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Mascoutah, IL: Canister Spread Plotted in Archaeology Experiment

June 23, 2012 – June 24, 2012 all-day

Mascoutah, IL: Canister Spread Plotted in Archaeology Experiment

On Saturday, June 23, the sound of live canister fire echoed across a farm field south of New Baden, Illinois. The occasion was an archaeology experiment conducted by Co. G member Bill Baehr for his masters dissertation in Battlefield Archaeology from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. The gun was an original 1864 12-pdr. Napoleon provided by Battery I, 1st Minnesota Light Artillery. Bill’s experiment was to plot the spread of canister shot to provide baseline information for interpreting findings on Civil War battlefields. A number of Turners assisted with conducting the experiment.

Live canister shot.

A live canister shot is fired during Bill Baehr’s archaeology experiment on June 23, 2012.

Seventeen canister rounds, including one double canister, were fired from the gun with the barrel at various known elevations and over various known terrain types on a pre-determined range. The canister rounds were constructed to be as close as possible to the original, and gunpowder used conformed closely to contemporary powder in amounts and explosive force. The range was then surveyed and the shot recovered and recorded using standard archaeological techniques. Computer plotting of GPS-marked positions was used to produce a database of visual patterns. It was supposed that the shot would form an irregular ellipse; however the size and shape of the ellipses were unknown until the results were plotted.

Plotting the position of the muzzle by GPS.

Bill Baehr plots the position of the gun muzzle with a GPS before firing.

Bill’s team recovered and recorded just over two fifths of the shot (42%) and two thirds of the canister sides, tops, and bases (66%).

A live canister shot fired from the Napoleon.

A crew from Battery I, 1st Minnesota Light Artillery, fire a canister round for the experiment from their original Napoleon.

Bill found that canister balls traveled farther than was initially thought and would continue to do damage far beyond the nominal range. This was evidenced by tree limbs in the forest that had been gouged or cut in half by passing shot. He recorded shot as far as 160 yards into the forest (710 yards from the gun); beyond that distance, the search was curtailed because of poison ivy and a lack of time. Bill is convinced shot would have been recovered from deeper in the forest had the search continued.

Dust kicked up by canister shot.

Rob Glenn of Company M, 1st Missouri Light Artillery, watches dust kicked up by canister balls glancing off the hard field after firing.

Bill offered the following results that should be of interest to reenactors. Canister spreads to a maximum of about 150 yards across the front of the gun when it is fired (75 yards either side of axis of shot at about 600 yards from the muzzle) and can travel at least 725 yards. At 100 yards, the spread is 11 yards wide, and at 300 yards the spread is over 25 yards wide.

Artifacts of the experiment.

Mike Watson prepared a display of recovered canister parts from the experiment for his Ordnance Museum.

Since 50 men occupy a frontage of 25 yards (18 inches per man), and there are two ranks in a standard infantry formation, that puts as many as 100 men in the way of a canister shot at 300 yards. On average, nine shot from each canister will strike within the “kill zone” on each 300 yard shot, probably penetrating the first man, and passing to the second. (Canister balls are nearly 1.5 inches in diameter, and have plenty of mass.) This leaves as many as 18 men incapacitated by each canister shot (a potential kill rate of 18%). At 100 yards, seven shot and two pieces of the canister hit within the 11 yard “kill zone.” That means out of 44 men in the ranks exposed, as many as 18 men will be incapacitated (a potential kill rate of 41%).

If the artillery switches to double canister, those same 44 men will face 54 balls and four pieces of the canister at 100 yards (a potential kill rate of 140%), and the 100 men at 300 yards will be hit with 33 canister balls (a potential kill rate of 66%).

These numbers of course, are widely variable. The listed percentages assume the balls pass through both the front and rear rank soldiers. They might hit one, or the other, or pass through a temporarily empty piece of air. They might also hit file closers, musicians, and officers. Some men will also be hit by more than one projectile, reducing the number of total men hit, especially at close range. Still, this experiment proves without a doubt that closing on a battery loaded with double canister was a very hazardous proposition during the Civil War.

Bill expressed his thanks to all the Turner Brigade reenactors who helped make this experiment a success: Steve, Lori, and Reth Allen; Randy Baehr; Richard Black; Nate Corley; Rob Glenn; Skip Korte; Carl, Joe, and Sheila Lockwood; Bob Payton; Gary and Anita Quick; Jason Ratermann; Marty Aubuchon; and Dwayne and Kristina Mueller.

See a summary video of the shoot here.

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