American-Made Light Artillery in the Revolution

We have poured five swivels to-day all good and cast four Guns 6 pounders this week which I shall have Bored next week. John Reveley, manager of the Westham Foundry near Richmond, Virginia, 1780

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown historical interpreters fire a 6-pounder battalion gun.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown historical interpreters fire a 6-pounder battalion gun.

During the Revolution both sides made extensive use of artillery.  At the beginning of the war the Patriots had almost no artillery of their own, but Washington used captured British guns from Fort Ticonderoga to drive the British out of Boston in 1776. The Americans eventually developed the capacity to manufacture their own cannon, and they obtained many of the guns they needed from France.  High-quality French siege artillery was the key to the great Franco-American victory at Yorktown in 1781.

For the Americans, however, the most useful artillery pieces were not heavy siege guns, but lighter pieces that could be moved quickly on field carriages.  Mobile field guns traveled with the armies and were used as anti-personnel weapons in battle.  Large numbers of light guns also were needed at sea.  America sent out hundreds of small privateering vessels, each armed with a few light guns, to prey on British shipping.  During the war several American iron foundries got into the cannon-making business, not just to support Continental and state military forces, but to meet the demands of the privateers as well.

One example of a cannon foundry that concentrated on the production of light artillery pieces is Virginia’s Westham Foundry located near Richmond.  By late 1779 the foundry had begun casting cannon for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Westham produced 4- and 6-pounder cannon as well as even smaller swivel guns.  All were cast-iron guns, and none weighed more than about 1,000 pounds. The guns were sought not just for land service with Virginia forces but also for equipping vessels in Virginia’s state navy.  The foundry produced ammunition for these guns as well, including cannon balls and grape and canister shot.

The Westham Foundry wasn’t unique.  Most states had at least one cannon foundry in operation during the war. The foundries certainly didn’t produce guns of the size and quality of the best British and French artillery pieces, and some of these foundries had serious quality control problems. Often American gun founders couldn’t get the raw materials they needed, and skilled labor was always in short supply.  Nevertheless, these fledgling enterprises went a long way towards meeting America’s basic artillery needs during the war and made the American forces less dependent on imported tools of war.

 

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