Everything You Need to Know About Artillery | HistoryNet MENU

Everything You Need to Know About Artillery

1/2/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

The Author: John Gibbon, the first commander of the famous “Iron Brigade” of Midwestern regiments, ended the war as a major general commanding the XXIV Corps. He had spent many prewar years serving as an instructor of artillery at West Point and a captain of the 4th U.S. Artillery.

In an effort to standardize artillery practice when he was at West Point, Gibbon wrote The Artillerist’s Manual in 1860. It was reprinted in 1863.

While commanding infantry at Antietam, Gibbon proved he remained a gunner at heart, jumping from his horse to help direct the fire of his beloved 4th U.S Artillery. The battery’s historian later recalled: “Gen. Gibbon came into the Battery, and…took charge of the piece and acted as Gunner and No. 3 together during several rounds. His escape was miraculous, as he wore the full uniform of a Brigadier-General….”

The Book: The Artillerist’s Manual served as an “Artillery 101” textbook. Gibbon scoured numerous treatises on artillery, synthesizing what he considered to be the best and most complete information into his one volume.

His lengthy manual included material on topics like projectiles, the various types of artillery tubes and carriages, fuzes and implements. But Gibbon also went into great detail on the history of gunpowder and how it was made, the care of horses—very important in the era of horse-drawn artillery— and how to deploy cannons in various types of defensible positions.

His book was heavily illustrated with precise drawings like those shown at right, depicting a typical fieldpiece and its caisson and limber. Tables and graphs on everything from ranges of shells to the dimensions of shipping boxes accompanied the text.

Gibbon admitted his book “had extended beyond the limits first proposed,” but argued that an exhaustive work on artillery was necessary to spread information “upon a subject of the first importance to our national defense.”

Used by both Northern and Southern gunners during the conflict, The Artillerist’s Manual is still an enjoyable read for modern students of the war—unlike many other manuals of the period.

In Theory: Chapter X of The Artillerist’s Manual dealt with artillery implements, which Gibbon divided into pointing, loading, priming and firing mechanisms. This plate illustrates pointing and loading devices.

Figure 193 in the accompanying sketch (Plate 26) shows a quadrant, which was used mainly with mortars to establish the proper elevation of a shell. For heavy siege or garrison cannons, however, a breech-sight (Fig. 194) was primarily used. It was placed on the gun’s breech, with the gunner sighting through the slit. The tangent scale, shown in Fig. 195, helped establish whether the cannon was sitting level, but by the time of the Civil War it had been replaced by the pendulumhausse (Fig. 196). The weighted bulb at the base of the pendulum-hausse shifted to the right or left if the gun was sitting on sloped ground, keeping it level so the gunner could see through the slit to the sight and properly aim the gun.

The gunner’s level, shown in Fig. 197, determined the highest points of the base-ring and muzzle, while the maneuvering handspike (Fig. 198) was used to shift siege or garrison cannons to either side to help in aiming. The smaller shod handspike (Fig. 199) was the instrument of choice for mortars.

The business end of two loading implements—the rammer (Fig. 200) and the sponge (Fig. 201)—are also shown. The rammer, generally made of beech or elm, was used to ram the charge down the barrel. The sponge, made of woven wool and hemp yarn, was dipped in water and used to extinguish sparks inside the barrel.

In Practice: Written instruction meant little if the horses pulling the guns decided to act up. The beasts could ignore orders as well as the worst private. And as always, human error often trumped the most informative manual.

 

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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