Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 1: January 2006



"For want of this precaution ... many Men lose their Arms"
Official, Semi-Official and Unofficial American Artillery Texts, 1775-1815

2. Early Days: American Artillery Literature to 1779

The European powers that competed for colonies in North America in the 16th and 17th centuries brought their own artillery across the Atlantic. The Dutch, English, French and Spanish settlements established in the early years of colonialization were armed with a variety of smoothbore ordnance and, from even these early days, artillery matters were a concern. In 1628, one Samuel Sharpe was appointed the master gunner of Massachusetts Bay and, ten short years later, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston was established, giving it good claim to being one of the oldest military units in the English-speaking world.[5] The literature of the profession lagged somewhat and, as improbably as it may seem, it appears that the first work published in America with the word "artillery" in its title came from the pen of the Reverend Cotton Mather whose pamphlet, Military Duties Recommended to an Artillery Company, aimed at the Ancient and Honorable Company, was printed in Boston in 1687.[6] Lest the reader think that the infamous Mather was forsaking witchcraft for weaponry, he should know that it was the custom of the clergy of Boston to address sermons to the Ancient Company on the occasion of its annual muster and election of officers. "Preparedness for war and the duty of the Christian soldier," comments one historian, formed the usual topics of these "artillery sermons," and no doubt they seemed interminable to their audience.[7]

Fourteen years after Mather, Nicholas Boone of Boston published a work with the interesting (for our purposes at least) title, Military Discipline, the compleat souldier, or expert artillery-man, an abridgement of the currently popular manuals of Elton and Bariffe.[8] It was a misleading title as Boone was using the word "artillery-man" in its older sense of being a soldier who wielded fire-arms and his book contained nothing of real artillery matters.[9] In the absence of any domestic publications those colonials interested in such matters during the early period would have resorted to such favoured but outdated European texts as those of Uffano and Moretti or such "quick and dirty" manuals as John Sellar's Sea-Gunner.[10]

The lack of good domestic artillery texts might have proved dangerous during the series of French-Indian wars between 1689 and 1763 except for the nearly constant presence of the officers and gunners of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The RA was early involved in North America -- just eight years after its creation in 1716, a detachment of regular gunners was sent to Annapolis in Nova Scotia. Militia artillerymen from New England were able to handle the artillery work at the siege of Louisbourg in 1745 but, a few months after the fall of that fortress, the first full company of Royal Artillery arrived to garrison that place and from that time onward, there was never less than one RA company in the North American colonies. By 1763, when France ceded most of her American possessions, there were twelve companies, just over a quarter of the strength of the RA, serving on the western side of the Atlantic. It was RA gunners who manned most of the artillery, both field and siege, in the last phase of the British-French conflict including a scratch company commanded by Captain T. Ord that lost 19 men during Braddock's disastrous defeat at the Monongahela in 1755.[11]

In early 1775, there were five RA companies in Boston where -- depending on your point of view -- the British army was either employed on a massive "aid to the civil power" exercise or trampling the rights of freeborn citizens. Revolution was in the Boston air that spring and one of the hot spots was the London Bookstore on Cornhill Street owned by a rather overweight young man named Henry Knox, aged 25, who had been in the book business for sixteen years. Knox was a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company and liked to peruse military texts during the quiet times when there were neither customers in his shop nor like-minded proto-revolutionary friends such as John Adams, Nathaniel Greene or Timothy Pickering with whom he could plot treason against his Sovereign. Knox also discussed military, particularly artillery, matters with the British officers who visited his shop and such was the diligence of his private study that he became an established American authority on the subject.

Americans, particularly Americans who held political views like Henry Knox and John Adams, needed to learn as much as they could about warfare as things started to get out of hand in Boston in 1775 and such knowledge was becoming valuable. It should not be forgotten that one of the purposes of the British expedition to Lexington and Concord in April of that year was to seize arms and ammunition, including artillery pieces, believed to be stored at those places and, as it was, it was the RA's deployment of two 6-pdr. guns which dampened the enthusiasm of the rebels when the expedition turned sour and permitted a much-battered British force to get back to Boston.

The procurement of ordnance and ammunition became a priority for the newly-established Continental forces. Faced with a British blockade that would cut off supplies of gunpowder, the Continental Congress published a useful tract, Several Methods of making salt-petre, to encourage local initiative.[12] After the newly-commissioned Colonel Henry Knox was appointed Washington's commander of artillery in November 1775 (thereby proving that there is no correlation between diet and achievement), one of his first concerns was to superintend the transport to Boston of a large number of British guns captured at Ticonderoga. This task accomplished successfully, Knox energetically set about organizing the new artillery arm of the Continental Army which was to grow into a most effective organization armed with weapons and materiel willingly provided by France and unwillingly by Britain.

Knox knew that the new Continental Army needed more than weapons and equipment -- they also required professional knowledge. Given the shortage of experienced officers at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the only source of such information was printed literature. When John Adams queried Knox in 1776 whether there was "a complete set of books upon the military art in all its branches in the library of Harvard College and what books are best upon these subjects," Knox replied that Harvard's library was lacking in this respect and, even worse, "the officers of the army are exceedingly deficient in Books upon the military art -- this does not arise from their disinclination to read, but the impossibility of procuring the books in America."[13] Nonetheless, he was able to provide Adams with a list of worthwhile titles to consult and Knox's choice, insofar as it concerned works that touch upon artillery matters, if of interest as it represents what a very well-read critic regarded as the best European sources available at the commencement of the Revolutionary War.

On the subject of artillery, Knox advised Adams to consult the works of Belidor, Blondel, Clairac, Holliday and Muller and he clearly knew his literature well as he chose authorities who completely but succinctly covered their subject matter.[14] Francois Blondel had written a pioneer 17th century text on ballistics, L'art de jeter les bombes.[15] Bernard Forest de Belidor was a professor at the French artillery school at La Fere and author of Le Bombardier Francoise our nouvelle methode de jeter les bombes avec precision, an established early work on ballistics, as well as a useful Dictionnaire portatif de l'ingenieur.[16] John Muller was, for a quarter of a century, professor of fortifications and artillery at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, the training school for potential officers of the Royal Artillery. Muller had published two seminal books in the English language, A Treatise on Fortifications and a Treatise of Artillery, and had also contributed a useful English translation of the Chevalier de Clairac's Field Engineer, one of the best 18th century texts on the subject.[17] Knox was particularly enthusiastic over Muller's Treatise on Fortifications and Treatise of Artillery as that in his fortification work, the author "appears to have collected the essence of the others and would be of great service to have it printed as likewise his treatise on artillery.[18] Francis Holliday's Practical Gunnery was a small, elementary primer intended for the use of the cadets at the Royal Military Academy which soldiered on in that capacity for nearly a half century.[19]

It has been said that perhaps "the greatest single contribution of Henry Knox to his country was his insistence upon training and scholarship in his artillery officers."[20] In the winter of 1778-1779, Knox set up an "academy" for his officers at Pluckemin, New Jersey, where "lectures are read in tactics and gunnery."[21] Knox continued this practice whenever opportunity offered but he faced a perpetual shortage of instructional material as the training and responsibilities of the artillery arm were much more technical than that of the infantry and there was no equivalent to Steuben's Regulations in the Continental Artillery. To instruct his personnel, Knox had to use the published material at hand and it was pretty thin as the only other work published in America prior to 1779 mentioning artillery subjects was Lewis Nicola's translation of Clairac's L'ingenieur de campagne; or, field engineer which appeared in 1776 and contained an appendix that was a "short treatise on sea batteries, shewing their defects, and an attempt to remedy them."[22] This was not very helpful for field artillery and for instruction, Knox utilized books from his own personal library, including Benjamin Robins's useful New Principles of Gunnery and, of course, Muller's Treatise on Artillery.[23] The appearance of an American pirate edition of that work in Philadelphia in 1779 -- somewhat impudently dedicated to "General George Washington, General Henry Knox and the officers of the Continental Artillery -- gave Knox the basic texts he needed. This being the case, it is fairly certain that the American edition of Muller, printed in the seat of government at a time when there was a pressing need for information on artillery, must have had some backing, financial or otherwise, from Knox and other senior officers of the Continental army. It thus became the first semi-official manual of the American artillery and, since it was to serve for two decades, it is worth discussing in detail.

Muller's Treatise was a 200-page work intended by its author to be a comprehensive introductory overview of all matters relating to ordnance including ballistic, the construction of guns, mortars and howitzers (and their carriages or beds), laboratory work (the manufacture of ammunition and fuses) and an account of the service of artillery in the field. The only subject missing, and a major omission, was a system of gun drills for the various weapons but Knox and his officers, by this time, seemed to have compiled their own. The Treatise was a handy reference work but there was one problem with it -- it was nearly a quarter century out of date. Muller published the original edition in 1757 and, after a careful study of that and subsequent editions, the British ordnance historian, Adrian Caruana, has concluded that Muller wrote the book between 1751 and 1756 but neither of the two subsequent and so-called revisions have any really new material.[24] One particularly important missing element was the 1764 Establishment of Ordnance which contained the details of British guns in service at that date and there was no mention in the Treatise on later additions to the British artillery inventory such as the excellent brass 3 and 6-pdr. guns being used by both the RA and their American opponents in 1779. Despite its blemishes, however, the Treatise was a useful text for the infant American artillery arm and rendered good service for two decades.[25] It cannot, however, be used as a reliable source for British artillery of the Revolutionary War.[26]

At this point we must leave the officers and men of the Continental Artillery and cross the Atlantic to commence the first of what will, inevitably, be a number of digressions. To fully understand the subsequent literature of the American artillery, and why it was ultimately dominated by French works, we must first examine the professional training of the Royal Artillery and its published and unpublished texts during the late 18th and early 19th century.

The Next instalment will be

"The Mysteries of Woolwich:" Royal Artillery Training and Texts, c. 1750-1815


[5]. Harold Peterson, Round Shot and Rammers (Harrisburg, 1969), 14.

[6]. Cotton Mather, Military Duties, Recommended to an Artillery Company (Boston, 1687).

[7]. Samuel Eliot Morrison, The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England (New York, 1956), 175-176.

[8]. Nicholas Boone, Military Discipline, the compleat souldier, or expert artillery-man ... Being a collection from Col. Elton, Bariff, and others, (Boston, 1701. The original works from which Boone extracted his material were Richard Elton, The Complete Body of the Art Military (London, 1650); and William Bariffe, Military Discipline: or the Young Artillery Man, (London, 1635 and five later editions).

[9]. Details on early American military and artillery titles will be found in Joseph R. Riling, The Art of War and Science of War in America. A Bibliography of American Military Imprints, 1690-1800 (Alexandria Bay, New York, 1990). This excellent work is the best guide to its subject matter.a

[10]. Tomaso Moretti, Trattato Dell' Artigliera, (Brescia and Paris, 1672) which was translated and published by Jonas Moore as General Treatise of Artillery translated, with Notes thereon, and some additions for Sea Gunners, (London, 1683); and Diego Ufano, De L'usage de l'artillerie ... (Brussels, 1613, Zutphen, 1621 and various other editions to 1643) which was translated and published by Robert Norton as The Gunner Shewing the Whole Practice of Artillery (London, 1628) and also by William Eldred, The Gunner's Glasse, (London, 1646).

John Sellar, The Sea-Gunner: Shewing the Practical Part of Gunnery, As it is used at Sea (London, 1691, new edition Rotherham, 1994). This text has been identified by the British ordnance historian, Adrian Caruana, as the first English-language manual for sea gunners aimed primarily at the merchant marine.  

[11]. On the deployment of the RA in North America in the 18th century, see M.E.S. Laws, Battery Records of the Royal Artillery, 1716-1859 (Woolwich, 1952), 2-39.

[12]. Several methods of making saltpetre. Recommended to the inhabitants of the United Colonies ..., (Philadelphia, 1775).  

[13]. Knox to Adams, 13 May 1776, Knox Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, quoted in Sidney Forman, "Why the United States Military Academy was established in 1802," Military Affairs, Spring 1965.

[14]. Knox to Adams, 13 May 1776, Knox Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, quoted in Sidney Forman, "Why the United States Military Academy was established in 1802," Military Affairs, Spring 1965.

[15]. Published in Paris in 1683.

[16]. Le Bombardier francoise was first published in Paris in 1751 and the Dictionnaire portatif in Paris in 1755. Belidor was also responsible for Ouevres diverses sur le genie et l'artillerie, (Paris, 1754 and 1764). Belidor's early ballistic experiments were expanded by E. Williams in The Theory and Practice of Gunnery with Remarks on Belidor, (London, 1766) and Knox may have been familiar with this title.  

[17]. John Muller was the author of numerous works including A Treatise of the Practical Part of Fortification, For the Use of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, London (London, 1755); A Treatise containing the Elmentary Part of Fortifications ... (London, 1756); A Treatise of Artillery, (London, 1757), Supplement to the Treatise of Artillery, (London, 1767) and translator of The Field Engineer, Translated from the French of De Clairac, (London, 1759); and the The Field Engineer of M. le Chevalier de Clairac ... (London, 1773). His other published works included The Attack and Defence of Fortified Places, (London, 1747); and Elements of Mathematics ... and ... Projectiles, Gunnery, (London, 1765).

[18]. Knox to Adams, 13 May 1776, Knox Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, quoted in Sidney Forman, "Why the United States Military Academy was established in 1802," Military Affairs, Spring 1965.

[19]. Francis Holliday, Easy Introductions to Practical Gunner, or the art of engineering, (London, 1756). Another edition appeared in 1758 and there were a number of subsequent editions.

[20]. Jac Weller, "The Artillery of the American Revolution," Military Historian, vol. 8, No. 3, 62.

[21]. Philadelphia Packet, 6 March 1799, quoted in Sidney Forman, "Why the United States Military Academy was established in 1802," Military Affairs, Spring 1965.

[22]. Louis Andre de la Mamie, Chevalier de Clairac, L'Ingenier de campagned; or, field engineer. Written in French by the Chevalier de Clairac, and translated by Major Lewis Nicola. To which is added, by way of appendix, a short treatise on sea batteries, shewing their defects, and an attempt to remedy them, (Philadelphia, 1776).

[23]. Fairfax Downey, "Birth of the Continental Artillery," Military Historian, vol. 8, No. 3, 63. It is not certain which of the various editions of Robins's work Knox possessed but he certainly had a choice. Benjamin Robins was an unsuccessful competitor against John Muller for the post of professor of fortifications at the Royal Military Academy and published his New Principles of Gunnery in London in 1742. It contained much novel material on the developing science of ballistics and in 1745 appeared in a German translation by the mathematician Leonard Euler who provided additional commentary. In 1761 it appeared again in English with Euler's additional commentary in a work by James Wilson and later again at The True Principles of Professor Euler's Observations Upon the New Principles of Gunnery, (London, 1777). Knox would probably have had access to all the English language versions.

[24]. Adrian Caruana, "John Muller's Treatise on Artillery," Arms Collecting, vol. 19, No. 2, 50-56. It is Caruana's belief that Muller can not be blamed for these subsequent editions as his publisher, John Milan, probably paid him a lump sum for the first edition and then reprinted as he wished, without consulting the author. Caruana points out that the artillery section in An Universal Military Dictionary published by Milan in 1779 is lifted almost directly from Muller's Treatise.

[25]. The 1780 edition of Muller's work is available in a reprint from Museum Restoration Service of Alexandria Bay, New York, published in 1977.

[26]. Without a doubt, the best sources for that subject are the impressive list of publications by Adrian Caruana which included a series of artilces in Arms Collecting: "Artillery Sledges & Gun Sleighs in North America, 1778-1783," vol 16, No. 1; "The British 8-inch Howitzer," vol. 26, No. 2; "British Artillery Drill of the 18th Century," vol. 15, No. 2; "British Production of Brass Ordnance, 1780," vol. 16, No. 4; "The Carronade Gun," vol. 23, No. 4; "The Coehorn Mortar," vol. 26, No. 4; "The Indentification of British Muzzle Loading Artillery, Part I: The Designers," vol. 22, No. 1; "The Identification of British Muzzle Loading Artillery, Part 2: The Piece," vol. 22, No. 1; "The Light 3 Pounder of William Congreve," vol 18, No. 2; "Sir Thomas Blomefield and the Blomefield System of Ordnance," vol. 21, No. 3; "The Tin Case Shot in the 18th Century," vol. 28, No. 1. Caruana has also published separate monographs with Museum Restoration Service: The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776, 1977; British Artillery Ammunition, 1780; and Grasshoppers and Butterflies: The Light 3-Pounders of Pattison and Townshend, 1980.

Caruana, a former officer of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, bases his work on the large collectio of unpublished manuscripts in the Library of the Roayl Artillery Institute in London.


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