"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 Primer has a number of jobs, including of course priming the piece. His tools are a leather thumbstall to block the vent during cleaning, a priming wire or prick to puncture the powder bag or cartridge, and a priming flask for pouring powder into the vent.
- The Wormer gets his title from the worm, which he uses to search the piece for burning debris from the last shot. He also places the ammunition in the muzzle of the gun for the Rammer.
- The Rammer does just that - he uses the tool of the same name, to push the powder and shot to the breech. He also uses the sponge on the other end of the rammer staff to quench any sparks from the last shot.
- The Powder Monkey keeps the loads in the limber chest at a safe distance behind the gun. During loading, he brings charges and projectiles forward, and hands them to the Wormer.
- The Bombardier uses the linstock equipped with burning slowmatch to set off the piece.
- Last but not least, the Gun Captain keeps the team together and gives the commands for the drill.
- On the command Stall the Piece, the Primer places his thumb, wearing the thumbstall, over the vent. He keeps it there for the entire loading process. This keeps air away from any potential sparks from the last shot.
- On Search the Piece, the Wormer puts the worm all the way down the barrel to the breech, and gives it two full turns to scrape out any debris.
- Next, when Sponge the Piece is given, the Rammer puts a damp sponge down the barrel, gives two full turns, and withdraws. Coming out of the muzzle, the sponge should make a "bunging" noise like a cork being pulled. If instead, a hissing noise comes from the vent, it means the Primer wasn't keeping a tight thumb seal.
- For extra safety, search and sponge again.
- After the second search, the Wormer sets down his tool and turns his back to the muzzle, to receive the powder charge. At the command, Handle Cartridge, the Powder Monkey puts a single charge in his pass bag.
- When Advance Cartridge is given, brings it up to the Wormer. Since the Powder monkey comes right past the Bombardier with the cartridge, the latter should turn the linstock so that its lit end points directly away from the powder charge.
- The wormer accepts the powder charge, and waits for the order to Charge with Cartridge. He places his right hand on top of the barrel to ground any static electricity. Then, WITHOUT GETTING HIS HAND IN FRONT OF THE MUZZLE, brings the charge up from below and tucks it just inside the muzzle.
- On Ram Down Charge, the Rammer puts the tip of the staff just over the cartridge, and briskly slides it to the breech. He holds the rammer staff underhanded, with his thumb tucked under and not wrapped around the staff. He should try to throw the ramrod down to the breech without his hand on it at the moment of contact. When the charge is down, he gives it a couple of smart taps to be sure it's seated.
- If firing projectiles on a proper range, the next set of commands would be Handle Shot; Advance the Shot; Charge with Shot; and Ram Down the Shot. When you ram a ball, make absolutely certain that it's down snugly on top of the powder. An airspace between powder and ball can blow the barrel.
- The Primer finally gets to raise his thumb. At the command Prick and Prime, he takes the Priming wire between his thumb and forefinger, without putting any of his anatomy over the vent, and puts it down through the vent to pierce the charge. He then measures a charge of fine-grained priming powder, or uses a premeasured charge, to fill the vent. He then indicates that he's done with the statement, Ready.
- The Gun Captain will then Gauge the Piece, aiming and adjusting it with the Handspike.
- He then says to Have a Care. At this, the Rammer and Wormer step their outside feet away from the gun, cover their gunside ears, and open their mouths. The Primer steps back outside the wheels and opens his mouth. The Bombardier opens his mouth.
- The Bombardier, told to Give Fire, standing outside the wheels, brings the linstock down behind the vent and then rolls the match into the priming powder. The piece fires.
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.