Civil War Naval Guns

Dahlgren 11" Muzzle-Loading Smoothbore (ML SB)

Invented by U.S. Navy Adm. John Dahlgren, the venerable "soda bottle" was the workhorse of the U.S. Navy throughout the Civil War period. These smoothbore, muzzle-loading weapons came in 9", 11" and -- during the War -- 15" sizes and fired shells or solid shot. They were originally mounted on heavy wooden carriages and worked like conventional naval cannon (bottom), but the larger models were adapted to heavy cast-iron carriages that rotated on pivots mounted in the middle of the deck. These two views show the aft 11" Dahlgren on the steam sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge. Through the 1880s and 1890s many views of a later-model Dahlgren were circulated under the title "The Gun That Sank the Alabama." If any gun could make that claim, it would be the one pictured below (photo shot in 1864).

Another view - 11" Dahlgren, USS Kearsarge

Crew working a Dahlgren hundred-pounder

A full gun crew works a 9" Dahlgren, USS Mendota

Turret Interior, USS Passaic - 11" and 15" Dahlgrens and Solid Shot

In a little-known episode of Russo-American naval collaboration, the Union Navy Department shared artillery designs and manufacturing knowhow with the Tsar's government in exchange for overt Russian support for the Union cause. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles released plans for the Passaic class monitors -- single-turret craft built in 1862, immediately following the Hampton Roads engagement of the original Monitor -- to the Russian Admiralty. The Russians laid down 10 monitors built to the Passaic plan, right down to the 15" Dahlgren guns manufactured at the Petrozavodsk Foundry -- the Uragan ("Hurricane") class. These slow but durable ships formed part of the Baltic fleet beyond 1900, with one, the Strelets, surviving into the 1950s.

12-Pounder Dahlgren Pivot Gun, USS Ozark

A beautiful, unobstructed view of the big cannon bathed in afternoon light. The Eads-built Ozark was a bit of a freak, a monitor with twin 11" Dahlgrens in her turret, a deckhouse with twin stacks aft of the turret, an internal paddle-wheel, and this unprotected 9" pivot gun mounted at the stern. Click here to see!

Diagram of Dahlgren and Parrott guns

8-in 100-pdr Parrott rifle

80-Pounder Parrott Rifle

The Parrott gun was the other main piece of artillery on Union and Confederate warships, the most common big rifle used in the war. Like the Dahlgren it was named for its inventor, Robert Parker Parrott, who quit the army in 1836 to start the West Point Gun Foundry at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., just across the Hudson from West Point. There guns of his design were fabricated under Parrot's own demanding supervision. The Parrott gun was immediately identifiable by the large flat band of metal wrapped and shrunk around the firing chamber to strengthen the breech. Parrott rifles were among the main artillery used by both armies during the Civil War, in a number of sizes from 2.7" and 3" on up to 10"/300-pdr. Naval Parrots included 4.2", 5.3", 6.4" and 8" guns, (the 80-pdr 6.4" model is shown above) and monster 8" 200-pdr and 10" 300-pdr models. These were all muzzle-loading weapons. Their rifled bores imparted spin to projectiles, markedly improving accuracy and range. The 8" gun could shoot an 80-lb shell up to 4½ miles with accuracy (compare capabilities to the 32-pounder smoothbore weapon below). Despite the heavy banding, Parrott's rifles had a bad reputation for breech failures in the service (see picture below.

200 Pounder Parrott Rifle

One of the specialty big guns produced for devastating shore bombardment at Parrott's foundry. This one was mounted on the forecastle head of the steam frigate USS Wabash, flagship of the Charleston blockading fleet. This gun was used in the sieges of Forts Sumter, Fisher, and Walker on the Carolina coast. It had a range of 8,000 yards at 35 degrees.

Engraving of burst Parrott rifle
Breech Failure

Steel engraving of a Parrott gun that burst aboard the steam frigate Susquehanna in 1865.

An Old Salt of the Federal Navy

Adopting a tough pose, this apprentice seaman is one of the "powder monkeys" who ran charges and projectiles from the magazines during battle, and may have danced along the footropes to handle sail high above the deck. It is well to remember that many a great ironclad depended wholly on kids like this to operate in battle. With the coming of automated ammo lifts in the 1890s such ship's boys would disappear from battleships, though the position lingered a bit beyond the turn of the century in smaller vessels of the American fleet. Our junior warrior is leaning against a 4.2" Parrott rifle on the deck of the USS Mendota. (For a real ancient mariner of the U.S. Navy, click here.)

9" Mortar Aboard One of Porter's Mortar Schooners

For bombarding cities and fortresses from the water, the Union constructed or converted a numerous fleet of wooden mortar schooners: two-masted sailing vessels, armed only with one huge, fat mortar amidships. The schooners were often towed into action, or lashed to the unengaged sides of ironclads or larger warships for protection. In especially hazardous conditions, motorless mortar boats with armored sides were towed or nudged into position instead. The bombardment fleets on the Mississippi and western rivers were under the overall command of Adm. David Dixon Porter, scion of an illustrious navy family. (Porter himself had served as a midshipman aboard the famous frigate Essex on her commerce-raiding cruise to the Pacific during the War of 1812.)

6.4" Brooke Rifle from CSS Tennessee

Most of the Confederacy's weapons were captured by taking over federal facilities at the time of secession, or taken in battle. The Brooke was the exception, manufactured at two foundries in the South: Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond and the Noble Bros. Foundry of Rome, Georgia. If this big rifle bears a family resemblance to the Parrott gun, it is no coincidence; this is an accurate copy of the West Point Foundry rifle. The design differences were the result of practical adaptations: no Southern foundries had the capacity to single-band wrap the rifles as in the Parrott gun. Instead a series of smaller bands was used, usually 2" thick x 6" wide (51mm x 150mm). This particular gun was mounted aboard the casement ironclad Tennessee and fought in the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Legacy Weapon: 32-Pounder Smoothbore Cannon

This muzzle-loading gun was a legacy of the classic sailing-ship technology, little changed since the Napoleonic era. The cannon were worked by an 11-man crew and fired solid shot weighing 32 lbs. These weapons had a range of about a mile; less than half a mile with much real accuracy. This particular gun and its carriage went down with the USS Cairo in 1862 and were salvaged in the early 1970s; shown on board the Cairo today in her permanent home at the Cairo National Historic Park near Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Diagram showing loading procedure for the type of cannon above.