Happy 4th of July from Western Shooting Journal! Why not celebrate it with a howitzer and some mortars?

Proud owner Claude Baker lights off his cannon to the delight of 40 friends and neighbors.
Proud owner Claude Baker lights off his cannon to the delight of 40 friends and neighbors.

From our July issue

The Cannon That Grant County Built

Claude Baker with his new toy.
Claude Baker with his new toy.

Community Teams up to Make One Man’s Dream of Owning a Civil War-Era Mountain Howitzer

This story could really be titled, “The folly of saying ‘I think it would be fun to (fill in the blank)’ in an off-hand comment to one’s wife.”  According to Claude Baker’s wife Bobbie, he made this mistake sometime in the distant past when he said that it would be neat to have a cannon. Claude is 79 years old and does not remember making any such comment. That doesn’t mean much, because Bobbie says there are a lot of things that Claude doesn’t remember, some of which happened as recently as yesterday. At any rate, on Christmas day of 2012, what arrived at the door was a Civil War era cannon. Now this was not one of those small things that can be placed on a shelf or table, no, this cannon has a 39″ long barrel with a 3″ bore. The wheels are 48” in diameter and the whole thing weighed in excess of 400 pounds. Using the recommended charge, each shot consumes as much as $10 of black powder.

It was delivered to the house by a family friend who is a black powder buff, blacksmith, local political commentator, history buff, cannoneer, and Marine. Dave Traylor is in his 60s, but as we all know, once a Marine, always a Marine. Claude thought it was a present to Dave from Dave’s wife, not so. There was a card stuffed in the barrel saying “To Claude from your loving wife and son.”  It was a plot between Bobbie and Jim to fulfill a long forgotten wish of Claude’s  to have a cannon. Jim, who had no cannon experience, scanned the internet and made the purchase. Well it was a wonderful gift!  Claude was amazed that they had teamed up to do such a thing.

Yes, bowling balls are actually shot out of the mortars.
Yes, bowling balls are actually shot out of the mortars.

There was one note of caution though. The cannon was an unpainted bare bones affair. Dave cautioned that there were a few things that needed attention before it would be safe to fire. No sweat!  Get a can of paint, some wood filler, and some bigger bolts, and all would be good. Not so! It turned out that the only things on the gun that were retained were the wheels, barrel, and axle. Getting this thing in shape was a great learning experience, not only for Claude but several folks in the local John Day, Ore. area.

The first thing was to get some plans for the various wooden parts that needed replacing. These consisted of the “trail” (think tongue) and “cheeks” (think side pieces that hold the barrel). An excellent website was found that provided the very detailed plans for every part of a fully authentic Civil War era cannon. A set of detailed drawings for all metal and wood parts including the wheels was obtained for about $50 from buckstix.com. This site was the starting point for building what turned out to be a very good-looking, authentic reproduction of  what Dave says is a Mountain Howitzer, not a cannon!  These plans enabled Mark Moulton, a well known local cabinet maker and contractor, to make a new trail and cheeks.

So much for the wood parts but what about all the metal pieces? There are about 30 different items ranging from screws and bolts to heavy cast parts such as “trunnion plates” and “cap squares.”  These parts range from $5 to $250 each, depending on the size and complexity. All must be made in the style and shape existing in the mid-1800s. You cannot just go to your local hardware store and purchase them. The best source that Claude came up with was trailrockordance.com. Steve Cameron, the owner, is ready with an answer or information to help any novice through a problem.

You cannot have a patriotic shoot without flags, as many as possible.
You cannot have a patriotic shoot without flags, as many as possible.

The metal parts and wood parts had to fit together without any gaps. This is where Mark’s experience with cabinet making came into play. He was able to shape the wood so that it fit the metal parts perfectly. Some of the bolts had to be modified so that the heads were on an angle to fit the curved metal parts, and the trunnions on the barrel had to be machined. Tye and Clarance at Boyd Britton’s welding and machine shop were able to machine and weld as necessary to achieve a perfect fit. Dave is an accomplished blacksmith, and he made some of the metal parts using the drawings from “buckstix.” All of these folks, along with Kenny Mills at Mills Building Supply, came together to produce what turned out to be a fine specimen of a Civil War era Mountain Howitzer.

To cap things off,  they held a cannon shoot on the 26th of May. Lots of smoke, noise and fun for all. About 40 friends and neighbors showed up. They flew all the flags they could find; one from each branch of the armed forces as well as the U.S. and Oregon flag. Dave brought two of his mortars. One fired bowling balls, and the other small juice cans filled with concrete. The rebuilt howitzer was fired with various loads of 2F black powder. Just blanks this day. They started with four ounces, then six ounces, progressed to 8 ounces, then 10 ounces. That last one was really impressive.  Lots of smoke and noise. The howitzer recoiled back about a foot! The mortars were a blast! The bowling balls almost went out of sight before they started down again, emitting a slight whistle as they returned to earth.

From l-r: Claude Baker, Boyd Britton, Dave Traylor (Mark Moulton not pictured) formed the battery crew. A line of howitzers or mortar is known as a battery.
From l-r: Claude Baker, Boyd Britton, Dave Traylor (Mark Moulton not pictured) formed the battery crew. A line of howitzers or mortar is known as a battery.

A good time was had by all.  It made the five month effort and the almost $3,000 upgrade well worth it.

Editor’s note: Some refer to cannons and howitzers interchangeably, but generally the difference between a howitzer and a cannon is that cannons have longer barrel lengths. The Mountain Howitzer gets its name due to its light weight and portability, which allowed it to be transported easily across the country through mountains and brush in the 1800s. Howitzers usually fire at low angles, whereas the mortars fire at a much higher arc, but with lower velocity.

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