Making Mortar Magic

"Psssst, hey buddy, wanna buy a mortar," the suspicious character said just last October. When I turned and saw Lars Curly, experience has taught me that I should'a run like the wind. However, I didn't, and together with three of my N-SSA teammates, we acquired a dandy little 12-pound Coehorn Mortar from the 27th Va. Vol. Inf. for the Chesapeake Artillery.

We've been artillerymen from way back, but being mortarmen was new to our little outfit, and the ways and means of mortar shooting are different in many ways from shooting long tubes. For one thing, you only have three crew members administering to a mortar. One man serves the bore, one serves the vent and the third one commands and aims the mortar. A fourth man serves as timer and safety from each crew.

As you can see from the picture, the man who serves the bore has to be either really short, or work from his knees. The Number One man, as he is referred to, receives a charge and projectile from the Number Two, places the charge in the powder chamber, inserts the projectile and vacates the premises. The second picture shows the Number Two man clearing the vent and inserting a primer after the Gunner gives the command to ready the piece. Note the primer and lanyard in the Number Two man's hand. After the mortar has been loaded and primed, a shield is placed at the back of the mortar to deflect the spent friction primer away from spectators and the rear of the firing line. Mortar competition has become a big spectator event, particularly at National Skirmishes where you might find more than thirty mortars on the line competing.

The Mortar Gunner keeps the drill safe by checking with the safety for elapsed time since the last shot, etc., and aims the piece. N-SSA rules require one minute to pass before cleaning, and three minutes between firings. Because Mortar competition is a best 5-out-of-7 event, the firing can be at a much slower pace then other artillery matches where you may fire up to 12 times in one hour. Aiming the piece requires establishing a straight line between the mortar vent, the center of the mortar barrel, and the point-of-aim, which in N-SSA matches is a pole at 100 yards. We use a plumb bob for our straight line, but other teams use other methods as well. The photo shows the Gunner aiming the Mortar with an antique plumb bob. Aiming may take place at any time between shots, but we try to aim after cleaning and before loading. The jostling that occurs during aiming can compact the powder charge in the chamber, and affect the ignition characteristics of the charge (a tightly packed charge has less oxygen available around the grains of powder).

The timer and safety serves an important purpose for each team. They perform a safety check at the beginning of the match to be sure all safety equipment is present, and they observe the time periods after firing to protect both the crew and spectators. The crew is very busy during the event, and having an observer present to maintain safety is an important consideration in Mortar competitions.

The object of Mortar competition is to have the smallest group of projectiles around the aiming stake. Seven shots are taken, with the closest five counting for score. Almost all competitions are at 100 yards, and the good teams can consistently place their best five shots in a 15 foot group, or an average of 3 feet from the stake. That's 99% accuracy. When all is safe and ready, the Number Two man ignites the powder charge and the shot is on it's way.

Mortar matches are enjoyable to both watch and participate in, and are sure to continue to be a mainstay of Skirmishes in the future. They require no target material from the skirmish staff, and generate revenue greatly above the cost of medals for the winning teams. Skirmishes that are constantly just short of breaking even would probably come out in the black if they added a mortar event. Mortar matches also provide spectators with a leisurely observation period, usually in the cool evening of a skirmish schedule. As more and more teams acquire mortars and join the ranks of mortar competitors, look for mortars to provide an enjoyable end to a good day of skirmishing.

The Spring National Skirmish will be upon us as you read this, marking the end of the Spring Skirmish schedule. Summer Skirmishes will follow, with lots of friendly competition and companionship as well. I hope to be looking at a few new musket developments this summer, and seeing our readers on the line at many skirmishes. Until then, continue to promote safe gun ownership, shoot safe and have fun.

1998 by Tom Kelley

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