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A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America
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Black powder was used in all firearms until smokeless and other type propellants were invented in the latter 1800's. "Black" powder (which was sometimes brown) is a mixture of about 75 parts saltpeter (potassium nitrate), 15 parts charcoal, and 10 parts sulphur by weight. It will explode because the mixture contains the necessary amount of oxygen for its own combustion. When it burns, it liberates smoky gases (mainly nitrogen and carbon dioxide) that occupy some 300 times as much space as the powder itself.

Early European powder "recipes" called for equal parts of the three ingredients, but gradually the amount of saltpeter was increased until Tartaglia reported the proportions to be 4-1-1. By the late 1700's "common war powder" was made 6-1-1, and not until the next century was the formula refined to the 75-15-10 composition in majority use when the newer propellants arrived on the scene.

As the name suggests, this explosive was originally in the form of powder or dust. The primitive formula burned slowly and gave low pressures—fortunate characteristics in view of the barrel-stave construction of the early cannon. About 1450, however, powder makers began to "corn" the powder. That is, they formed it into larger grains, with a resulting increase in the velocity of the shot. It was "corned" in fine grains for small arms and coarse for cannon.

Making corned powder was fairly simple. The three ingredients were pulverized and mixed, then compressed into cakes which were cut into "corns" or grains. Rolling the grains in a barrel polished off the corners; removing the dust essentially completed the manufacture. It has always been difficult, however, to make powder twice alike and keep it in condition, two factors which helped greatly to make gunnery an "art" in the old days. Powder residue in the gun was especially troublesome, and a disk-like tool (fig. 44) was designed to scrape the bore. Artillerymen at Castillo de San Marcos complained that the "heavy" powder from Mexico was especially bad, for after a gun was fired a few times, the bore was so fouled that cannonballs would no longer fit. The gunners called loudly for better grade powder from Spain itself.

How much powder to use in a gun has been a moot question through the centuries. According to the Spaniard Luis Collado in 1592, the proper yardstick was the amount of metal in the gun. A legitimate culverin, for instance, was "rich" enough in metal to take as much powder as the ball weighed. Thus, a 30-pounder culverin would get 30 pounds of powder. Since a 60-pounder battering cannon, however, had in proportion a third less metal than the culverin, the charge must also be reduced by a third—to 40 pounds!

FIGURE 16—GUNPOWDER. Black powder (above) is a mechanical mixture; modern propellants are chemical compounds.

Other factors had to be taken into account, such as whether the powder was coarse- or fine-grained; and a short gun got less powder than a long one. The bore length of a legitimate culverin, said Collado, was 30 calibers (30 times the bore diameter), so its powder charge was the same as the weight of the ball. If the gunner came across a culverin only 24 calibers long, he must load this piece with only 24/30 of the ball's weight. Collado's pasavolante had a tremendous length of some 40 calibers and fired a 6- or 7-pound lead ball. Because it had plenty of metal "to resist, and the length to burn" the powder, it was charged with the full weight of the ball in fine powder, or three-fourths as much with cannon powder. The lightest charge seems to have been for the pedrero, which fired a stone ball. Its charge was a third of the stone's weight.

In later years, powder charges lessened for all guns. British velocity tables of the 1750's show that a 9-pounder charged with 2-1/4; pounds of powder might produce its ball at a rate of 1,052 feet per second. By almost tripling the charge, the velocity would increase about half. But the increase did not mean the shot hit the target 50 percent harder, for the higher the velocity, the greater was the air resistance; or as John Müller phrased it: "a great quantity of Powder does not always produce a greater effect." Thus, from two-thirds the ball's weight, standard charges dropped to one-third or even a quarter: and by the 1800's they became even smaller. The United States manual of 1861 specified 6 to 8 pounds for a 24-pounder siege gun, depending on the range; a Columbiad firing 172-pound shot used only 20 pounds of powder. At Fort Sumter, Gillmore's rifles firing 80-pound shells used 10 pounds of powder. The rotating band on the rifle shell, of course, stopped the gases that had slipped by the loose-fitting cannonball.

Black powder was, and is, both dangerous and unstable. Not only is it sensitive to flame or spark, but it absorbs moisture from the air. In other words, it was no easy matter to "keep your powder dry." During the middle 1700's, Spaniards on a Florida river outpost kept powder in glass bottles; earlier soldiers, fleeing into the humid forest before Sir Francis Drake, carried powder in peruleras—stoppered, narrow-necked pitchers.

As for magazines, a dry magazine was just about as important as a shell-proof one. Charcoal and chloride of lime, hung in containers near the ceiling, were early used as dehydrators, and in the eighteenth century standard English practice was to build the floor 2 feet off the ground and lay stone chips or "dry sea coals" under the flooring. Side walls had air holes for ventilation, but screened to prevent the enemy from letting in some small animal with fire tied to his tail. Powder casks were laid on their sides and periodically rolled to a different position; "otherwise," explains a contemporary expert, "the salt petre, being the heaviest ingredient, will descend into the lower part of the barrel, and the powder above will lose much of its goodness."

powder bucket

In the dawn of artillery, loose powder was brought to the gun in a covered bucket, usually made of leather. The loader scooped up the proper amount with a ladle (fig. 44), and inserted it into the gun. He could, by using his experienced judgment, put in just enough powder to give him the range he wanted, much as our modern artillerymen sometimes use only a portion of their charge. After Gustavus Adolphus in the 1630's, however, powder bags came into wide use, although English gunners long preferred to ladle their powder. The powder bucket or "passing box" of course remained on the scene. It was usually large enough to hold a pair of cartridge bags.

The root of the word cartridge seems to be "carta," meaning paper. But paper was only one of many materials such as canvas, linen, parchment, flannel, the "woolen stuff" of the 1860's, and even wood. Until the advent of the silk cartridge, nothing was entirely satisfactory. The materials did not burn completely, and after several rounds it was mandatory to withdraw the unburnt bag ends with a wormer (fig. 44), else they accumulated to the point where they blocked the vent or "touch hole" by which the piece was fired. Parchment bags shriveled up and stuck in the vent, purpling many a good gunner's face.


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Last Modified: Thurs, Sep 11 2003 10:00:00 pm PST

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