Shooting Civil War Artillery

One of the biggest thrills in shooting Civil War ordnance is getting the opportunity to participate as a member of an artillery gun crew at a skirmish or reenactment. If you possess but one blue or gray corpuscle in your blood, a hands-on, big-bang experience will cause you to acquire an instant addiction for artillery. Visit a Civil War park, and you'll notice some of the most photographed objects are the cannons. History buffs just plain love artillery pieces. You probably do, too.

My love of artillery certainly predates my shooting experiences. I have old, faded color shots (and a few black & whites) of visits in the '70s to Antietam, Gettysburg and Fredericksburg, and cannon are a part of every scene. When I started competitive shooting in 1966, I never thought for an instance that 30 years later, being part of an artillery crew would be such a significant part of my shooting psyche.

Being a member of the N-SSA has allowed me to become acquainted with many of the great collectors and shooters of Civil War artillery, and my knowledge increases every time I chat with these gentlemen. When the Chesapeake Artillery was in our infant stages, we were even lucky enough to be the recipients of a loan of an original Parrott Rifle until a replica was completed for our own use.

Civil War artillery can basically be broken down into two types of service; Field Artillery, which maneuvered with troops in the field, and, Heavy Artillery, which was mounted on large carriages in forts or, late in the war, on railroad cars. The Civil War saw many improvements in Field Artillery, including the use of breech-loading cannon and the extinction of smoothbore gun batteries.

Almost all Civil War artillery saw service on a carriage with 57- inch wheels and was coupled with a limber for movement. The most numerous types of Field Artillery were the 10-pound Parrott Rifle and the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, which fired the same 3-inch ammunition; the Model 1857 Gun-Howitzer (12-pound Napoleon); and the Model 1841/4 6- pound gun. These are also the most popular types of tubes noticed at reenactments and skirmishes today.

With each piece firing a multiple ounce load, you can bet that safety is a big concern, and the best artillery units are known more for their safe drill then for their rate of fire. It takes a minimum of six good men to feed and service an artillery piece, and each man has specific duties. The Number One man works the right side of the muzzle, ramming home each load, and sponging with a wet bore sponge immediately after each round is fired. The Number Two man works the left side of the muzzle, receiving each load and placing it in the mouth of the muzzle for the Number One man to ram. The Number Three man works the right side of the breech, servicing the vent during cleaning and priming. The Number Four man places the primer in the vent and pulls the lanyard when the command to fire is given. The Number Five man carries the charge from the Ammunition Chest on the Limber to the Number Two man, and assists the Gunner in pointing the piece. The Gunner sights the piece, supervises the safe servicing of the piece by the other crew members, and gives the command to fire. At a reenactment, a gun crew may have additional members who service the Ammunition Chest and keep charges moving safely to the crew.

If you can imagine all these things happening around each one of 15 guns on the firing line, then you can imagine how active the Artillery competition is at a National Skirmish. The Photo above shows the artillery crews at a recent skirmish conducted by the 27th Va Vols at Fort Shenandoah. At a National Skirmish, the cannon teams shoot at a range of 200 yards and have 60 minutes to fire up to 12 rounds, the best 10 rounds counting for score. It is not unusual to have two one-hour relays of 15 to 18 guns competing in the Smoothbore and Rifle categories at a National Skirmish, and it is a rare occur- rence when a score less than 50 wins first place!

Reenacting with artillery is just as much fun as skirmishing, and the artillery duel is one of the big fan pleasers at most reenact- ments. My outfit, the Chesapeake Artillery, reenacts with the 1st Va Battalion, and we enjoy the chance to face off against our opponents instead of next to 'em!

N-SSA rules require a reduced load when competing at Ft. Shenan- doah, but much larger charges are used for reenacting. For instance, we are limited by our 3-inch bore to 6 ounces of powder for shooting live loads, while we may safely shoot up to one pound charges at reenactments.

N-SSA competitors also compete in mortar competitions, and these have proven very enjoyable to watch as well as compete in. Shooting at a range of 100 yards, the team that wins is the team that places all of their "shells" closest to the stake. Each round is visible from launch to touchdown, and close shots are always rewarded with a rousing cheer from the assembled crowd, which grows bigger at every mortar competition.

Artillery has added a wonderful enchantment to my enjoyment of Civil War ordnance, and I am happy to be associated with a group like the Chesapeake Artillery that likes to participate in so many differ- ent activities. With fondest hopes for your enjoyment of a wonderful skirmishing or reenacting season in 1997, remember to shoot safe and have fun whatever you do. Happy Holidays!

(C) 1996 Tom Kelley

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