Cannon Tools & Implements

Gunner's equipment was numerous. There were the tompion (a lid that fitted over the muzzle of the gun to keep wind and weather out of the bore) and the lead cover for the vent; water buckets for the sponges and passing boxes for the powder; scrapers and tools for "searching" the bore to find dangerous cracks or holes; chocks for the wheels; blocks and rollers, lifting jacks, and gins for moving guns; and drills and augers for clearing the vent (figs. 17, 44). But among the most important tools for every day firing were the following:

assorted gunner's equipment

The sponge was a wooden cylinder about a foot long, the same diameter as the shot, and covered with lambskin. Like all bore tools, it was mounted on a long staff; after being dampened with water, it was used for cleaning the bore of the piece after firing. Essentially, sponging made sure there were no sparks in the bore when the new charge was put in. Often the sponge was on the opposite end of the rammer, and sometimes, instead of being lambskin-covered, the sponge was a bristle brush.

The wormer was a double screw, something like a pair of intertwined corkscrews, fixed to a long handle. Inserted in the gun bore and twisted, it seized and drew out wads or the remains of cartridge bags stuck in the gun after firing. Worm screws were sometimes mounted in the head of the sponge, so that the piece could be sponged and wormed at the same time.

The ladle was the most important of all the gunner's tools in the early years, since it was not only the measure for the powder but the only way to dump the powder in the bore at the proper place. It was generally made of copper, the same gauge as the windage of the gun; that is, the copper was just thick enough to fit between ball and bore.

Essentially, the ladle is merely a scoop, a metal cylinder secured to a wooden disk on a long staff. But before the introduction of the powder cartridge, cutting a ladle to the right size was one of the most important accomplishments a gunner had to learn. Collado, that Spanish mathematician of the sixteenth century, used the culverin ladle as the master pattern (fig. 45). It was 4-1/2 calibers long and would carry exactly the weight of the ball in powder. Ladles for lesser guns could be proportioned (that is, shortened) from the master pattern.

The ladle full of powder was pushed home in the bore. Turning the handle dumped the charge, which then had to be packed with the rammer. As powder charges were lessened in later years, the ladle was shortened; by 1750, it was only three shot diameters long. With cartridges, the ladle was no longer needed for loading the gun, but it was still handy for withdrawing the round.

gunner's ladle

The rammer was a wooden cylinder about the same diameter and length as the shot. It pushed home the powder charge, the wad, and the shot. As a precaution against faulty or double loading, marks on the rammer handle showed the loaders when the different parts of the charge were properly seated.

The gunner's pick or priming wire was a sharp pointed tool resembling a common ice pick blade. It was used to clear the vent of the gun and to pierce the powder bag so that flame from the primer could ignite the charge.

Handspikes were big pinch bars to manhandle cannon. They were used to move the carriage and to lift the breech of the gun so that the elevating quoin or screw might be adjusted. They were of different types (figs. 33a, 44), but were essentially 6-foot-long wooden poles, shod with iron. Some of them, like the Marsilly handspike (fig. 11), had rollers at the toe so that the wheelless rear of the carriage could be lifted with the handspike and rolled with comparative ease.

The gunner's quadrant (fig. 46), invented by Tartaglia about 1545, was an aiming device so basic that its principle is still in use today. The instrument looked like a carpenter's square, with a quarter-circle connecting the two arms. From the angle of the square dangled a plumb bob. The gunner laid the long arm of the quadrant in the bore of the gun, and the line of the bob against the graduated quarter-circle showed the gun's angle of elevation.

The addition of the quadrant to the art of artillery opened a whole new field for the mathematicians, who set about compiling long, complicated and jealously guarded tables for the gunner's guidance. But the theory was simple: since a cannon at 45° elevation would fire ten times farther than it would when the barrel was level (at zero° elevation), the quadrant should be marked into ten equal parts; the range of the gun would therefore increase by one-tenth each time the gun was elevated to the next mark on the quadrant. In other words, the gunner could get the range he wanted simply by raising his piece to the proper mark on the instrument.

gunner's quadrant
FIGURE 46—SEVENTEENTH CENTURY GUNNER'S QUADRANT. The long end of the quadrant was laid in the bore of the cannon. The plumb bob indicated the degree of elevation on the scale.

Collado explained how it worked in the 1590's. "We experimented with a culverin that fired a 20-pound iron ball. At point-blank the first shot ranged 200 paces. At 45-degree elevation it shot ten times farther, or 2,000 paces. . . . If the point-blank range is 200 paces, then elevating to the first position, or a tenth part of the quadrant, will gain 180 paces more, and advancing another point will gain so much again. It is the same with the other points up to the elevation of 45 degrees; each one gains the same 180 paces." Collado admitted that results were not always consistent with theory, but it was many years before the physicists understood the effect of air resistance on the trajectory of the projectile.

Sights on cannon were usually conspicuous by their absence in the early days. A dispart sight (an instrument similar to the modern infantry rifle sight), which compensated for the difference in diameter between the breech and the muzzle, was used in 1610, but the average artilleryman still aimed by sighting over the barrel. The Spanish gunner, however, performed an operation that put the bore parallel to the gunner's line of sight, and called it "killing the vivo" (matar el vivo). How vivo affected aiming is easily seen: with its bore level, a 4-pounder falconet ranged 250 paces. But when the top of the gun was level, the bore was slightly elevated and the range almost doubled to 440 paces.

To "kill the vivo," you first had to find it. The gunner stuck his pick into the vent down to the bottom of the bore and marked the pick to show the depth. Next he took the pick to the muzzle, stood it up in the bore, and marked the height of the muzzle. The difference between the two marks, with an adjustment for the base ring (which was higher than the vent), was the vivo. A little wedge of the proper size, placed under the breech, would then eliminate the troublesome vivo.

During the first half of the 1700's Spanish cannon of the "new invention" were made with a notch at the top of the base ring and a sighting button on the muzzle, and these features were also adopted by the French. But they soon went out of use. There was some argument, as late as the 1750's, about the desirability of casting the muzzle the same size as the base ring, so that the sighting line over the gun would always be parallel to the bore; but, since the gun usually had to be aimed higher than the objective, gunners claimed that a fat muzzle hid their target!

gunner's level
FIGURE 47—SEVENTEENTH CENTURY GUNNER'S LEVEL. This tool was useful in many ways, but principally for finding the line of sight on the barrel of the gun.

Common practice for sighting, as late as the 1850's, was to find the center line at the top of the piece, mark it with chalk or filed notches, and use it as a sighting line. To find this center line, the gunner laid his level (fig. 47) first on the base ring, then on the muzzle. When the instrument was level atop these rings, the plumb bob was theoretically over the center line of the cannon. But guns were crudely made, and such a line on the outside of the piece was not likely to coincide exactly with the center line of the bore, so there was still ample opportunity for the gunner to exercise his "art." Nonetheless the marked lines did help, for the gunner learned by experiment how to compensate for errors.

Fixed rear sights came into use early in the 1800's, and tangent sights (graduated rear sights) were in use during the Civil War. The trunnion sight, a graduated sight attached to the trunnion, could be used when the muzzle had to be elevated so high that it blocked the gunner's view of the target.

Naval gunnery officers would occasionally order all their guns trained at the same angle and elevated to the same degree. The gunner might not even see his target. While with the crude traversing mechanism of the early 1800's the gunners may not have laid their pieces too accurately, at least it was a step toward the indirect firing technique of later years which was to take full advantage of the longer ranges possible with modern cannon. Use of tangent and trunnion sights brought gunnery further into the realm of mathematical science; the telescopic sight came about the middle of the nineteenth century; gunners were developing into technicians whose job was merely to load the piece and set the instruments as instructed by officers in fire control posts some distance away from the gun.

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