Confusing Bronze Guns

Written by James Stallard, 2013
Edited by Jason Spellman

After touring the Civil War battlefields, I started to notice several rifled bronze guns, but they were often marked on signs as “smooth-bore.”

At Gettysburg, I walked down Col. Edward P. Alexander’s massed artillery position without examining any barrels. Later, while moving out to the Peach Orchard, I looked at the topography and the importance of that position and wondered why Gen. Daniel Sickles had place troops there. Walking back to the car, I noticed the 15th New York Independent Battery, and noticed that nearby was rifled bronze cannons. This left me a bit confused, so I photographed the guns and left.

201407_brnzguns1

1857 Napoleon Gun near the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg, Pa.
(Photo by author)

Research later revealed that the battery was issued M1857 Light Field Artillery Pieces (nicknamed “Napoleons”), a smooth-bore gun. What followed was that I could not pass a bronze cannon without checking to see if it was rifled. There were many bronze cannons and I determined that there were four rifled-pieces that seemed to be either unidentified or incorrectly marked as “smooth-bores”. One looked like a Union 12-lb. Napoleon but with a large foresight added. Another, looked like a 6-lb. rifled artillery piece. A third appeared to be a bronze 3” Ordnance Rifle. Finally, a straight-sided cannon was also found to be rifled, but didn’t resemble any other type.

What followed was a long-winded story that resulted in me not finding all the answers I wanted to. Several confused National Park rangers were not even aware of the discrepancies with these guns, even at their own sites. Jason Spellman of Richmond National Battlefield Park was the only one who could offer an answer. I can’t recall the gun he showed me in one of the books at visitor center but it explained one of the four types.

As I traveled to other battlefields I carried this curiosity with me, from Manassas to Williamsburg, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, Cold Harbour and Five Forks. I also flew to Atlanta (Ga.) and met Gordon Jones at the Atlanta History Center, who showed me the battlefields swallowed-up by the city and then headed off to Kennesaw Mountain and Chickamauga. He greeted me at the park museum and helped answer my question about the 6-lb. cannon, which I could get no answer for at Manassas. The ranger at Brawner’s Farm thought it might be a post-war production as it would be easier to cast a new gun rather than alter an original.

201407_brnzguns2The first answers came late in my Virginia travels after I accidentally got lost and crossed the James River in search of a McDonald’s to use the Wifi internet. On that side of the river, I decided to check out that Petersburg National Battlefield had to offer, which was a great choice. At their visitor centre, I found the same models of cannon as those at Gettysburg and signs describing what they actually were.

In summary, my findings reveal the guns to be:

  1. 12-lb. Napoleon is most likely a 14-lb. James Rifle, or a re-bored 1857 Napoleon adapted to accept the 14-lb. James projectile. The designated name for this modified gun is not known.
  2. 6-lb. Napoleon is that very gun but re-bored to accept the 12-lb. James Rifle projectile and appears under the name of either 1841 Rifle or 12-lb. James Rifle.
  3. Straight-sided rifled gun is the Confederate version of the 3” Ordinance Rifle, designed to accept the same 3” projectile of the US ordinance rifle and 10-lb. Parrot Rifle.
  4. 3” Ordinance Rifle made of bronze is most likely the actual 14-lb. James Rifle. It has similar external appearance (possibly US army model), accepted the James Rifle projectile, and therefore has a very different configuration. This was the answer I found while researching more about re-bored guns that accepted the James projectiles.

I plan to do more research when I return to the States and my findings are not the final answer on these bronze cannons. But I do hope that in the future if you see a bronze gun, that you might take the time to see if it has been rifled. My feeling is that re-boring artillery may have been a common practice during the war. Surviving artillery afterwards therefore resulted in the prevalence of noticeably re-bored pieces. And with the need for display cannons to fill the National Parks, they remain common examples of original artillery.

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