View Full Version : Artillery Question

02-14-2006, 02:17 AM
Posted: Mon Feb 13, 2006 10:48 pm Post subject: Artillery Question


I recently ran across an article about the Confederate Williams cannon- here's a little bit about it: The Williams gun was actually a crank operated, very light artillery piece that fired a one-pound (1.57-caliber) projectile with a range of 2,000 yards. A crew of three men was required to operate the weapon, which was said to be able to fire 65 rounds a minute.
The major problem with this otherwise successful gun was overheating. When rapid fired, the excessive heat made the breech jam due to metal expansion
Well suited for cavalry operations, the Williams gun had a four foot long barrel and was mounted on a two wheel carriage. The gun was pulled by one horse. R.S. Williams himself was made a Captain and given a six gun battery of his invention that was attached to and saw service with Gen. George Pickett's division.
The weapon gave good service with the 4th Kentucky cavalry in the action at Blue Springs, Tenn., in October 1863. Ten Williams guns with all their accessories were captured at Danville. Va., in 1865.

The article said that this battery was attached to Pickett's division- however, a somewhat cursory examination of the orders of battle for Gettysburg and the battles with Grant do not confirm this statement. As Pickett's division was in NC during Longstreet's trip to the Western Theatre- I assume the 6 gun battery was detached and went with Longstreet's men to Tennessee- but they must have come back if they surrendered at Danville- has anyone run across Capt RS Williams and his battery of rapid firing cannon?-Thanks-Barrett

02-14-2006, 06:38 AM
Lee White, who is a member of the staff at Chickamauga NBP often posts on the Authentic Campaigner site, might try there. If they were with Longstreet at Chickamauga, he'd know.

02-16-2006, 08:26 AM
I did a search in the OR's, the Southern Historical Society Papers, and Confederate Military history for both R.S. Williams and Williams Gun and only came up with the general order authorizing Wiliams to raise a battery.

I don't know where you are, but, if you have any chance of getting to Mansfield, OH the first weekend in May, there is usually a crew with a Williams there at the collector's and artillery show. Perhaps they've researched a little more.

02-16-2006, 10:47 AM
Greg- I know- I have read everything I can get my hands on about Pickett's division and have never run across a mention of this battery- it seems to me that if they could crank out 65 rounds a minute they would have been the talk of the army- but there is no doubt they were there- it's confusing-Barrett

02-19-2006, 10:27 AM
Follow up Information- The following article, written several years ago by Bill Adams of the 34th Batt Va Cav-N-SSA is probably the best that the web has to offer about the Williams Gun- I think that any remaining unfound info on this gun is very obscure and is going to require some digging-Barrett

By Bill Adams

The Williams Rapid-Fire Gun saw service in both the Eastern and Western theaters. Although often called a machine gun, it was a hand-crank-operated rapid-firing breechloader. Much of what has been published about the Williams gun is subject to challenge due to conflicting information regarding numbers made, bore sizes, and where the guns were used. The Williams gun was invented by D. R. Williams of Covington, KY (some sources cite the inventor as R. S. Williams). The first of the Williams Guns was produced at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Some sources claim that a single Williams Gun was used at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862, others claim that Williams directed six of the guns in that battle. Whether one or six, the firepower caused federal officers to think that they were facing a secret weapon. Total production of the revolutionary rapid-fire arms is generally agreed to have been approximately 42 guns. 24 Williams Guns were produced in Richmond, 12 guns were allegedly produced in Lynchburg and 6 more were made in Mobile, Alabama. Some sources claim that 12 guns were made in Mobile. Four of the Richmond made guns were sent to Maj. Gen. Sterling Price's army in the Trans-Mississippi Department. Existing CS records suggest that the six guns that went to Captain Schoolfield’s Kentucky battery may have been made in Richmond and shipped through Lynchburg (which raises the question as to whether any Williams Guns were actually made in Lynchburg. If so, they were probably made by the firm of F. B. Deane, Jr. & Son, a CS contractor for ordnance supplies. More research is needed on this revolutionary weapon).

The Williams gun was a 1-pounder steel breechloader with a barrel about four feet long and a bore of 1.57 inches. It was mounted on a two-wheeled carriage and was particularly suited to cavalry operations. It had a hand crank that operated a revolving cam that caused the breechblock to reciprocate back and forth. The combustible cartridges were fired by a side-mounted hammer that automatically struck a percussion cap when the breech closed. The gun was crewed by three men: one man placed the cartridge in the breech, another capped the piece and the third operated the crank. Although the claimed rate of fire was 60 to 65 shots per minute, the practical rate of fire was about 20 rounds per minute. The pieces had a maximum range of 2,000 yards. All known surviving examples are smoothbores, but it is possible that some of the original pieces were rifled. At least one of the original guns had a wooden feeder trough on the side where cartridges were laid side by side and rolled into the breech. It has been claimed that the reciprocating breechblocks had a tendency to jam when the guns overheated from rapid firing. One officer complained that the weapons fired too fast and used up too much ammunition.

Captain James J. Schoolfield's Battery, attached to the 4th Kentucky Cavalry, took the guns into action at Blue Springs, Tennessee in October 1863 where the 34th Bn Virginia Cavalry first saw them. Capt. Theodore Allen of the 7th Ohio Cav was amazed at the firepower and noise of the little guns: "We had heard artillery before, but we had never heard anything that made such a horrible noise as the shot form these breechloaders...” At Rheatown, TN later in the month, when the Confederate line broke, the 34th “steadfastly remained firm” and aided Schoolfield’s battery of Williams rapid-fire guns in its attempt to check the Federals until the Kentucky cavalrymen could reach their horses and withdraw.

A number of Williams Guns have been reproduced and may be seen at reenactments or NSSA events. The original Williams Guns were quite small when compared to the typical artillery pieces of the era

02-20-2006, 10:29 PM
The Watervliet Arsenal has a Williams Cannon on display, I googled Watervliet and the Arsenal's web page had this to say about it. "The cast iron Napoleon 12-pounder howitzer is displayed in the middle of the room along with the Williams automatic cannon, which dates back to 1862. This cannon was called the secret weapon of the Confederacy and saw action during the Battle of the Seven Pines. It had a range of 2,000 yards, and was hand-crafted. Although it was an automatic weapon, it was still not considered to be reliable because of problematic pressure from extensive firing and heat." Hope this helps, maybe it will lead to something I don't know.

bob 125th nysvi
02-25-2006, 01:59 PM
My office is about 3 miles from the Arsenal. I'll see if I can get over there and get a picture. Might take a while though I suspect the displays are open the same thime I'm (supposed) to be working.

Bob Sandusky
Co C 125th NYSVI
Esperance, NY

03-09-2006, 03:19 PM
I saw one of those guns at a reenactment in Jackson, Michigan in the early 00s.

That was a neat gun. It had a cam supported by two brackets coming from the back from the breech of the gun. The gun was fired by a person turning a crank, the cam closed the breech, the cam pushed back a large spring (lever) on the side of the gun, and when the cam hit a point the spring slammed down on a musket and fired the cannon.

The operators of that gun said it could fire no more than 10 rounds a minute because the breech had to be swabbed. The gun powder in the round was inside of cloth. If the round were to be laid on a smoking ember the least of the problems the gun crew would be facing would be charging union infantry.

This guns biggest problem was it ability to eat ammo. At 10 rounds a minute the gun ate ammo far in excess of ability of the crude logistics system of the period to supply ammo. In only 10 minutes of fighting the gun could go through a casson of ammo.

The guns in the battery could lay down a fantastic rate of fire. It must have been chilling to be a civil war infantry man and have to face that fire. However,the design was transatory. The Germans working with Krupp would design the first good infantry support weapon for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The cam design was too heavy and too week for further development.

It was an interesting design. All in all it had no effect on the war. Yes, it affected some battles, but had no real influence on the war.

03-14-2006, 10:29 AM