Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cannon in warfare: a simple introduction

The Tsar Cannon -- 16th century bronze
(note the lion's head of the carriage.)
Cannon, in the same way as fireworks, were invented in China.

On Columbus' First Voyage, the 'Pinta' had a cannon on board. Amid shouts of "Tierra! tierra!", it was fired on that early morning of October 12th when land was finally sighted.

It was during this era of Columbus and the early explorers that "the art of casting greatly improved in Europe," resulting in lighter and more maneuverable artillery. Later in the 16th century the science of ballistics was born.

Was there much difference between cannon of 1600 and those of 1850? The range of shot was quite similar, but what changed in those centuries were the "mobility, organization, and tactics."

King Louis XIV "ordered 'Ultima ratio regum' (the final argument of kings) inscribed on all French cannons."

A description of smooth-bore cannon: 
"No other invention except the wheel was better-suited to its duty, and remained less changed in fundamental nature from its inception in the 15th century, to its final disappearance in the middle of the 19th. The shock power of this instrument, on land as well as on sea, cannot be overestimated. The cannon was first of bronze, then of cast iron as this cheaper material became available. It was simply a smooth bore, closed at one end, with a touch hole [vent] drilled to the surface of the breech. It projected solid shot of cast iron or stone... A shell was a hollow ball filled with powder and provided with a fuze that would be lighted when the shell was fired, sputtering as the shell flew, and finally setting off the powder, shattering the casing. This was purely an antipersonnel load. 
"To fire a cannon, the bore was first swabbed with water to extinguish any sparks that would make loading unsafe. A measured quantity of gunpowder was then poured into the bore, and rammed down behind a wad of some material. A small amount of powder was also poured down the touch hole. The load was then rammed onto the wad. The gun was set to bear, and a match (a glowing stick called a slow-match was popular) touched to the touch-hole. A flash, a boom, a cloud of smoke, and the load was sent on its way at the speed of sound. The gun recoiled, hurling its mass backwards against any restraint provided. A gun rigidly mounted had to be very well mounted indeed, to prevent destruction of its mount. By 1800, the match had been replaced by some kind of lock that ignited the powder in the touch hole (or other kind of fuse) by a spark when a lanyard was pulled. Also, the powder, wad, and load could be pre-measured and packed in bags or cartridges to make loading faster. 
"The phrase 'to spike a cannon' meant to disable it by driving a tapered wrought iron plug, or spike, down the touch hole with a hammer until it was level and firmly embedded. I suppose the spike could eventually be drilled out, but tools to do this were not readily available, and the process would take some time."
Six horses pulled the two-wheeled caisson with its ammunition boxes and the two-wheeled limber supporting the field gun.
"All movement of field artillery was done with limbers. Guns, caissons, battery forges and wagons were all fastened to a limber. None, under ordinary circumstances, moved independently. A limber was an ammunition box mounted on an axle between two wheels, with a forward projecting pole, to which the team was hitched."

Union 12-pounder Napoleon at Gettysburg.
The Napoleon was the standard field gun for both sides during the Civil War. It was a smooth-bore, muzzle-loading [front end of gun barrel] cannon. "By the end of the 19th century, the advent of rifling and breech-loading technologies brought the muzzle-loading era to a close."

[Take a look at this video as the men re-enact how Civil War cannoneers operated.]

The Union bombardment in 1862 of Fort Pulaski (outside of Savannah, Georgia) was a big turning point: "The range and accuracy of the [rifled cannon] startled the world." The seven-and-a-half-foot walls could never have been breached with smoothbores, but it was accomplished with the new weapon in little more than 24 hours.
[THIS MINUTE-LONG CLIP explains why rifling was such a big step forward.]
What was one of the few things that could withstand the pounding of a lengthy cannonade? Earthworks -- it afforded far better protection than even the thickest walls.

"Mud or dust seemed to plague every movement of troops. Of the two, mud was the greater problem for the artillery. Dust created great discomfort, but little more. While an artilleryman might find it difficult to breathe and intolerably itchy in the suffocating dust, the guns and caissons could still be moved. Mud, on the other hand, often made movement impossible. Sinking below their axles in holes full of clinging muck, guns and caissons could be moved only with superhuman effort, the men pushing at the wheels and extra horses pulling on the traces. Sometimes guns were simply abandoned to the mud."

Ypres in World War I

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