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.

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