French Naval Guns and the French Artillery in Canada
The Ministère de la Marine was responsible for everything related to colonies: men, provisions, equipment and armament. It also administered the French Navy. Therefore, it is not surprising that this ministry took care of cannon sent abroad. French forts were equipped with iron naval guns. Furthermore, during the war, a significant number of French naval guns reached Canada.
Because, in the 18th Century, the French Navy was totally independent from the French Army, its equipment (artillery pieces, muskets…) were manufactured in different manufactures. There was a bronze foundry in Toulon, iron foundries for large pieces in Berry and Bourbonnais, and in Ruelles, Saint Robert, Plancheminier, etc. There was also an arm factory in Tulle.
Please note that we also have an article more specifically dedicated to Montcalm’s artillery train.
The French had adopted a decidedly logical approach to naval ordnance. From 1689-1766, the length of the guns were locked at specific values. New gun patterns were allowed and gun weights varied, just the lengths wre fixed (Winfield and Roberts 2017). This allowed an orderly and predictable approach to ship layout while protecting the hulls from concussive damage generated by too short guns. These guns were iron.
|36-pdrs||10 ft. 5.39 in. (3.20 m)|
|36-pdrs.||9 ft. 11.69 in. (3.04 m)|
|24-pdrs.||9 ft. 11.69 in. (3.04 m)|
|18-pdrs.||9 ft. 5.39 in. (2.88 m)|
|12-pdrs.||8 ft. 11.09 in. (2.72 m)|
|8-pdrs.||8 ft. 4.79 in. (2.56 m)|
|6-pdrs.||7 ft. 4.19 in. (2.24 m)|
|4-pdrs.||6 ft. 3.59 in. (1.92 m)|
Note: In the 18th Century, the French and English definitions of inch and pound did not agree — 1 French inch = 1.066 British inches. As such, the French 16-pounder is equivalent to the British 18-pounder.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the French Army employed the 16-pdr, not the 18-pdr (Persy 1832). The other bore diameters are shared between the Army and Navy, but not in this case.
The French Navy had the need for mortars on bomb ketches and gun boats. The 12-inch mortar is the most common, but 8-inch mortars were placed on some ships. These mortar patterns may have been shared between the French Army and Navy — the bore diameters are standard for both services.
However, there was also a mortar of a very peculiar model in use in the Navy. This model had a the mortar and its carriage cast in a single piece with an elevation of 42-45°. In number on a bomb ketch, they could be formidable against a city besieged from the sea.
Artillery Pieces in use in North America
At the start of the war in North America, the ordnance available for the defence of Canada was largely composed of iron naval guns (O'Callaghan, Documents X, Page 195). Here Canada was a separate colony from Acadia and Louisbourg. The bronze ordnance of the armies Valliére System (1732) was not being sent to Canada. The largest bronze cannon in Canada were three 4-pdrs at Québec. There were no howitzers anywhere in Canada. Later during the conflict, any bronze ordnance in Montcalm's siege train was captured British artillery (30 bronze pieces plus a dozen coehorns).
The Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine used various types of artillery pieces in service in the Marine Royale and in the French coastal fortifications. The great majority of the artillery pieces used in the colonies were made of iron and painted black since they were initially destined to serve on board warships. They were mounted on wooden carriages painted red.
The guns in Canada should be thought as being “older” iron naval guns, iron guns from damaged ships reaching Canada, or captured British ordnance.
In 1749, Québec had a formidable ordnance store, some 178 cannon including twenty-five iron 24-pdrs, twenty-two iron 18-pdrs and thirty-six iron 12-pdrs. There were no army 16-pdrs. Before the start of the war, the most common mortar in Canada was the 6-inch iron mortar (5 pieces).
In the colonies, the heaviest pieces were usually sent to the Eastern forts which were the most exposed to British attacks. On the other hand, certain western forts (Fort Détroit for instance) were equipped only with swivel guns considered obsolete by colonial authorities. Nevertheless they were sufficiently resilient to last till the end of the French Regime.
For example, in 1749, Fort Saint-Frédéric, the cause of much of New England's resentment against Canada, was not a defensive colossus:
- 2 x iron 6-pdr guns
- 17 x iron 4-pdr guns
- 1 x iron 2-pdr gun
- 2 x brass 2-pdr guns
- 1 x iron grenade mortar
- 18 x swivels
- 25 x boîtes de pierriers (breech-loading swivels)
Similarly, by 1749, Fort Niagara was armed with:
- 4 x iron 2-pdr guns
- 4 x iron 1 ½-pdr guns
- 1 x iron 6-in mortar
- 1 x iron grenade mortar
- 5 x swivels
- 13 x iron boîtes de pierriers (breech-loading swivels)
In August 1757, at the Siege of Fort William Henry, Montcalm's siege train included five 18-pdrs. These are undoubtedly naval guns that were fitted to “de campagne à grand rouage” — travelling carriages (siege carriages).
In 1757 additional mortars arrive at Québec:
- “The town (Québec) at present sufficiently provided with cannon, but it is highly necessary that it should have a proportionate quantity of shot. Seventeen iron mortars arrived this year, 4 of which were 12-inch, 5 of 8, and 8 of 6-inch, and only a few shell came, the most of which have not the necessary vent.” (O'Callaghan, Documents X, Page 655).
Almost all of these artillery pieces came from France. However, there existed a foundry (the sole foundry in Nouvelle France) in Trois-Rivières casting artillery pieces. Some of these pieces were sent to France where they were considered of poor quality by the authorities. Nevertheless, this foundry continued to produce cannon destined to replace the oldest pieces received from France.
Québec had the artillery stores to supply Fort Niagara (178 guns), but it is extremely doubtful that more than half of the 12-pdrs would be stripped from Québec to supply Niagara. Notably, the French at Niagara have no trouble with supplying the needed gun carriages.
The limited ability for Canada to manufacture ordnance, gunpowder, or shot is highlighted below. From a Memoir of Chevalier Le Mercier on the Artillery in Canada (O'Callaghan, Vol. X, Page 655; undated but appears to be Summer or Fall 1757):
- Article First - Concerning Québec
- The town at present sufficiently provided with cannon, but it is highly necessary that it should have a proportionate quantity of shot. Seventeen iron mortars arrived this year, 4 of which were 12-inch, 5 of 8, and 8 of 6-inch, and only a few shell came, the most of which have not the necessary vent. A requisition was made last year for four Cominge brass mortars (18-inch) and for four mortars of 12-inch 4 li. diameter, with conic chamber capable of containing 11 @. 12lbs. of powder; they have not been sent; 'tis certain, however, that had we mortars of this description, no ships could anchor in the basin of Quebec.
- The mortars which we received were intended for sieges and forts; this was the reason they were required to be brass, as they are easier of transportation; they are of iron, and 5 and 8 inches; some of them have their trunnions broken in France, the thickness of the metal is lessened by nearly an inch at this point. They had to be fastened to their carriages with iron bands, which renders the transport of them difficult; it is, morever, impossible to elevate them, as they are immovable.
- Although there are none in Canada who can manufacture shell or shot, some might, however, have been made at the forges of Saint-Maurice; but that establishment can scarcely supply metal necessary for the castings needed for service in the Colony. Therefore 'tis useless to think of it; should the King order it, however, 'twould be necessary to send from France some moulders in clay and sand for the shells.
From M. de Vaudreuil to M. de Massaic, Minister of the Marine and Colonies (O'Callaghan, Vol. X, Page 863, partial transcription):
- My Lord, Montreal, 1 November, 1758
- I have the honor to transmit to you the requisition furnished me by Chevalier Lemercier, of the ammunition to be sent this year from France. I have examined it, my Lord, with attention; have called for a report of what we have in the Colony, and have seen it impossible to make any retrenchment. I shall require that supply indispensably, to enable me to defend the Colony the King has confided to me, if attacked, as there is every appearance it will be. What is wanting can be made up by multiplying the fire of artillery and musketry, and taking up good positions; but 'tis impossible to avoid consumption of powder in war; this is the truth I beg you to place in the proper light before his Majesty.
- You like likewise be able, my Lord, to observe to the King that there is no country where so much of it is consumed, both for hunting and distribution among the Indians; burning of powder is equally a passion among Canadians, but I think we gain thereby in the day of battle, by the correctness of their aim in firing. Were it not for the ammunition furnished me successively by the Belle Rivière (Monongahela), Chouagouin (Oswego), and Fort George (Fort William Henry), I should not have had enough either for attack or defence. The Company of the Indies (Lower Mississippi Valley), which used to import annually and consume forty thousand weight, had no more powder. The consumption may, even in time of peace, be estimated at sixty-thousand weight.
Chartrand, René 2003. Napoleon's Guns 1792 - 1815 (2): Heavy and Siege Artillery. Osprey Press. Oxford.
O'Callaghan, E. B. 1858. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York: Procured in Holland, England and France. Vol. X, Weed Parsons and Company, Printers, Albany, pp. 195-196
Persy, N. 1832. Elementary Treatise on the Forms of Cannon & Various Systems of Artillery. Translated for the use of the Cadets of the U.S. Military Academy from the French of Professor N. Persy of Metz. Museum Restoration Service, 1979.
Winfied Rif and Stephen S. Roberts. 2017. French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786: Design, Construction, Careers, and Fates. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, South Yorkshire.
Kenneth P Dunne and Jean-Louis Vial for the initial version of this article