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Firing the 12 pound Napoleon Cannon

The National Park Service (NPS) has modified the original Civil War Artillery drill. The original battle drill was designed to fire a cannon under combat conditions. Although the gun crew’s safety was paramount, speed was essential. Since combat is not an issue in Civil War parks today, the National Park Service has altered the drill to enhance the safety of the gun crew. The gun detachment for NPS artillery demonstrations consists of at least six people, the Gunner which is  the only named position, and Cannoneers which are numbered according to location #1 - #5.   
12 pound napoleon cannon
12 pound Napoleon cannon
Vicksburg National Military Park fires a reproduction Napoleon cannon, which is a exact duplicate of a cannon manufactured in 1862 by Cyrus Alger & Co. from South Boston.  T.J. Rodman was the ordnance inspector.  It has a rimbase number of 119, muzzle face number of 1168 and barrel with a weight of 1,230 pounds. The carriage and implements are reproductions. The park staff and volunteers represent Co A, 1st Mississippi Independent Battery which fought during the Vicksburg Campaign. During the siege, the company served two Napoleons. 
Cannoneers at their Posts waiting for the command "Load". The order for loading and firing the cannon (gun) are normally given by the Gunner. Cannoneer #1 is posted on the right front of the gun holding the sponge/rammer staff. #2 is at the left front of the gun. #3 is at the right rear of the gun and #4 is at the left rear of the gun. #5 is five yards to the rear of the left wheel. The Gunner is posted behind the trail handspike. Gunners to your post
Cannoneers to your post
Cleaning the tube with the "worm"
"Load, solid shot!"
"Load" - #3 is "tending the vent" by placing his leather covered thumb on the vent hole to ensure that no air passes through the opening. If he fails to do this properly, any remaining sparks from the previous firing could be fanned causing a premature discharge of the gun which could possibly injure or kill #1 and #2.

#1 is inserting the sponge (a sheepskin covered piece of wood) in the water bucket to dampen the sponge head. #2 is "searching the piece" with the worm or wadhook, removing any pieces of cartridge, cloth or debris that might be in the cannon tube from the previous firing.

#1 is sliding the dampened sponge down the barrel hopefully extinguishing any sparks or burning embers from the previous shot. # 3 "tends the vent" and #2 awaits the cartridge. Cool and clean the tube with the rammer staff
Sponge the piece
Transfer the charge
Ready to load
#5 brings the charge from the limber chest (ammunition storage) to #2. When #1 finishes sponging the piece, he turns the staff around so that the rammer head is near the muzzle, tapping the muzzle when finished.
#2 hears the loud "tap" removes the charge from the pouch and places the charge in the muzzle, immediately stepping back to his original position facing the gun. Loading the black powder
Inserting the charge
Seating the black powder charge in the breech
Seating the charge
After #2 clears the muzzle, #1 introduces the rammer into the muzzle and seats the charge by pushing the cartridge to the breach of the cannon directly under the vent.

After #1 finishes "ramming the charge" and removing the rammer staff, he returns to his original position facing the cannon.

#3 continues to "tend the vent."

# 3 removes his thumb from the vent, takes a priming wire, inserts it through the vent to make a hole in the cartridge bag. The priming wire is left in the vent and powder bag until the gun is moved into battery (firing position). Using the vent pick to break open the powder bag
Inserting the priming wire
Moving the cannon into firing position
Moving the gun into battery
Prepare to move the gun into battery; "By Hands to the Front, March." When the gun is moved forward to the proper position the command "Halt" is given.
The Gunner points the gun depressing/elevating the barrel as necessary and traversing right/left as needed. Sometimes a sight called a pendulum hausse was used. In this case the Gunner is relying on his skill to sight the gun. Aiming the cannon
Aiming the cannon
Attaching the lanyard
Taking up slack on the lanyard
"Ready." #3 removes the priming wire. #4 steps in, fixes the lanyard (a rope with a hook) to the friction primer and inserts the friction primer into the vent. #3 holds on to the lanyard maintaining eye contact with #4 as he steps out to left and rear of the gun slowly taking up the slack on the lanyard.
Once #4 has fully extended the lanyard, he will turn his head away from the gun at look at the Gunner for commands. #3 will step back to his original position outside the right wheel. #2 & #1 will break away from the front of the gun at "the ready". They will watch the muzzle of the gun insuring it fires. Ready to FIRE!
Ready to fire

Firing the cannon

"FIRE" The Gunner gives the command to fire the gun. #4 pulls the lanyard which causes the friction primer to ignite sending a long flame down into the breech of gun which ignites the main powder charge. The noise is deafening and the smoke is thick. With a full service charge and projectile the Napoleon could recoil several feet. Since we don’t fire "live", the gun crew has to return the gun by hand to the starting position.
In combat, it would be possible to fire 3-4 times in a minute with a full crew that was well drilled. Because of safety considerations, guns that are fired at National Parks are fired no faster than once every ten minutes.

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Last update: Saturday, July 07, 2001
Editor: G. Zeman


USS Cairo Gunboat and Museum