Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Frontier Artillery

The 1800's represented an era where much inventing took place in regards to firearms and artillery. The development of frontier artillery can easily be traced by simply exploring the history of  the military. The 1800's was a time of great westward expansion and along with the population expansion came the military.

mountain howitzer
Civil War era Mountain Howitzer
Take a western road trip and you'll come across exhibits that include about everything the military had in it's arsenal from the early 1800's to the start of the twentieth century. All during this period not only did frontier weaponry change but so did the ammunition as well.

The Mountain Howitzer

The biggest advance in military field weaponry could very well have been the "mountain howitzer". Here was a relatively small weapon that changed the course of more than one battle. The mountain howitzer was designed to be taken apart and transported. Essentially, the Mountain Howitzer was a large caliber gun designed on a small scale.

Typically mounted on a small carriage, the mountain howitzer would be transported by mules. One mule carrying the carriage apparatus was called the "carriage mule". The barrel was carried on a mule called the "shaft mule". Even though the gun was highly mobile and could be carried in pieces if necessary, hauling the gun and it's carriage could still be challenging, especially on muddy terrain. In fact, most accounts of the Custer Little Bighorn disaster state that Custer was originally set to take a couple of howitzers along on his final 1876 march through Montana but thought they would slow him down and he left them behind.These guns were often referred to as the "bull pups" by many of their operators.

One of the projectiles fired by the Mountain Howitzer was referred to as a "solid shot". A photo of a Solid Shot projectile is shown at the bottom of this page. The sold shot was a spherical projectile made of solid iron. Interestingly enough, a skilled gunner could sometimes ricochet the shot over open ground or even water to aid in hitting a target. Yet another projectile used with the Mountain Howitzer was a "cannister". A cannister was a tin cylinder filled with iron balls and sawdust. The cylinder had a wooden plug on one end and when the projectile was fired the cannister disintegrated and the iron balls spread out similar to a shotgun blast.

gatling gun
Gatling Gun
The Gatling Gun

Invented in 1861 by Dr. Richard J. Gatling, the Gatling Gun, in many ways, was the answer to poor marksmanship.The Gatling Gun was a hand cranked weapon used mostly by the army in the West to defend fixed positions such as forts. The Gatling Gun had been used as early as the Civil War by Union forces. Military records indicate that in the spring of 1876 some thirty-four forts in the Division of the Missouri employed a total of fifty-four Gatling Guns. These included one .45 caliber, thirty-four .50 caliber and nineteen one inch guns.Gatling Guns were known to be able to fire about 200 rounds per minute depending on the skill of the operator. When the Gatling Gun was first introduced it represented a huge leap forward in firearms development and made a big impact during the Civil War. The story is that Dr. Gatling thought that the massive firepower and devastating effect of this weapon would make the war short.

The first version of the Gatling Gun used percussion caps The gun was redesigned in 1867 to use metallic cartridges. It was this later version that was used by the army in the West.

gatling gun barrels
Gatling Gun circular barrels
Somewhat similar to the Gatling Gun was the Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon that was invented in 1872 by Benjamin B. Hotchkiss. This gun had five 37 mm barrels and had a range of about 2,000 yards. It was designed mostly for cavalry use.

Below is a terrific read about the California forces active during the Civil War. Troops from California, mostly made up of volunteer regiments stopped the Confederate westward advance in Arizona.

12 Pound Napolean Cannon

The 12 lb Napolean Cannon, named for Napolean III of France, was introduced into the U.S. military arsenal in 1857. This cannon could fire a variety of projectiles with a range of about three-quarters of a mile. The 12 lb. cannon shown in this article was the primary defense weapon during the American Civil War at historic Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico.The military often referred to this weapon as the "light 12-ponder gun". It's important to note that during the Civil War the Confederacy also manufactured these guns. Robert E. Lee was known to have sent many of the Confederate 6 pounders to be recast as 12 pounders. Much of this work for the Confederacy was done at a foundry in Richmond Virginia.

napolean 12 pound cannon
1860's 12 lb. Napolean Cannon
To give you an idea of the differences between the 12 lb. Napolean Cannon and the 12 lb. Mountain Howitzer, here are the specs... The 12 lb. Napolean Cannon had a length of 66 inches compared to 33 inches for the Mountain Howitzer. The Napolean gun had a 5 degree range of about 1,619 yards as compared to the Mountain Howitzer's 1,005 yards. The bore was 4.62 inches for both. The projectile weight for the Napolean was 12.3 lbs compared to 8.9 lbs. for the Mountain Howitzer.

Two additional related Western Trips photo articles you'll find interesting are 1800's Antique Frontier Firearms and Flintlock Firearms of the American West.

You may also enjoy our Western Trips photo article about the Rocket Museum in Albuquerque New Mexico on the link below...

National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

Frontier Artillery Exhibits

Below are just a few of the museums and historical sites in the west where the above featured frontier artillery can be viewed.

There are many venues in the west to see Mountain Howitzers. One of the best artillery museums in the United States is at Fort Sill Oklahoma, southwest of Oklahoma City and not far north of the Texas border. Another good site is in Old Town Albuquerque New Mexico where the Confederates at one time during the Civil War occupied.

Following are some additional good stops to add to your western road trip.

solid shot howitzer ammunition
Solid Shot ammunition
There is an excellent display of frontier artillery and firearms at the California State Military Museum in Old Town Sacramento California. The Gatling Gun shown in this article is on display there. This official military museum of California also has a wide display of 1800's frontier rifles including those from Winchester, Springfield and Sharps.

The 12 lb. Napolean Cannon shown in this article is on display at Fort Union New Mexico. Fort Union was a fort at the junction of the two Santa Fe Trail routes, the Cimmaron and Mountain segments. Fort Union which is now a National Historic Site is located just a few miles west of Interstate 25 between Las Vegas New Mexico and Raton New Mexico. Also in Southwest Texas there is a very good exhibit at Fort Stockton.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

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