What's the big deal about cannons?
Nowadays, cannon and other forms of artillery from the 1700s and 1800s
are nothing more than quaint noise-makers. We see them only in the movies
and on TV, or at occasional demonstrations at historic sites.
In their day, cannons were the most powerful, far-reaching and fearsome
From clumsy beginnings in the mid-1300s, by the 1700s cannons had become
products of sophisticated technology that required advanced design and
manufacturing techniques available only in a few leading industrial countries.
Beginning in the 1600s, the technology of artillery was strongly influenced by
scientific developments in physics (force, pressure, gravity, acceleration),
mathematics (trajectories), chemistry (explosives) and metallurgy.
Cannons were complicated and expensive to manufacture and hazardous to use.
They could be operated only by highly-trained gunners – secretive men with
mysterious knowledge and skills and limited life expectancy.
Artillery could destroy walls of cities and fortresses. It could annihilate whole
bodies of troops instantly, and at a greater distance than any other weapon.
Kingdoms rose and fell by the power of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal,
as harnessed by cannons.
Excerpted and adapted from
A Primer on Artillery
by Joe Craig, Saratoga National Historical Park
Dangerous to Use
The early cannons were more likely to kill the gunner
than the person he was shooting at.
Cannons were (and are) extremely dangerous to operate, because what makes
a cannon do its thing is a quantity of gunpowder, a powerful explosive.
You had to use as much gunpowder as you dared, to get more range. Unfortunately,
if you used a bit too much gunpowder, the cannon blew up. The problem was, when
a cannon blew up the only people who knew how much gunpowder had been used
almost always were unable to tell anyone.
Just how much gunpowder could safely be used to charge a cannon? There was only
one way to find out — test-fire the cannon repeatedly, each time putting in a little more
gunpowder, keeping a written record and standing well away (at least a kilometre).
When the cannon blew up you knew how much was too much, and you could figure
the safe charge to be something less.
The manufacture of cannons was not a highly-precise process. For each cannon
produced, the metallurgy and other important factors would vary. That is, every
cannon was different to some extent. When you measured the maximum charge
by test-firing a cannon to destruction, you then knew what was the safe amount of
gunpowder for that cannon (the one that had been destroyed). There was by
no means a guarantee that other cannons like it (same material, same design,
same size, same manufacturer) would be able to handle a similar charge;
often they could but sometimes they couldn't.
Of course, the
gunpowder itself was not exactly a reliably-uniform product, making
the firing of a cannon even more unpredictable. A safe quantity using one batch of
gunpowder might or might not be safe when another batch was available.
There were various ways a cannon could kill its crew. The most common problem
was that occasionally, when the cannon was fired, the cannon tube would explode
near the breech where the internal pressure was greatest. Another problem could
occur during the loading of a cannon, if something (such as a glowing ember deep
in the gun from the previous firing, or careless handling of the explosive charge)
caused the propellant to explode prematurely.
Over the centuries, thousands of gunners and other soldiers died when a
nearby cannon exploded. And from time to time, prominent officials were
killed by the explosion of a cannon.
A few examples:
On 3 August 1460, an exploding cannon killed King James II of Scotland during
the siege of Roxburgh Castle. The king, an enthusiastic believer in the use of
innovative military technology, was watching the operation of a new cannon
and was standing too close when it blew up.
James II (1437-1460)
King James II
James II, King of Scotland
On 28 February 1844, the captain of the United States warship Princeton took
U.S. President John Tyler, several federal Cabinet officials, and about four hundred
other dignitaries on a Potomac cruise to demonstrate one of the ship's large guns.
The cannon was fired several times successfully, but the last time, about 3pm, the
breech burst, killing the Secretary of State Abel Parker Upshur, Secretary of the
Navy Thomas Walker Gilmer, Senator David Gardiner, Charge d'Affairs of the
United States in Belgium Virgil Maxcy, and several others.
On 14 April 1861, Private Daniel Hough of the 1st U.S. Artillery was the first
combat soldier to die during the American Civil War. He was killed by an
accidental explosion while the garrison was firing a salute during the evacuation
ceremonies at Fort Sumter on an island in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
On the 50th round of what was to have been a 100-gun salute to the United
States flag, the premature discharge of a cannon and the explosion of a pile of
cartridges resulted in the death of Private Hough. Another man, mortally wounded,
died several days later. The 50th round was the last.
Historical Handbook Number Twelve United States National Park System
On 19 April 1989, at sea 330 miles northeast of the island of Puerto Rico,
500 pounds (225 kg) of high explosive propellant charge exploded in the
open breech of the center 16-inch cannon in gun Turret No. 2 on the USS Iowa,
killing 47 crewmen within the turret. The Iowa, one of four World War Two
battleships taken out of mothballs during the Reagan arms buildup, had been
about to commence a day of test firing its guns, the world's largest naval weapons,
16-inch (40.6 cm) cannons that fired 2,700-pound (1225 kg) projectiles up to
24 miles (38 km).
[The following refers to the British Expeditionary Force
(the British Army) on the Western Front in France, 1914-1918]
...When the shell was fired from the gun, the pre-cocked detonator would be
activated inside the barrel of the gun or, perhaps, within a few feet of emerging
from the barrel with catastrophic results for the gun crew and anyone else in the
vicinity. In 1916, during the First Battle of the Somme, these 'prematures',
as they were called, occurred in around one out of every 1,000 shells fired.
In some divisions during the Somme Offensive, 500 rounds were fired every
24 hours, thus, on average, one 'premature' was occurring every two days
or so. The effect on the morale of the gunners of this macabre game
of 'Russian Roulette' can be readily imagined...
Duds On The Western Front In The Great War 1914-1918
The Western Front Association
More about exploding cannons:
The Cannon is Broken!
by Edwin R. Scollon
A cast-iron cannon is known to have exploded in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia,
in 1897. It was located on Oxner's Hill, at the mouth of the LaHave River, and was
one of three cannons being fired in a Royal Salute probably at the time of
Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the sixtieth anniversary of her accession to
the throne in June 1837.
There was much variation in the quality and
propellant effect of different batches of gunpowder.
Cannons and Gunpowder; Their History and Lore by J. B. Calvert
Firepower and Fertilizers
Medieval Weapons of Mass Destruction by ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company)
Medieval technology was better than you would think...
Medieval recipes for gunpowder produce nearly the same firepower as today's
manufactured equivalent, according to recent weapons tests, providing clues as
to how the British fleet became one of the largest fighting forces in the world...
"Gunpowder is an amazing, strange and bizarre material," Robert Smith told
ABC Science Online. He and colleagues recreated the gunpowder – essentially
a mixture of sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre – from scratch. They harvested
raw sulphur from the hills of Iceland...
(1) Black Powder by Tenny L. Davis
The discovery that a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur is capable
of doing useful mechanical work is one of the most important chemical discoveries
or inventions of all time...
(2) Black Powder by Tenny L. Davis
The Gun and Gunpowder by W.L. Ruffell
Instructions for the Manufacture of Saltpetre by Joseph LeConte
published at Columbia, South Carolina, 1862
...under the most favorable circumstances saltpetre (potassium nitrate)
cannot be made in any considerable quantity in less than six or eight months...
The Augusta Powder Works: The Confederacy's Manufacturing Triumph
by C. L. Bragg
...The Confederate government recognized the need for a large gunpowder mill
somewhere in the South. The ultimate choice of location would be Augusta, Georgia...
Enough gunpowder was produced at the Powder Works to fully meet the needs of
the Confederate armies, and still retained a surplus of 70,000 pounds of gunpowder
in the magazines at the end of the War Between the States...
Confederate Production of Gunpowder During the Civil War
The August Arsenal: A First Class Powder Mill
Adding Firepower with the Invention of Gunpowder
Caveman Chemistry: Chapter 18, Spot and Roebuck
You take something that everybody's got and nobody wants and turn it into something
that every government needs if it's going to be a government for any time at all...
June 1740: Testing the Strength of Gunpowders from each of four ships