Firing Field Cannon in the American Revolutionary War

English: Washington firing the first gun at th...
English: Washington firing the first gun at the Siege of Yorktown

Size of Field Cannon:

Field artillery is categorized as smaller cannon that were mounted on portable carriages of one axle with large wheels, designed to be moved quickly and manage the rugged terrain they were required to traverse. The size was based on the weight of shot they were capable of throwing.  Typical sizes ranged from two-pounders on up to eight-pounders. The most common were three pound ‘gallopers’ and six-pounders. Occasionally twelve pound ‘ships’ cannon were converted to carriages. They fired solid shot, shells, grape, and chain. Howitzers and mortars were also hauled onto the battle fields. They used shells that were lobbed great distances over the heads of the enemy. These shells were designed to explode over or amidst enemy soldiers.

American artillery.

Crew and Responsibilities:  Firing field cannon during the American Revolutionary War required a crew, or ‘cannon cocker’ as they were commonly called during the war. A crew was comprised of no fewer than six men and occasionally ten or more. Pulled manually or limbered by horse, the cannon was positioned onto the battle field and the crew took their places.

Positions and Titles:

Gun Commander.  An officer who had overall command of the gun and crew. He was solely responsible for matters pertaining to the usage and safety of the cannon, its positioning on and off the field, accuracy of shot, and defense against enemy capture. He did not assist in loading or firing the piece; however, if necessary due to casualties or lack of manpower, he would serve in the position of firer.

Firer.  This officer held the linstock and touched off the charge when ordered by the Gun Commander. A linstock, from the Dutch lontstok, meaning match stick, was a long wooden staff with a metal fork or serpentine jaw at the end to grip a slow match. A slow match was a very slow burning cord or hemp twine, chemically treated with potassium or sodium nitrates. The length of the linstock allowed the firer to safely discharge the gun at a safe distance from the recoil. The linstock also had a sharp point at the base to stick in the ground. If an enemy came upon them, the linstock’s sharpened point could be used as a pike to ward off attack.

Vent Tender.  The Vent Tender stops or ‘tends’ the vent hole (or touch hole) so no air escapes during the worming, sponging and loading of the cannon. He also picks open the charge with a priming wire and adds the powder to the vent either by horn or, more commonly, quill. This is called priming the piece. He usually had some type of protection from the heat of the barrel or chase while stopping the vent such as a leather glove or piece of hide.

Ram and Sponge. This officer sponged or swabbed the piece after firing and worming to extinguish any lingering hot embers. After the cartridge of black powder was placed in the muzzle, he rammed it home (jamming the charge to the base positioned over the vent hole).

Worm and Loader.  After the cannon was fired, this officer would ‘search’ the barrel with a worm to extract spent cartridge. The worm was a large, wrought iron, blacksmith-made cork screw-like piece that was attached to a long wooden pole. He dislodged stubborn charges and cleaned the bore of the chase. After sponging, he would place the next round (solid shot, shell, grape, etc.) into the muzzle and also add the powder cartridge. Some cartridge had shot and powder combined (a larger version of musket cartridge).

Artillery crew

Powder Handler.  This officer’s responsibility was to remove the powder box from the carriage upon positioning the piece. He also brought the round forward to the wormer and loader and would also man the trail for aiming the piece.

Powder Box Handler. Guarded shot and powder. Larger crews augmented the Powder Handlers and those needed to manually drag and position the bigger guns. Also charged with keeping the bucket of water full and nearby the sponger.


Hessian artillery.

Step 1 –  Search the Piece.  After each firing, the barrel must be searched with a worm to be sure all old powder and materials (such as spent grape) were removed.

Step 2 – Swab.  The bore of the chase (barrel) must be swabbed or sponged.  A wet sheepskin covered sponge is rammed down the barrel.  It extinguishes any hot embers and removes fowling left by spent powder. A bucket of water must be available at all times.  The vent hole or touch hole must be stopped up during swabbing; usually with a thumb (protected from the heat by leather or piece of hide).  Steps 1 and 2 were usually repeated.

Step 3 – Charge with Powder.  A new powder charge or cartridge is placed in the muzzle and rammed home. The cartridges were made before hand usually black powder sewn into a fabric bag.

Step 4 – Ram down ball. After the cartridge or powder is rammed home, paper or hay is shoved in the muzzle then the shot to be fired.  Shot and powder were sometimes made in advance, like a larger version of a musket cartridge.  This quickened the response time for each firing.

Continental troops capturing British guns.

Step 5 – Prick. After the bore was loaded, the powder bag or cartridge needed to be pricked so the powder would be exposed to the touch- or vent hole.  The prick was a small wrought iron bar with a sharpened point at one end and a small handle at the other. It was wide enough to fit the touch or vent hole easily.

Step 6 – Prime. Powder was poured into the touchhole. Powder horn was occasionally used, although more common was the use of a quill (feather of a large bird, usually turkey). It was opened at both ends leaving a hollow tube. The quill tube was filled with powder (premade) and easily laid in the touchhole, making contact with the pricked powder bag.

Step 7 – Fire. As soon as the quill was laid in the touchhole, ‘primed’ was cried out to the entire gun crew. With the command of ‘give fire’ or ‘make ready’, the crew members moved to their firing positions. The linstock, with slow match, was laid to the touchhole and the cannon fired.

Position of Crew Members:

The gun commander stood a short distance off so he could supervise the execution of all firing procedures. He also had a clear view of the field and could judge the cannon’s accuracy, calling out orders for any adjustments.  If the enemy was approaching, he could order a defense or abandon position. The firer stood to the rear left of the trail. The vent tender stood to the rear right of the trail. The rammer and sponger stood to the front right of the wheel or chase. The wormer and loader stood to the front left of the wheel or chase. The powder handler stood to the left of the powder box. The powder box handler stood behind the box.

Artillery commands for loading and firing a field piece:

  • Attention
  • Tend the vent
  • Advance the worm and worm out the piece
  • Advance the sponge and sponge out the piece
  •  Retrieve the powder and charge the piece
  • Ram down the charge
  • Charge ammunition
  • Ram the piece
  • Take aim
  • Prime
  • Make ready (or give fire)
  • Fire
American artillery at Yorktown, 1781.

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Drew, Bernard A.  Henry Knox and the Revolutionary War Trail in Western MassachusettsNorth Carolina:  McFarland and Company, 2012.

Haven, Kendall F.  Voices of the American Revolution:  Stories of Men and Women Who Forged our Nation.  Westport, CN:  Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.

Manucy, Albert C.  Artillery Through the Ages: A Short Illustrated History of Cannon: Emphasizing Types Used in America. Washington DC:  Division of Publications National Park Service, 1949.

Neumann, George C. The History of Weapons of the American Revolution. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Safety Guide to Black Powder:

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