Straight Shooters and Crooked Barrels

"First, you must provide a staff and two rammer heads thereupon, and upon ye rammer heads there must be two right lines drawn upon them to divide the two rammer heads (that are ye just height and fit ye bore) into two equal parts, and draw lines on ye staff, that ye lines on rammer heads may stand alike, at one end, and at ye other end, and let ye staff come through one of ye rammer heads about nine inches longer than ye cylinder of ye gun, for a handle. Then lay a flat stick on ye muzzle ring, and hold ye side of your quadrant (on ye gunner's scale) to ye stick, and by a string and plummet, find ye middle or upper and lower part of ye metal, put the rammer head into ye gun, and let one hold it hard, and right with ye marks on upper and lower part of ye metal with ye lines of ye rammer head above and below, whilst you put a priming iron in at ye touch hole, and striking hard on ye rammer head, make a mark. Then pull it out and apply ye line on ye rammer head to ye mark on ye upper and lower edge of ye muzzle of ye gun, and you may presently see how much ye mark is from ye right line of ye rammer head, to ye right hand, or the left, that is, if ye mark is just on ye right line, ye Bore is in ye midst.

"But if you find it a quarter of an inch on ye right or left hand so much lieth ye Bore either to ye right or left, and in shooting ye piece, must be ordered accordingly. But how to know whether it be thicker upwards or downwards, or how ye Bore is, the way to know this, - find ye diameter of ye piece at touch-hole with a pair of calipers, then bend a wire a little at ye very end, that it may catch at ye metal when it is drawn out. After the wire is fitted thus, first put it into ye touchhole till it touch the bottom of ye metal in ye chamber; then holding it in that place, make a mark upon ye wire just even with ye touch-hole; afterwards, draw up the wire until it catches at ye metal at ye top of chamber, and there make a mark upon ye wire just even with ye touch-hole. Ye difference betwixt the two marks is ye wideness of ye chamber under ye touch-hole, and ye distance between the first mark and ye end ye wire, having half ye diameter of ye chamber of ye piece subtracted from it, will leave the half of ye diameter of ye piece at ye touch-hole if ye piece be true bored. But if ye measure be more than half ye diameter, then the Bore lieth too far from ye touch-hole and ye upper part of ye metal is thickest, but if it be less, ye under part hath the most metal." {"Capt. Samuel Sturmy's Magazine", as quoted in Middlebrook, pp. 31-32.}

    With few exceptions (the guns for USS Confederacy being perhaps one of them), the cannon cast at Salisbury were relatively plain. One idiosyncracy suggested by Middlebrook is presence on barrels for naval service of cast "ramforce" and "cornice" rings, not always seen on barrels from other foundries. Perhaps they attest the sober approach to life of the Connecticut Yankees... "Ramforce" rings circle the barrels of many Salisbury guns at the safe limit of charge for powder, wadding and shot as previously determined by a rammer on barrels of the same rating. "Cornice" rings circle the barrels a short distance back from the muzzle. They are visual marks for naval gunners when running their barrels out through the gunports.

    Early artillerists knew the inherent danger of listing in a ship if all the guns on one side were run all the way out at once. By running barrels out only to the "cornice" ring, proper control for the ship's center-of-gravity was preserved. Guns for naval service commonly had shorter barrels than guns for field service in the same ratings to accomodate this weight problem. Naval barrels commonly lacked front sights, too, as front sights ran risk of fouling the upper edge of the gun ports when guns were drawn inboard for servicing. Relationship of barrel weight and length, ballistics, and propellant dynamics was probably understood intuitively before they were understood mathematically. The projectile in any black powder cannon reaches maximum velocity 18 ball diameters down the barrel (Guilmartin, 1983), a fact relating to black powder dynamics which are entirely unlike those of smokeless powder.

    Increased barrel length because of the windage and off-axis problems noted earlier doesn't confer much shooting benefit. It did however confer a structural benefit: it increased metal density, particularly in the critical breech end at the time of pour. This, by as much as 5 per cent, says Guilmartin. The extra length of the barrel acted in the same manner as the expendable "head" extension covered earlier. Guilmartin feels that modern concern for long range accuracy, possible with modern barrels and powder, has mislead investigators of barrel length in ancient ordnance where short range accuracy was the norm. Ancient barrel lengths were more closely related to gun construction than function. The concern for unwanted weight shift by naval cannon on carriages is apparent in the closing admonition of an early though undated "Exercise" for gunners training aboard His Majesty's ships:

"If you exercise the Lee Guns, and it blows fresh, you must keep one Tackle  hooked to the Ring-bolt on the Deck, near the Comings, and other Tackle hooked to the Ring, in the Train of the Carriage. But if you exercise the Windward Guns, keep both Tackles hooked to the Ship's side, and the Train of the Carriage. When you exercise the Lower Deck Guns, have your Port Ropes or Port Tackle Falls Clear, to let fall your Ports in case of too much Wind, and Laniards to make them fast. Always after the Exercise is over, take care to have the Decks Clean Swabbed, that no scattered powder be left".

Shot and Shell

    Finally, it is of interest that many sizes and types of shot were cast at Salisbury during the Revolution, as well as mortar bombs and grenades. A sister works at Ancram a few miles west in New York State, frequently shipped cannonballs to be included with the inventory from Salisbury. Batteries of shot molds for different shot patterns were always in readiness to one side of the furnace house to receive excess overflow during any individual "cast". (Further testimony to the acclaimed frugality of the Connecticut Yankees).

    Included with balls for the 3- through 18-pounder guns, were grape, specimens of which clearly show they were gang-cast with sprues roughly broken off. This grape was favored for swivels, but the imperfections sometimes promoted jamming as an interlocked mass of balls when fired, consequently breaking the barrel of the gun at this juncture.


     It is clear that the "Salisbury Iron Industry", and the Salisbury Furnace particularly by its role alone in the War for Independence, deserve far greater recognition than generations of American historians have accorded them. However, the story of the Litchfield County furnaces doesn't end there. In postwar years, the region continued to thrive, and "Salisbury Bar Iron" set a standard for iron quality in industry that went long unchallenged. Under the colorful ironmasters, supplies of bar iron from the region waxed and waned. Indeed, the independence of the ironmasters and the delays in delivery, and constant price hikes for their product, contributed in no small way to their undoing.

    No less a personage than Eli Whitney became embroiled with them over unconscionable shortfalls and price gouging which affected his activities at New Haven. Farther north, overseers at the great Springfield Armory in Massachusetts likewise lamented the uncertainty attendant delivery of Salisbury Iron, and they were in the first decades of the 19th Century, echoed by the overseers at distant Harper's Ferry Arsenal. Modern metallurgists challenge many of the early claims made for Salisbury iron, including the fact that it contained unusual amounts of manganese which enhanced the uses to which it was frequently put. (It did contain, however, substantial sulfur and phosphorus, both deleterious in cast iron).

    In the end, perhaps the long success of the Salisbury Iron Industry lay not so much in some "mysterious" component of its ore (though it was a good ore, and superior to bog ore), but more in the skills, the intelligence, the loyalty and patriotism, and the plain frontier cussedness and toughness of its ironmasters and citizen laborers.

Visiting Salisbury Iron Works Today

      For cannon and iron-industry buffs, a visit to Salisbury can be a rewarding experience. Until recently, however, you were pretty much on your own to find and identify specific locations mentioned earlier. However, there is now a modest local endeavor - The Salisbury Cannon Museum - which stresses appeal to children. There is a dearth of artifactual material relevant to the technology and products of the furnace, despite its key role in our nation's history. As to whereabouts of the many cannon once cast here - save any documented pieces still aboard USS Constitution - that is a good question. More than 50 years ago, Middlebrook noted a 6-pounder located "... until recently, ... on the stone retaining wall south of the State Armory in Hartford".

    Its current whereabouts are unknown to the author. You can, however, see and photograph one or two of the regional furnaces, and you can end your visit as I did on a cold day once in February, with a good drink and a meal on the very spot where these historic cannon were cast. Here's how.

    An easily-reached and fairly-well preserved furnace is Kent Furnace off Route 7 just north of Kent, Connecticut. This southernmost furnace of the Litchfield County furnaces is sometimes not considered part of the "Salisbury Iron" complex proper as it utilized ore from another source. However, it is publicly accessible and a good example of early furnace architecture. Lime Rock, the earliest furnace of record, is on private land and not easily accessible, but most picturesque and exemplary of its genre.

    Of the Salisbury Works themselves, nothing remains. The Holley Manufacturing Company - once a leading maker of pocketknives - erected its factory building on the actual site of the blast furnace about 1866. Today, Holley Place Restaurant (recommended) occupies the lower level of this 19th century building. The site is only a few hundred feet from the confluence of State Routes 44W and 41S in Lakeville. As with most such matters, few locals seem to know about it so don't expect to get information from the man in the street. The "upper dam" is still traceable along the lake front. And the infeed to a flume, now underground, is visible at the lower end of "Furnace Pond" (Map - A: not reproduced) in miniscule Bauer Park right across the street from the Holley Building on Pocketknife Square.

    In front of the building is a modest historical together with a cannonball from the Works - displayed incongruously in the center of a millstone from a onetime nearby gristmill - the whole resting on the salamander said to have been removed from the blast furnace underpinnings when it was torn down. Water can be heard but not seen rushing among the subterranean ruins of the original raceway for the blast furnace wheel. Remains of a turbine from the early 1900's are visible here, too.

    A cold, windy night after a day of touring the various furnaces, found my wife and I seated in the cozy interior of Holley Place Restaurant. By coincidence it was 200 years exactly to the day of the death of Ethan Allen, whose enormous frame once stalked these very environs and whose house (Map - A) once stood nearby. While we waited for our meal, we toasted ourselves, and glancing at our fellow diners all oblivious of the momentous events which once transpired here, we silently toasted old Allen's ghost, and those of his fellow patriot cannon founders of long ago.


Crossley, D. W.

A Gun-Casting Furnace at Scarlets, Cowden, Kent. Journal of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 13,
1979: 239-249 London

Cannon Manufacturing at Pippingford, Sussex: The Excavation of Two Iron Furnaces of c. 1717. Journal of the Society
for Post-Medieval Archaeology, Vol. 9, 1975: 1-37 London

Gordon, Robert B.

"Materials for Manufacturing: The Response of the Connecticut Iron Industry to Technological Change and Limited
Resources". Technology & Culture, Vo. 2, 1983

(Pers. comm. 02/24/89).

"The Metallurgical Museum of Yale College and Nineteenth Century Ferrous Metallurgy in New England" in Journal of
Metals. July, 1982

Guilmartin, John F.,

The Guns of the Santissimo Sacramento, Technology & Culture, Vol. 24, 1983: 559-601

Harte, Charles R., Connecticut's Cannon, Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers Annual Report, V. 58, 1942: 52-7

Howell, Kenneth T., & Einar W. Carlson,

Men of Iron: Forbes & Adam, Pocketknife Press, Lakeville (Connecticut), 1980.

Jackson, Melvin H., & Carel de Beer,

Eighteenth Century Gunfounding, Newton Abbot, 1973. Biddles Ltd., Guildford, Surrey.

Middlebrook, Louis F.

Salisbury Connecticut Cannon - Revolutionary War. Newcomb & Gauss Co., Salem, MA. 1935.

Additional Reading


A Capsule History & Walking Tour of Salisbury Furnace, Etc. Salisbury Cannon Museum, A Children's Educational
Program of the Salisbury Association, Inc. Salisbury, CT 1992.

Rome, Adam Ward

Connecticut's Cannon: the Salisbury Furnace in the American Revolution. The American Revolution Bicentennial
Commission of Connecticut, Hartford, CT 1977.


Bernard W. Powell is a onetime industrial writer and editor who has written widely upon metals and metalworking, including foundries and casting. He is also a black powder shooter and more recently a cannon buff, having built a period field carriage for a one-pounder bastard gun. He is an accomplished blacksmith, and forged the necessary furniture for his cannon at his home smithy. He is a former member of the cannon crew aboard the restored (ca.1725) 24-gun British frigate, H.M.S. Rose, "oldest warship still afloat" and now of Bridgeport, CT. Bernie is also a trained archeologist and has conducted numerous investigations of both historic and prehistoric sites, mainly in New England. His reports have appeared in several professional journals.