Cannon Identification


Guns and howitzers are the weapons most people think about when Civil War artillery is discussed. These weapons were usually formed in batteries - that is, a group of six weapons (at least in the Union Army). At the beginning of the war, a battery contained four guns and two howitzers. A 12-pounder Howitzer, Bronze6-pounder battery usually contained four 6-pounder guns and two 12-pounder howitzers, and a 12-pounder battery would be made up of four 12-pounders and two 24-pounder howitzers. Four-gun batteries were also common, especially in the Confederate Army.

Several batteries were often placed together in line to form a deadly defensive position. As the enemy troops advanced towards these batteries the guns would belch forth case shot (shells with lead or iron balls inside) and shrapnel shells. The prospect of being wounded or killed caused many soldiers to run or try to find a hiding place. Many veteran troops would throw themselves to the ground just as the weapons to their front fired. Once the weapons had been discharged, these troops would rise up and rush towards the guns hoping to capture the crew before they could reload. Since most proficient crews could fire two rounds per minute, the troops could find themselves hugging the ground several times.

Guns and howitzers differed in several aspects. A gun was a long-barreled, heavy weapon which fired solid shot at long range with a low degree of elevation using a large powder charge. A howitzer 12-pounder Howitzer had a shorter barrel and could throw shots or shells at a shorter range but at higher elevation with smaller powder charges. Howitzers were lighter, more maneuverable weapons than guns.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, most artillery guns were smoothbore. Soon after hostilities opened the two forces began the task of re-boring and rifling the old smoothbores in order to accommodate the new ammunition being developed.

Guns and howitzers were usually designated by the year in which a particular model was designed or improved. Thus, a particular weight weapon may have many different model designations.

The Federals produced bronze 6-, 9- (fewer than thirty 9-pounders were produced), and 12-pounders for field use; iron 12-, 18-, and 24-pounders for siege and garrison use; iron 32- and 42-pounders for seacoast defense; and iron 32-, 42-, and 64-pounders for navy use. The Confederates produced iron 6-pounders and bronze (later iron when bronze became scarce) 12-pounders, both for field use.

The most popular and dependable gun was the Model 1857, commonly called Napoleon (named after the French emperor Louis Napoleon who supported development of the design). This 12-pounder smoothbore was effective, reliable, and easily maneuvered. It had a range of 1,600 yards at five-degrees elevation and for best effect was probably around 1,200 yards. The Confederate army used many captured Napoleons as well as developing their own copy. When bronze became scarce in the South, the guns were cast of iron. Although the Napoleon is listed here as a gun, it was also classified as a gun-howitzer because of its shorter barrel and light weight.6-pounders

Other guns considered as standard, or common, weapons for the Civil War were the Model 1841 6-pounder field gun; Model 1841 32-pounder seacoast weapon; and the Model 1841 42-pounder seacoast gun.

Howitzers were originally developed in the near the turn of the 18th century. Most howitzers were smoothbore weapons, although many were rifled during the war as in the 3.4-inch Dahlgren Boat Howitzer. Howitzers produced by the Federals included bronze 12-, 24-, and 32-pounders for field use, iron 24-pounders and 8-inch for siege and garrison, and iron 8- and 10-inch for seacoast defense. The Confederates also produced iron 12-pounder and bronze 24-pounder field guns, and an iron 8-inch siege and garrison weapon.

The Model 1841 12-pounder was the standard field howitzer used in the Civil War. Because of its higher trajectory at which it was typically fired, it could fire a shell over 1,000 yards with less than one pound of powder.


Mortars were stubby weapons which fired heavy projectiles in a high arc. Only a small powder charge was needed to project the shot or shell to its maximum elevation.

When a mortar shell exploded, fragments weighing as much as ten or twenty pounds could fall with extreme velocity on the enemy. Combatants and non-combatants alike, became adapt at constructing bomb-proofs to protect themselves from fragments and solid shot. Bomb-proofs were shelters Bomb-proofs were shelters dug into the side of a bankdug into the side of a bank, away from the enemy, or constructed inside breastworks as small huts with heavy layers of dirt on the top side. The morale of a besieged city or of troops waiting to go into battle was severely effected by a mortar attack.

At night, the lighted fuzes of the shells were easily observed and the path of the shell could be traced during flight. During the day, the muzzle fire of a was difficult to detect since the weapons were masked from view of the opposing forces by the topography (ravines, woods, hills, etc.) of the battlefield. Yorktown13Mortars.jpg (91571 bytes) Mortars were most beneficial when the target was above or below the level line of sight. These conditions caused elevation problems for the long barreled weapons but allowed the short mortars to operate with efficiency. Elevation adjustments were accomplished by means of a ratchet and lever mechanism. Occasionally mortars were mounted on the decks of ships, on special barges, or on railroad flatcars.

Most mortar projectiles can be recognized by tong holes, or tong ears, which are cast into the metal on either side of the fuze hole. This allowed the ball to be centered properly in the short tube.

Seacoast mortars were designated as 10- and 13-inch and were made of iron. Also known as heavy mortars, these weapons were primarily used for the defense of the rivers and coastal waterways. These mortars had a lug cast over the center of gravity to aid in mounting the heavy weapon.

Siege and garrison mortars were constructed to be light enough to be transported by an army on the march. They were also used in the trenches at sieges and in defense of fortifications. These 8- and 10-inch weapons were made of iron.

The familiar bronze Coehorn mortar was classified as a siege and garrison weapon. Named after its Dutch inventor, Baron Menno van Coehoorn (1641-1701), it was usually designated as 5.8-inch, but was also commonly referred to as a 24-pounder. The Coehorn was light enough to be carried by two men along the trench lines. The Confederates also produced a 12- and 24-pounder size made of iron.


A Columbiad was a heavy iron artillery piece which could fire shot and shell at a high angle of elevation using a heavy powder charge. Columbiads were usually classified as seacoast defense weapons and were mounted in fortifications along the rivers and other waterways.

The original Columbiad, a 50-pounder, was invented in 1811 by Col. George Bomford and it was used in the War of 1812. Shortly afterwards it was considered obsolete and retired.

The weapon was produced again in 1844 in 8- and 10-inch models. In 1858, a version was produced which eliminated the chamber in the breech, which strengthened the gun. In 1861, Lt. Thomas J. Rodman, of the U.S. Ordnance Department, contracted with the Fort Pitt Foundry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to produce Columbiads using a special casting method he had developed in 1844. His process, which caused less stress on the gun during casting thereby preventing cracks from forming, was a success and the Columbiad became widely known as a Rodman gun.

Columbiads were produced in 8-, 10-, 12-, 13-, 15-inch cannon15-, and 20-inch models and were primarily smoothbore even though a few rifled models were turned out. The Confederates continued to produce their Columbiads by the old method and experimented with banding and rifling the weapon. Under this method, a Confederate Columbiad was capable of firing a 225-pound shot a distance of 1,800 yards.

Compared to guns, howitzers, and mortars, the Columbiads saw very little action. By the end of the Civil War these heavy weapons were obsolete, replaced by more effective weapons which had been developed during the war.


As has been stated earlier, the pre-Civil War era saw a great deal of experimentation and innovation both in the United States and in Great Britain. With the interest of the government renewed in obtaining the best possible weapons, many inventors were able to step forward and convince the ordnance department to give their weapons a fair trial. The Confederacy also shared this sense of immediacy.

The following weapons are those which were produced or used in large quantities during the conflict. Many other weapons were also developed but were produced in small numbers or were not commonly used and, therefore, are not included here.


One famous U.S. inventor was a former West Point graduate and ordnance officer named Robert Parker Parrott. Robert Parker Parrott In 1836, Parrott resigned his rank of captain and went to work for the West Point Foundry at Cold Spring, New York. This foundry was a civilian operated business and Parrott, as a superintendent, was able to dedicate some forty years perfecting a rifled cannon and a companion projectile. By 1860, he had patented a new method of attaching the reinforcing band on the breech of a gun tube. Although he was not the first to attach a band to a tube, he was the first to use a method of rotating the tube while slipping the band on hot. This rotation, while cooling, caused the band to attach itself in place uniformly rather than in one or two places as was the common method, which allowed the band to sag in place. The 10-pounder Parrott was patented in 1861 and the 20- and 30-pounder guns followed in 1861. He quickly followed up these patents by producing 6.4-, 8-, and 10-inch caliber cannons early in the war. The Army referred to these as 100, 200, and 300-pounder Parrotts respectively. By the end of the conflict the Parrott gun was being used extensively in both armies.

Parrott's name is also associated with the ammunition fired by his cannon. The elongated Parrott projectile employed a sabot made of wrought iron, brass, lead or copper that was attached to the shell base. When the projectile was fired, the sabot expanded into the rifling of the tube.  In 1861 Parrott patented his first projectile with the sabot cast on the outside of the projectile.


The Model 1861 3-inch wrought iron rifle, sometimes called an Ordnance rifle, was also a common weapon. The original design was patented in 1855 and was not quite what we know as the ordnance rifle; there was an evolutionary process both in achieving the final smooth profile of the piece, and the wrought iron, wound and welded in criss-crossing spirals in the original patent, was apparently done in sheets or plates for the final form of the gun. The Ordnance Rifle was manufactured at the Phoenix Iron Company in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. It was adopted by the Federal Ordnance Department in early 1861. Other versions of this weapon were produced in 1862 and 1863 by different companies, but this is the only weapon officially known as the Ordnance gun. The Confederates also produced their own version of this gun.

This weapon could accurately fire Schenkl and Hotchkiss shells approximately 2,000 yards at five degrees elevation, using a one pound charge of powder. The Hotchkiss shell was the most common projectile fired from the Model 1861. It was designed by Benjamin and Andrew Hotchkiss as a three piece shell - nose (containing the powder chamber), sabot (soft lead band fitting into an intention in the middle of the shell), and an iron forcing cup at the base (which forced the lead sabot to expand upon firing).

The other shell for this rifle was the Schenkl. This was a cone shaped projectile which employed ribs along the taped base. The sabot was made of papier-mâché' which was driven up the taper by the force of the gas produced upon firing. The sabot then expanded and caught the rifling in the tube.

This gun is sometimes erroneously referred to as a "Rodman." The process used by Thomas Rodman in casting the Columbiads was not used in producing the wrought iron barrel of the Ordnance gun. As far as can be determined, Rodman had nothing to do with the design or production of this gun.


A British army officer, Captain Theophilus Alexander Blakely, pioneered a banding system for his rifled cannon. With each experiment of his design a different cannon was developed with the end result of at least five, and possibly as many as ten, distinct types of Blakely cannons were manufactured.  Charleston ArsenalBlakely cannon are photographed in the foreground of this image of the Charleston Arsenal.

The 3.5-inch caliber, 12-pounder Blakely weapons were developed in nine varieties, with a tenth variation being a 10-pounder mountain piece. Most of these weapons were iron. Blakely rifles were also manufactured in 3.75-, 4.5- and 6.3-inch, and 100-, 120-, 150-, 200-, 250-, 375-, and 650-pounder sizes. Most were of iron, with the exception of the 375-pounder, which was made of semi-steel.

One famous Blakely rifle was "The Widow Blakely" that was used by the Confederates during the defenses of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863.


In Manchester, England, in the late 1850's, Sir Joseph Whitworth patented a system 12-pounder Whitworth Rifle for cannons (and small arms) which used a hexagonal bore design instead of the usual rifling methods. The ammunition also carried the hexagonal design in order to follow the bore, thus allowing for better range and accuracy. Sir Whitworth manufactured his cannons in both breech-loading and muzzle-loading models. If the Whitworth breech-loader malfunctioned, it could very simply be used a muzzle-loader on the battlefield.


Early in the war, John M. Brooke, late of the U.S. Navy and now an ordnance officer in the Confederate Navy, designed a banded cannon which was similar in appearance to the Parrott, but was different in the number of bands wrapped around the breech. The Brooke 7-inch Brooke Rifle Charleston, SCband consisted of several rings which were not welded together. Its rifling was similar to the Blakely gun and came in a number of calibers, including 6.4-inch, 7-inch, 8-inch, and 11-inch. John Brooke's other claim to fame was the key role he played in designing the armor plating used by the CSS Virginia (Merrimac) in the famous battle with the USS Monitor.


Dahlgren weapons are usually divided into three groups - bronze boat howitzers and rifles, iron smoothbores, and iron rifles. The designer, John A. B. Dahlgren Admiral John Dahlgren of the U.S. Navy, developed the weapons primarily for use on small boats that patrolled the waterways. The necessity for these weapons was demonstrated by the Navy's experience during the Mexican War when small launches and other craft were assigned to patrol close to river and creek banks.

Dahlgren was a Lieutenant when he was assigned to the ordnance department at the U.S. Navy Yard. The first weapon systems were adopted by the Navy in 1850. These bronze 12- and 24-pounder pieces were specially designed for use on the small launches, but were also included on most naval vessels during the Civil War. His iron smoothbores were adopted in 1850 (9-inch gun) and 1851 (11-inch gun). Although these guns were designed for use against wooden ships, the iron-clad Monitor class ships carried two of these in their turrets. These weapons were later replaced by the 15-inch Dahlgrens in 1862.

By the end of the Civil War, John Dahlgren, now a Rear Admiral, was responsible for the development and design of 12-pounder boat howitzers in several weight classifications (small, medium, and light), 20- and 24-pounder howitzers (some, including the 12-pounders, were rifled); 30-, 32-, 50-, 80-, and 150-pounder rifles; and 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-, 13-, 15-, and 20-inch rifles.