The Civil War Relicman,
Winchester, Virginia USA.
Ridgeway Reference Archive, Civil War artillery.
Artillery disarmament and restoration.
This is the "Ridgeway Reference
Archive", a research tool for educational purposes only, and is provided at no
cost to the reader. Some of the relics listed are retained in the
author's collection, most reside in other collections and are not owned by the
author. None of the items listed in this section are for sale, please
refer to relicman.com sales listings for items offered for sale. This is a
work in progress, I list items as I get to them, there are many patterns that
are not listed yet, this list will be regularly updated as I get pictures and
descriptions for more items. I will also correct mistakes, so if you see
any please tell me.
All items listed are believed to be authentic to the Civil War or as otherwise described.
Any excavated relics have been recovered from private property with owners permission.
This information is available for research purposes, pictures may be used by permission only.
All artillery items listed have been disarmed.
Caution: Disarmament of Civil War artillery shells is very dangerous. This page does NOT provide sufficient information to inform collectors as to proper disarmament. A shell should be disarmed only by a person professionally trained in the proper technique.
All Civil War exploding ordnance were originally armed with black powder. For black powder to be effective, it needs to be dry, fluffy with small granules, and contained within a confined space. "Keep your powder dry" is an old saying from the black powder days, meaning that powder is useless when wet or even damp. Black powder is used at Civil War re-enactments, black powder competition shoots, black powder weapons are given special hunting privileges in many localities. Black powder was used in hand weapons and artillery throughout the Civil War, after the war explosives were improved but none of these improvements occurred until after the Civil War.
Black powder must be dry to burn. Black powder is extremely sensitive to wetness. Powder must be dry to ignite, this is one of the reasons Civil War battles generally were not fought in wet conditions. Powder once wet can be dried and once dried it will burn. However if you try to burn wet or damp black powder, it will only burn a granule at a time as it is dried, this is why wet or damp powder may fizzle and spark, but if it is wet it will not detonate.
Black power must be in granule form to burn. Black powder is actually a mixture of products, a small amount of explosive chemical mixed with charcoal and sulfur, all ground to a fine particle size or "powder". The sulfur is present to fuel the burn, the charcoal gives it fluff,, the actual explosion is from the chemical product, which is potassium nitrate. So if black powder is compacted on compressed, it will only burn as outer layers are burned, to explode all of the particles need to ignite nearly simultaneous, if it burns a layer at a time, it still burns but it is a slow burn and will produce an amazing amount of smoke, but it is not an explosive burn.
Black powder must be in a confined space to detonate. If a re-enactor loads a blank charge into a musket and fires it, you get a loud bang, smoke and noise, it is an explosion, but harms no one, this because the energy of the explosion is released out the muzzle of the musket, the compartment is not contained. The same occurs when a cannon is fired with blanks, just a bigger bang. Now put a projectile in the muzzle and put more powder in, and something has to give, the projectile is powered outside of the bore. If there is enough powder, and the projectile is jammed or stuck in some manner then the bore could be damaged or the weapon actually explode. Why? The space is confined and there is nowhere for the gases to release so something breaks apart. If the muzzle is open you still get the explosion but the energy releases out the weak spot, which is the open muzzle.
It takes heat to burn black powder. The flash point of black powder is about 500 degrees, heat from a match, spark from a percussion cap or heat from a drill bit needs to reach the powder to make it burn. If powder is in a container and the container is dropped, this will not create an explosion unless the heat of the container or some other penetration reaches the flash point.
So the trick to disarming a Civil War artillery shell is to keep it wet and cool. Handling an artillery shell is not dangerous, provided heat or fire is not introduced. The safest thing to do is actually to leave it alone, but of course common sense would dictate that if a shell is disarmed then you do not have to worry about heat or other problems causing it to detonate. And you DO NOT want to ship a shell through the mail or with a commercial carrier without it being disarmed. Once disarmed is is nothing more than an inert iron casting, it is not "liquid, fragile, perishable or potentially hazardous".
The only "safe" way to disarm a shell is to drill it, once drilled the powder inside is wetted and removed. The act of drilling can be extremely dangerous, I can site two serious accidents recently from drilling. Lawrence Christopher, Dalton Georgia was apparently using a hand drill to drill a 20 pounder Parrott shell which detonated. Lawrence survived the accident but was very severely injured. It also appears he was using a hand drill with the shell in a vice on a table. Likely the drill bit got hot and detonated the contents. Hydrogen sulfide gas can also build up under pressure inside of a shell and this is also a volatile product, the heat from his bit could easily have reached a temperature sufficient to detonate either the gas or the powder inside. The other accident involved Sam White. He will killed as result of detonation of a 9 inch Dalgren ball. The ball had apparently been successfully drilled, but the contents not wetted or flushed. Sam was using a wire brush on a grinder to brush the loose rust from the outer surface, this cause major sparking, and apparently a spark entered the drill hole and detonated the dry contents inside.
Both accidents could have and should have been prevented. The shells needed to be drilled in wet conditions, drilled remotely, and the contents wetted and flushed. Drilling is the only way to effectively disarm, but the act of drilling can be dangerous and unpredictable. I use titanium bits and submerge the shells underwater. The shells are cast iron, this is metal drill bits drilling through metal. The friction of drilling can cause a bit to heat up, and until water is introduced inside the shell, you have dry powder and a hot bit or hot metal and that can cause a detonation. There is also the possibility that a bit could bind and spark as it enters the cavity. A third problem is that there can be hydrogen sulfide gas under pressure inside a shell and this is a gas with a much lower flash point than powder. If it burns then it can detonate the powder inside.
There is only one defense to this. THE SHELLS NEED TO BE DRILLED IN WET CONDTIONS AND THE DRILLING NEEDS TO BE DONE REMOTELY WELL AWAY FROM PEOPLE, PETS, NEIGHBORS, BUILDING STRUCTURES OR ANYTHING THAT CAN BE DAMAGED FROM FLYING FRAGMENTS OR AN EXPLOSION. I use a commercial drill press, the press is set completely underground in a big hole, the hole is covered with sufficient material to contain any detonation of any Civil War projectile, the shells are submerged in water, and nobody, (including me) is anywhere near the drill press when it is operating.
I do not recommend that a shell be "defused" or "spiked". Defusing means removing or damaging the fuse in some manner to keep it from functioning. This is simply too dangerous and not effective. It is not the fuse that is the problem anyway, it is the black powder inside.
Once a shell is drilled, and the powder inside is wetted, I use a small diameter hose to flush out as much loose powder as possible. However it seems almost impossible to get all of the powder out. There are many small places inside that can trap powder and if it is caked and hard it may not flush out. If a ball is filled with case shot, the powder can be mixed to some extent with the case shot. Most Federal case shot shells seem to have the balls packed in matrix, either asphalt (black) or sulfur (yellow). And some Confederate case shot shells appear to have had the balls simply packed in powder. In any case there can easily be instances where remnants of powder are mixed with the packing material. Powder can also be trapped around fuses, or caked in the irregularity of the core casting. The powder that remains can be flammable but will not be explosive.
I strong recommend that any drill holes be kept open. And if a fuse is placed in an empty carcass, it needs to either be removable or a hole made so that the empty cavity can be observed. It is important to keep some sort of hole open into the cavity of all shells. If there are or were flammable products inside, such as case shot matrix, or remnants of the powder, an open hole assures that the space is kept open and not confined. A burn is extremely unlikely but if a burn does occur it will be minor and will release out the open hole.
The way to confirm that a shell is disarmed is to simply inspect it and observe and verify some sort of open hole into the cavity. If a shell is a solid casting, then it does not need to be drilled, it is nothing more than an iron casting that never had any sort of explosive or flammable content. If a shell was fuzed you need to be able to probe the cavity from one end to the other. I use a wire coat hanger, just cut the ends of a coat hanger long enough to reach through a hole to the other end of the cavity, as long as it reaches and the hole is left open, then it is safely disarmed even if there is powder residue left inside. If the probe will not reach the other side, then there is still the possibility that it has not bee safely disarmed.
Click here for a more complete technical description of black powder (prepared by Dr. Michael A Rosen).
Here is more information from the DOD re safe disarming of Civil War projectiles:
CIVIL WAR EXPLOSIVE ORDNANCE, 1861-1865, 16 June 1972, U.S. Naval School, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, U.S. Naval Ordnance Station, Indian Head, Maryland.
Once disarmed, here are some simple procedures for restoration:
12 pounder smoothbore, Bormann fuse
This 12 pounder Bormann ball looked to be in horrible shape. It was recovered from the Savannah River which could either have been brackish or fresh. It was fresh. I was told that the fuse had fallen out of the shell, because these shells were left outside for an extended period of time, 15 or more years. However note the major build up of scale in the fuse hole. If the fuse had deteriorated and crumbled out after recovery from the river, then you would expect to have less scale in the hole and more scale on the outer surface. This is the opposite. Upon cleaning the fuse hole was sharp, threads were fully intact. Upon cleaning I further discovered that the fuse hole is not completely round!. And there is a major mold seam around the middle and there are major air bubbles in the casting, not shown in this picture. So I conclude there never was a fuse in this shell, they couldn't screw it in because of the irregular shape of the hole! And look at the metal, this is as slick as they come. The resultant exposed mold seam and casting bubbles, (bubbles in the casting do not come from ground action) strongly indicates this is a Confederate shell. It restored very nicely and yielded a very pleasant surprise.
12 pounder smoothbore, Bormann fuse
This one came from the same Savannah River cache and was the worst of the lot. Note the dark spots on the raw shell, did turn into pit holes on restoration, but the metal was otherwise stable and once cleaned and coated they are not distracting. It is important to remove all the rust on a shell, and then paint it to prevent further oxidation. The paint merely seals it. I use clear polyurethane which works as an effective seal. This shell will rust no further.
6 pounder smoothbore, Bormann fuse
In addition to major flaking of the metal, the fuse on this six pounder looked like it was ready to crumble. All I did to the fuse was a very light brushing with a toothbrush, then painted it and the metal once the metal was cleaned. Again there are a few pit holes but they are not distracting and you can now see some of the time marks on the fuse.
Read shell - CSA 3
This tall read was found hanging from a gate. It was filled with concrete and had a bar stuck in it, and was "functioning" as a gate pull! Remember this was junk once. So it was in the worst condition, exposed for probably 75 years to weather. At one point it had been painted white, to match the gate no doubt. When I first recovered it I removed the rod and crud inside, and figured the copper time fuse was simply missing. Not so, restoration revealed that it was cast with a tapered smooth hole for a wooden time fuse. So not only did the metal turn out to be nearly slick, there are no missing parts.
Parrott shell 3.67 inch for 20 pounder
This 20 pounder Parrott, showed major flaking with lots of rust bubbles. It was buried in decent ground and came out in good shape. The fuse is missing, but threads sufficiently in tact, a replacement fuse could be installed.
Here is a classic. I bought this shell from an experienced collector who has had at least a thousand shells pass through his hands. And I am no slouch either! Both of us thought it was a solid twelve pounder, with a rust burr. Well the rust burr turned out the be a wooden time fuse for a Confederate 12 pound polygonal cavity shell. So here was a case of significant misidentification until the shell was properly cleaned!
The process I use to restore shells is briefly described as follows:
Electrolysis via a battery charger:
You need the following equipment: A cheap battery charger but one with a amp gauge, set of battery jump cables, a rubber tub, industrial eye protection, heavy duty rubber gloves with no holes, water, caustic (sodium hydroxide) and a place outside. Caution: Your electrolysis shop must be safely away from children, pets and your neighbors. It also helps to have an understanding and tolerant spouse. Electrolysis will go much easier if you are careful to remember birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc.
Safety precaution. It is a dirty process and the chemicals you are using are extremely caustic. You need to have a hose near by fully turned on and operating any time you are near the contraption. If you get even small amounts of caustic on your skin or eyes or swallow it, it can be very deadly. If you do splatter yourself, first and very quickly you need to thoroughly rinse. Do this absolutely first and quickly. Then get immediate medical treatment.
Follow these steps:
1. Fill the tub with water.
2. Attach the jump cables to your charger. The reason you need the cables is that you will chew up cables like crazy and so you need to keep the charger as far away from the contraption as possible.
3. "Charge" the solution with caustic. Draino is a commercial product that will do the job although it will take a good bit of it. If you are running say a 5 gallon tub, (it should be a minimum of 5 gallons) it will probably take a full can to charge the solution and may take two cans.
4. Attach the negative charge to the artillery shell (or other iron relic) and attach the positive charge to a piece of junk. The piece of junk can be anything but should preferably be another piece of iron. It will very quickly be eaten up so be careful not to get this backwards and do not use a relic. The iron needs to be disposable.
5. Turn the charger on but be very careful not to run more amperage than the charger is rated for. You actually have the two ends in a water bath so electricity is passing back and forth. Do not stick your hand in the water while this is going on. If the amperage is too high, you need to either dilute the solution with more water, move the relic further away from the junk piece (this is why your container needs to be larger rather than smaller. Gases will be discharged from the solution when it is working properly and it will froth up. The gasses are hydrogen and oxygen. Water is constantly being separated into its elemental states, hence you get oxygen coming off the positive and hydrogen off the negative. The froth is the hydroxide being stirred up and it is nasty, and will coat any and everything near it with a nasty mean coating, hence this gig needs to be outside.
6. From time to time you will need to add more hydroxide (Draino) It is not technically consumed but it is discharged with the gasses in the frothing and it attaches to the relic and so it does need to be replenished. What is going on chemically is an "oxidation" process is occurring on the junk end and a "reduction" process is occurring with your relic. You need to run the process at least 24 hours, a week or two weeks is even better. It is also better to run at low amperage (say 1 or 2 versus the 8 or 10 maximum that your charger is probably rated for.
7. Once the process has run its course, the orange or red rust will now be black, gooey and ugly. Now you must move quickly. Wait a half an hour and you have waited too long. Pull the object and wire brush the iron very quickly. Most of it will come off but you do have to brush it to remove it. I find that this process has to be repeated at least two or three times to get the rust sufficiently soft to remove it. When you wire brush plan on getting extremely dirty. It is best to do this cleaning when you spouse is out with the girls and not available to supervise the process.
8. On final cleaning, thoroughly wash and hand brush the relic. You must get all, and I mean all of the caustic removed. And you must do all of this within 30 minutes of pulling it from the solution, as the black weakened oxide will very quickly turn orange again and it will do it before your very eyes.
9. After it is cleaned and carefully and thoroughly dried, you need to coat it with something. Some people use wax, tung or other oils. I prefer clear polyurethane spray paint. I apply a dozen or so light coats.
10. If you do not like the way it turned out, or if you disapprove of somebody else's restoration, the solution is very simple. If you put a painted or otherwise improperly restored shell in the solution, the paint will flake off in a very short time, (just an hour or two). Just skip the brushing step, and set the shell out. It will revert to the fully rusted state within 30 days, often shorter. Some people tell me they prefer the relic to be "original" and "rusted". Not in my collection, but if you want it that way it is much easier to "re- rust" a shell than to clean it. In fact if you put it in the electrolysis on the wrong connection, you can have it orange and ugly before the afternoon is done!
Alternative zinc and lye process
Some collectors say this is an alternative to electrolysis. My chemical engineer friends vigorously disagree, this is electrolysis done a different way. But of course diggers know more than engineers so call it what you want.
It is in fact more simple but is not any less dirty.
In a much smaller tub, actually a gallon milk container is ideal, set up a very concentrated solution consisting of the caustic (Draino) a piece of raw zinc, water, and the relic. Gases should start to flow, (hydrogen and oxygen again) . to stop it simply remove the metals, (the zinc and the relic). A good source of zinc are those jar lids that seem to be abundant in modern trash pits. Once you run out of them you need some other source of zinc, which could be challenging. Plan on buying Draino by the case as you will need a lot of it.
However, I do not recommend that you use this "zinc and lye" process on any artillery shells with lead sabots, (Hotchkiss, Britten, Dyer etc), or zinc fuses, (Parrott time fuses etc). Almost all lead contains some percentage of zinc. Zinc is the metal that is oxidized (it disappears) in this process. So while this process will reduce and remove the iron oxide, it eats up zinc and will destroy your pretty Parrott fuse or Hotchkiss lead sabot. The British shells are the worst, the Brittens and Armstrongs contain a high percentage of zinc.
Follow the same safety precaution above. Eventually your relic will turn black and the same dirty cleaning begins.
Want more information on preservation of shells? There is a good discussion of it in the Dickey George book on Field Artillery:
Field Artillery Projectiles of
the American Civil War
Revised and Supplemented 1993 Edition
by Thomas S. Dickey and Peter C. George.
This massive study encompasses all of the known field artillery shells of the American Civil War. This book is out of print and is not likely to be reprinted. The author documents many post war and reproductions as an added service to the collector. A must reference source for the artillery collector.
Hardbound, over 500 pages fully illustrated .
Guide to Civil War Artillery
by Jack W. Melton & Lawrence E. Pawl.
This concise pictorial study belongs of the shelf of every artillery enthusiast. Hundreds of crisp photographs and a wealth of rich, well researched information.
Softbound, 96 pages fully illustrated
Artillery Fuses of the Civil War
by Charles H. Jones, photography by Mike O'Donnell
This is the first truly comprehensive book on Civil war fuses. Book contains illustrations of every Confederate and Federal fuse now known and is a labor that has taken 10+ years to put together. Whether you collect fuses or not, this book explains how artillery and fuses were combined to develop the artillery that became so deadly during the American Civil War.
Hardbound , 167 pages fully illustrated