Loading a muzzle loading cannon

by Colin Armstrong Maître des cannon

This Document will outline the loading and discharging of black powder cannon that are loaded via the muzzle and are of the field piece size. Larger weapons such as Bombards will be  covered in a separate document that can be found. This document is still under construction 29/08/2001

This document will also contain the Company of Ordinance cannon drill.

The principles of loading a black powder weapon are very simple, the safety requirements are likewise simple. As Keith Piggott has been heard to say when teaching gunners " if you should get your powder and match mixed up you will like as not disappear over the trees like a flaming Catherine wheel never to be seen again !" So keep your lit match well away from your powder at all times and we can proceed.

A black powder muzzle loading cannon of any size is basically just a tube with a hole bored nearly all the way down, and with a small hole a  "touchhole" near the closed or "Chamber" end. Powder is placed down the tube by means of a powder spoon or a paper or cloth cartridge is rammed down to the chamber. A quantity of wadding is then rammed on top of the powder and a ball, lantern shot or grape shot is placed in after it and seated home on top of the wadding. A little powder is then placed in the touchhole and the gun is ready to fire. to discharge the ball simply apply a burning match to the powder in the touchhole and Bang the ball or balls are on their way.  Now we just need to do it again and again and again......

A cannon needs a crew and the minimum number of people required to service a gun is three. A gun should never be crewed by one person. Each member of the crew has their own roles and responsibilities as well as keeping an eye on the rest of the crew and what is going on around the gun as well. I will break the crew down into the following roles; Powder handler, Loader, Swab, Rammer and Gun captain. these names are probably no where near historically correct but they are the ones we use. Let us look at the role of each of the crew;

Powder Handler

This is the crewmember responsible for taking a charge from the powder chest, either in a loading spoon or as a bagged charge and placing it into the barrel of the cannon. With a loading spoon they would lower it all the way down the barrel to the chamber before depositing the loose powder, and with a bagged charge they would place it into the barrel to be rammed into place.


This crew member is responsible for placing wadding and any projectile into the cannon and with assisting the rammer when required.


This crew member has a very important role, to clean the barrel between shots and ensure that the barrel is clear of burning embers and dry. The wet swab is never a favourite piece of equipment for gun crews but it is vital for the safety of the crew.


This is the person that rams the wadding and any projectiles into the cannon ensuring they are seated well against the powder. Also if a bagged charge is used the rammer will push it into place. An important role this and possibly the most dangerous as if the cannon discharges prematurely it is likely the rammer will be seriously injured.

Gun Captain

This is the person that needs to issue the orders, ensure that everything is done right, keep an eye on troops etc around his gun to ensure safety. The Gun captain will often prime and fire the gun as well. This is a responsible position and can be very stressful a good Gun Captain will know what each of his crew are doing and where at any given moment and know what others are doing around his gun. The Gun captain needs to be able to perform all the other roles and show his crew what they are supposed to be doing.


Step 1

The first thing to do is to inspect the gun for defects and to ensure it is ready to use. Put a worm or scraper down the barrel to ensure it is free of debris, small children etc.. Also check all the gun tools and most especially the mops. If the mop is not in good order then the gun should not be used.

Step 2

The first part of the loading is the mopping of the barrel and this should be done even with the first shot. So the wet mop is forced down the barrel and the crew listen for the hiss of air from the touch hole. If their is no hiss then the mop is too small and should not be used. The dry mop is then forced down and turned at the chamber end to ensure the barrel is dry.

N.B. The mopping of the barrel is critical for the safety of the crew and all gun crew need to be aware of this. A mop must be a compression fit into the bore or it will not work as it should.

Step 3

The powder handler now opens the powder chest, takes out a single charge and  pours it into the loading spoon and places the cover over it to prevent sparks coming into contact with the powder. The handler then brings forth the loading spoon and places the charge into the chamber of the gun

N.B. This is a dangerous operation as loose powder is being handled. So the handler needs to be aware of their surroundings and ensure that there are no sources of ignition near by. When placing the powder into the gun, a finger and thumb only grip on the spoon handle is advised just in case the mops did not do their job.

Step 4

The loader takes a quantity of wadding and places it into the gun, and it is rammed home by the rammer. It is important to keep the touch hole covered whilst ramming, to prevent powder loss and to prevent too much airflow which can bring embers back to life.

Step 5

The loader now places a ball, lantern shot or grapeshot into the barrel and the rammer seats it home against the wadding. Once again the touch hole must be covered when ramming.

N.B. For re-enactment ball and shot are not used. Wadding should also be carefully examined to ensure no projectiles are present. Grass pulled out of the ground is not acceptable as it will have mud and stones with it. Hay seems to make the best wadding and slightly dampened is best.

Step 6

The gun captain now aims the gun and checks it is safe to discharge it. A vent key it inserted into the touch hole, and if a bagged charge has been used the bag will need to be pierced. Priming powder is now poured into the touch hole. The gun captain now takes the linstock and standing clear of the wheels ( the gun will roll back upon firing) lights the powder in the touch hole. There will be a long delay as the powder burns down into the chamber and then the gun will discharge. 

And now you reload again.


N.B. If using a bagged charge then a worm or scraper needs to be used before the wet mop to remove any pieces of  the bag that might still be in the barrel.


Company cannon drill


This is the drill used by the company with a crew of three. Commands are in italics 



The gun captain wet and dry swabs the barrel whilst the powder handler prepares the loading spoon. As soon as the dry mop is removed from the barrel the powder handler advances and places the powder into the chamber. The powder handler then places a gloved thumb over the touch hole



The loader takes a twisted handful of hay and inserts it into the barrel. The gun captain then rams home the wadding, the loader places a second twisted handful of hay and inserts it into the barrel. The gun captain then rams home the wadding.



The powder handler removes their thumb from the touch hole and inserts the vent key into the touch hole and then primes the gun. The gun captain prepares the linstock and checks the field of fire is safe and that his crew are in their places.


Give fire

This call is made loudly so as to warn everyone in the area that the cannon is about to discharge. The gun captain having again checked it is safe to fire lights the priming powder and the gun goes off . N.B. on some battlefields the call of "have a care is used instead"


Other commands not often used



Upon hearing this command the crew retire to the powder chest and the gun captain makes it known to those around the gun position that there is a problem by holding the linstock horizontally over his head and shouting "beware the gun misfire". Having ensured the area is safe the gun captain will advance to the gun and clear the touch hole with a vent key. He will then re-prime the gun with a priming spoon (not a powder flask) and when safe to do so give the command "Give fire" and try to discharge the piece. 


Quench the gun

When the gun gets very hot it is not safe to load. to counter this the gun captain checks after every few shots to see how the gun is doing. If he deems it is getting to warm he will use this command. On hearing this command the loader wets a blanket and places it over the barrel of the gun. With the touch hole covered more water is poured onto the blanket to cool down the barrel. once the blanket is in use the command will mean the loader will pour more water onto the blanket.


Stand down the gun 

Upon hearing this command the loader pours water down the barrel of the gun and then depresses the barrel fully ( with Isabel this means the gun "stands" on its barrel). The powder handler secures the powder chest for transport. 


Clean the gun

Not a command used on the field unless their is sever fouling of the barrel which is preventing easy loading. Upon hearing this command the powder handler will bring forward the cleaning brush, the loader will place a little water in the barrel and then the loader and gun captain will scrub the barrel. Any water is then tipped out and a wet and then dry mop used to finish the cleaning.


Misfire dead gun

This command is issued it the weapon has been primed and misfired three times. water is poured into the touch hole but not the barrel ( n a cannon the water could weigh 8 to 10lbs and if the charge did ignite it is likely the gun would explode. The gun crew retire to the powder chest. the powder handler secures all powder ready for transport. The gun captain informs all troops and officers in the vicinity by holding aloft a red flag and shouting "beware the gun" once all in the vicinity are informed then the gun captain will inform the person in charge of the battle. If it is safe to remove the gun from the field then this may be done. If not the gun captain will stand with a red flag by the wheel of the gun until all persons are cleared from the area. and the gun can be wormed out.

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