Cannons of the
18th Century

During the early 1700's cannon were used to protect an army's deployment and to prepare for the advance of the troops by firing upon enemy formations. There was a tendency to regard heavy batteries, properly protected by field works or permanent fortifications, as the natural role for artillery. But if artillery was seldom decisive in battle, it nevertheless waxed more important through improved organization, training, and discipline. In the previous century, calibers had been reduced in number and more or less standardized; now, there were notable scientific and technical improvements. The English scientist Benjamin Robins wedded theory to practice; his New Principles of Gunnery (1742) did much to bring about a more scientific attitude toward ballistics. One result of Robins' research was the introduction, in 1779, of carronades, those short, light pieces so useful in the confines of a ship's gun deck. Carronades usually ranged in caliber from 6- to 68-pounders.

In North America, cannon were generally too cumbrous for Indian fighting. But from the time (1565) the French, in Florida, loosed the first bolt at the rival fleet of the Spaniard Pedro Menéndez, cannon were used on land and sea during intercolonial strife, or against corsairs. Over the vast distances of early America, transport of heavy guns was necessarily by water. Without ships, the guns were inexorably walled in by the forest. So it was when the Carolinian Col. James Moore besieged St. Augustine in 1702. When his ships burned. Moore had to leave his guns to the Spaniards.

One of the first appearances of organized American field artillery on the battlefield was in the Northeast, where France's Louisburg fell to British and Colonial forces in 1745. Serving with the British Royal Artillery was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, which had originated in 1637. English field artillery of the day had "brigades" of four to six cannon, and each piece was supplied with 100 rounds of solid shot and 30 rounds of grape. John Muller's Treatise on Artillery, the standard English authority, was republished in Philadelphia (1779), and British artillery was naturally a model for the arm in America.

6-pound cannon
FIGURE 8—AMERICAN 6-POUNDER FIELDPIECE (c. 1775).

At the outbreak of the War of Independence, American Patriots' artillery was an accumulation of guns, mortars, and howitzers of every sort and some 13 different calibers. Since the source of importation was cutoff, the undeveloped casting industries of the Colonies undertook cannon founding and by 1775 the foundries of Philadelphia were casting both bronze and iron guns. A number of bronze French guns were brought in later. The mobile guns of Gen. George Washington's army ranged from 3- to 24- pounders, with 5-1/2- and 8-inch howitzers. They were usually bronze. A few iron siege guns of 18-, 24-, and 32-pounder caliber were on hand. The guns used round shot, grape, and case shot; mortars and howitzers fired bombs and carcasses. "Side boxes" on each side of the field carriage held 21 rounds of ammunition and were taken off when the piece was brought into battery. Horses or oxen, with hired civilian drivers, formed the transport. On the battlefield the cannoneers manned drag ropes to maneuver the guns into position.

Sometimes, as at Guilford Courthouse, the ever-present forest diminished the effectiveness of artillery, but nevertheless the arm was often put to good use. The skill of the American and French gunners at Yorktown contributed no little toward the speedy advance of the siege trenches. Yorktown battlefield today has many examples of Revolutionary War cannon, including some fine ship guns recovered from British vessels sunk during the siege of 1781.

In Europe, meanwhile, Frederick the Great of Prussia learned how to use cannon in the campaigns of the Seven Years' War (1756-63). The education was forced upon him as gradual destruction of his veteran infantry made him lean more heavily on artillery. To keep pace with cavalry movements, he developed a horse artillery that moved rapidly along with the cavalry. His field artillery had only light guns and howitzers. With these improvements he could establish small batteries at important points in the battle line, open the fight, and protect the deployment of his columns with light guns. What was equally significant, he could change the position of his batteries according to the course of the action.

Frederick sent his 3- and 6-pounders ahead of the infantry. Gunners dismounted 500 paces from the enemy and advanced on foot, pushing their guns ahead of them, firing incessantly and using grape shot during the latter part of their advance. Up to closest range they went, until the infantry caught up, passed through the artillery line, and stormed the enemy position. Remember that battle was pretty formal, with musketeers standing or kneeling in ranks, often in full view of the enemy!

12-pound field gun
FIGURE 9—FRENCH 12-POUNDER FIELD GUN (c. 1780).

Perhaps the outstanding artilleryman of the 1700's was the Frenchman Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval, who brought home a number of ideas after serving with the capable Austrian artillery against Frederick. The great reform in French artillery began in 1765, although Gribeauval was not able to effect all of his changes until he became Inspector General of Artillery in 1776. He all but revolutionized French artillery, and vitally influenced other countries.

Gribeauval's artillery came into action at a gallop and smothered enemy batteries with an overpowering volume of fire. He created a distinct materiel for field, siege, garrison, and coast artillery. He reduced the length and weight of the pieces, as well as the charge and the windage (the difference between the diameters of shot and bore); he built carriages so that many parts were interchangeable, and made soldiers out of the drivers. For siege and garrison he adopted 12- and 16-pounder guns, an 8-inch howitzer and 8-, 10-, and 12-inch mortars. For coastal fortifications he used the traversing platform which, having rear wheels that ran upon a track, greatly simplified the training of a gun right or left upon a moving target (fig. 10). Gribeauval-type materiel was used with the greatest effect in the new tactics which Napoleon introduced.

Napoleon owed much of his success to masterly use of artillery. Under this great captain there was no preparation for infantry advance by slowly disintegrating the hostile force with artillery fire. Rather, his artillerymen went up fast into closest range, and by actually annihilating a portion of the enemy line with case-shot fire, covered the assault so effectively that columns of cavalry and infantry reached the gap without striking a blow!

After Napoleon, the history of artillery largely becomes a record of its technical effectiveness, together with improvements or changes in putting well-established principles into action.


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