How did rain effect cannon of the mid-19th century? Specifically the commonly fielded types like the 12-pounder Napoleon. Could they operate effectively and reliably in heavy rainfall?

I’ve been able to find information on the effectiveness of various small arms in inclement weather, but not anything useful on the big guns.

  • 2
    Decent question. However, providing links to your prior research on small arms might entice more up-votes. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 13:34
  • 2
    @PieterGeerkens Question updated with link to prior research. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 15:57

1 Answer 1


The book The Artillerist's Manual By John Gibbon, from 1860 gives us some insight into what was in use at the time. A clip from the appendix page 13 shows the components of an ammo box distributed with 12-pound guns and Howitzers.

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The last three items on the list are included to provide various means of firing the weapon; the friction primer, the slow match, and the portfire.

The friction primer was probably the primary item used by this time to detonate the cannon charge. Note the packs of 48 and 60 included in these packages. These were self-contained and packed in their own container to keep dry and ready. They operated by friction, so a pull on a lanyard would set off the priming powder. No external spark necessary. From a NPS website:

The device was a copper tube (fig. 19) filled with powder. The tube went into the vent of the cannon and buried its tip in the powder charge. Near the top of this tube was soldered a "spur"—a short tube containing a friction composition (antimony sulphide and potassium chlorate). Lying in the composition was the roughened end of a wire "slider." The other end of the slider was twisted into a loop for hooking to the gunner's lanyard. It was like striking a match: a smart pull on the lanyard, and the rough slider ignited the composition. Then the powder in the long tube began to burn and fired the charge in the cannon. Needless to say, it happened faster than we can tell it!

friction primer

The next two items would have served as backup in case of problems with the friction primers or they ran out.

The slow match was an older technology, and might have been more susceptible to moisture issues, as it required direct contact to some form of cartridge fuse or priming powder. From the same NPS website:

Before 1800, the slow match was in universal use for setting off the charge. The match was usually a 3-strand cotton rope, soaked in a solution of saltpeter and otherwise chemically treated with lead acetate and lye to burn very slowly—about 4 or 5 inches an hour. It was attached to a linstock (fig. 18), a forked stick long enough to keep the cannoneer out of the way of the recoil.

The portfire, the final entry, would have been a failsafe for all-weather use, as it was used in naval artillery where constant water exposure would have been an issue.

An glossary entry from the website civilwarartillery

PORTFIRE: A composition of nitre, sulphur, and mealed powder driven into a case of strong paper. Portfire was used to fire guns previous to the introduction of the friction primer. It was also used in emergency situations and to fire rockets. A full length portfire would burn for about ten minutes and could not be extinguished by water.

So of the several options discussed in the 1860 book linked above, most had some degree of functionality in adverse weather conditions.

  • A lede would improve this answer.
    – Spencer
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 14:02

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