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Rigging Civil War Naval Guns


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Seeing one of the Alabama's cannon at the Hunley museum in Charleston, S.C., made me realize that I know next to nothing about how Civil War-era guns were rigged on ships. I've seen large-caliber Dahlgrens and Parrot rifles in fortifications, and figure the pivot/slide arrangement was similar on board ships, but I always figured the 32-pounders and such, like included in the Model Shipways Harriet Lane, were rigged like broadside cannon always had been.

Looking at photos from the era, I do see a breech rope, and assume other tackle is there, too. Anyone know for sure?


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Pretty much rigged the same as it had been before. The biggest shift in broadside guns (besides the newer guns themselves) was the shift from the old-style four-wheel truck carriage to the two-wheeled Marsilly carriage before the war. This design meant they could shove a wheeled handspike under the rear of the gun and easily rotate even a big gun like a large Dahlgren from side to side in the port or even move it from one side of the ship like the other. They could also be mounted on pivot carriages as well of course.


Here is a great shot of a Dahlgren in a Marsilly carriage, this one mounted on the deck of USS Hunchback, a converted ferry.dp-nws-civil-war-union-fleet-in-hampton-

The older-style truck carriage was still around too though, as seen here on the USS Thomas Freeborn.


There are plenty of photographs, drawings, gunnery manuals, and ordnance instructions from the period. Certainly enough to know for sure.

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Notice in the Thomas Freeborn photo, that altho the gun is rigged on a traditional carriage, it is sitting over a pivot trace, like the one in the right lower corner, and the wheels appear to be lifted just barely above the deck. (Note the wheels shadows.) As huge as that gun looks, the trunnion is only about six inches in diameter, it having the same width as the bore, making it a 32-pounder. At first, I thought she was an 8" shell gun, just due to its great size compared to the foolish fellow looking down the sight. I had not heard of a 32-pounder mounted on a pivot during that period. They seem to have rolled it over a rectangular wood, deck-colored platform, that I had first thought was just the deck, and then raised/attached the gun to it, but the carriage's shadow is just not right for that.

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I don't have specific information on US Civil War practices, but the 1840s to 1870s have seen many attempts to improve the controlling and handling of guns as they became heavier. A particular problem was the control of the reoil and balancing the efforts of running the gun out against destroying the recoil in some way. These are two opposing requirements.

The recoil on a gun on four-wheeled trucks is partially destroyed by its inertia, partially by the friction of the wheels on their axles, partically by the friction in the running-out tackles, and largely by the elasticity of the breech-rope. An additional problem is, that in a heeling and pitching ship, the direction of the recoil can be rather unpredictable. In order to catch two birds with one stone, a wooden bar with iron re-inforcements was laid underneath the trucks and pivoted on the deck; the truck was lifted onto the bar with an early form of compressor in order to turn its rolling movement into a sliding one with higher friction; also, the bar directed the recoil as it formed a sort of internal rail; the bar obviously could be trained.

For similar reason the two-wheeled carriage was developed, as the hind-pads rather than -wheels increased the friction; the two-wheeled carriage was also combined with the above directional bar.

It seems that such systems where particularly developed in France. I have some offcial naval artillery handbooks that cover the period from 1850 to the late 1870s, where these systems are shown in great detail. The French used them even in conjuction with 'modern' breech-loading rifled guns before they become supersed by pivoted carriages. Given that the French naval and weapons industry supplied at least the Confederate forces, it is not surprising to see such systems on ACW ships.



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Civil War warship guns are well covered in Arming the Fleet by Spencer Tucker.  Another excellent source is Ordnance Instructions for the U.S. Navy.  Copies of the 1866 version is available in reprinted form and online.  If you decide to buy a reprint, the Michigan Historical Reprint Series by the University of Michigan are “top of the line.”



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