French Field Artillery in North America

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Introduction

At the start of the war in North America, the ordnance available for the defence of Canada was largely composed of iron naval guns. This is understandable as Canada was administered through the Minister of Marine and Colonies; this office also administered the French Navy.

The French Navy was armed with 4-, 6-, 8-, 12-, 18-, 24-, and 36-pounders. By the 1720s, these were nearly always iron guns. The individual guns being supplied to Canada are thought to be older guns, no longer wanted in sea service or taken from heavily damaged ships that had reached Canada. The French Navy also employed a number of mortars: 8-, 9-, and 12-inches, for use in bomb ketches and gunboats (Douglas 1855, p. 178; British Nomenclature 8 ½-, 10 ½- and 12 ½-inches). All these mortars match French Army designations, pre-Vallière.

For the artillery present in Canada (1749), there is detailed list by location (O’Callaghan 1858, referenced here as Documents Vol. X, p. 195). This list includes all ordnance from the largest cannon to swivel guns and iron grenade mortars for a dozen posts. Only Québec had a formidable ordnance store, some 178 cannon including twenty-five iron 24-pdrs, twenty-two iron 18-pdrs and thirty-six iron 12-pdrs. However, there were only a few mortars at Québec: a single brass 12-inch 4-line mortar, a single brass 9-inch 6-line mortar, a single iron 6-inch mortar, and three iron grenade mortars. Montréal housed twenty-seven iron 6-pdrs, five iron 4-pdrs, a single iron 3-pdr, two 6-in iron mortars, and two iron grenade mortars. The largest bronze cannon were three 4-pdrs at Québec. There were no howitzers anywhere in Canada.

The Saint-Maurice Foundry at Trois-Rivières in Canada produced bar iron for export to France, but munitions were manufactured. In 1748, five 6-inch iron mortars and six iron grenade mortars were cast. That year, Saint-Maurice also produced 161 six-inch shells (5" 8 line), 110 nine-inch shells, 144 twelve-inch shells, and 2,700 cannon shot. One of these 6-inch mortars was in Montcalm’s siege train at Oswego and at Fort William Henry. After 1752, difficulty in staffing the foundry with skilled workman was a distinct problem and limited the output. These Canadian-made 6-inch mortars were slightly smaller in the bore and shell than French-made 6-inch mortars.

Please note that the current article is more specifically dedicated to Montcalm’s artillery train. For a more general overview of the French artillery in North America, please refer to our article French Naval Guns and the French Artillery in Canada.

Description

Artillery in Canada

Neither the French or British Navies were fitted with bronze guns, it was simply too expensive to equip fleets in bronze. However, both the French and British Armies favored the use of bronze guns. Even in Europe, the number of guns in a field army was at most only a few hundred while thousands of guns would be needed to equip a fleet. In North America, artillery trains would only approach a few dozen guns.

In 1732, the French Army adopted the Vallière System of Ordnance, but very few pieces, if any, seemed to have reached Canada. Under the 1732 Vallière System, there were 4-, 8-, 12-, 16- and 24-pdrs; 8- and 12-in mortars, but no howitzers until about 1749 (Persy 1832) or slightly earlier. The guns were all bronze and there was no distinction between siege and field pieces. These guns were long, accurate and were intended to hit hard at range, but they were decidedly heavy. The sole exception was the short 4-pdr à la Suédoise which was a later addition (Model 1740) — this gun is often considered to be outside the Vallière System.

Bronze is approximately 90% copper and 10% tin. True brass is 90% copper and 10% zinc. Ordnance was only manufactured in bronze or iron. The value of bronze ordnance is as mobile field guns or as part of a siege train with the leading attribute being their lighter weight when compared to iron. Though bronze is denser than iron, bronze is more elastic than iron. Bronze guns could be cast with thinner walls than iron guns of the same caliber and length, thereby achieving lower barrel weights. Language confusion occurs around bronze guns, the British routinely reference brass guns, even though they were bronze. At the same time, the French would reference "canon de fonte" which literally translates to cannon cast, but the meaning is a bronze gun or mortar; iron guns would routinely be referenced as iron or "fer."

The bronze army cannon and gun carriages of the Vallière System were simply not being sent to Canada. Under Vallière, mortars are manufactured only as 8-in and 12-in bronze pieces. During the war, any army ordnance arriving from France were older iron pieces, pre-dating the Vallière System. In 1757, seventeen mortars arrived from France. Eight were iron 6-inch mortars, these pieces were at least 25-years old and not in good condition (Documents X, p. 655). The 6-in designation links to the French Army. The other mortars were larger, but they are iron suggesting older ordnance. Outside of supplying mortars, it is difficult to identify French Army contributions to the Canadian artillery store.

Montcalm’s Brass Artillery Train

By necessity, the French adapted and after a series of victories assembled a bronze siege train from captured British guns. By the end of 1757 and described in British nomenclature, the French had captured at least nine large-bore brass pieces:

  • 1 x 18-pdr
  • 2 x heavy 12-pdrs
  • 4 or 5 x 8-in howitzers (conflicting French correspondence)
  • 1 x 10-in mortar
  • 1 x 8-in mortar (burst at Oswego? conflicting inventories as to brass or iron)

These pieces had the attribute of “range”. Plus there were another twenty "smaller" captured brass pieces:

  • 4 x medium 12-pdrs
  • 5 x light 12-pdrs
  • 6 x 6-pdrs
  • 5 x royal 5 ½-in mortars

Between 1755 and 1757, the French had captured some thirty brass pieces of some size. In addition, there were about fourteen 4 ⅖-in coehorn brass mortars, most from Oswego – a few may have been coehorn howitzers. Another sixty iron guns would be captured including one iron 12-pdr, six iron 9-pdrs, one iron 8-in mortar, and one iron 8-in howitzer; the remainder being small-bore iron ordnance (6-inches or less) and coehorns. Besides the ordnance, critical gunpowder and shot stores would be captured. By the end of the war, the shortage of gunpowder and shell was more severe than the shortage of artillery pieces (Documents Vol. X, pp. 655, 863).

The five captured light brass 12-pdrs were little more than heavy-hitting 6-pdrs; these guns should not be over-valued. At this time, the pattern for the light British 12-pdrs was just 1,000 pounds, five-foot-long. Powder charges were reduced compared to medium 12-pdrs. During the Napoleonic Era, the same five-foot-long light 12-pdr weighed about 1,340 pounds.

For three years, the captured British ordnance and stores were key to Montcalm's success. After 1758, there would be no more victories over the British. At least through 1758, Montcalm kept his brass ordnance close-by and did not assign these guns to any fortifications, such as Niagara or Carillon. The only notable exception is the presence of a 9-in brass mortar at Carillon on September 24, 1757. The only other brass 9-in mortar was at Québec.

However, the capture of so much British ordnance at the beginning of the war should not be allowed to solely dominate the picture. French forts were still predominantly equipped with iron naval guns. During the war, a significant number of additional naval guns reached Canada.

From the viewpoint of Montcalm, the value of the captured brass ordnance was largely with the shell pieces (mortars and howitzers) and the captured ammunition and gunpowder stores. In all likelihood, an appreciable supply of 9-inch shell was captured at Fort William Henry — the British had moved their 9-in mortars (10-in - British nomenclature) south to Fort Edward, but not all the shell storage. Montcalm's 9-in mortar was probably one of the few long-range shell pieces with an ample ammunition supply. The only large-bore howitzers available to Montcalm were the captured 8-in howitzers (six pieces, both brass and iron). Supplying shells for the 8-in howitzers and 8-in mortars would prove much more difficult, these were designed to accept a 7.75-inch diameter shell, not a good fit for the shell stores then in Canada. Having lighter weight brass cannon was more of a bonus than anything else. The movement and use of iron cannon does not represent any real problems for Montcalm, even as it regards the naval 18-pdrs. French transport was chiefly done via water and the short difficult portages were "human". Any movement by wheeled carriages required horse or oxen and the fodder to feed the animals. Outside the Saint-Laurent River Valley, there was little fodder for the animals. As attested by Bougainville, the French would not be able to move south via a "wheeled" artillery train simply because of the lack of fodder.

British vs French Nomenclatures

In the 18th century, the identity of measurements is not set. The confusion is made severe as the language is often the same, but with different values: 1 French inch = 1.066 British inches; 1 French foot = 1.066 British feet; and 1 French Parisian pound (weight) = 1.073 British pounds (9126 grains per a French pound; 8,455 grains per a British pound). Because of these inconsistencies, each nation would describe the same gun differently. It is very easy to confuse British and French references to the same piece of ordnance. The following list represents British ordnance captured and how those pieces would likely be referenced in French correspondence.

Ordnance Nomenclatures
British French
18-pounder 16-pounder
12-pounder 12-pounder
Light 12-pounder 12- or 11-pounder
9-pounder 8-pounder
6-pounder 5- or 6-pounder
10-inch mortar 9-inch mortar
8-inch mortar or howitzer 6- or 7-inch mortar or howitzer

Unlike the French Army, the British Army manufactured heavy, medium and light pieces of the same calibre. If a captured British piece was a heavy gun, the French might assign it a slightly different designation, a higher number. At Oswego, two of six brass 12-pdrs that were captured were labeled as 14-pdrs. The other four brass 12-pdrs were designated 12-pdrs; the captured brass 18-pdr was designated a 19-pdr. Outside the 3-pdr, if the French described a gun with an odd number, it was likely a captured British gun. The same is not true for mortars, particularly as it regards any 9-inch mortar. There is an older French Army 9-inch 6-line brass mortar pattern – before the start of the war, one of these mortars was at Québec. The most common mortar in Canada before the war was the 6-inch iron mortar – five pieces (Canadian-made); eight more would be sent during the war (French-made). Iron grenade mortars were also common, but only a few at any location (Documents X, p. 195). All howitzers used by Montcalm were captured British pieces, either brass or iron.

Principal Artillery Officers

Francois-Marc-Antoine Le Mercier was Montcalm's principal artillery officer. Le Mercier was Canadian and headed a 50-man company of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine — these were naval troops, long established in Canada. Mercier had an awkward relationship with the French regular officers under Montcalm as he was closely tied to Francois Bigot (the corrupt Colonial Intendant) and Lotbinière (the Canadian Engineer) who designed and profited so much during the construction of Fort Carillon (Bougainville Journals).

In 1757, under Le Mercier and Lotbinière, the French managed to construct both "siege" carriages and garrison carriages for Montcalm's artillery train being assembled at Carillon. Following the victory at Fort William Henry and Montcalm's withdrawal to Canada with the vast majority of his artillery train, there were still some 28 garrison carriages and 30 travelling gun carriages at Carillon, including two travelling carriages for 18-pdrs, “de campagne à grand rang” (Le Mercier, September 24, 1757 - Library of Canada Archives, MG1-C11A). Among the skills of the Canonniers-Bombardiers seemed to be the art of constructing travelling gun carriages, essentially siege carriages. Undoubtedly, both Lotbinière and Mercier financially gained from each carriage produced and sold to the King.

References

Bougainville, Louis Antoine. 1964. Adventure in the Wilderness. The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760. Translated and Edited by Edward P. Hamilton. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Douglas, Howard. 1855. A Treatise on Naval Artillery. John Murray, London.

Dunnigan, Brian Leigh. 1996. Siege - 1759: The Campaign Against Niagara. Old Fort Niagara Association, Youngstown, New York.

Hughes, B.P. 1969. British Smooth-Bore Artillery. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Le Mercier, Francois-Marc-Antoine. September 24, 1757. Etat de l'artillerie, ustensiles et munitions de guerre qui sont effectives au Fort de Carillon. Date of October 30, 157 is also attached. There are some 30 "siege" carriages and 28 marine/garrison gun carriages plus a half-dozen mortars beds in the inventory. As travel is by water, limbers are few. Library and Archives of Canada. MG1-C11A, Volume 102, Microfilm Reel Number C-2421. Item ID Number: 3073056. On-line.

O'Callaghan, E. B. 1858. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York: Procured in Holland, England and France. Vol. X, Weed Parsons and Company, Printers, Albany. Online.

Pargellis, Stanley 1936. Military Affairs in North America, 1748-1765. "MANA". Selected Documents from the Cumberland Papers in Windsor Castle. American Historical Association, 1936. Reprinted: Archon Books, 1969. Online.

Persy, N. 1832. Elementary Treatise on the Forms of Cannon & Various Systems of Artillery. Translated for the use of the Cadets Of the U.S. Military Academy from the French of ProfessorN. Persy of Metz. Museum Restoration Service, 1979.

Acknowledgements

Kenneth P Dunne for the initial version of this article