as the Armstrong and Whitworth guns. When used with English ammunition, the Blakey was a good muzzle-loading gun; however, its performance deteriorated when firing shells of Confederate manufacture. The Blakely gun quickly became obsolete and soon was seeing little service as more advanced gun designs were produced.

15 inch Dahlgren gunWhile John Dahlgren, U.S. Navy, had designed several classes of guns, he is best remembered for the large smooth bore cannon cast in the distinctive "soda bottle" shape. This design provided extra thick walls at the breech end of the gun which allowed for larger, heavier cannon that were less likely to explode at the breech when fired. Although originally designed to fire shells against wooden ships of the era, the Dahlgren cannons proved to be strong enough to fire 170 lb solid shot which was more effective against the newlyDahlgren gun encountered ironclads of the war. The 15 inch gun (pictured above) weighed over 20,000 lbs and required a hoist and a two-man crew to load the 400 lb spherical solid shot. The Monitor used two 11 inch Dahlgren guns during its battle with the Merrimack at Hampton Roads, Va. Many of these guns were captured and used by the Confederacy during the war where they were very effective against ships and coastal fortifications.

Cannon Ammunition

Ordinance StoresShells, hollow ammunition filled with gunpowder and equipped with a fuse, were the most common type of explosive artillery round used during the Civil War. Fuses could be either timed so the round would explode after a certain number of seconds had elapsed, or were percussion so the ammunition would explode upon striking an object.

Shells were generally used as long range rounds, meant to explode among an advancing enemy or used to blow apart enemy fortifications. While all types of artillery used shells, those used in smooth bore guns were generally spherical in shape while those used in rifled cannon were elongated -- usually either bullet or bottle shaped. Round shells were manufactured in cartridge form, with a wooden sabot (a disk or sleeve which fit snugly within the bore) between the propelling charge and the ball. In larger cannon where the propelling charge and the round were loaded separately, the gunner had to insure that the fuse was facing forward to prevent the ammunition from exploding in the gun barrel.

For rifled cannon a variety of devices were used to cause either the round itself or its sabot to grip the walls of the bore and impart a stabilizing spin on the ammunition. In construction, a shell's walls were thicker around the fuse so that when the round exploded the force would not be expended through the weaker section of the shell. A shell's main casualty producing property is fragmentation -- small bits and shards of metal from the shell casing that scatter with high speed when the round bursts. Shrapnel is somewhat different than fragmentation in that a hollow, explosive-filled shell is also packed with bits of metal, usually small round lead or iron balls. When the rounds bursts, aside from the fragmentation from the casing of the shell itself, these small balls would fly out causing casualties. This is the principle behind the 'case' round and was an innovation of Mr. Shrapnel, hence the term of 'shrapnel' in todays vocabulary.

Shell Fuze(Photo at left is a 3 inch Parrott rifle shell with a paper time fuse in a brass plug)

There were a large variety of fuses (spelled 'fuze' back then) in use during the Civil War for setting off the explosive charge within a shell. Field artillery shell and case shot were commonly fitted with a brass or wooden plug which contained the timed fuse. This was tightly screwed into the round itself. The paper fuse could be cut to burn for the desired time before ingiting the main charge of powder within the ammunition. Paper fuses were common but often unreliable and easily damaged by moisture. This brought about the use of the Bormann time fuses, which had a soft metal cover to protect the powder within. They proved to be very reliable. Fuses often took the shape of a crude watch dial. The artillery crew would cut or punch a hole in the fuse at the desired burn time. When fired, the blast from propelling charge would light the slow-burning powder in the fuse which would burn in flight and explode the round, hopefully at the desired target. Some fuses were simply tapered wooden plugs fitted into the shell. The fuse would be cut, again to adjust the burn time, and inserted into the round. The artilleryman who loaded the piece had to ensure that the round was loaded with the fuse to the front of the cannon to preclude the force of the initial firing from forcing the fuse into the shell casing and exploding the round prematurely. Percussion fuses were also used to explode the round upon impact but were much less common and only reliable with an elongated shell, as the fuse had to actually strike an object to detonate. Spherical ammunition might rotate in flight.

Solid shot was a kinetic energy round. Its speed and mass were used to penetrate walls, fortifications and armor. To produce any type of casualty effect, the round would have to actually strike the target. Solid shot was particularly used against ironclad ships where a shell would do little or no damage. During one test an 8 inch Brooke rifle with 16 lbs of powder fired a 140 lb ball 260 yards and penetrated eight inches of iron backed by 18 inches of solid wood.


Grape-shotWhile there are many accounts of troops charging bravely into a "hail of grape" there is little fact in this. Grape shot (pictured at left) was used very little on the land battlefield during the Civil War. The ammunition encountered by the soldiers was called canister, one of the war's most deadly rounds. Canister was Canister Roundbasically a tin can packed with sawdust and musket balls which, when fired, spread out and turned the artillery piece into a giant shotgun. While ineffective beyond about 400 yards, at close range against massed infantry this round was devastating, cutting huge swaths through the attacking men. Note the canister round pictured at right.

Grape shot was widely used in 18th century wars, but by the time of the American Civil War, grape was becoming obsolete and primarily only used by navel gun crews. Similar to canister, grape shot consisted of metal balls, but unlike canister which fired 76 balls, a round of grape shot consisted of nine or so balls and were usually not packed in cans. A standard round consisted of three tiers of three 2 inch diameter balls separated by iron plates and held together by a central rod which connected the top and bottom plates (often called a 'lamppost').

Another design consisted of an iron bottom plate with a central pin around which the balls were stacked. A cloth bag, usually of canvas, covered the balls which was in turn lashed around with a cord.Quilted Grape-shot The resulting round of ammunition looked like a bunch of grapes -- hence the name "grape shot". Grape shot, like canister, would spread out with a shotgun effect once leaving the muzzle of the gun, though with a much greater range than canister.


Photos courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division