Pointy Projectiles

The accuracy of cannons was dramatically improved in the 19th century with several developments.

  1. The bore was machined rather than just cast, as result of the invention by Wilkinson of a powered boring machine. Incidentally, this process was also adopted by Trevithick in making steam engine cylinders, significantly improving the efficiency of steam engines.
  2. The adoption of sights, calibrated for distance, and movement of the target, instead of just eye balling along the barrel.
  3. Changing from round iron balls to cylindrical projectiles, with a pointy front and slightly rounded rear.
  4. Rifling the barrel bore, causing the projectile to rotate.
  5. Standardising the weight and granularity of the blackpowder, making shots more repeatable.
  6. Increasing the power of gunpowder by increasing the size of the “corns” which sped up the rate of combustion. This permitted flatter, more accurate trajectories.
  7. Improvements and calibration of degrees of barrel angulation.
  8. Increased research and knowledge of the science of ballistics.
  9. Increased training and professionalisation of gun crews.

The Armstrong 80lb rifled muzzle loader had a projectile which weighed, you guessed it, 80lb (36kg). A bit later cannons were categorised by the weight of the barrel. e.g., the 80lb Armstrong would have been named a 4 ton cannon. The gunpowder was standardised at 20lb per firing. The gunpowder filled silk bag, then the 80lb projectile were manually lifted onto the loader cradle, then ram rodded into position. Later, bigger cannons, needed a small crane to do the lifting, but in 1866, the 25 Armstrong 80lb cannons which were made specially for Victoria and South Australia, and were the most advanced cannons made at that time, required strong gunners to do the lifting and ramming.

My model Armstrong cannon is basically a display, rather than a working (firing) model. So, for the display, I have made some projectiles, and fake gunpowder bags. I was fortunate to find some old diagrams of both.

As you can see, for an 80lb RML cannon, the projectile is 15″ / 380mm long, and just under 6.3″ diameter. The barrel bore is 6.3″ diameter, and to cope with heat expansion the projectile must have some “windage” (a gap) to avoid jamming. The 1866 projectile has a pointy end, and a rounded rear, which is relatively aerodynamic, and similar to the form used in many modern guns.

Attached to the rear of the projectile is a (dark shaded) copper disk, which expands into the rifling grooves after firing, and further reduces the windage, and causes the projectile to rotate. The copper disk separates from the projectile after they leave the barrel, and it falls to earth. The best examples of the copper “gas checks” have been retrieved from the sea, in front of shore batteries where these cannons were located.

Before gas checks were introduced, the projectiles had copper studs attached to their exterior. The studs fitted into the rifling grooves. The studs were effective at causing the projectile to spin, but they caused rapid wear of the cannon barrel, excessive drag and lower muzzle velocity of the projectile, and were slower to load. The 25 Victorian Armstrong 80lb RML cannons were designed so that studded projectiles could NOT be used. (n.b. note added 7 Jan 2021… that last sentence is incorrect. The 80lb RML’s would have used studded projectiles until mid 1880’s, and then changed to gas check projectiles. instructions were issued then that studded projectiles should not be used.)

The following drawing shows a silk bag, containing the gunpowder. It also shows the central wooden rod which prevented the bag from bursting during ramming. This powder charge is for a 10″ RML, so it is bigger and heavier than the one for the Armstrong 6.3″ RML, but the design is essentially the same.

After loading and aiming, the gunner would perforate the silk bag with a long spike, then insert a quill or later a copper tube, full of fine gunpowder which extended through the vent from the touch hole to the perforated silk bag. Royal Gun Factory experiments showed that the best firings occurred if the silk bag was perforated about half way along the cylindrical bag, so the vent and touch hole were located at that point.

Some scaled projectiles in mild steel and copper gas checks. Some more shaping required for the gas checks, then they will be attached with gunmetal (bronze) pins to the projectiles. The 1866 projectiles had a cast iron case, were packed with explosive, and a fuze. The book is a reprint of an 1897 publication. It has been consulted many times, as you can see from the workshop stains.

The method of igniting the gunpowder will be described in a future post.