Firing the 12-pdr Napoleon
The National Park Service (NPS) has modified the original Civil War artillery drill. The battle drill was initially designed to fire a cannon under combat conditions. Although the gun crew’s safety was paramount, speed was essential. Since combat is not an issue in Civil War parks today, the National Park Service has altered the drill to enhance the safety of the gun crew. The gun detachment for NPS artillery demonstrations consists of at least six people — the Gunner, which is the only named position, and Cannoneers, which are numbered according to location from #1 to #5.
Vicksburg National Military Park fires a reproduction cannon, designed to represent a 12-pdr Napoleon manufactured in 1862 by Cyrus Alger & Co. from South Boston. T.J. Rodman was the ordnance inspector. It has a rimbase number of 119, muzzle face number of 1168 and barrel with a weight of 1,230 pounds. The carriage and implements are also reproductions. Park staff and volunteers represent Co A, 1st Mississippi Independent Battery which fought during the Vicksburg Campaign. During the siege, the company served two Napoleons.
Cannoneers at their Posts waiting for the command "Load". The order for loading and firing the cannon are normally given by the Gunner. Cannoneer #1 is posted on the right front of the gun holding the sponge/rammer staff. Cannoneer #2 is at the left front of the gun, Cannoneer #3 is at the right rear of the gun, and Cannoneer #4 is at the left rear of the gun. Cannoneer #5 is five yards to the rear of the left wheel. The Gunner is posted behind the trail handspike.
Load — Cannoneer #3 is "tending the vent" by placing his leather-covered thumb on the vent hole to ensure that no air passes through the opening. If he fails to do this properly, any remaining sparks from the previous firing could be fanned, causing a premature discharge of the gun, possibly injuring or killing Cannoneers #1 and #2. Cannoneer #1 is inserting the sponge (a sheepskin-covered piece of wood) in the water bucket to dampen the sponge head. Cannoneer #2 is "searching the piece" with the worm or wadhook, removing any pieces of cartridge, cloth or debris that might be in the cannon tube from the previous firing.
Cannoneer #1 is sliding the dampened sponge down the barrel to extinguish any sparks or burning embers from the previous firing. Cannonner # 3 "tends the vent" and Cannoneer #2 awaits the cartridge.
Cannoneer #5 brings the charge from the limber chest (ammunition storage) to Cannoneer #2. When Cannoneer #1 finishes sponging the piece, he turns the staff around so that the rammer head is near the muzzle, tapping the muzzle when finished.
After Cannoneer #2 hears the loud "tap," he removes the charge from the pouch and places it in the muzzle. He then immediately steps back to his original position facing the gun.
After Cannonner #2 clears the muzzle, Cannoneer #1 introduces the rammer into the muzzle and seats the charge by pushing the cartridge to the breach of the cannon directly under the vent. After Cannonner #1 finishes "ramming the charge" and removing the rammer staff, he returns to his original position facing the cannon. Cannonner #3 continues to "tend the vent."
Cannonner #3 removes his thumb from the vent, takes a priming wire from his pouch, and inserts it through the vent to make a hole in the cartridge bag. The priming wire is left in the vent and powder bag until the gun is moved into battery (firing position).
"Prepare to move the gun into battery. By Hands to the Front, March." When the gun is moved forward to the proper position the command "Halt" is given.
The Gunner aims the gun, depressing or elevating the barrel as necessary, and traversing right or left as needed. Sometimes a sight, called a pendulum hausse, was used. In this case the Gunner is relying on his skill to sight the gun.
"Ready." Cannoneer #3 removes the priming wire. Cannoneer #4 steps in, fixes the lanyard (a rope with a hook) to the friction primer and inserts the friction primer into the vent. Cannoneer #3 holds on to the lanyard maintaining eye contact with Cannoneer #4 as he steps out to the left and rear of the gun, slowly taking up the slack on the lanyard.
Once Cannoneer #4 has fully extended the lanyard, he will turn his head away from the gun and look at the Gunner for commands. Cannoneer #3 will step back to his original position outside the right wheel. Cannoneeers #2 and #1 will break away from the front of the gun at "the ready". They will watch the muzzle of the gun, insuring it fires.
"FIRE!" The Gunner gives the command to fire the gun. Cannoneer #4 pulls the lanyard causing the friction primer to spark, which sends a long flame down into the breech of gun, igniting the main powder charge. The noise is deafening and the smoke is thick. With a full service charge and projectile, the Napoleon could recoil several feet. Since the staff does not fire "live" rounds, the gun detachment has to return the gun by hand to the starting position.
In combat, it would be possible to fire 3-4 times in a minute using a full, well-drilled detachment. During National Park demonstrations, safety considerations dictate that guns are fired no faster than once every ten minutes.
Last updated: April 14, 2015