Military History/Civil war munitions


QUESTION: Did cannonballs during the Civil war era actually explode?  I have read varying accounts.


Civil War munitions and those from the War of 1812 and Revolution were classified thus:

Solid shot:  Iron balls that used kinetic energy to do their damage.  The iron balls were classifed by weight as were the cannon that fired them.  A 2 pounder or a 4 lber fired a ball of that weight.  This classification was used up to WWII by the British.  We stopped using it prior to WWI and moved to using the bore diameter.  This was also used in the Civil War for certain guns, and I will explain why in a minute.  Generally the cannon was defined by the weight of the ball it threw.

Shell:  A shell was a hollow ball.  Recall the the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade:  

"Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred"

The shell was a hollow iron ball, the size of the solid shot, but filled with black powder and plugged with a fuse.  The fuse could be one of several types.  In the early days of shells they would light the fuse, ram the ball home and quickly fire the gun hoping the shell went far enough down range before it exploded to not do the crew harm.  They eventually discovered that the hot gas of the gun firing would ignite the fuse and they did not need to light it.

The fuses might be a pierced wooden plug with the fuse through it, or a screwed in metal plug with the fuse in it.  Fuses were cut to determine how far down range they would go before exploding the internal charge.  The balls usually broke into several large iron pieces.  Some enterprising British artilleryman by the name of Schrapnel cam up with the idea of packing the hollow shell with lead musket balls mixed with the powder to enhance the killing effect.  This was dubbed the Schrapnel Shell.  Fuses got more sophisticated over time,

Now, as rifled artillery came into being, that is they were not smooth bored but rifled like a rifle to impart spin on the projectile, they were referred to by the size of their bores, such as the 3 inch Ordnance Rifled Cannon.  These shot an elongated projectile called a bolt if it was solid iron or again a shell if it was hollow an contained a bursting charge.  These shells were equiped with contact fuses in the nose like modern shells and would burst on contact.  They were also equiped with time fuses like the older ones that were cut or set to explode X seconds after firing by which time the projectile was a mile or more down range.  They could be set to expode in the air to shower whoever was beneath it with musket balls.

Look on the ball and if you see a large plug you have a shell, a solid shot will have a sprue scar from the mold, but that is smaller and not threaded.  Don't be taken in by brass cannon balls, these are ornamental fixtures being sold as cannon balls. There were brass and bronze cannon, but brass was too expensive to fire as shot.

Shells could range to as large as 64 pounders.  The most popular field gun was the 12lb Napoleon, (after Napoleon III, not the original Napoleon).  It was used by both sides.  Seige, Naval and Coastal defense guns ranged from 20lbrs up through 32 lbrs and up.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Do you know which type of shell was the main choice during the Civil war?  Obviously shot shells were used during the War of 1812, because of the line in The Star Spangled Banner, "Bombs bursting in air".

Yes, and no, the reference to "bombs" was a reference to mortar bombs, which were similar to shells, in that they were hollow and could be fused to burst above ground.  They were fired from very short barreled mortars and the fuse could be lit just before firing, the bursting  range was at best a guess.

To your first question, the most common was the 12 lb shell, but there were lots of different types.  A lot were purchased abroad and since artillery of the time was pretty standard with those in Europe a large number of different types were seen.  check this site out and the link to projectiles, smooth bore to see photos of the varying types.  They list 11 types for 12 lbers.

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Keith H. Patton


I can answer questions pertaining to weapons and tactics, personalities, battles, and strategies in european and U.S. history.


I was a history major, and had done extensive research in the subject area. I have designed and tested numerous computer games for various
historical periods.

B.A History M.S. Science
I have had the opportunity to live abroad and walk numerous battlefields both in the United States, Europe, and the Pacific.

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