James and Sawyer cannons: rifled versus smoothbore

12-pound Confederate Napoleon

A stream flows in the green,
And next to it is a monument to the heroes.
May glory weave a wreath for them,
The sons are proud of their peace.
May the spirit of the fighters be eternal,
Freedom bequeathed to us.
Let the banner of the impudent fathers
Both time and nature are sparing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Concord Anthem, sung on 4 July 1837 at the inauguration of the Battle Monument. Translation by I. Kopostinskaya

Weapons from museums. On the territory of the United States, there are many monuments erected in memory of the Civil War. It has long been noticed that if they portray a soldier, then they do not look too fighting, but rather tired. A soldier stands for himself, leaning on a gun, all the details of the uniform are one to one in place, but the posture is such that at the same time he seems to be resting, and not running, say, into an attack with a rifle at the ready. There are no naked characters with piles of muscles either. Everyone is dressed properly. But on the other hand, as monuments, an amazing number of various cannons are exhibited there, and not one at a time, but often with whole batteries. And at the same time the most diverse! Last time we talked about Parrot’s cast-iron guns, today we will continue our story about the guns of the American Civil War: we will talk about both rifled and smooth-bore guns used by the belligerents.

James and Sawyer cannons: rifled versus smoothbore

Austrian-made 24-pound howitzer purchased from Europe by the Confederation. Its barrel was lighter and shorter than the barrels of the Feds’ 24-pounder howitzers.


To begin with, the most common artillery piece for both northerners and southerners at the beginning of the war was the Napoleon smoothbore muzzle-loading bronze cannon, so named because it was modeled on the French model. She fired round cannonballs, match bombs or buckshot, and was loaded from the muzzle. The advantage of such guns was their high rate of fire. So, a trained crew could fire one shot every 30 seconds. “Napoleons” were used in two types: light six-pound caliber 3.67 “and heavier 12-pound caliber 4.62”. The field carriage was used in the 1841 model.

James’s rifled cannon

Barrel grooves


It is clear that in 1861 such guns looked like a real anachronism. And in order to modernize them, an engineer from Rhode Island, Charles T. James (1805-1862) came up with a proposal to convert these guns from smooth-bore to rifled, for which to make rifling in their trunks. In a similar way, several hundred guns were modernized, as a result of which the range and accuracy of firing from them significantly increased. In addition, now it became possible to shoot from them cylindrical shells of Parrot and James himself. The first, cylindrical, had a copper “plate” in the bottom, which cut into the grooves. The latter resembled a pointed egg, but outwardly looked like the most ordinary pointed cylindrical shells thanks to a cylindrical nozzle put on their bottom, which was hollow inside. When fired, the gases pressed its walls into the grooves, and the projectile, rotating, flew out of the barrel. It just turned out that bronze is still too soft a metal, and when firing, the rifling of such guns quickly grinded down.

Parrot’s projectile. Scheme

Parrot’s projectile. Appearance


Nevertheless, the northerners liked the idea, and they began not only to ream the old Napoleons, but also to cast from bronze the completely new long-barreled 14-pound James rifle guns, which also found use in the civil war.

It should be noted that Charles T. James developed a number of muzzle-loading rifled guns named after him. True, such American historians as Warren Ripley and James Hazlett believe that the term “James gun” itself is applicable only to field artillery guns of 3.8 inches (97 mm) caliber for firing shells of their own design and that it cannot refer to smoothbore barrels with a caliber of 3.67 inches (93 mm), which were cut for firing shells by James or other cannons of other calibers, converted according to his method.

James’ 14-pound bronze (6.35 kg, 3.8-in., 97 mm) cannon

James’s 14-pound steel cannon


As noted here, at the beginning of the war, many 6-pounder (2.72 kg) bronze smoothbore guns were used, which were then rifled, and the caliber was 3.67 inches (93 mm). They are classified as “6-pound rifled guns” or “James’s 12-pound (5.44 kg) rifled guns”. Well, reaming of barrels was also practiced to eliminate their wear, which was also observed in smooth-bore guns. The first type was usually called the “James 12-pounder” and the second, reamed, the “James 14-pounder”.

Drilling James’s 6-pounder steel cannon

“Cannon with a front sight”


Charles James collaborated with the Ames Manufacturing Company, Chicopee, Massachusetts, where he created numerous redesigns of the 1841 model guns. The first five options were bronze, while the last one was already iron. The inventor died in October 1862, being fatally wounded in an accident (the projectile fuse exploded in the hands of the worker next to whom he was standing), and with him the popularity of his guns and the shells he created for them went away. The reason is the rapid grinding of the rifling of the barrels of the bronze tools.

Two 32 lb. (14.5 kg) model 1829 cannons, converted into rifled guns by the James method


At the same time, his rifled guns performed well during the bombing of Fort Pulaski in April 1862, where they were used in conjunction with Parrott’s cannons. The rapid fall of Fort Pulaski was probably the most significant contribution of the James system to the war between North and South. There are over 150 James’ 14-pounder cannons surviving today, many of which are in Shiloh National Military Park, Tennessee, including over fifty 6-pounder guns bored to 3.8 inches and rifled.

Wall of Fort Pulaski, riddled with shells from the cannons of Parrot and James


Several of James’s 14-pound cannons are found in the Battle of Manassas National Park in Virginia, where they fought in the First Battle of Bull Run as Rhode Island’s first battery.

Another inventor who contributed to the development of artillery during the Civil War of the North and South was Sylvanus Sawyer (1822-1895), who from childhood showed a penchant for invention. As a boy, he invented and made a reed organ. Due to poor health, he could not work on the farm, but learned to be a gunsmith, and in 1843, while working in a Boston factory in a mechanical workshop, invented a machine for processing rattan. More than a thousand dollars were spent trying to create such a machine, but Sawyer was successful, received a patent (“rattan cutting technique”) and, together with his brother Joseph, opened a business for the production of wicker chairs. His inventions are said to have revolutionized the production of wicker furniture, which has since moved from South India, China and the Netherlands to the United States.

Battery in Action: A Modern Reenactment of the Combat of the American Civil War


In the summer of 1853, he invented several rifled cannon shells, which were patented in 1855. The essence of the invention is the use of lead to cut the projectile into the rifling and prevent the breakthrough of gases when fired. Interestingly, at that time, many inventors solved this problem in a very, very original way. For example, someone Shankl proposed a teardrop-shaped projectile that had a tapered back and ribs on its surface. On top of this cone, a special cap was put on, made … of papier-mâché, which expanded from the pressure of the powder gases, as if it entered the rifling of the barrel and, when fired, rotated itself and rotated the projectile put on it, and then the air flow running on it was simply this cap blew away.

Shankle’s projectile


Due to the conical shape, the center of gravity of such a projectile was always in front of the center of the axis, which is why its flight was as accurate as the flight of an arrow with a massive tip. But the Shankl shell also had a serious drawback: the “glass” often swelled from dampness, although later this was eliminated with the help of a special zinc shell, which was put on top of it.

Sawyer then took up the development of steel rifled guns and in 1857-1858, together with his brother Addison, successfully tested a gun with a 24-pound (5.86-inch) barrel. Then 42-pound rifled guns and shells for them in 1859 were tested at Fort Monroe. The Minister of War announced that the practicality of rifled cannons and shells had finally been firmly established. It was recommended to make four field guns for testing in the army, but then the Civil War began in the United States. The first cast steel 9-pounder gun was ordered in June 1861 and was built shortly thereafter. Then the 24-pounder guns, designed by Sawyer, were installed in Newport News, Virginia, and one was installed at Rip Raps (Fort Calhoun, later Fort Wool) in the middle of the same 1861. The cannon at Fort Wool was the only Union land gun on Hampton Roads that could fire at the Confederate fort there from three and a half miles away, which it did with great precision, causing terrible chaos there. Some of Sawyer’s guns fell on the ships of the northerners, where they also performed very well.

Testing the Sawyer’s gun at Fort Wool. New York Illustrated News, September 9, 1861, p. 289. Library of Congress)


Sawyer subsequently claimed that he was treated unfairly during the Civil War. His patents were used, but he never received anything for it. In 1864-1865. he built a special ammunition workshop, awaiting orders from the United States, Mexico, Brazil and Chile, but then the war ended and he had to be redesigned.

Cannons of the Battle of Manassas National Park in Virginia


But he received patents for machine tool calipers in 1867, a steam generator in 1868, a sewing machine in 1876, and a self-centering lathe in 1882. Subsequently, he took up the production of tools for watchmakers, but soon left this business and became interested in agriculture. In the early 1890s, he developed a fertilizer production system by filtering wastewater from the city of Fitchburg. In general, Sawyer’s contribution was very significant, as he developed at least five types of rifled artillery pieces and a full line of shells for them, including shells and buckshot, as well as cap charges. Well, that 9-pounder Sawyer gun, which was ordered to him in June 1861, became, in fact, the first rifled steel gun of the US Army.

New Jersey, Gettysburg. Memorial at the site of the battle. And the guns! As without them. So it is not difficult for Americans to study the history of their artillery from that era. They have everything before their eyes!


One of his 24-pounders is preserved as a monument in Allegany, New York. Unusually, it only has two narrow grooves in the bore!

To be continued…

Recommended For You

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *