Parrott rifle

A 200-pound Parrott rifle on Morris Island, South Carolina, 1865

The Parrott rifle was a type of muzzle-loading rifled artillery weapon used extensively in the American Civil War.[1]

Parrott Rifle

The gun was invented by Captain Robert Parker Parrott,[1] a West Point graduate. He resigned from the service in 1836 and became the superintendent of the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, New York. He created the first Parrott Rifle (and corresponding projectile) in 1860 and patented it in 1861.[2]

Parrotts were manufactured with a combination of cast and wrought iron. The cast iron made for an accurate gun, but was brittle enough to suffer fractures. Hence, a large wrought iron reinforcing band was overlaid on the breech to give it additional strength.[3] There were prior cannons designed this way, but the method of securing this band was the innovation that allowed the Parrott to overcome the deficiencies of these earlier models. It was applied to the gun red-hot and then the gun was turned while pouring water down the muzzle, allowing the band to attach uniformly.[3] By the end of the Civil War, both sides were using this type of gun extensively.

Parrott rifles were manufactured in different sizes, from 10-pounders up to the rare 300-pounder.[4] In the field, the 10- and 20-pounders were used by both armies. The 20-pounder was the largest field gun used during the war, with the barrel alone weighing over 1,800 pounds. The smaller size was much more prevalent; it came in two bore sizes: 2.9 inch (74 mm)and 3.0-in (76 mm). Confederate forces used both bore sizes during the war, which added to the complication of supplying the appropriate ammunition to its batteries. Until 1864, Union batteries used only the 2.9-in. The M1863, with a 3-in bore, had firing characteristics similar to the earlier model; it can be recognized by its straight barrel, without muzzle-swell. Its range was up to 2,000 yards (1,800 m) with a trained crew.[5]

Naval versions of the 20-, 30-, 60-, and 100-pound Parrotts were also used by the Union navy.[6] The 100-pound naval Parrott could achieve a range of 6900 yards (6300 meters) at an elevation of 25 degrees, or fire an 80-pound shell 7810 yards (7140 m) at 30 degrees elevation.[6]

Although accurate, as well as being cheaper and easier to make than most rifled artillery guns, the Parrott had a poor reputation for safety and they were shunned by many artillerists.[7] At the end of 1862, Henry J. Hunt attempted to get the Parrott eliminated from the Army of the Potomac's inventory, preferring the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle. During battles when the Parrott gun would burst, artillerists would chip out the jagged parts and continue firing.[8] In 1889, The New York Times called on the Ordnance Bureau of the War Department to discontinue use of the Parrott gun altogether, following a series of mishaps at the West Point training grounds.[7]

Several hundred Parrott gun tubes remain today, many adorning battlefield parks, county courthouses, museums, etc. The gun tubes made by Parrott's foundry are identifiable by the letters WPF (West Point Foundry), along with a date stamp between 1860 and 1889, found on the front face of the gun tube. The first production Parrott gun tube (Serial Number 1) still exists, and is preserved on a reproduction gun carriage in the center square of Hanover, Pennsylvania, as part of a display commemorating the Battle of Hanover. A list of many of the surviving tubes can be found at the National Register of Surviving Civil War Artillery.[9]

The 300-pound solution

By summer 1863, Union forces became frustrated by the heavily fortified Confederate position at Fort Sumter, and brought to bear the 10-inch (250 mm) Parrott, along with several smaller cannons. In all, two 80-pounder Whitworths, nine 100-pounder Parrotts, six 200-pounder Parrotts, and a 300-pounder Parrott[10] were deployed. It was widely believed in the north that massive 10-in Parrott would finally break the previously impenetrable walls of the fort, which had become the symbol of stalwart steadfastness for the Confederacy.[11]

The Washington Republican described the technical accomplishments of the 10-in Parrott:[11]

The breaching power of the 10-inch 300-pounder Parrott rifled gun, now about to be used against the brick walls of Fort Sumter, will best be understood by comparing it with the ordinary 24-pounder siege gun, which was the largest gun used for breaching during the Italian War.

The 24-pounder round shot, which starts with a velocity of 1,625 feet per second, strikes an object at the distance of 3,500 yards, with a velocity of about 300 feet per second. The 10-in rifle 300-pound shot has an initial velocity of 1,111 feet, and has afterward a remaining velocity of 700 feet per second, at a distance of 3,500 yards.

From well-known mechanical laws, the resistance which these projectiles are capable of overcoming is equal to 33,750 pounds and 1,914,150 pounds, raised one foot in a second respectively. Making allowances for the differences of the diameters of these projectiles, it will be found that their penetrating power will be 1 to 19.6. The penetration of the 24-pounder shot at 3,500 yards, in brick work, is sic 62 (misprint for 6.2) inches. The penetration of the 10-inch projectile will therefore be between six and seven feet into the same material.

To use a more familiar illustration, the power of the 10-in rifle shot at the distance of 3,500 yards, may be said to be equal to the united blows of 200 sledge hammers weighing 100 pounds each, falling from a height of ten feet and acting upon a drill ten inches in diameter.

The Washington Republican, August 12, 1863

Swamp Angel

The Swamp Angel

One of the most famous Parrott rifles is the Swamp Angel, an 8-inch (200 mm) gun used by federal Brigadier General Quincy Adams Gillmore to bombard Charleston, South Carolina. It was manned by the 11th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment.[12]

On August 21, 1863 Gillmore sent Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard an ultimatum to abandon heavily fortified positions at Morris Island or the city of Charleston would be shelled. When the positions were not evacuated within a few hours, Gillmore ordered the Parrott rifle to fire on the city. Between August 22 and August 23, the Swamp Angel fired on the city 36 times (the gun burst on the 36th round), using many incendiary shells which caused little damage and few casualties.[12] The battle was made more famous by Herman Melville's poem "The Swamp Angel".[13]

After the war, a damaged Parrott rifle said to be the Swamp Angel was moved to Trenton, New Jersey, where it rests as a memorial today at Cadwalader Park.[14][15]

Parrott rifles by size

A replica 10-pound Army Parrott rifle
Parrott gun No. 107 (USS Kanawha), a 3.67-in (20-lb) Naval Parrott
Parrott Guns by Size[6][16][17][18][19][20]
Model Length Weight Munition Charge size Maximum range at elevation Flight time Crew size
2.9-in (10-lb) Army Parrott 73 in 890 lb (400 kg) 10 lb (4.5 kg) shell 1 lb (0.45 kg) 5,000 yd (4,600 m) at 20 degrees 21 secs 8
3.0-in (10-lb) Army Parrott 74 in 890 lb (400 kg) 10 lb (4.5 kg) shell 1 lb (0.45 kg) 1,830 yd (1,670 m) at 5 degrees 7 secs 8
3.67-in (20-lb) Army Parrott 79 in 1,795 lb (814 kg) 19 lb (8.6 kg) shell 2 lb (0.91 kg) 4,400 yd (4,000 m) at 15 degrees 17 secs 8
3.67-in (20-lb) Naval Parrott 81 in 1,795 lb (814 kg) 19 lb (8.6 kg) shell 2 lb (0.91 kg) 4,400 yd (4,000 m) at 15 degrees 17 secs 8
4.2-in (30-lb) Army Parrott 126 in 4,200 lb (1,900 kg) 29 lb (13 kg) shell 3.25 lb (1.47 kg) 6,700 yd (6,100 m) at 25 degrees 27 secs 9
4.2-in (30-lb) Naval Parrott 102 in 3,550 lb (1,610 kg) 29 lb (13 kg) shell 3.25 lb (1.47 kg) 6,700 yd (6,100 m) at 25 degrees 27 secs 9
5.3-in (60-lb) Naval Parrott 111 in 5,430 lb (2,460 kg) 50 lb (23 kg) or 60 lb (27 kg) shell 6 lb (2.7 kg) 7,400 yd (6,800 m) at 30 degrees 30 secs 14
5.3-in (60-lb) Naval Parrott (breechload) 111 in 5,242 lb (2,378 kg) 50-lb or 60 lb (27 kg) shell 6 lb (2.7 kg) 7,400 yd (6,800 m) at 30 degrees 30 secs 14
6.4-in (100-lb) Naval Parrott 138 in 9,727 lb (4,412 kg) 80 lb (36 kg) or 100 lb (45 kg) shell 10 lb (4.5 kg) 7,810 yd (7,140 m) at 30 degrees (80-lb) 32 secs 17
6.4-in (100-lb) Naval Parrott (breechload) 138 in 10,266 lb (4,657 kg) 80 lb (36 kg) or 100 lb (45 kg) shell 10 lb (4.5 kg) 7,810 yd (7,140 m) at 30 degrees (80-lb) 32 secs 17
8-in (150-lb) Naval Parrott 146 in 16,500 lb (7,500 kg) 150 lb (68 kg) shell 16 lb (7.3 kg) 8,000 yd (7,300 m) at 35 degrees 180 ?
8-in (200-lb) Army Parrott 146 in 16,500 lb (7,500 kg) 200 lb (91 kg) shell 16 lb (7.3 kg) 8,000 yd (7,300 m) at 35 degrees ? ?
10-in (300-lb) Army Parrott 156 in 26,900 lb (12,200 kg) 300 lb (140 kg) shell 26 lb (12 kg) 9,000 yd (8,200 m) at 30 degrees 202.5 secs* ?

(*) This time is an educated guess, the time is unknown. Flight times appear to be extremely inaccurate. Example: 10-in (300-lb) projectile would have to average only 133 ft per second to be in flight for 202 seconds to cover 9,000yds. A more accurate estimate will be in the range of 30 seconds.

See also


  1. 1 2 "6.4" (100 pounder) Parrott Rifle / 7" Brooke Rifle". Historical Marker Database. Retrieved 24 September 2015.
  2. Pritchard Jr, Russ A. Civil War Weapons and Equipment, p.82. Globe Pequit Press, 2003. ISBN 1-58574-493-X.
  3. 1 2 Gusley, Henry O. and Edward T. Cotham. The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine, p.195. University of Texas Press 2006. ISBN 0-292-71283-9
  4. Jones, Terry L. Historical Dictionary of the Civil War, p.1047. Scarecrow Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8108-4112-6
  5. National Park Service: Gettysburg National Military Park. "Big Guns at Gettysburg". Retrieved January 18, 2008 (dead link)
  6. 1 2 3 Norfolk Naval Ship Yard: Civil War Guns in Trophy Park
  7. 1 2 New York Times, April 20, 1889. "Perils of Gunnery.; The Frequent Bursting of the Parrott Guns During Practice" Retrieved January 18, 2008.
  8. Earl J Hess.Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864, p.271. University of North Carolina Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8078-2931-8
  9. National Register of Surviving Civil War Artillery, a listing maintained by Civil War artillery historian Wayne Stark
  10. Johnson, John. The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumpter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865. Walker, Evans, and Cogswell Co, 1890. Digitized by Harvard University, August 9, 2006.
  11. 1 2 "The Big Gun: What the Three-Hundred Pound Parrott is Expected to Do". New York Times, August 14, 1863. Byline: From the Washington Republican
  12. 1 2 Wise, Stephen R. Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863. University of South Carolina Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0-87249-985-0.
  13. Vincent, Howard P. Collected Poems of Herman Melville. Packard and Company, 1947.
  14. "The Swamp Angel". The New York Times, December 1, 1876.
  15. Pictures of the Swamp Angel at Cadwallader
  16. The Encyclopedia of Civil War Artillery: Parrot Rifles Accessed January 18, 2008
  17. National Park Service: Artillery at Antietam. Accessed January 18, 2008.
  18. Bigelow, John. The Campaign of Chancellorsville. Yale University Press, 1910.
  19. Citing Martin, David G. "Data File 023: Civil War Heavy Artillery". Strategy & Tactics, No. 81, Jul/Aug. 1980
  20. The Encyclopedia of Civil War Artillery: Projection Tables, citing "The Confederate Ordnance Manual". Accessed January 21, 2008.

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