The Civil War Connections Blog

Shot and Shell

Howdy folks, and welcome back to the good ol’ blog! Today’s tidbit about me is: I once went to New York City on a field trip in high school, where we had a lot of fun watching the Broadway shows “Spamalot” and “The Lion King.” We sadly didn’t get to see the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, but we did get to enjoy the delightfully vibrant color pallet of one of America’s biggest cities.

At first I thought New York City was just a dull, dirty city composed entirely of the colors brown and grey, but then I glimpsed that one orange rooftop and saw the error of my ways! Just look at all that COLOR!!


Yesterday I posted an article about heavy cannons, and a week ago I started a post on artifacts in the museum that correspond to things mentioned in my blog entries. I’m sure many of you are wondering “Brian, does The Mariners’ Museum have any huge, awesome cannons like those mentioned in your anti-armor articles?” Well my friends, the answer is a resounding “YES!” The Mariners’ Museum actually has a big 9-inch Dahlgren gun chilling right smack in the middle of the “Defending the Seas” gallery!

Come check it out! (Obviously from The Mariners’ Museum collection.)


As awesome as that is, some of you may notice that my last blog divided cannons along the lines of the term “pounders,” but I just called that Dahlgren gun a “9 inch” gun. What’s up with that? Well, the thing is, up until the mid 1800s cannons pretty much shot only one kind of ammunition: a solid, round cannonball called a “shot.” All it did was smash through wooden ships or enemy ground forces like a giant round bullet. Since all the ammo was solid and spherical, the size of a cannon was measured by how heavy a cannonball it shot. A “6-pounder” was a cannon that shot a 6-pound-canonball, and since all 6-pound-cannonballs were the same size, all 6-pounders therefore had the same size gun barrel.

This is a solid “shot” type of cannonball. From The Mariners’ Museum collection.


In the mid 1800s, however, cannons like the American Parrot gun started coming out with rifled barrels to make the cannon’s shot fly further and more accurately. In order to make use of the rifling, cannon ammo was changed from a spherical shape into a bullet-like shape so that it could be more accurate. Evolutions in battlefield technology also resulted in a new kind of cannonball that was filled with explosives and a fuse: this kind of cannonball would hit its target then blow up when the fuse ran out, causing far more destruction than a regular solid cannonball could have. This new type of cannon ammo was called a “shell,” and was a perfect match for the more accurate rifled-cannons and the bullet-shaped cannonballs that were coming out.


This is the kind of explosive shell a Parrot gun might use.


The advent of rifled cannon barrels and explosive “shell” cannonballs meant that it threw off the measurement of the cannon’s ammo by “pounds” since a 20-pound shell might have the same weight as an old 20-pound spherical “shot,” but they would not have the same shape. The spherical shot would be much wider and taller than the bullet-shaped shell, so referring to a cannon by the weight of its ammunition was no longer an option. Remember that awesome 9-inch Dahlgren gun I was talking about? Well, its 9-inch barrel meant that the ammo it used was 9 inches across. It could shoot either a 9-inch shell that weighed 73.5 lb, or a 9-inch shot that weighed 90 lb. Same size, but different weight – that’s why cannons started being classified by the size of their barrels, not the weight of their ammo.

Many old cannons that used to shoot just “shot” ammo could use the new “shell” ammo if the shell was the same size and shape as the shot. Again, measurement by gun barrel is more useful! This is an explosive shell, from The Mariners’ Museum collection.


Well that’s all for today, folks – tune in next time for more Civil War coverage, and be sure to check out the tourist attractions the next time you’re  in New York City! (Otherwise, it’s about as cheery as an overcast sky.)