The Parrott Gun

No, it doesn’t shoot Norwegian Blues across the fjords (although that would be entertaining). It came up recently in the local newspaper that covers our sleepy seacoast HQ, when two adventure divers found a shell underwater that old ordnance experts thought was from a 100-lb. Parrott Gun of Civil War vintage.

So we had to look it up. The original Parrott was made in the West Point Foundry, across the Hudson from the military academy that produced the best generals on both sides of the Civil War. It was patented by Robert Parker Parrott, just a hair too soon to be a Union-only weapon in the war. A prototype was tested at VMI by a student team led by instuctor then-Major Thomas H. Jackson (later “Stonewall” Jackson), and at his behest Virginia ordered and received some before secession, so the Rebels had the technology too. The gun was identifiable by its rifling and by a thick cylinder or band of iron reinforcing the breech: the barrel was cast, the reinforcing band of wrought iron heated red-hot and shrunk around the ice-cooled barrel. The foundry cast Parrotts in several sizes — the largest were naval guns.

In an interesting coincidence, Robert Parrott was born within a few miles of the divers’ find — depending, as is usual on these things, on which of the biography links you believe.

His gun, so quaint and ancient now, was the high-tech of its day. Parrotts shot explosive shells, aimed at killing people, and solid “bolts,” which destroyed fortifications or ships with kinetic energy. Stone fortresses that shrugged off attacks by previous generations of cannon fell to the plunging bolts of the Parrotts. The legendary blockade runner CSS Alabama fell to the guns, including a 30-lb Parrott, of USS Kearsage. This was a weapon that made its mark — a high-water point, perhaps, for muzzle-loading, black-powder artillery.

The breechloading revolution was getting started at the same time the States were fighting out the bloody issues of the day: slave or free? Secession or union? State’s rights or Federal power?  And iron began to give way to alloy steel soon, also. So the Parrott’s time at the pinnacle of the artillery food chain was short. Like the blue-jacketed men who had fired them, they grew old, retired, and were forgotten.

Sometimes these guns appear in movies, not looking quite right (a cannon firing shot or shell recoils; a movie cannon firing blanks just sits there. Also, real Civil War cannons generate too much smoke to be practically filmed). And nearly 200 original 30-lb. Parrotts survive, mostly in museums or memorials, but some in the hands of (presumably wealthy) collectors (with presumably tolerant wives. The divers of the original story are not keeping the Parrott shell because, “[i]t has a pretty low wife-acceptance factor”).

That so many memorial guns survive is nothing short of amazing; once, many more were on display across the country, but World War II scrap drives denuded many public squares and American Legion posts. But certainly something this old, with such obsolete technology, could only be a static display. You would think that the sound of a Parrott firing live has not been heard in over 100 years.

You’d be wrong. To jam a second Monty Python reference into this post, it’s “not dead yet.” There are people today who shoot Parrotts and other Civil War artillery — and they fire  live, not just to nake noise and smoke.

You see, among the many living history buffs out there, the first were the Civil War reenactors, who are still perhaps the most advanced. Some reenactors go far beyond .58 Springfield rifled muskets. For them, there’s the Paulson Brothers Ordnance Corporation, who since 1976 have been cheerfully selling Civil War artillery. Their wares include Parrott rifles of several calibers (up to the 20-lb — the reenactors haven’t quite got to reproducing Kearsage yet), gun carriages to mount them on (field, siege or coastal) and various odds and ends, including other Civil War rifled cannon.

And they don’t just sell them, they shoot them, live. Look at the “action” page on the PBO website to see them firing on Army artillery ranges (possibly at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, although they don’t say). Most of the videos show the gun firing and then,  second (unmanned) camera’s view of the effect on target, downrange. These videos impressed us: the violent recoil, the freight-train rush of the arriving shell (much like modern artillery — being under a barrage of many of these things must have been gut-watering) and the accuracy of these “primitive” weapons. Quite amazing to see and hear the clang of a 19th century artillery bolt, propelled by black powder, nailing an armored vehicle hulk and tearing pieces off.  There are more such videos on YouTube. Enjoy, we did.


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