First of all, let me state for the record that I LOVE the show “American Guns” on the Discovery Channel. I never miss an episode. I find the Wyatt family very interesting, and any show that is about guns (building them, modifying them, trading for them, buying them, selling them) is something that is going to get my attention.
That said, I have a problem with one of the recent episodes titled: “CANNON BALLS/DREAM RUGER” (original air date November 21, 2011). Actually, I have three problems.
My first problem has to do with the scale-sized cannon that Gunsmoke has on its sales floor. The price for this cannon was quoted at $35,000, which is a ridiculous amount of money for that cannon. You can purchase a FULL-SCALE 12-pound Napoleon smoothbore cannon WITH limber cart, limber chest and implements (along with a trailer to transport them all) for less money, so why would one purchase a scale-sized gun for more money than one could get a full scale gun with limber? The Wyatt’s know a great deal about pistols and rifles, but they have a lot to learn about artillery.
Which brings me to my second problem. The good folks at Gunsmoke built a muzzle-loading, black powder cannon that shoots bowling balls for one of its customers. Because they used an oxygen tank for the barrel, which was a clever idea I must admit, and decided to use the existing hole at the base of the tank for the fuse hole to ignite the black powder, they found themselves having to use a VERY unsafe method of loading each round.
Civil War Reenactors, who use muzzle-loading black powder cannons all the time, are very safety conscious. We roll our powder charges in double-thick, heavy-duty aluminum foil so the powder can be loaded and transported safety. Once the powder charge has been rammed down the muzzle, we use a vent prick through the vent hole on the top of the barrel’s breach (back end) to break open the powder charge so the fuse can ignite the powder. Once the cannon has fired, we clean out the barrel carefully with one implement that gets out any of the remaining aluminum foil (called a “worm”), and with another implement that has a wet sponge on the end to extinguish any remaining embers from the previous charge. There is nothing more dangerous than ramming a powder charge down a barrel where there are still burning embers from the previous charge still in the breach. The injuries that can occur from the resulting misfire are so severe that we take extra precautions to make sure this never happens. Many cannon crews even sponge the barrel twice just to make very sure that the cannon can be reloaded safely.
Because the folks at Gunsmoke created a cannon barrel where the vent hole is in the rear of the breach, rather than at the top of the breach, and because they had no implements created to ram the charge down the barrel, they could not use powder charges that were wrapped in foil. Instead, they “threw” a cupful of black powder down the muzzle before each shot. This forced the person putting the black powder into the cannon to be standing in front of the muzzle, rather than to the side which is much safer. Also, because the folks at Gunsmoke had no sponge or other implements that could be used to clean the inside of the barrel between shots, there could have been hot embers still smoldering in the breach when the next charge was thrown in. The powder could have ignited instantly, causing a ball of flame to rush out directly into the face of the person throwing in the powder. For a group of gunsmiths who are very concerned about firearm safety, they created a firearm that could cause serious injury to the person loading it.
My third problem is with the way the barrel was secured to the carriage. The carriage was well built, but it was missing a critical piece of hardware. Protruding from each side of a cannon barrel are two “trunnions,” which are used to connect the barrel to the carriage. There are two notches on either side of the carriage where the trunnions are seated. The notches are cut out of the wood. Civil War artillery carriages have an iron band at the bottom of the notch and above the notch to hold the trunnions in place. These bands are secured with long bolts that provide reinforcement to the wood so the carriage is not damaged when the cannon fires. The folks at Gunsmoke only had a metal band on top of the trunnion to hold the barrel in place, so the wood can easily get damaged and eventually crack as the cannon is fired more and more. This is a much smaller issue than the way the cannon is loaded, but could result in unnecessary damage to the carriage.
The Loyal Train of Artillery Chapter of the United States Field Artillery Association conducts artillery schools around the country every year and produces manuals on artillery safety that are available to the general public (go to ArtilleryPublications.com for more information). Anyone wanting to get involved with muzzle-loading black powder cannons should obtain these manuals and attend these schools to make sure that they are operating the cannon as safely as possible.
As I said before, I love the show “American Guns” and will continue to watch it. But I have a problem with any show that depicts the unsafe construction and operation of muzzle-loading black powder cannons. Muzzle-loading artillery is dangerous — even when firing only blank charges. The safety issues increase considerably when firing live ammunition, even when that ammunition is only a bowling ball. I hope that, should the folks at Gunsmoke decide to make another cannon or sell more cannons in the future, they consult muzzle-loading black powder artillery experts before taking on a project that could have disastrous consequences to the gun owner and spectators. Cannons are not like other firearms, and only those trained in their use and safety should ever operate or be in possession of one.