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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

How to: Build a replica Cannon Part Five

Updated: Feb 15

The Gunners' Equipment

In Part One, where we established the background to building our replica cannon. In describing the firing drills a number of pieces of equipment were needed for the crew to serve the gun. In Part Five, therefore, we explore how to recreate the gunners' equipment. Each item will be addressed in the order a gun crew would use them, starting with the sponge.

The Sponge was a long staff, often combined with a rammer, that has a piece of sheep's fleece or lambskin wound about its end. Kept wet, this is used to scour the cannon after it had fired and before it was charged with fresh powder. The cleaning extinguished any spark or fire remaining in the piece to avoid the premature ignition of the powder charge. Sponges were the most commonly used cannon cleaning items.

To recreate a sponge we used a 20 mm diameter (Ø) pinewood dowel for the staff. The dowel was given a dark mahogany stain to complete the look. As an interim measure, the staff was inserted the full length of a masonry paint roller. The roller was fixed in place with a screw in the end of the dowel. This solution is less than perfect and will be replaced when a more realistic alternative becomes available.

The Wad-screw or Worm was formed of two points of iron in the shape of a corkscrew. It was used to extract the wad out of the gun. It is also used when the cannon had to be unloaded or dirt removed.

Although not to the correct scale, we chose to recreate the worm by using the appropriate corkscrew shaped tool from a vintage wooden chimney sweep's set, as shown below.

The Lantern or Ladle served to carry the powder into the barrel where a bagged powder charge was not used. Without the ability to turn wood, sourcing an appropriately sized and shaped ladle has proven difficult. As it would be an interesting object to display, when one is purchased or fashioned, then we will publish an update.

When performing "gun drills" in schools, we did not think using loose powder was a practical measure. Instead, we decided that, when practising the firing sequence, it would easier for schoolchildren to load bagged charges of "gunpowder". Individual cylindrical bags were thus made of sewn canvas stuffed tightly with kapok. Each bag measured 200 mm long by 100 mm Ø.

The Powder Bucket was used to ferry gunpowder from the ship's magazine to each gun. Such magazines were built below the water line so that, in the case of fire or other emergency, the magazines could be flooded. Unsurprisingly, an open flame was never allowed inside the powder magazine.

In the Age of Sail, the ferrying of gunpowder was typically performed by boy seamen aged between 12 to 14 years. Such "powder boys" or "powder monkeys" were selected for their speed and height. Being shorter, they could move more easily in the limited space between decks and could protect themselves behind the ship's gunwale from enemy sharpshooters.

To minimize the risk of fires and explosions, loose gunpowder or powder cartridges were carried in sealed containers. In the first quarter of 19th-century the Royal Navy used staved wood buckets covered in canvas inside and out. Some of the surviving examples are decorated with a painted and gilt accented Royal coat of arms. Although the one shown right is missing its lid, its leather carrying handle is still attached. Rather than purchasing an original we set out to fashion a barrel-like powder bucket to carry six of the previously described bagged charges.

From our research the dimensions of original buckets vary, but those examples we have seen are generally between 410 mm and 440 mm (16" and 18") tall, with a diameter of approximately 200 mm (8"). To minimise weight, and given that the result will be covered in canvas, the barrel body was recreated using a 250 mm (internal) diameter cardboard tube. Additional sections cut from the tube were glued in place to create the wide reinforcing hoops pictured above left (the string simply held the bands in place as the glue set). The resulting 'bucket' was disguised beneath a canvas covering, which was stained to resemble leather. Adding a plywood lid, stained to match, and rope handles, as shown above right, finished the look.

The Rammer was a round piece of wood, commonly called a "box", which served to drive home the powder and ball to the breech. It was fastened to a stick twelve feet long, for the pieces from twelve to thirty-three pounders, and ten feet long for the eight and four pounders.

For simplicity, we chose to recreate a combination sponge and rammer. So, to the opposite end of the sponge staff, a turned wooden mortar was repurposed to create the aforementioned box. A 20 mm Ø hole was bored through its base to accommodate the sponge's wooden dowel. The mortar bowl was then sealed using a plywood blanking disc cut to size and glued in place. The box was stained to match.

The priming iron is a pointed iron rod, used to clear the touch (vent) hole of burnt powder or dirt. It is also used to pierce the cartridge so the priming powder when lit ignites the main charge.

We used a 1.5 mm mild steel rod, painted black to look like iron. One end was given a blunted point, while the other end was looped to which a leather wrist strap was added.

The primer contained at least one pound of gunpowder. It was used to prime the vent hole with gunpowder which, when lit, ignited the main charge in the cannon's breech. For our purposes, priming the vent can be simulated by using a pre-owned powder horn, albeit without the powder.

The botefeux was used to hold a winding of match with which to fire the cannon. This may be a stick two or three feet long with a split to hold one end of the match.

The quoin is used to elevate or depress the cannon. Typically, therefore, the quoin is a wooden wedge that lowers the barrel the further it is pushed forward.

The version shown right is a simple 5 mm plywood box cut, glued and pinned to create the wedge shape. The handle is a short piece of dowel topped with a wooden drawer knob. The "quoin" was painted to match the colour of the gun carriage.

Next... In the final part of the build, we explore how to recreate the gun tackle. Please bear with us as this may take some time to come to fruition...


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