British Artillery – Confusion in Histories

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Armies >> British Army >> British Artillery Equipment >> British Artillery – Confusion in Histories


The standard artillery reference works are dry discussions of the physicality of the ordnance. Unfortunately, they do not fully address elements that can lead to confusion and misrepresentations in histories. Historians often have to select between slightly conflicting accounts of the events. The most complete account may not be the most accurate in all details. Often these problems are not visible until multiple histories are compared to each other and only then do the discrepancies appear. The difficulty is compounded by the need to work in several languages at the same time. Handwritings need to be deciphered with the form and shape of numerals particularly chaotic. There are early printer errors that can be passed on for generations. Today, digital libraries and the scanning of the original source documents offer unique opportunities to verify the narratives.

In historical documents, especially correspondence, there can be considerable sloppiness around naming conventions or the actual “size” of the ordnance. This loose language or slang was understood at the time it was written, but those meanings are now cloudy. Then there is the problem of human error. When Montcalm first describes his victory at Oswego (1756), the bronze and iron descriptors are badly jumbled. A consequence of the jumbling was the "invention" of pieces that did not exist ― e.g., British iron coehorn mortars. Corrected inventories were not sent forward until a few days later, but the first letters now dominate the histories. In the case of Oswego, only by examining six documents, including a British document, can the true inventory be validated. Histories have a strong tendency to "include" ordnance that cannot be identified via the standard artillery references. In this regard, histories can and often inflate the types of ordnance present by adding ordnance that really should be referenced under another name or by identifying the same ordnance under two different names. The exceptions to this rule are the iron 8-inch and 4 2/5-inch howitzers that appear in North America. These howitzers are absent from all the standard British artillery reference manuals including Hughes (1969) and McConnell (1988). British howitzers of this period are commonly thought of as being cast only as bronze, not iron. At least five 8-inch iron howitzers are seen in New York between 1755 and 1757. These guns repeatedly show up in various British inventories and correspondences without any additional comment. Additional pieces seemed to be in Boston. During the Combat of Lake George (September 1755), one of these howitzers burst. Iron 8-inch howitzers were captured by Montcalm at Fort Oswego (1756) and Fort William Henry (1757). Two 8-inch iron howitzers are seen in the stores of Fort Edward (September 1757). Four 4 2/5-iron howitzers were captured at Oswego in 1756. Although there is a chance that these howitzers were older British patterns, obsolete by the time of the Seven Years' War, all these iron howitzers appear to be cast at American foundries, not British. William Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts, writes of casting ordnance in Massachusetts for use in colonial led expeditions (June 1755). There is a letter from General Forbes (17th Foot) to General Amherst detailing his ordnance expenses which includes the cost of purchasing an iron 8-inch howitzer for his expedition against Fort Duquesne (National Archive UK, Amherst Papers, War Office 34/44, June 20, 1758). Forbes had this howitzer purchased in the event the shipping of British brass ordnance failed to arrive in Philadelphia. The British brass ordnance arrived as planned, so this iron howitzer was not included in Forbes’ artillery train. With the ability to cast howitzers, American foundries may also have been casting 8-inch iron mortars, mirroring the 6-inch mortars being cast by the French in Québec (1748). In America, the frequent bursting of iron shell pieces early in a battle or a siege suggests this colonial cast ordnance was not subject to the same proof testing as British ordnance was under the umbrella of the Board of Ordnance, but the British iron mortars at Québec displayed equally poor durability. There is no evidence for the American foundries casting any brass ordnance, a much more expensive metal (See the article on British Howitzers for a more detailed discussion with reference information).

Eighteenth-century French nomenclature and measurements differ from those then used in Britain. In 1750s, 1 Paris inch = 1.066 English inches and 1 Paris foot = 12.789 English inches. There were also differences in the standard of weights; the Parisian French pound weighing some seven percent more than the British pound. In this regard, considerable care has to be taken when reviewing historical campaign documents. The British 10-inch mortar and 9-pdr will be routinely referenced as 9-inch and 8-pdr by the French, respectively. Without any distinction, French army 16-pdrs and French naval 18-pdrs will both be referenced as 18-pdrs by the British. French Canada manufactured mortars and shells of their own design and pattern ― 6-inch mortars (French) but referenced as 7-inch by the British. These mortars were slightly smaller in bore than those made in France. If a piece of ordnance seems to have an unusual or unexpected identifier, there is a good chance the piece is not itself unusual, but there has been a mixing of nomenclatures.

In North America, the French victories at the Monongahela (1755), Oswego (1756), and Fort William Henry (1757) resulted in the capture of British ordnance, including over two dozen brass pieces. Here, the French Canadian ordnance clerks adopt a very esoteric method of accounting that borders on bizarre. The French ordnance clerks do not reference any of the captured pieces as heavy, medium, or light guns, but instead, advance or subtract from the poundage of the gun. For example, captured British heavy 12-pounders are 14-pounders; medium 12-pounders are 12-pounders, and light 12-pounders are 11-pounders. In the correspondence being sent to France by Montcalm and others, the naming convention of the ordnance clerks was widely adopted. Strict mathematical conversions simply will not work here. Although this method may seem to defy common sense, this scheme does succeed in terms of inventory management. Here, the French ordnance clerks were not misidentifying the British ordnance but were simply giving them different names for their own accounting purposes, a protocol that lasted unchanged for four years. Although the French artillery clerks remain relatively consistent in word usage, French army officers reference pieces under either the British naming convention or convert to a French equivalent ― e.g., with captured British 6-pdrs, French correspondence may described them as either 5-pdrs or 6-pdrs. The French capture a number of British 8-inch howitzers, both brass and iron. The four 8-inch brass howitzers captured at the Monongahela (1755) are added to Montcalm's artillery train. Over the next four years, these guns were often referenced as 7-inch howitzers by the French and in subsequent histories. At least two, if not three, of Braddock's 8-inch howitzers were recaptured by the British at Québec in 1759 (Doughty 1901, Vol. VI, Page 128). When the British recaptured the guns, the British correspondence correctly used 8-inch as the identifier and connected the gun to Braddock (Doughty 1901, Vol. IV, Page 332). The British brass 18-pounder captured at Oswego (1756) was added to Montcalm's artillery train as a 19-pounder. In 1760, the British recapture this same 18-pounder gun at the Isle-au-Aux (south of Québec) and being an older pattern do not recognize it as being British or simply do not fully examine the piece. In the British correspondence listing the pieces captured at the Isle-au-Aux, this gun is listed as a 19-pounder without any ties to its British origin.

Important: With mortars and howitzers, the names and descriptors used by the British were not standardized, not even within the Board of Ordnance or the Royal Artillery. The 8-inch mortar or howitzer can be referred to as 8-inch (bore reference), 7 3/4-inch (shell size), or often 7-inch. The juggling of these terms can occur even within the same historical document or letter; it is most prominent in combined inventory documents (multiple locations, line items for both 8-inch and 7-inch pieces). Why ordnance clerks would adopt such apparent sloppiness is uncertain. Typically, ordnance clerks were incredibly detailed and precise in their accounting. In the case of combined inventories, it does allow the “tracing back” of numbers to the individual inventories. This circumstance is especially common in North America (see Pargellis 1936). Standard artillery reference books will only utilize 8-inch as the naming convention, but then lack any additional words of caution or warn of the variable language. Whether this sloppiness in language extended to Woolwich Warren is uncertain. At the time the documents were written, this inconsistency does not appear to be a problem and escapes any comment, but it can easily muddle historians and histories.

Lord Loudoun, Commander and Chief in North America and Lieutenant General in the British Army, arrives from Britain in July 1756. Loudoun writes to the Duke of Cumberland on October 3, 1756 (Pargelllis 1936, Page 239):

Our Situation at Fort William Henry is, the Provincials in an Intrenched Camp, under the works of the Forts, which are by this time finished, and the Barracks and Store Houses near compleated. they have of Artillery, two 32 pounders, Eight 18 Pounders, two 12 Pounders, Four 6 Pounders, four 4 Pounders, Iron: — Brass, Four 6 Pounders, two 8 Inch Mortars, fourteen Swivels, One 13 Inch Mortar, two 10 Inch Mortars, two 8 Inch Hautsbitzers, and one 7 Inch Hautsbitzer, three 7 Inch Mortars, with a great Quantity of Ammunition.

All the 7-inch mortars and howitzers in Loudoun's letter are better identified as 8-inch. Thomas Collins of the Royal Artillery, commanding the guns at Fort William Henry, subsequently describes four of these same pieces as being 7 3/4-inch. Collins does not use “8-inch” or “7-inch” anywhere in his inventory. However, individual inventories will typically marry the artillery to the ammunition ― 8-inch mortars and 8-inch shells; or 7-inch howitzers and 7-inch shells, not mixed numbers. These shells are best-referenced as 8-inch or 7 3/4-inch, but not 7-inch. Although 8-inch would now be considered the correct naming convention, the frequent use of 7-inch in historical correspondence and letters should not be underestimated.

There is a second circumstance that is commonly encountered that leads to confusion. The term “royal” is typically a reference to a royal 5 1/2-inch brass mortar, but the British did commonly field royal 5 1/2-inch howitzers. With the exception of Oswego and its American cast ordnance, "Royals" were always brass and always 5 1/2-inch. Correspondences will often simply reference the number of “royals” without identifying them as either mortars or howitzers. The same situation is evident with “coehorn” ― always brass and always 4 2/5-inch, but there were both coehorn mortars and the less common coehorn howitzers. Context can often help determine if the piece is a mortar or howitzer; but in some circumstances, it can be difficult to be certain of the identification without using related documents and materials. Wrongly, some histories assume the “royals” were actually cannon.

By the Seven Years' War, the use of “names” had fallen out of practice at least in official correspondence. Naming conventions were much more prominent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the more common “names”: Cannon-of-Seven = 42-pdr; Bastard Cannon = 42-pdr; Demi-Cannon = 32-pdr; Culverin = 18-pdr; Demi-culverin = 9-pdr; Saker = Often 5 1/4-pdr; and Minion = Often 4-pdr. Long obsolete by the Seven Years' War, drakes were light-weight naval guns intended to fire primarily grape-shot; they were often fitted with a tapered bore, wider at the muzzle (Lavery 1987, Page 90). The concept of drake was very fluid and changed over time.

With pieces that should not exist, pieces identified in the slang, the nomenclatural differences between Britain and France, captured pieces, and the French clerks' "atypical" categorizations, histories of the Seven Years' War in North America will baffle any of the standard British artillery references ― at least on first examination. If an ordnance for American iron howitzers is added, the standard reference manuals will work to identify all the pieces, but historians and readers will first need to make their way through the maze of variable names, sizes, and nomenclatures. There are fewer different pieces than the histories would suggest.


Doughty, Arthur George. 1901. The Siege of Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham; Volume 6: Appendix Part III. Dussalt & Prolux, Quebec.

Lavery, Brian. 1989. Carronades and Blomefield Guns: Developments in Naval Ordnance, 1778-1805. In: British Naval Armaments; Edited by Robert D. Smith. Royal Armouries, Conference Proceedings 1. London.

Pargellis, Stanley 1936. Military Affairs in North America, 1748-1765. "MANA". Selected Documents from the Cumberland Papers in Windsor Castle. American Historical Association, 1936. Reprinted: Archon Books, 1969. Online.


Ken Dunne for the initial version of this article