I am reading a book on a civil war battle and the author said the confederates were shooting railroad iron in their cannons and talked about the sound it made coming at the Yankees. What were they using for ammunition?

Jerry Coker




Dear Mr. Coker,

The 12 pounder smoothbore Napoleon could accommodate a variety of makeshift ammunition in a pinch, but for want of any further clues as to exactly what you mean by “railroad iron,” Civil War artillery expert Jerry Morelock contributed the following:

“I have never heard of any such Civil War battle (maybe if there is time ask the reader what book he’s reading?), but when pressed for ammunition Civil War cannon (typically smoothbores like the 12-pounder ‘Napoleon’) would sometimes be loaded with any kind of metal available (so they had, of course, to still have powder). Haven’t specifically heard of firing ‘railroad iron’ but I just assume that would mean iron railroad spikes since they were of a size that would allow several of them to be loaded into a cannon on top of a normal powder charge – and certainly firing railroad spikes as a substitute for canister would make a disturbing racket of a noise as the spikes tumbled and whistled through the air.”

To that, Dr. Chris Gabel, a “Civil War railroad” expert recently retired from the Command & General Staff College history department, added:

“ When I hear ‘railroad iron’ I would first think of rail, but I don’t see how rail could serve as a projectile unless it was cut up into little pieces.  The only other types of railroad-related iron (other than spikes) that might fit down a muzzle would be the fish-plates and bolts that connect the rails to each other.”

Hope something in there fits your description.





Jon Guttman

Research Director

World History


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