Colonial Weapons System


As important as the cannon is the vehicle to carry it: a two-wheeled cart that transports, supports, and stores the weapon and its accoutrements. Wheelwright John Boag has the task of construction.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. At Colonial Williamsburg, gunsmiths, founders, and other tradesmen are recreating an infantry cannon. John Boag and his team are hard at work constructing the limber and carriage that will bear it. John joins me now to talk about building this specialized vehicle.

It took me three forevers to find out what a limber was. Ah, what is it in wheelwright work?

John Boag: It’s basically a cart, a two-wheeled vehicle that is used to haul all the extra stuff that you can’t tie on or pack on to the gun carriage itself.

Lloyd: Now, the gun carriage, if I have read all this material correctly, is intended, when you roll the three-pounder into place to go into battle, everything you need is there somewhere. There’s shot, all your covers, all your cleaning tools, is right there.

John: That’s right. It’s pretty much like a modern weapons system or platform. You’ve got everything at hand to not only fight the gun, clean the gun, you know, extra ammunition, but stuff you might need if you need to abandon the gun quickly. Big nails called spikes and a hammer to block the touchhole in the gun so that your enemy can’t use it.

Lloyd: Ok, so that’s what “spiking the gun” means. You drive a spike into the touchhole so it won’t work. You can’t fire it. I also noticed that there are parts – I guess it’s the limber – that if you put them together just right, you have a 12-foot ladder.

John: Right. Well, it’s parts of the limber and what they call the sidearms, like the rammer and the swab that are staffs of wood that you actually reach down into the gun barrel to clean it or to push the powder and shot home. You lash them all together and yeah, you have a ladder.

Lloyd: Actually, when you read the material, you really sort of admire the cleverness with which they put this thing together. It does nine things.

John: Right. And that’s really what they were driving at. When these guns and the limber and the carriages were designed, the date’s right on the gun – it’s 1776. They were thinking that they had a problem, I think, over in England at that time. They remembered the situation that they were dealing with during the French and Indian War, and it was a battlefield scenario that was unlike anything in Europe or in England. It was, you know, small units of men, small battlefields, broken terrain. So they had to build something completely different to deal with that new environment.

Lloyd: Now, three-pounders were small, obviously. But there were several of them. What was the purpose of all these three-pounders?

John: Well, you have the gun itself comes in two models. One called the Pattison model, or simply what we call the first pattern. It’s simply basically a gun that looks very similar to everything else. Then for some reason – and we don’t know why – an order for a different pattern gets sent over to the Verbruggens, who are doing the casting. It’s a model that is very different. It kind of is 50 years ahead of its time. It’s devoid of all the decorations that a typical 18th-century cannon barrel has. So it’s really a step forward in design.

So, the two guns are basically the same. They weigh almost the same, they do the same job. The carriages, though, are pretty different. The Pattison carriage is rigged to be picked up by eight men and moved rapidly around the battlefield. It also is designed to be torn apart and packed on three animals to be moved down horse trails. So it’s designed to be taken in very narrow little areas.

The other carriage, the one we’re building, is more similar to the traditional field carriage, where it’s pulled by a horse that’s attached to the limber, and the gun is attached to the limber. So it’s more traditional in nature.

Lloyd: So, infantrymen wouldn’t carry it?

John: You could in a pinch, but it’s designed mostly to be pulled by people. There’s drag ropes that you would pull off your firing line a number of infantrymen and have them pull this gun forward. You know, they’re always looking forward.

Lloyd: We know historically that some of these were stationed in Virginia. Were they popular?

John: They seemed to be handy. I don’t know how popular they were. They were with the Queen’s Rangers, who are patrolling around Williamsburg within five miles, at one point. They didn’t seem to, you know, be a hindrance, particularly to fast-moving troops.

Some were mounted troops, some were just tramping along. They had their advantages, because of their lightness. They could go places quickly. They were used by both sides. We weren’t, the Americans weren’t casting and making their own carriages and guns, they were stealing or capturing British ones.

Lloyd: Perfectly acceptable way to get weapons, is capture the other guys’ and now it’s yours. That raises a question though. If you, let’s say we capture some of the Queen’s Rangers and we’ve got two three-pound cannon. Where do we now get the shot for the cannon?

John: Oh, you could cast that pretty easily.

Lloyd: Oh, you could?

John: Just make the right mold, that’s not a big deal.

Lloyd: So once you’ve got the cannon, getting something to shoot out of it would be fairly straightforward. I read in some of the material that it was supposed to be a big deal that the wheels for the carriage had 10 spokes. What does that signify?

John: Well, we’ve been talking a lot about that in the shop. The only thing that we can come up with is, it’s government issue. Ten spokes instead of 12, that’s faster to make, and cheaper to produce.

Lloyd: Ten instead of 12, you, every so many spokes, you’ve saved enough spokes for another wheel.

John: Remember, they’re building these fast. They’ve got to get them over here pretty quickly.

Lloyd: Was that the sort of pressure, was it common that you had to build these right now?

John: Well there was, in England, there’s a little town called Woolich. It’s just a few miles away from London. That’s where the Royal Artillery was stationed, and that’s where the guns were cast, that’s where the carriages were made. There’s still a Royal Artillery base there today. It appears that manufacture was going on all the time, but I’m sure that when it came to major conflicts, that the pace sped up somewhat. The demand was there.

Lloyd: Did you know, or do you know, every way that a carriage and limber and all that other material was built and put together?

John: Most of it is very clear. We have these incredible watercolors that are almost photographic in detail. There are some missing links. We really don’t know how some things go together. We’re hoping that as we approach the project, and get into them, it will become clear as we’re doing the work.

The shafts that the horse are attached to the limber, for instance, are detachable from the limber. You can attach the shafts directly to the gun and pull it in a manner that they refer to as a galloper. We don’t know how you attach the limber to the gun. In the drawings, it’s all underneath the tarpaulin that’s wrapped around the gun, so we can’t see it.

Lloyd: Sooner or later, like a Rubix cube, it’s got to sort of become clear that this is what we have to do now.

John: That’s what we’re hoping for, that someone will go, “Oh, that’s pretty easy. Just do it that way.”

Lloyd: Is there any part of it that has sort of left you shaking your head and saying, “That doesn’t seem right?” Or does all of it more or less make sense?

John: Well, we’re real lucky in our shop. Everything that we’re building, with the exception of parts of the limber, we’ve done before. So this is not foreign territory, unlike the foundry and the brickmakers.

The foundry’s work on the gun barrel, a lot of what they’re doing is new technology to them. Our brickmakers have also made the furnace, and it was a hope that it would work. They were the ones, and are the ones that are under the most scrutiny and pressure.

Lloyd: How long does it take you to build a carriage and limber if you could do it all at once and didn’t have to do anything else?

John: Each wheel is about 45 man hours, so in a four-man shop, that’s a little over a day if you’re working a 10-hour day. These things go pretty quickly. There’s only six other pieces beyond the pair of wheels. They’re pretty straightforward.

Lloyd: You’ve got doors because you have to store the ammunition shot inside.

John: Yeah, they’re little boxes. Our weave room is making linen canvas, our tailors will sew up the canvas to the specifications that we have from the time period. Each round solid shot comes with a flannel bag attached to it with powder in it.

So it’s, you don’t have to pour the powder in the gun barrel and then drop the ball in. It all comes as a package. So our millinery will be sewing up the flannel pouches. So there’s a lot of folks involved with the project that …

Lloyd: You wouldn’t think of. You don’t think of a millinery shop sewing up packages of ammunition, it’s not a vision that you get.

John: It’s, there’s only actually a very few shops that aren’t involved. We’ve got, the house carpenters were involved with setting up the area where we’re pouring the gun, some of the structures around that. The silversmith won’t be involved though, and the cabinetmaker won’t be involved, but most trade shops are, to one degree or another.

Lloyd: Would you want to do it a second time?

John: Oh yeah, I’m always thinking of new stuff. That’s really why we’re here, you know. We use, or we view, trade shops quite often as areas where we can see something from the 18th century and go, “Gee whiz, we can make that.”

Then, sometimes we don’t know how to go about it, but we just start trying and before you know it, we learn things about how things were made in the 18th century. Kind of like a technological think tank.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *