Canister Shot


an HMS American Cultures collaborative production

Overview

Canister shot, similar to case shot and grapeshot, was a type of anti-personnel artillery round fired from a cannon (typically smooth bore and muzzle loading) used primarily in naval and land battles of the 18th and 19th centuries. Canister shot was composed of a hollow iron or tin can, cylindrical in shape, that held round iron or lead balls that were packed in sawdust. However, when the supply of the balls were low, nails, scrap iron, wire, and other metals were used as ammunition. The balls, or shots, were typically similar in size and shape to modern golf balls. The shots were usually packed with sawdust to increase the mass of the artillery round, and to prevent crowding of the shots after the shots were dispersed. On the back of the shell was cloth bag filled with the gun powder used to fire the round, and on the bottom of the canister shot was a wood or metal sabot, which helped to guide the shell when it was fired. In contrast to the standard solid shot rounds that would simply explode upon contact, canister shots acted like a large shotgun, being that when the round was fired the explosive force would brake apart the shell causing the shots packed inside fly out in a conical formation, creating a lethal, wide ranging blast radius that effectively decimated advancing infantry when fired at close range.

Canister Shot
Canister Shot

Canister shot. Photo credit: __www.thepirateking.com/.../ cannon_projectiles.htm.__

Beginnings

The use of artillery rounds that project small shots dates back hundreds of years to around the 17th century, when there was use of the grapeshot. Grapeshot was a broad ranging term, referring to any artillery round that fired small shots, or balls. Grapeshot was the precursor of the canister shot from the 18th and 19th centuries, and because of this, the two are similar in many ways. Grapeshot typically consisted of several canvas or cloth bags that held small iron balls, or consisted of small iron balls being held between metal discs, or plates. In the case of "quilted grapeshot", the bags would be held together by wire or chains, and because of this, the round resembled a bunch of grapes (hence the name "grapeshot"). Alternatively, another type of grapeshot was when iron balls were stacked on a number of metal plates, and had a central bolt running through the plates holding them together. Tin case shot, or canister, was originally considered a variant of grapeshot, and not its own type round. Around 1745, the light artillery in many armies was introduced as its own class, differentiated from the standard artillery such as fixed cannons or cannons on ships. Canister shot became more favorable to use for light artillery than grapeshot, because it was less expensive to produce and much more compact in size. After canister became more favorable to use, it was widely considered its own round, and not merely a subset of grapeshot. However, grapeshot was still continued to be used, especially by navies for the purpose of destroying masts or riggingof ships.

cannon_grape.jpg
cannon_grape.jpg

Grapeshot. Photo credit: __www.thepirateking.com/.../ cannon_projectiles.htm__

Range

Canister shot was not very accurate, because it was never intended to be. Unlike spherical or conical solid shot rounds, which had an effective accurate range anywhere between 1700 and 2300 yards, canister shot was typically used against infantry at distances of 100 to 400 yards, ideally 250 yards or less, though it could be used up to 600 yards. Many times, once the enemy came within 150 yards, the artillery crew would load 2 or even 3 canister shots into the cannon at one time, thus increasing the amount of shots in the air, and the amount of potential casualties at such a close distance. Experienced gunners would use the terrain to their advantage. By firing at the ground in front of the advancing infantry, the balls would ricochet of the ground and create a wider killing zone, because the conical formation of the canister balls would become flattened. Because of the deadliness and effectiveness of canister, it has been attributed to more deaths in the civil war due to artillery than any other type of artillery round. The minimum range of canister was a few feet away from the muzzle of the cannon where it was fired from. The width of the blast of canister shot varied, like the range, but dozens of men in lines could be cut down from a single blast of canister, where as solid shot rounds only had a blast radius of a few feet from where it would land.

CwWeekend-cannon-H.jpg
CwWeekend-cannon-H.jpg

Artillery crew firing a cannon. Photo credit: __wadehouse.wisconsinhistory.org/.../ Cannon.aspx__.

Famous Uses of Canister in the Civil War

Canister shot was used in many battles during the American Civil War, though it played a key role in the outcome of some. One such battle was the Battle of Gettysburg. During the first day of fighting during the Battle of Gettysburg, canister was used by the Union to hold off advancing Confederate infantry. Lieutenant James Stewart's Battery B of the 2nd U.S. Artillery was located atop Seminary Ridge. Canister was used to suppress the advancement of Confederate troops under the command of Alfred M. Scales. The balls from the canister rounds fired from Seminary Ridge skipped through the valley below and ricocheted off of the rocks, causing a wide killing zone, and forcing Scales's men to be forced to take cover. Also during the Battle of Gettysburg, canister was used to repress Pickett's Charge. The Union men, lead under General George G. Meade, fired canister with devastating results. Hundreds of Confederate men were cut down while trying to cross the field and subsequently getting over the fence at Emmitsburg Road. Some accounts say that once the Confederates got close enough to the Union batteries, about ten yards, double canister was ordered. Many accounts have been written about the carnage canister caused, blowing bodies of men to bits. These are only two examples of the many occasions in which canister shot was used to devastating effect.

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913-004-2F9DEBCC.jpg

Painting of the Battle of Gettysburg. Photo credit: __www.paranormal-happenings.com/ famoushauntings.htm__.

Online Sources:

"Weapons of the American Civil War." civilwarhome.com 25 May 2009 <http://www.civilwarhome.com/weapons.htm>.


"Canister Shot." Wikipedia. 25 May 2009 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canister_shot.

"Canister Shot." geocities.com. 25 May 2009 <http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/woods/3501/ammuniti.htm>.


"Artillery, Arms, and Ammunition." civilwar.bluegrass.net 25 May 2009 <http://civilwar.bluegrass.net/ArtilleryAndArms/canister.html>.