French Naval Guns and the French Artillery in Canada

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French artillery tools
A: ladle
B: lint stock
E: rammer
H, G, I: sponges
Source: L'Encyclopédie

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 supplied its oversea holdings with naval ordnance. The Canadian forts and port defenses were equipped with iron naval guns, not army ordnance.

When reviewing French histories and documents, it needs to be remembered that Louisbourg and Acadia were separate French colonies, distinct from Canada, with its own colonial government. Louisbourg had been captured by American colonists in 1745 and then returned to France by treaty in 1748. Both colonies share many of the same problems and concerns, but deviate in others. As such, Canadian documents describing the strengths and needs of the colony often will make no mention of Louisbourg.

By the end of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the French Navy was in very poor condition. In Fall 1747, the French lost a series of engagements trying to re-supply their colonies. The French were forced to rebuild their fleet retiring all the pre-1740 ships. Entering the Seven Years' War, the French had some 55 ships in their combined battle-fleet (Winfield and Roberts 2017). These new ships would have been armed with iron guns. Throughout the Seven Years' War, the French lacked both sailors and ordnance for their ships. Completed ships would sit idle in ports. In some instances, ships would be sent to sea under-gunned — i.e., 18-pdrs instead of 24-pdrs. Under these circumstances, new large-bore guns could not be sent to Canada. However, the lack of sailors was even more pressing. By paying significantly higher wages than the French Navy, privateers siphoned off many of the most experience sailors. Attempts to control the privateers failed. The privateers were simply "pumping" too much money into the port cities to shut them down (Dull, 2005).

Because, in the 18th Century, the French Navy was totally independent from the French Army, its equipment (artillery pieces, muskets…) were manufactured in different facilities. 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.

Naval Ordnance Establishments

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 were 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.

Establishments 1689-1690, 1721, 1733, 1758
Calibre Length
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.

Casting iron is a more difficult process than casting bronze. With larger pieces, the iron would start to cool before the full casting could be poured. This resulted in repeated failures. The needed techniques and protocols took time to develop. French iron 24- and 36-pdrs were first reliably cast in 1688 and 1691, respectively. In 1671, the French naval stores held some 1,906 bronze and 3,184 iron cannon. In 1696, there were only 26 bronze cannon left in the French stores that were 12-pdrs or less. By 1712, the bronze cannon had decrease to 884 guns and the iron increased to 7,328 guns (Peter 1995, Page 23) — the remaining bronze guns were large-bore. Unlike iron, unwanted bronze guns could be melted down and re-cast as new cannon, a common practice.

Bronze guns were lighter, but the material cost of the ores was many times higher than that of iron. Sea-handling was made easier with the lighter weight bronze, especially with reference to the upper deck guns. Besides being cheaper to produce, iron guns could accept a heavier gunpowder charge resulting in greater range and striking power. Iron guns could be fired at higher sustained rates than brass guns, but this was more of a concern in siege warfare than at sea. However, sudden and catastrophic bursting was much more likely with an iron gun. Overheating of a brass gun was a concern, drooping barrels, but any failures were generally not catastrophic. In this regard, bronze guns were safer for their crews than iron guns.

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. In August 1757, at the Siege of Fort William Henry, Montcalm's siege train included five 18-pdrs. These were undoubtedly naval guns that were fitted to “de campagne à grand rouage” — travelling carriages (siege carriages).

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 composed of iron naval guns plus a very few small-bore bronze guns (O'Callaghan, Documents X, Page 195). The bronze ordnance of the army’s Valliére System (1732) was not being sent to Canada. The largest bronze cannon were the 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 guns in Canada should be thought as being “older” iron naval guns, iron guns from damaged ships reaching Canada, or captured British ordnance.

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.

French Naval 12-pdr gun on its carriage
rear view
Source: Jean-Charles Soulié
French Naval 12-pdr gun on its carriage
side view
Source: Jean-Charles Soulié
French Naval 4-pdr gun on its carriage
side view
Source: Jean-Charles Soulié

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.

In 1749, Fort Saint-Frédéric, the cause of much of New England's resentment against Canada, served as a staging point for raids heading south. Deep in the wilderness, Fort Saint-Frédéric was decidedly unique — the main feature was a four-story-tall masonry artillery tower (octagon). Against assault with cannon and mortar, it was not a strong position being dominated by the adjacent hillsides. At that time the fort had the following artillery pieces:

  • 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 July 1759, Niagara surrendered to the British. During the war, the French captured only a single British iron 12-pdr. At Niagara, some twenty-two iron 12-pdrs were surrendered. In 1749, there were only thirty-six 12-pdrs in all of Canada. Québec (178 guns) had the artillery stores to supply Fort Niagara, but it is extremely doubtful that more than half of the 12-pdrs would be stripped from Québec to supply Niagara. These Niagara 12-pdrs were naval guns that had been in Canada for only a few years, but they are likely "old guns". Notably, the French at Niagara have no trouble with supplying the needed gun carriages.

Almost all of the artillery pieces discussed here came from France. However, there existed a foundry, the “Forges du Saint-Maurice” (the sole foundry in Nouvelle France), near Trois-Rivières. The primary focus of the foundry was the production of bar iron to be shipped to France. Typical production was near 350,000 pounds per year, but the output was quite variable from year to year. Peak production was reached in 1745 when 480,000 pounds of iron were produced. In 1747, a few 4-pdrs were cast and then sent to France, but these guns all failed the proof-testing (Samson 1998, Page 226). In 1748, six 4-pdrs, six 2-pdrs, five 6-inch iron mortars, and six iron grenade mortars were cast. That year, Saint-Maurice also produced 161 six-inch shells (5" 8 line), 110 nine-inch shells, 144 twelve-inch shells, and 2,700 cannon shot. Unlike cannon, mortars could be strengthened simply by bulking up the wall thickness, but without lengthening the bore. This made them ideal for colonial munition casting. Apparently, one of these 6-inch mortars was part of Montcalm's siege train at both Oswego and Fort William Henry. Shell availability would have been the determining factor on how many of these mortars would be incorporated into the siege train, not the number of mortars available. Outside of grenade mortars, this may have been the only Canadian made ordnance in Montcalm's siege train. The other shell sizes fit the two large-bore mortars already at Québec. After 1752, difficulty in staffing the foundry with skilled workman was a distinct problem and limited the output.

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.

Dull, Jonathan. 2005. The French Navy and the Seven Years' War. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln & London.

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.

Peter Jean 1995. L'artillerie et les Fonderies de la Marine, Sous Louis XIV. Economica, Paris.

Samson, Roch. 1998. The Forges Du Saint-Maurice: Beginnings of the Iron Steel Industry in Canada, 1730-1883. Department of Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada.

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