The artillery pieces used during the 18th and 19th centuries were large and clumsy. As such, they were very difficult to move, and once in position, they usually remained stationary during the course of a battle.
The positioning of the artillery was one of a commander’s most important decisions. Contrary to common sense, high ground was not always the best place from which to fire a cannon. The ammunition commonly used was an iron ball, often called ”shot,” which was most effective when fired on a level trajectory about chest-high. Ultimately, the ball would bounce several times, then begin rolling, seemingly harmless but still capable of disabling feet or ankles.
The principle of artillery fire was to create a huge explosion that would expel the shot out of the cannon barrel and through the air toward the enemy. The gun carriage was viciously thrown back several feet by the recoil of the explosion, after which the hot gun had to be ”run up” again to its original position and quickly reloaded.
The guns were loaded much like huge muskets. A cartridge was rammed down the barrel, followed by the shot. The gunner perforated the cartridge using a brass wire and then held a slow-burning match to the cartridge to ignite the charge. A “six pounder” (the calibre of a gun was determined by the weight of the shot) had a range of about 1,000 metres but was really effective for only 400 metres. Most of the projectiles were “round shot,” solid metal that could destroy buildings or walls. These balls could also tear a devastating path through massed troops.
For targets within 500 metres, soldiers employed a canister, or case, which was filled with bullets that exploded upon enemy troops. Mortars or howitzers fired bombs—hollow iron spheres containing black powder and equipped with a fuse. In the War of 1812, these bombs were “bursting in air,” as immortalized in “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The effects of artillery fire on humans at the time of the War of 1812 could be horrific. Artillery round shot was guaranteed to cause dramatic and gory casualties. At close range, artillery fire could punch holes straight through an entire section of a unit. Artillery also took a fearful toll of horses.
Before a gun could be captured by the enemy, it was often incapacitated by “spiking” it with an iron rod jammed into its vent and smashed with a hammer.
This piece features an animated, step-by-step description of how a “six-pounder” cannon was armed and fired in the War of 1812.