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Smoothbore artillery refers to weapons that are not rifled. At the time of the Civil War, metallurgy and other supporting technologies had just recently evolved to a point allowing the large scale production of rifled field artillery. As such, many smoothbore weapons were still in use and production even at the end of the war. Smoothbore field artillery of the day fit into two role-based categories: guns and howitzers. Further classifications of the weapons were made based on the type of metal used, typically bronze or iron (cast or wrought), although some examples of steel were produced. Additionally, the artillery was often identified by the year of design in the Ordnance department references.
The smoothbore artillery was also categorized by the bore dimensions, based on the rough weight of the solid shot projectile fired from the weapon. For instance a 12-pounder field gun fired a 12 pound solid shot projectile from its 4.62-inch (117 mm) diameter bore. It was practice, dating back to the 18th century, to mix gun and howitzers into batteries. Pre-war allocations called for 6-pounder field guns matched with 12-pounder howitzers, 9 and 12-pounder field guns matched with 24-pounder howitzers. But the rapid expansions of both combatant armies, mass introduction of rifled artillery, and the versatility of the 12-pounder "Napoleon" class of weapons all contributed to a change in the mixed battery practices.
Smoothbore guns were designed to fire solid shot projectiles at high velocity, over low trajectories at targets in the open, although shot and canister were acceptable for use. The barrels of the guns were longer than corresponding howitzers, and called for higher powder charges to achieve the desired performance. Field guns were produced in 6-pounder (3.67 inch bore), 9-pounder (4.2 inch bore), and 12-pounder (4.62 inch bore) versions. Although some older iron weapons were pressed into service, and the Confederacy produced some new iron field guns, most of those used on the battlefields were of bronze construction.
The 6-pounder field gun was well represented by bronze Models of 1835, 1838, 1839, and 1841 early in the war. Even a few older iron Model of 1819 weapons were pressed into service. Several hundred were used by the armies of both sides in 1861. But in practice the limited payload of the projectile was seen as a shortcoming of this weapon. From mid-war on, few 6-pounders saw action in the main field armies.
The larger 9- and 12-pounders were less well represented. While the 9-pounder was still listed on Ordnance and Artillery manuals in 1861, very few were ever produced after theWar of 1812 and only scant references exist to Civil War use of the weapons. The 12-pounder field gun appeared in a series of models mirroring the 6-pounder, but in far less numbers. At least one Federal battery, the 13th Indiana, took the 12-pounder field gun into service early in the war. The major shortcoming of these heavy field guns was mobility, as they required eight-horse teams as opposed to the six-horse teams of the lighter guns. A small quantity of 12-pounder field guns were rifled early in the war, but these were more experimental weapons, and no field service is recorded.
By far the most popular of the smoothbore cannon was the 12-pounder Model of 1857, Light, commonly called "Napoleon". The Model 1857 was of lighter weight than the previous 12-pounder guns, and could be pulled by a six-horse draft, yet offered the heavier projectile payload of the larger bore. It is sometimes called, confusingly, a "gun-howitzer" (because it possessed characteristics of both gun and howitzer) and is discussed in more detail separately below.
Howitzers were short-barreled guns that were optimized for firing explosive shells in a high trajectory, but also for spherical case shot and canister, over a shorter range than the guns. While field use alluded to firing at targets consisting of enemy forces arrayed in the open, howitzers were considered the weapon of choice if the opposing forces were concealed behind terrain features or fortifications. Howitzers used lower powder charges than guns of corresponding caliber. Field howitzer calibers used in the Civil War were 12-pounder (4.62 inch bore), 24-pounder (5.82 inch bore), and 32-pounder (6.41 inch bore). Most of the howitzers used in the war were bronze, with notable exceptions of some of Confederate manufacture.
Coupled to the 6-pounder field gun in allocations of the pre-war Army, the 12-pounder field howitzer was represented by Models of 1838 and 1841. With a light weight and respectable projectile payload, the 12-pounder was only cycled out of the main field army inventories as production and availability of the 12-pounder "Napoleon" rose, and would see action in the Confederate armies up to the very end.
As with the corresponding heavy field guns, the heavier Howitzers were available in limited quantities early in the war. Both Federal and Confederate contracts list examples of 24-pounders delivered during the war, and surviving examples exist of imported Austrian types of this caliber used by the Confederates. These 24-pounder Howitzers found use in the "reserve" batteries of the respective armies, but were gradually replaced over time with heavy rifled guns. Both the 24- and 32-pounders were more widely used in fixed fortifications, but at least one of the later large weapons was with the 1st Connecticut Artillery as late as 1864.
Finally, the lesser-known but highly mobile 12-pounder mountain Howitzer saw service with infantry and cavalry forces in the rugged western theaters and prairies, and continued in service during the Indian Wars. This versatile piece could utilize one of two carriages: a small carriage that could be drawn by a single animal or could be rapidly broken down to carry on the backs of pack animals, or a slightly larger prairie carriage to be drawn by two animals. A veteran of the Mexican-American War, several hundred more of these diminutive tubes were produced by Union foundries during the Civil War, and the Confederate Tredegar foundry turned out as many as 21 more. A Federal battery of four proved "highly effective" at the decisive battle of Glorieta, New Mexico, and Nathan Bedford Forrest frequently employed mountain howitzers for the rapid close-in combat that he favored.
The twelve-pound cannon "Napoleon" was the most popular smoothbore cannon used during the war. It was named after Napoleon III of France and was widely admired because of its safety, reliability, and killing power, especially at close range. In Union Ordnance manuals it was referred to as the "light 12-pounder gun" to distinguish it from the heavier and longer 12 pounder gun (which was virtually unused in field service.) It did not reach America until 1857. It was the last cast bronze gun used by an American army. The Federal version of the Napoleon can be recognized by the flared front end of the barrel, called the muzzle-swell. It was, however, relatively heavy compared to other artillery pieces and difficult to move across rough terrain.
Confederate Napoleons were produced in at least six variations, most of which had straight muzzles, but at least eight catalogued survivors of 133 identified have muzzle swells. Additionally, four iron Confederate Napoleons produced by Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond have been identified, of an estimated 125 cast. In early 1863 Robert E. Lee sent nearly all of the Army of Northern Virginia's bronze 6-pounder guns to Tredegar to be melted down and recast as Napoleons. Copper for casting bronze pieces became increasingly scarce to the Confederacy throughout the war and became acute in November 1863 when the Ducktown copper mines nearChattanooga were lost to Union forces. Casting of bronze Napoleons by the Confederacy ceased and in January 1864 Tredegar began producing iron Napoleons.