Recently, Colonial Williamsburg has been running an advertisement in which living history volunteers are firing a small Revolutionary War cannon while the men at the muzzle of the piece are standing across from each other between the barrel and the wheels. I shudder every time I see this. It violates the most basic of safety rules when firing a piece. Even with a blank round, they are risking a chance of getting powder burned. Hollywood artillery firing is generally inaccurate and very dangerous.
Basic Safety Rules for Firing Civil War Artillery
1. Do not smoke around the gun.
2. Do not look down the muzzle at anytime.
3. Place the guns in battery with 9 – 14 yard intervals between the wheels of each gun.
a. Cannons recoil, some more violently than others.
b. Cannons bounce – sometimes up and down, sometimes from one side to the other, or both.
4. Never stand near the muzzle when firing. The men handling the loading of the gun - #1 and #2 – should stand clear of the wheels and back of the muzzle so that the muzzle blast does not burn their facial hair off, or worse.
5. When sighting the piece, the gunner should never straddle the trail. In the movies, it looks neat but in reality, the gun’s recoil would severely injure the gunner should it fire prematurely. Stand to the left side of the trail to adjust the elevation and sight the gun.
6. Use friction primers to ignite the charge, not torches.
7. When the #4 man goes to snap the lanyard, make sure he turned away from the gun.
8. Make sure everyone is clear of the piece before firing.
9. Sponge down the bore to extinguish any smoldering embers and run the worm down the tube to remove any unburned flannel from the powder charge.
10. Do not rapid fire. The tube needs to cool between rounds to prevent accidental firing. Even during the Civil War, gunners preferred loosing one shot per minute and at the most two.
While these safety tips are not all inclusive, they need to be practiced when servicing a piece whether the crew is firing live rounds or blanks.
Basic Safety Rules for Firing Muzzle Loading Muskets or Rifled Muskets
1. Do not smoke on the firing line.
2. Do not stand with the muzzle under your chin or with your hand reading on top of it.
3. Do not ever look down the muzzle.
4. Do not stand with the barrel resting in the crook of your arm.
5. When preparing to load place the weapon in front of you with the ramrod toward you, not away from you.
6. Before loading, spring the rammer: remove it from the stock with two fingers and drop it down the barrel. You should get a little bounce out of it and hear some kind of metallic sound.
7. When handling the rammer use only two fingers to draw it, ram the cartridge, and return it. Do not use your entire hand when ramming a cartridge. If it fires, you will get seriously hurt.
8. Never return the rammer with your palm.
9. Do not pound the round to seat it. It will damage the round, which will affect its accuracy.
10. Do not prime or cap the piece until you are ready to fire.
11. Never bring the hammer to full cock until you are ready to fire.
12. No matter what – always treat any firearm as if it were loaded. Never assume it is not.
Proper Use of a Powder Flask or Powder Horn
1. Do not prime the piece until you are ready to fire.
2. Pour the powder into a measure not directly down the barrel. If it discharges prematurely, you could be killed. Handle a powder horn or a powder flask with respect.
3. Use only two fingers to pour the charge down the barrel.