Cannon 101,
"How do I make this thing go Bang, without Blowing myself up in the Process?"

First presented March '96


This class is not an exhaustive treatise on the art of gunnery. The objective is to teach the steps in loading and firing a cannon of the period 1400-1850, and to do so safely. This drill will work for any muzzle-loading cannon, and can be modified for breechloaders.


Please note the subtitle, above. The absolute, most important thing about shooting a cannon is not blowing yourself up. Having a musket load cook off on you is a nuisance. Toasted fingers, a bit of a scare, but a little Bactine and you're all right. Cannon charges start around a quarter-pound of powder, and go up from there. Even a blank load, in a cannon barrel, can kill a couple of feet in front of the muzzle. It can burn, maim, and deafen further out than that. A foil-wrapped powder charge going off outside the barrel won't explode, but the fireball will still ruin your day. In the following paragraphs, safety precautions are in italics. Heed them.

The Gun and Crew

A muzzle-loading cannon is basically a tube that's closed off at the back, or breech end except for a small hole on top. This hole, the vent, is used to fire the piece. The barrel sits on a carriage, to which it is attached. The drill to fire consists of putting a powder charge and projectile(s) in through the muzzle; ramming it all the way down; putting a priming or ignition system in the vent; and setting it off.
No two gunnery manuals list the same terms for the members of the gun crew, so we'll go with a set that works by job descriptions.

The Drill



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Bombardier: The crewman who fires the piece by touching a burning piece of slowmatch to the vent.

Breech: The back end of the gun. On a muzzle-loader, it's a solid plug at the back.

Carriage: A two-wheeled cart on which the gun is mounted. Usually has provisions for adjusting the elevation of the gun.

Gun Bucket: A wooden bucket, kept full of water and placed near the muzzle. Used by the Rammer to moisten the sponge. See also, Gunner's Tea and Gunner's Punch.

Gun Captain: Team leader who coordinates the gun drill. Also aims the piece.

Gunner's Punch: A mixture of various ethanol-containing compounds, mixed in and drunk from a gun-bucket.

Gunner's Tea: Eau de gun-spooge.

Handspike: Wooden pry-bar, used to lever the gun around.

Limber Chest: The ammunition box. Kept a safe distance behind the gun, and only opened long enough to remove a load.

Linstock: A staff with a pair of clamps to hold a length of burning slowmatch. Often equipped with a spearhead for close-in defense of the gun.

Muzzle: The open end of the gun. Where the bang comes out.

Pass Bag: A heavy leather shoulder bag, with a flap to keep sparks away from the contents.

Powder Monkey: Manages the ammunition in the limber chest. Measures and wraps charges. Hands off the ammunition to the wormer.

Primer: Tends the vent, blocking it during loading, and priming it when ready to fire.

Priming Flask: A wood, metal, or horn flask with a measuring spout. Contains powder for filling the vent after loading.

Priming Powder: fine-grained powder, which takes a spark more easily than the coarse, cannon powder.

Priming Wire or Prick: A long spike, usually brass or bronze to prevent sparking. It is pushed down through the vent to spike the cartridge, allowing flame in when firing.

Rammer: 1. A staff with a cylindrical head, used to push the load down the barrel. 2. The gun crewman who uses the rammer staff.

Slowmatch: Cord boiled in vinegar and gunpowder, to impregnate it with saltpeter. It burns about a foot an hour, and doesn't go out.

Sponge: A sheepskin head on the back end of the rammer staff. It is moistened in the gun bucket prior to being put down the barrel to kill sparks.

Thumbstall: A leather sheath for the Primer's thumb. Usually prevents said thumb from being burned.

Vent: The small opening on top of the breech, used for priming and firing the piece.

Worm: A long shaft with a double-corkscrew on the end, used for removing bits of burning powder-bag before they can make nuisances of themselves.

Wormer: He who wields the worm.