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ORDNANCE BOARD CONCERN ABOUT IMPROPER WET SPONGING IN 1841

Last October I had the great pleasure of being invited to address the NAReS Artillery Seminar with respect to my experiences of artillery re-enactment in America. During the post-presentation question/discussion period, I was somewhat dismayed to hear from one of the Napoleonic artillerists present that they always put sufficient water down the tube to create a whaling effect. Despite my expressions of doubt about their procedure, they were not to be swayed from their current modus operandi. In my continuous search for safety, I discovered this piece, previously published in an American periodical called "The Artilleryman" and also more recently in "Cannonade". I offer it up as evidence that the aforementioned Napoleonic artillerists (and anyone else who believes that lots of water is the answer to artillery safety) are storing up trouble for themselves, which may come and bite them badly if they do not heed the warnings.

People who read the National Safety Rules and Procedures for shooting muzzle loading artillery in the last issue of the Artilleryman may have noted they specifically warn against the dangers of sponging with a sopping wet sponge. Problems created by too much water in the bore were understood as early as the 1840's as a report reprinted below makes clear. But we've all seen cannoneers today who seem to feel that if some water on the sponge is good, then more water is better. It's not. And we can take General Benjamin Huger's word for it, based on the recommendations he promulgated as Secretary of the US Army's Ordnance Board of 1841. Huger, who later served as Chief of Ordnance in the Mexican War, and as a Major General of the Confederacy, graduated from the US Military Academy in 1825 and had a distinguished career in the Ordnance Service before the Civil War.

The following is reprinted in its entirety from the March 20, 1841, edition of the Hampstead Long Island Inquirer:

"We publish some rules prepared by the order of Mr Poinsett, to guard unskilled gunners against the melancholy accidents which too frequently occur in the firing of cannon.

"War Department, March 2, 1841

"The frequent accidents which occur by explosion of cannon, occasioned by carelessness of management, render it expedient that instructions be given for the use of persons who are required to perform the duties of gunners.

"The Ordnance Board will therefore submit to the Secretary of War for his approval, such instructions and regulations as to them may seem best calculated to protect persons thus engaged from the fatal accidents to which they have been heretofore liable, in order that the same may be duly promulgated. J R Poinsett, Ordnance Board, March 2, 1841.

"The accidental explosions of cannon by which many lives and limbs are lost annually, are generally caused by fragments of the burning cartridge from a previous discharge remaining in the gun, and which are not extinguished before the next charge is inserted.

"By observing the following directions most of these accidents may be prevented:

"1st. The powder should be in a cartridge made of worsted serve or stuff, the material should be entirely of wool of a close texture, and the bag should be sewed with woollen yarn.

"2nd. The sponge should be made of woollen fringe or sheepskin, and should fit the gun snugly with the wool outwards, and fit the bore.

"3rd. The finger stall shall be made of buckskin or other soft leather.

"The vent should be stopped by forcibly pressing the stall upon it while the gun is being sponged, to extinguish any burning remains of the cartridge. If this is done with a dry sponge, it is certain to extinguish any pieces of burning flannel.

"The sponge should be forced down firmly against the bottom of the bore, and in this position it should be turned around two or three times in each direction.

"Care should be taken not to use a very wet sponge. If it is slightly dampened it may no do harm, but it is far safer to use a sponge dry than when it contains water, for if the water is squeezed out it remains in the bottom of the bore.

"On inserting the next cartridge its lower end gets thoroughly soaked, and the wet powder does not burn on discharging the piece, but is driven into the pores of the stuff and forms a kind of match, which not only retains fire, but is with difficulty extinguished with a sponge, whereas a dry piece of burning woollen is easily extinguished. The free use of water in sponging is the frequent cause of accidental explosion.

"If the piece flash (misfire), or the priming tube blows, it should be approached carefully. The person who re-primes it should approach it in front of the axle-tree, to avoid being injured by the recoil if the piece goes off from remaining fire in the vent.

"The foregoing instructions have been prepared in obedience to the direction of the Secretary of War, and are respectfully submitted for his sanction.

"Benj Huger

"Captain and Secretary, Ordnance Board

"Approved: J R Poinsett.

"The editors of papers throughout the country are requested to publish the foregoing."

Also, further to a question re "Brushing the vent": There is no such command in "Hunt's Drill". However, there is a command to "Clear the vent", with a solid vent punch. This was due to the fact that, unlike today's, 19th century priming tubes were liable to break in the vent, and had to be punched clear. Modern day live-firers found that this was ineffective in cleaning burning debris from the vent and substituted a brush, which is much more effective, and safer. Thus, the integrity of Hunt's drill is maintained in its entirety.

Gordon Clifford. 2nd Lt. & Adjutant, 2nd US Artillery, Battery B


The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Junel 1998