Artillery types

Archaeologists have discovered a living Civil War-era artillery shell

Image courtesy of Cobb Police Department/Facebook

  • Archaeologists digging at a Civil War battlefield site recently discovered a live artillery shell.
  • The canister may not have exploded, but it’s probably still dangerous.
  • It was fired from a so-called “Parrott gun”, a type of artillery popular during the war.

    A dig at a Civil War battle site turned dangerous this month when researchers discovered a live artillery shell. Archaeologists at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield in Georgia say the shell came from a “Parrott cannon”, a type of artillery popular among Union and Confederate armies.

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    Southeast Archaeological Center discovered the shell and announced the discovery on his Facebook page on March 3. From there, the Center notified the nearby Cobb Police Department, who sent two members of the bomb squad to examine him. The team identified the shell as belonging to a Parrott rifle and quickly moved it to a bunker containing explosives pending disposal.

    Parrott rifles were a type of field artillery built in large numbers during the Civil War. They were built in a range of sizes, from 2.9 inch diameter rifles up to ten inches. The rifles were muzzle loaded and featured spiral grooves inside the barrel. Grooves, also known as rifling, impart spin to a projectile, flattening its trajectory and making targeted fire more accurate. Rifling is still common on artillery pieces today, including the M777 Howitzer, the US Army’s primary towed artillery piece.

    Pistols are usually identified by the thick band of iron around the breech (base) of the gun. The tape reinforces the barrel against the pressure built up by the hot powder charge, which sends the explosive projectile downhill.

    scratches on a machine gun barrel made at General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products
    Grooves on the rifled barrels help projectiles fly straighter, allowing gunners to predict their impact points. These are scratches on a machine gun barrel, circa 2007.

    Portland Press HeraldGetty Images

    The Cobb Police Department provided a photo (at the top of this story) that shows just how dangerous the shell really is. The police flashlight in the photo is one inch in diameter and the shell appears to be about three inches wide. This corresponds to a 76 millimeter Parrott rifle, which fired a ten-pound projectile. About a pound of the projectile is an explosive charge, the rest is a metal casing designed to fragment and send out shrapnel. Parrott rifles were used in battles and sieges of forts and towns.

    Robert Parrot designed cannons as an inexpensive means of building up artillery units during the Civil War. They featured tapered cast iron barrels with muzzles thinner than the breech in order to save weight. Unfortunately, the use of cast iron instead of stronger wrought iron has caused the muzzles of Parrott firearms to occasionally blow off, leading gunners to distrust the weapon.

    20 pdr parrott rifled guns of the 1st new york battery
    Twenty-pound Parrott guns of the 1st New York Battery at Richmond, Virginia, 1863. Note the tapered barrels and iron reinforcing band at the breech (base).

    BuyexpandGetty Images

    Unexploded ordnance is sometimes found on former battlefields around the world, but mostly on former battle sites from the 20th century. Explosives from the 19th century are relatively rare, as iron tends to corrode, although in 2021 a metal detecting enthusiast discovered a living explosive cannonball near Monocacy National Battlefield in Frederick, Maryland.

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