April Fools Day 2007: Cannon Shoot!


One of the great things about our annual steamboat gatherings in the California Delta is the Saturday afternoon tailgate swapmeet. A few years back I couldn't resist: I bought a cannon! Due to this and that it sat under a bench in the workshop for several years before I could do any work on it. But the day finally arrived late last year and I set to work building a proper naval gun carriage, one that would be more or less historically accurate and scaled to fit the barrel. I got everything done except the tompion block (used to fix elevation); enough to make a show-and-tell presentation at a certain annual Conference I attend. But after that event the cannon went back to the shop and disappeared once more under the workbench.

Then a month or so back I got a phonecall from my pal Bruce, the guy who had originally turned my cannon barrel: how would I like to travel somewhere safe and learn how to shoot it? Well this was the third time he'd called, but the first time I could make it! I couldn't pass this up and plans were laid. Word got round and eventually four of us were rarin' to go. We drove from seperate towns in two vehicles, to rendezvous in Willits, CA.

Eugene and I arrived first, so we went out to a random restaurant (first mistake) and got Mexican food. Service was great, food was yummy, good guacamole, great rellenos. Later that evening we pigged out on peanuts before connecting with our two cohorts. The next day we all crammed into Chris's 4x4 to make the last very rough 30 miles to our destination. Somewhere about 5 bumpy miles shy of our destination that Mexican food came back to haunt me; gack! Then we made it to our destination only to be greeted by a padlocked gate! Maybe half an hour later, having eschewed the offered shovel and paper towels (poison oak everywhere!!) and with tightly clenched cheeks, I bumped down the road to the firing range. There I was greeted by the most wonderful thing I could imagine: an outhouse! Just as I'm about to waddle off to ascend the throne Eugene tells me that the most common black widow bite on men is on the balls while doing what I was about to do. I made a point to wipe the seat reeeally good before I got to work, thanks.. Long story short time: I don't know if it was the Mex or the peanuts or the road snacks, but let's just say I had to make more than one trip there by day's end; I will be eternally grateful to the guy who gave me the paper towels...

So Eugene and I eventually got my cannon unloaded and lugged all and sundry to the firing line (next time must remember to bring a wagon!). I had thought to bring almost everything including a homebrew ramrod, but I hadn't thought about the sponging/mopping portion of the process. Fortunately our host had thought of everything and gave me a lesson in proper care, maintenance and operation of my cannon.

Photo #1: Shot of the new gun carriage I built for my cannon, next to the one it came with originally. That little weekend project has taken three weeks, so far... The barrel has a 1.75 in. bore, or golfball sized, so ammo is plentiful. The barrel was turned from a chunk of railroad car axle and measures 5in. dia at the fat end, tapering to 3-1/4 in at the muzzle, so minimum tube thickness is 3/4in; it's just barely light enough that one guy can lug it around the shop without getting a hernia.
Photo #2: Ready on the right! I had to bump up the brightness a bit to bring out the details.. That's my heavy little popgun in the foreground. Next is a large Lyle Gun (typically used to fire an iron bar with a rope attached, to secure ship to ship at sea). Behind that is a .75 cal. Napoleon which liked to flip backward and cartwheel thru the air when fired! Then there's a larger Napoleonic style cannon, maybe 1/2 scale. The naval gun at the far end was scratchbuilt by Bruce. There were several mortars further down but they're not visible in this photo..
Photo #3: Ready on the left! That big brute is a section of 90mm tank barrel and it really packed a wallop!
Photo #4: Closeup of the 90mm cannon. Curiously the section of barrel chosen has been mounted backwards; i.e. the breech thread was machined onto what was the muzzle of the tank barrel. Note also the tackle he's staked to the ground downrange: this was a real necessity, as recoil knocked the whole kit and kaboodle back several feet at each shot! A nicely made carriage; I'm going to add his tompion block dovetail idea into my own gun carriage.
Photo #5: Take a gander downrange. The three targets directly in line (I thought...) with my cannon were cardboard squares, maybe 3 ft on a side. The range was about 100 yards and downslope 20 to 30ft. so we had a plunging fire situation. In addition to half a dozen cannon there were two mortars on hand. They looked identical, but one was obviously using a more vigorous powder and it could easily smack a concrete-filled soda can over the ridge and out of sight. I'm not sure what the "target" was, but they were great fun to watch!
Photo #6: Bruce scores a hit! That hole's maybe 2-1/2 inches around where the round punched thru. By day's end that hole had company, but not much, heh.
Photo #7: The secret to success: Bruce demonstrates his homebrew removable aiming widget, which nestles into three shallow depressions on the barrel. He made the initial alignment by putting a laser down the barrel, then tweaking the sight tube until it lined up with the beam. Several others had removable signts of varying complexity; this one seemed the most straightforward and simplest of the lot.
Photo #8: Whomsoever knocked the "treasure chest" off the galleon got to take it home! There were several direct hits from crack shots with blackpowder pistols (a heckuva shot at that range!) but in the end only the wind knocked it off its perch...
Photo #9: Our fearless leader looking suitably piratical, Bruce, the only one I asked to pose, heh.

In short we had a grand time and I only wish we could have arrived sooner and stayed later. I learned quite a bit too; here are a few observations worth passing on to anyone thinking of getting into this activity:

-With 50cc of F Pyrodex I can shoot a golfball waaaay the hell out there! a little goes a long way. Smaller loads make bigger messes of wadding in front of the cannon; a larger load tends to obliterate it.

-Aiming ain't trivial, particularly when the ground is sloping in two axes. I never hit a target, but I did hit the branches of the same tree (to the right of the cardboard targets) three times! Consistency must count for something, eh?

-Ramrods should have a constant diameter, just in case (no, it didn't happen!)

-Pyrodex is corrosive; barrels need to be swabbed repeatedly with soap and water, then swabbed dry before reloading. After the day's end one does all of the above, followed by liberal applications of oil.

-Several folks with larger bore weapons were making cannon balls out of zinc instead of lead. The lower density produces less recoil. Apparently zinc is slightly cheaper than lead these days, too.

-Black powder is rare; Pyrodex is the common replacement but finding really coarse stuff ain't easy.

-Paper towels can be used for wadding, but it makes a heckuva mess downrange. Good nesting material for the birdies, eh? I'm wondering if a wooden or plastic sabot might be the way to go next time...

-Every cannon there used fuse. I had expected to see one or two equipped with percussion caps, but I only saw this on handguns. I'm thinking of equipping my cannon with one just for grins. They're cheap from several catalogs and they're also easy to make from scratch. Not sure how reliable they are in sending a spark all the way down a fuse hole tho...

-And best of all it seems that, despite past evidence to the contrary, not all cannon nuts are survivialists and Republicans: some are downright friendly, heh.

Return to Road Trips
Return to "Steamboat Ed" Haas