• View of Springfield Armory overlooking the city of Springfield, 1855

    Springfield Armory

    National Historic Site Massachusetts

Mid-18thC French 4-pounder field gun

In use, this French field gun would be mounted on a wheeled carriage. It is displayed vertically to view the ornate markings.

This mid-18th Century French brass field gun fired a solid iron cannon ball weighing 4 French pounds (a little more than 4 English pounds). It was a very popular form weapon in the Continental Army's artillery regiments during the American Revolutionary War. This one dates to that war.

Springfield Armory NHS, US NPS

THE CANNON OF THE VALLIERE SYSTEM

In 1732 General Valliere standardized the French Artillery into the calibers as: 4, 8, 12, 16, and 24 pounders. Each cannon had specified lengths, proportions, and weights and even specified the methods of manufacture. Decorative details served as identifiers of each cannon. This gun, like most all known French brass Field 4 Pounders used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, appears to have been rebored to the standard British 6 Pounder size. It bears the registration number "No. 82" on the left trunnion face. The cast script on the breech ring states that it was cast in Strasbourg in 1758.

The cascabel and breech drawings allowed gunners to identify the size piece by a simple glance at the breech:

4-pounder= Face in a sunburst

8-pounder=Monkey head

12-pounder= Rooster head

16-pounder= Medusa head

24-pounder= Bacchus head

 
The marking on each French brass field piece identified its capabilities.
Each French brass gun had a unique name. This 4-pounder field gun is named "La Perileuse", which means "The Dangerous One" in English.
Springfield Armory NHS, US NPS
 
See the French 4-pdr field gun to the right.
The handsome French brass field guns were not only functional, but also commonly depicted by American artists during the War for American Independence. General Daniel Morgan, in his rifle frock, can be seen standing before the muzzle. Springfield Arsenal supplied many such guns to the American Continental Army that won at Saratoga, October 1777.
"The Surrender at Saratoga," by Trumbull, circa 1778
 
mid-1800's at Springfield Armory

During the Revolutionary War, workmen at Springfield Arsenal provided the Continental Army with, among many things, artillery field carriages for the many French brass guns that were being delivered to the Arsenal in French ships.

Springfield Armory NHS, US NPS

THE FRENCH CONNECTION, AS WELL AS SPAIN

It would seem quite logical that the first nation that would come to the Colonies’ aid would be England’s enemy from the last war (and, for that matter, the last 400 years). However, France, under the Bourbon monarch Louis XVI, was reluctant to openly support the Colonists’ rebellion until they saw proof that it would succeed. Officially, they sat back and waited.

Nonetheless, the populace of France rode the currents of reform already rampant in Europe. The Age of Enlightenment produced authors and philosophers who expounded on the equality of humankind and the need for liberty. Among them was Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. His pen lampooned the aristocracy in the Figaro series (later adapted into operas by both Mozart and Rossini). The upper class found his work so insulting that it was banned in the courts of France and Austria.

In April of 1776, Silas Deane, congressman from Connecticut, went to France to purchase clothing, artillery and equipment for 25,000 men. In response, the French Foreign Minister sent an agent to the Colonies to examine the situation. Hearing a positive report, he then approached de Beaumarchais with an idea. The playwright would establish a fictitious firm called “Rodrigue de Hortalez & Co.,” to function as a money laundering operation. The French, Spanish and private investors would send funds allowing de Beaumarchais to purchase equipment from French military supplies that had been deemed surplus. Hortalez & Co. would then sell the equipment to the colonists for rice, tobacco and other commodities which would be sold in France.

The war ships carrying these supplies arrived at Portsmouth, Rhode Island, by way of French Martinique. General George Washington noted such a shipment in a letter to General Heath dated May 2, 1777:

I was this morning favored with yours containing the pleasing accounts of the late arrivals at Portsmouth and Boston. That of the French ships of war, with artillery and other military stores, is most valuable. It is my intent to have all the arms that were not immediately wanted by the Eastern States, to be removed to Springfield, as a much safer place than Portsmouth …. I shall also write Congress and press the immediate removal of the artillery, and other military stores from Portsmouth. I would also have you forward the twenty-five chests of arms lately arrived from Martinico to Springfield.

Victory at the battle of Saratoga in 1777 was ensured by this equipment. The Americans never paid for the shipment of supplies and later questioned whether it was a gift or a sale. A portion of the debt was repaid in 1835.

[edited & compiled from NPS interpretive text by Richard Colton, Park Ranger, US NPS]

 
The old French brass gun is now protected in the Museum where it may be viewed. Please refrain from touching the conserved surface so as to minimize damage to its surface.

Numbers of these French 4-pounder field guns remain today in the custody of the US ARMY and may be seen at such places as Waterveliet Arsenal, north of Albany, NY. The Arsenal has a fine Museum on the site that is open to the publc.

Springfield Armory NHS, US NPS

By the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the French 4-pounder field gun had lost its original Revolutionary War carriage. An American Civil War-period 20-pounder Parrot Rifle carriage took its place (still in Museum storage). This 1960's photo shows it being examined by Vietnam War-era US ARMY personnel.

Did You Know?

Main Arsenal at Springfield Armory National Historic Site. Photo (c) James Langone.

Springfield Armory National Historic Site is the only National Park unit in Western Massachusetts. More...