Civil War Blog

A project of PA Historian

Civil War Cannons: Canister Shot

Posted By on July 15, 2013

Let’s end this summer project with a bang. How about 18 rounds of canister shot fired from a Civil War bronze cannon?

Canister rounds consist of several dozen iron balls packed into the barrel of a cannon and rammed home with a charge of black powder. When fired they turn the gun into a massive shotgun, spewing hot iron hundreds of yards down range.

Canister was a round of last resort for a gun crew. Effective only at close range, a canister round could cut massive swaths through infantry ranks, but also put the crew at risk of being overwhelmed. This was especially true if the gun was missing the rest of its battery, the typical organization of Civil War cannon units.

When under the strain of an infantry assault, it was common practice for artillery men to load double canister. This consisted of the normal round, but packed with an extra round of iron projectiles to multiply the potential destruction.

When an entire battery, consisting of 4 to 6 guns, fired a volley of canister the effects were devastating.

One such case occured on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, as the western men of the Iron Brigade fought off assault after assault of Confederate forces on the ridge near the Lutheran Seminary. As a wave of infantry swept up the slopes of the ridge, several batteries of Union artillery lay in wait. They loaded charges of canister and aimed the muzzles of their pieces slightly below the horizontal.

When they fired their guns, a whole brigade of North and South Carolinians disappeared behind a wall of impenetrable battle smoke. On the other side of that smoke, men fell in droves. One Wisconsin officer famously said that the Confederates “went down like grass before the scythe.” That imagery is as vivid as it was true, as by the end of the day the brigade had lost nearly half of its strength of 1,000 men. Death used its scythe in one hellish blow of iron hail.



3 Responses to “Civil War Cannons: Canister Shot”

  1. Carol Tallman says:

    I I have enjjooyed reading your pieces on the Civil
    War blog. It makes me look forward more than everr to a visit to the battlefield with George this fall. Wouldn’t it be great to have you as our guidelj

  2. Daniel says:

    Regarding the blog about Civil War canister shot: There is a little known record of a small flotilla of Union gunships performing a sawmill raid, that was ambushed by Confederates, upon their return, using fallen timber to blockade the river. I theorized that against the ensuing sniper fire from the higher river banks, that the gunships would use canister shot. Recently, upon clearing and dozing a housing lot on the bluff, I pulled out my metal detector and promptly found 1 – 1 1/2 inch iron balls, that fit neatly grouped into another slug of partially melted metal. That is my partially validated theory; does it make sense to the real experts?

  3. Mark says:

    Add caniter shot to repeating cannon and it’ss a superior Gatling gun substitute, too. Machineguns weren’t really effective until the Maxim Gun hit.

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