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US Field Gun Carriages—Their History and Evolution

By Matthew C. Switlik
(originally published in the Artilleryman Magazine, V.15 No.3 (revised, 1-7-2001)

Since 1959 when I began building my first replica field gun carriage, I’ve always admired the lines and poise of the Civil War field gun carriages. Later when I got to use such carriages in live firing and in “tactical” maneuvers with six-horse hitches, their mechanical properties became self evident.

I would have to admit that my interest in historic artillery has been inspired more by carriage design than gun tube design. Ballistically, field artillery changed very little in the 200 years before the introduction of rifled artillery. Changes in carriage design dramatically affected tactical use of artillery in this same period.

Like everyone I know, I have admired the cataloging of surviving specimens of historic artillery which was started in the 1950’s by Dr. James A. Hazlett and has been carried on by Ed Olmstead and Wayne Stark. Their work provides us the opportunity to study gun tube design very systematically. I have long wished that equal attention could have been given to historic gun carriages.

Unfortunately any such effort with regard to carriages will be much more difficult since they have survived in much smaller numbers. Alterations, reproductions and restorations often make it difficult for most field reporters to identify what is or may be original.

Over the years I have made numerous trips to various parts of the U.S. to locate and record early gun carriages. Survival of early specimens is very discouraging. The earliest dated American field gun carriage I have personally seen so far is only 1831. It seems odd that something earlier has not been identified, even in an archaeological context. If an earlier dated carriage exists, I hope someone will let me know.

Searching government archives for information on the evolution of carriages has been frustrating. Fortunately Alfred Mordecai published Artillery for the Land Service of the United States in 1849. These lithographed large format engineering drawings were published in sufficient numbers that several sets of prints have survived and provide the basis for restoring and replicating mid-19th century American gun carriages.

We also know from surviving specimens and photographs that the Mordecai drawings evolved from earlier designs and continued to change after 1848. None of the earlier engineering drawings are presently known and only a few of the post-1848 changes have been located so far.

I have searched some Allegheny Arsenal ( Pittsburgh Pa.) correspondence written during July 1861 and found several tantalizing references to gun carriage and equipment changes. From my present impression, I feel that most design changes in gun carriages in the pre-Civil War years probably originated at one or more of the “arsenals of construction” which were Waterviliet Arsenal in Troy N.Y.; Washington Arsenal, Washington, D.C., and the Allegheny Arsenal.

Gun carriages were manufactured at these three while all other arsenals were involved in storage and repair until the Civil War years when some began manufacturing carriages.. Of these three, only Watervliet is still in operation. Contact with the Watervliet Arsenal Museum on the subject of early records indicates that the bulk of their old records were transferred to the national Archives many years ago. Most of these records have never been processed for use by researchers.

I understand that in one very important case about 10 years ago Watervliet Arsenal museum staff traveled to Washington, D.C. and found the records in the same transfer cases that left New York. Fortunately they were lucky and found what they needed in the first box opened, otherwise it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. An appeal for return of the record to Watervliet was rejected by the national Archives which replied that it could only send copies for $10,000.

The line drawing above is from Tousard’s American Artillerists Companion 1809. It appears to be identical to drawings published in French.

Published histories of American gun carriage development don’t really exist. The earliest effort I have found is a collection of letters entitled Ordnance Notes No. XXV, (1874), which is basically correspondence in the late 1860’s between elderly former ordnance officers. The principal writer is Maj. William Wade, then in his 80’s, who served before the War of 1812, and in various capacities until the Civil War.

Wade’s information is very interesting. He recalls various early books on the subject, such as Muller’s Treatise, of Revolutionary War vintage, the English translation of DeScheels Treatise on the Gribeauval System and other early works. He recalled having seen some old carriages that still had wood quoins for elevation and looked a lot like the plates in Muller’s work.

After the War of 1812 Wade drew up plans for carriages in service at Allegheny Arsenal and continued to build such carriages for many years. He observed the first American experimental “stock trail” carriages in 1818. Wade himself discounted his effort at history saying that memory was not perfect and his personal records had been destroyed in a house fire. Regretably his post-1812 drawings have not surfaced in public collections.

In 1884 William E. Birkhimer published his Historical Sketch of the Artillery of the US Army. This work utilized both historical document sources and surviving ordnance officers like Wade. It is a fine resource, but does not go into detail on gun carriage development and lacks illustrations.

Most of the few early manuals available to artillery officers are now available in reprint form. Reading these probably gives us some sense of what was in use, but we cannot always be sure. From the sources mentioned above, the general assumption has been that American field artillery carriages of the Revolutionary era were direct copies of British 18th century carriages of pre-1775 design. I only wish we had more archaeological evidence to this effect.

I have heard of, but not seen, a partial lower carriage fragment recovered at New Windsor Cantonment in New York. Beyond that, I don’t think any U.S. Revolutionary War field carriages are known . Most of an original British 3 pdr carriage survives at Ft. Ticonderoga, although rebuilt.

I personally doubt that we slavishly copied British design very long with respect to wheels, at least. Due to the widely varying climate in North America, I suspect the nailed streak tires fell apart much more quickly here than in England.

British manuals in the 1870‘s indicate that some streak-tire artillery wheels were still in use. I have to suspect that practical Americans began to use the welded ring tire much sooner in the 19th century, maybe even in the late 18th century.

This carriage was formerly on exhibit by the national Park Service at St. Augustine, Florida. We suspect it is a Washington Arsenal carriage but could never arrange to inspect it up close. Photo circa 1970’s by John Morris.

The line drawing is from an American manual published in 1829 and agrees in most details with the St. Augustine carriage, or as far as can be seen from photos. It also matches an 1832 dated Washington Arsenal carriage seen by the author, except the latter has wide trail handles and used an elevating screw connected to the knob by a yoke and bolt. Note the 1831-Conversion carriage elsewhere in this article for this kind of elevating gear detail. The St. Augustine example uses a hinged transom board in conjunction with the elevating screw.


The St. Augustine carriage is displayed with a bolted tire which may be a post-1840 wheel. Earlier tires all have nails. 

From its title, Louis Tousard’s American Artillerists Companion (1809) is generally assumed to demonstrate that America adopted the French Gribeauval system. The latter was introduced in the 1770’s and used effectively by Napoleon after the 1790’s. The conventional wisdom maintains that we did not get the “new style”gun carriages from our French Allies during the Revolutionary War and that we may have seen them in the hands of French troops at Yorktown but would not necessarily have noticed their advantages at the time.

Tousard’s work was published in 1809 and it is possible the US may have acquired some Gribeauval field gun carriages during the change of ownership at New Orleans in 1803. In spite of this some writers have felt that the drawings published by Tousard represent more of what he thought Americans should be using, rather than what was in use. Suggestions were made by Wade and Birkhimer that America adopted the Gribeauval system on a piecemeal basis. Their thoughts are supported in part by the fact that Tousard published drawings of “American” gun tubes but almost no surviving examples of gun tubes match his drawings. The surviving Gribeauval style gun carriages, although dated quite late, show a mixture of basic features, but are quite different from Tousard’s drawings.

Tousard had a major interest in mountain artillery. He was very familiar with terrain and roads in American and recommended that Americans use a unique form of mountain carriage which had a lot of the functional characteristics of our later 1840’s pack carriage. It dismantled easily, even with a quick detachable axle, for pack transportation but it also had a set of detachable thills for draft by a single animal. This system was known as the Rostaing carriage and was part of the 18th century French artillery. It was adopted by Spain in the 1790’s and by other Europeans.

Even before Tousard published his recommendation in 1809, the Rostaing carriage had been illustrated in the U.S. translation of DeScheel’s A Treatise of Artillery ; Containing a New System in 1800. Again, I have no proof that such carriages were ever used in the United States, but there is a striking visual similarity to frequently used printers’ woodcuts of a “split trail” field gun carriage; such images appear in use long before, during and even after the Civil War. Whether the image of a Rostaing type carriage in American folk art indicates the style was known here or whether the image was the product of immigrant artists, is open to debate.

We know the concept of a central stock carriage or stock-rail carriage originated with the British in the 1780’s but spread quite slowly in their service. A few examples of this carriage were captured by the US during the War of 1812, and certain officers quickly realized their advantages.

Tousard talks about the Rostaing carriage for mountain use and shows a partial drawing of the carriage, as did DeScheel. The print above is from the more complete illustration at the Musee’ d Armee, Paris. So far we don’t have proof these were used in America. The gun illustrated here was a 2.5 Pdr bronze but DeScheel talks about its use with a one pounder.

As early as 1818 variations of it were built under the direction of Col. Decius Wadsworth. Wade mentions having seen them and that they were actually made with two full-length separate cheeks, bent inward until they almost met at the lunette hole. They must have been a lot like late 19th-century wrought iron carriages in configuration. The 1818 trial carriages were considered too radical and rejected by authorities in favor of continuing the Gribeauval system.

These early carriages were photographed during the Civil War, at the gate to the Dearborn Arsenal, Dearborn, Michigan. They are quite different from each other. The massive hubs of the gun on the left have been seen in one other CW image, on a limber used by Confederates. Photo courtesy, Dearborn Historical Commission Archives.

Old Betsey served with distinction in 1813 at Ft. Stephenson, Ohio. She was found in an arsenal in the 1850’s and donated to Fremont , Ohio by act of Congress. Her carriage appears to have been assembled at the time of donation from the lower part of a Washington Arsenal carriage of the early 1830’s. The lack of well made trunnion plates and cap squares suggests the upper carriage was a late fabrication. However, the limber and ammo chest were not always displayed outdoors and when first seen by the author in the 1970’s, may have still been mostly original. Photo on the left was taken during a 1980 restoration by a local craftsman. Photos by the author.

Two beautiful examples of the American version of the French Valee’ system are owned by the Concord Battery, Concord, Mass. The official conversion date to the stock trail carriage is listed as 1836 and these are dated 1837. Note the lack of “step” in the trail profile, low profile pointing ring, sponge chain hasp and key, wider and heavier lunette, all iron axle, rope hooks (bricole hooks) on linch washers and on the cheeks; no crosshead on elevating screw, tires are nailed on. (metal plates are modern repair) Tradition has it that the bronze tubes replaced the original iron ones. Note the elevating screw box has been moved forward, suggesting that the original tube may have been elevated by a yoke bolted through the knob.

 The French were quick to realize the advantages of the stock-trail carriages after their defeat at Waterloo in 1815. They introduced a stock-trail system in 1827 which was improved over the British design; it was known as the Valee’ system, and it became the basis for the American system, with many changes, which Mordecai published in 1849.

In 1829 Lt. Daniel Tyler, an American artillery officer, was sent to France for the purpose of “completely documenting” the Gribeauval system. He did what he was told, but in addition brought back information on the new Valee’ system In 1832 some carriages were built at Washington Arsenal from Tyler’s information, but they were never field tested and adopted as such.

Capt. Alfred Mordecai traveled for a year in Europe between 1833 and 1834. Although on a personal quest to overcome a lost love affair, he got into collecting military information and was able to get more complete engineering drawings of the French gun carriages, which undoubtedly became the basis for the American stock-rail system adopted in 1836. In 1839 Mordecai was appointed to an Ordnance Board which had the task of developing our first complete ordnance system. Although he is known as the pre-eminent soldier-scientist of his day and contributed a great deal both before and after this 10 year effort, it is his final published compendium, Artillery for the Land Service of the United States, 1849, that keeps his name a household word to students of historic artillery.

From surviving examples we see a fairly rapid evolution between 1837 and the early 1840’s in gun carriage details. The earliest examples are very close copies of the French 1827 pattern carriages, but very soon details like rope hooks on linch washers and cheeks were dropped.

Maneuvering these carriages by hand with ropes was less important to Americans; by 1849 such details were generally dropped from field guns but remained elsewhere. Ease of manufacture was more important to Americans. Linch pins became round rather than rectangular sometime after 1838. Spokes became simpler in shape, dropping the flat outer face, sometime after 1847. (This characteristic remained on French spokes through WWI. )

Two early Watervliet carriages have survived in Maine. This carriage is dated 1831 and is serial number 133. It was photographed in 1982. Although the original wheels were long gone and the replacements in shaky condition, about 90% of the trail and axle wood had survived to that time. Note this carriage has a wood body over an iron axle tree, rather than the heavy all iron axle of the Gribeauval system. Trunnion caps are hinged. The trail has rope hooks, no trail handles. Some of the features , including the decorative filials on the cheek straps may have been British carryovers, although the use of iron elevating screws and evidence of trail cuts for the ammo storage boxes mark them as Gribveauval influenced. Photo by author.

Circa 1839? Conversion of an “Old Style” carriage. Army Regulations in 1839 mentioned field carriages as either Old Style or New Style or Converted. The carriage illustrated here is believed to represent an effort to recycle the late Gribeauval hardware. Trunnion plates are dated 1834, serial No. 209 and match the 1831 dated carriages in Maine, except they were cut off. Wedge shaped roundels adapt them to stock trail hardware, similar to Valee system carriages, but rather light. The elevating gear box is reforged to adapt to the stock trail Restored in 1976 by the author, traded to the National Park Service.

In 1861 Allegheny Arsenal records make reference to placing contract orders for 6 pdr. Gun carriages “with the new changes.” These changes may refer to the use of 12 pdr. axle trees on 6 pdr. carriages for use with rifled guns; elimination of the sharp step in the trail of the 6 pdr. Gun, a feature that was not on early French pattern carriages; perhaps also use of bent down elevating screw handles; possibly even the reinforced lock chain design although we have always suspected that “double loop” lockchain was a bit later in the war or issued as replacement parts. Exactly when each of these changes occurred, and where, is presently unknown.

The writer would like to appeal to The Artilleryman readers for assistance in two areas to help fill in the gaps. Outdoor photography began to become fairly common after 1860 and from time to time photos of early “town cannon” or guns serving as ornaments have appeared.

I hope any reader having a photograph that may date before 1890 of a local cannon carriage which may exhibit early characteristics similar to those in the photos with this article, will please contact me. I will be most happy to pay for high quality photographic copies. Also, a few Civil War photos of local recruiting or mustering camps may show cannon with early carriages.

In addition to old photos, I would appreciate assistance in developing a checklist of surviving early carriages, whole or partial, confirmed or suspected. A survey form is included with this article, and it can be copied and filled out and mailed to me. If at all possible, photos should be attached to the back of the form—they will be most helpful.

The most important information on an early carriage will be its arsenal of manufacture, date and serial number. This information is usually stamped on the front vertical surface of trunnion plates. It is also usually obscured by thick paint. It is mandatory that anyone collecting this information obtain informed consent from the owner or custodian of a carriage before removing any paint to look for markings. This is very important. These markings can be very fragile. Removing 150 years of protective paint will expose them to deterioration and eventual loss.

Immediate repainting with suitable primers and topcoats is essential for preservation of the markings. The paint should not be removed by scraping or sharp tools, but by suitable paint removers, used properly. Heavy paste type removers like “Peel Away”, which is popular with historic house restorers, usually lift up to 30 coats of paint in a single application when allowed to set 24 hours with its paper cover. A gentle washing is all that is usually needed after the heavy residue is pulled off.

Interestingly enough, this increasingly popular new product is suspiciously like a description found in a World War I era artillery manual for stripping guns prior to repainting. It is very caustic; use maximum care.

If it is not possible to obtain markings, I would still be very interested in having a photograph of the carriage if it appears to have any characteristics of an original arsenal-built carriage.

This carriage is classic and agrees in all details with the published 1849 drawings. Markings on the left trunnion plate are: No. 284 1848 in two lines; on the right trunnion plate “US Arsenal Watervliet” in three lines. The author has seen a set of 1858 dated Watervliet trunnion plates which has a serial number exactly 100 higher. This might suggest that an average of 10 carriages of this size per year were built at Watervliet over the period.

This 1861 10 pdr Parrott and its carriage were issued to Battery A, 1st Michigan light Artillery in the first week of August 1861. It served through the war with Battery A and since it was state owned, came back to Michigan in 1865. In 1898 it was placed in a cemetery as seen here. On November 11, 1942, it went into a massive patriotic scrap drive.

The carriage shows features which were once thought to be “late wartime” features: bent elevating screw handles; no step cut in the trail; and a reinforced double loop lockchain. The fact that this carriage was issued in August 1861 suggests the modification of the No. 1 field gun carriage had started by early 1861 at some arsenals.

I would consider it very unusual for any government arsenal-built carriage made in the several decades before the Civil War, not to have markings on the trunnion plates. . Most wartime carriages will probably be unmarked, especially if built by contractors.

Contractor-made carriages may have name plates with dates attached, but nowadays many reproduction carriages have had repro contractor plates attached for decoration. At least one contractor, Bidwell of Pittsburgh, Pa., marked his trunnion plates on top, just ahead of the eyebolt where the marking is usually covered by the cap square. A few carriages have been seen with dates and arsenal markings in different places. Dates have been seen. Arsenal markings on trail plates between the pointing rings have been seen for the US Arsenal at St. Louis and for one or more Confederate carriages.

In many cases it may be difficult for the average observer to determine if woodwork is original or not. Wheels will almost always be replaced or rebuilt one or more times if the carriage has been outdoors constantly. Sometimes fragments of original trails have survived outdoors, almost miraculously. In these cases of remarkable preservation, one has to suspect that the builders of the 1830’s and 40’s carriages knew something about wood selection and preparation that is presently unknown to the rest of us.


(About the author: Matt Switlik is author of The More Complete Cannoneer, now in its third edition. Information may be directed to him via our "Contact Us" page.)