Cannon in the American Revolutionary War

Revolutionary war period cannon used by all armies was the standard smooth-bore muzzle-loading weapon that had not changed its design in the previous two hundred years. It would go on to remain very much the same for another hundred years.

Cast in iron or bronze, a cannon was loaded with prepared cartridge of paper or cloth containing gunpowder. The ball or grape was then inserted and rammed home on to the cartridge, unlike a musket cartridge that combined powder and ball in the same paper. Often these prepared cartridge and projectiles were transported on caissons, a two-wheeled cart designed to carry artillery ammunition drawn by hand or horses. Other times they were laid in a box or ammunition chest and strapped to the limber, a two-wheeled cart that attached to the trail of an artillery piece by an iron bolt or rod that was secured into a pintle.  Sometimes, the munitions may have been strapped directly onto the carriage, the two-wheeled cart upon which the cannon rested, or on either side of the chase, the barrel itself.

The cannon was fired by igniting a goose-quill tube that contained gunpowder or by using quick-match put into a vent hole that ignited the powder in the gun.  Quick-match was a fast burning fuse made of cotton string permeated with black powder (or black match), and a loose fitting paper tube or pipe, about ¼ inch thick that encased the black match.   When the cannon released its shot, the recoil threw it backward requiring a crew to wrestle it back into firing position where it was once more primed and aimed.

Basic parts of the cannon (not the carriage):  Chase – the barrel.  Cascabel – the rearmost part of the barrel shaped to hold a line used to hoist the gun in transit.  Breech –  part of the barrel just above the Cascabel.  It was ‘preponderated,’ meaning that the breech, which obtained the powder chamber, used much more metal in construction than the rest of the gun for obvious reasons.  Reinforced Breech Ring or Base Ring – above the Breech.  Touch hole – center of the chase just above the Base Ring from which a fuse could be inserted.  Trunnions –  cylindrical protrusions used to mount and pivot the cannon on its carriage or truck (mounting on fortifications or aboard ship).  Trunnion Rings – attaching lower chase to upper extent of barrel.  Mouth or Caliber Cornish – the end of the barrel from which the projection exits.

Field artillery crew

All cannon were categorized by the size of solid shot they fired.  The types of cannon were grouped into field cannon, garrison cannon, howitzers, mortars, and swivel guns.

The field cannon fired its shot on a flat trajectory where the ball ‘bounced’ across the battlefield and plowed through enemy formations which, during field tactics of the time, caused great havoc on troops that were packed tightly together to maximize the affect of their muskets when volleyed.

Hessian four & six pounder artillery.

The main pieces used on the field of battle were the three and four pounder, or referred to as gallopers, and the six pounder field piece.  They weighed anywhere from 450  to a thousand pounds.  For centuries, cannon were stationary weapons, yet through developments of carriage using trail, they become more mobile.  The carriages used large wheels for easy movement over irregular terrain.  European and American artillery companies followed the same, very fluid pattern of manning and deployment, determined by the needs and circumstances of a particular campaign.  What remained the same were the light infantry accompanying guns.  These ‘Battalion Cannon,’ though under the overall command of the artillery commander, were assigned permanently to the infantry.  This was influenced through tactics used by Frederick the Great who pulled the guns by two horses in tandem instead of by hand-drawn carriages onto the battle field. The tails of these carriages were modified to be drawn by horse, thereby giving the term ‘galloper guns.’

The concept of gallopers seemed ideal:  Horses racing up, unlimbering their burden, a crashing volley to devastating effect,  and after the repositioning of combative forces – which could be quite rapid in the heat of battle,  hitch up the carriage and away to another threatened position where the battery could do more harm.  In reality, though the guns were portable, gun crews, especially in the American forces, were afoot and the ammunition was ponderously trundled along by foot or behind ox-carts.

Garrison Cannon was similar to the field cannon except noticeably of larger caliber and far heavier, many well over a ton ranging from twelve to thirty two pounders.  Because they were stationary, except during recoil and repositioning, their wheels were much smaller and usually solid wood.  They were mounted on what were called trucks.  Employed in forts and on ships, they were used mainly for coastal batteries or along fortifications.  They were at times transported onto mobile carriages for use in siege tactics against enemy fortifications and trenches.  They too had a relatively flat trajectory.

Garrison cannon at the Battle of Charlestown, Sullivan Island, 1777.

Howitzers had a much higher trajectory to lob shot over obstacles to reach enemy forces within entrenchments.  It mainly used a shell, a hollow ball filled with powder and lit by a fuse.  The object was to time the trajectory just right so the ball exploded over the troops raining down shared metal with deadly affect.  Howitzers were designed to be carted on carriage though larger ones were used in siege tactics.

Brass Mortar. Yorktown Battlefield, U. S. Park Service.

Mortars were of very small to very large design; transportable and fired by one or two soldiers rapidly on the battle field to immense monstrosities employed on ‘bomb ketches’ or ships specially designed to accommodate their enormous size.  Their trajectories were fixed at forty five degrees and the distance the shot traveled varied by the amount of powder use for charge.  Because of its use to get at troops behind fortifications, it used shell technology similar to howitzers.

The swivel gun was a small cannon which got its name from the ‘mechanism’ that allowed its quick easy motion to point at any quarter on the battlefield or ship when mounted along railings.  It, similar to the field mortar, was not ‘crew-served’ like other cannon, however far more effective when manned by another gunner.  It was mounted on some type of base, usually a block of wood or even stump.  Because the swivel mechanism could not withstand heavy recoil, its size and effectiveness was limited.

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Holst, Donald W.  The Use of Carronades during the American Revolution. Military Collector and Historian, 40 (Winter 1988).


Manucy, Albert.  Artillery through the Ages, a Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in AmericaNational Park service Interpretative Series, 1949 (reprinted 1962)

McKenney, Janice E.  The Organizational History of Field Artillery 1775-2003.  2007, U.S. Gov. Printing Office Army Lineage Series.

Muller, John.  A Treatise of Artillery: Containing General Constructions of Brass and Iron Guns used by Sea and Land, and their Carriages, General Constructions of Mortars and Howitzers…    1780 with original publishing 1757 and reprinted 1779.  London

York, Neil Longley.  Technology in Revolutionary America, 1760-1790.  Ph.D Dissertation, University of California at Santa Barbara, 1978

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