Reenacting Safely with Artillery

A Summer brings with it many opportunities for reenacting, and safety is always the first thing on our mind when we take the 10-pound Parrott Rifle out for a weekend. Recently, we had a great time at the Herr's Ridge reenactment in Gettysburg, but our safe drill really made the week we spent in Pennsylvania enjoyable. As we all know, any blackpowder is volatile, and when you are handling and discharging one-pound or two-pound charges every shot, the need for safety increases in geometric proportion to the increase in powder charge weight.

There are some basic safety rules all cannoneers should follow, regardless of the type of artillery drill -- shooting live loads or blanks -that they are practicing. One of these is to wrap each charge in at least three layers of heavy duty aluminum foil and close tightly. The foil provides extra protection from any ember left in the barrel after discharge and cleaning. Cleaning the bore after every shot with both a wet sponge and then a dry sponge is another practice that both types of artillery uses require. The job of the wet sponge is to extinguish any leftover embers that remain in the barrel, and to clean the barrel at the same time to avoid residue build-up. The dry sponge removes excess water from the barrel. If you wet sponge and do not dry sponge, you run the risk of having so much water in the barrel that the water surrounds the cartridge when it is loaded, and then enters the cartridge when the charge is readied for firing by piercing the bag with the vent pick. The right amount of water to use, and the proper maintenance of a wet sponge is one of the most difficult tasks for an artillery crew. At N-SSA shoots where only 12 shots are fired, a wet sponge is frequently only wet at the beginning of the match. However, the situation is different at a reenactment. It is not unusual to fire 25 to 30 rounds during an artillery reenactment, and the wet sponge must be properly maintained in order to serve the piece safely.

As you can see, it takes practice to operate a piece of artillery safely. Each position requires not only a knowledge of that position, but the relationship between the other positions and your own as well. In a previous article, I described the artillery positions, so I'll just review here quickly. The Number One wet sponges the barrel and loads the powder charge (and projectile if live-firing). Number Two uses the worm to remove the foil residue from the barrel after every shot, and receives the next charge from Number Five. Number Three cleans the vent immediately after every discharge, then covers the vent during cleaning and loading to prevent air from entering vent. Number Three also readies the powder charge upon the gunner's command. Number Four prepares a primer and hands it to Number Three for placing in the vent, then fires the piece on the gunner's command. Number Five travels from the Ammunition Chest to the piece, carrying the charge in a leather haversack. He stops at the gunner's position and displays the charge to the gunner, who verifies accuracy of load. Number Five then places the charge in the left hand of Number Two for loading. Number Six supervises the Ammunition Chest. Number Six removes the charge from the chest and places it in the haversack for transport. Number Six can also observe the crew and help assure that safety standards are being meet. The Gunner aims the piece, calls for the load when appropriate, supervises the artillery crew's safety performance and assures adherence to the established scenario if reenacting. There are always horses and stray infantry at events, and somebody has to keep an eye downrange for dangerous situations.

With practice, it is easy to fire a safe shot at a reenactment about every 100 seconds. During the Confederate bombardment preceding Picketts Charge at Herr's Ridge, we were able to maintain this pace safely for about 30 minutes. Other guns were not as proficient, only because they had not had the practice they needed. Practice makes us all safer and surer. I am more convinced of this now then ever before. Our crew at Gettysburg consisted of four veteran N-SSA artillerists, and four members new to reenacting on a large scale. The four new cannoneers had just completed our Artillery Camp which we conduct at Herr's Ridge, and had been drilling for three days when the Friday battle ensued. They had learned the drill inside out, and it showed all weekend. The best part was, we were safe the entire time we were firing. You don't have to be fast, but you have to be safe. Practicing your drill makes you both.

Sharpsburg is setting up to be the mega-event this year, so I hope you are making plans to participate safely. Once again, I'll be in the Confederate Artillery camp, and thanks to all the readers who dropped by Herr's Ridge to say "hello." Until the next time, shoot safe and have fun, y'all.

1997 by Tom Kelley
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