‘No better piece for breaching can be desired than the 42-pounder James.’
Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore gave high praise for the five James Rifles used in the successful April 1862 siege of Fort Pulaski, Ga. Five James Rifles formed part of the dedicated breaching battery that in 30 hours systematically tore through the fort’s brickwork to expose the interior. Yet, less than two years later, when asked about the James Rifles in congressional hearings, Ordnance Officer Captain James G. Benton dismissed the weapon and its projectiles as failures which had been “thrown aside.”
What exactly WAS a James Rifle?
To answer that we must start with the inventor, Charles Tillinghast James. Born in Rhode Island in 1805, James was a self-made man, starting his career as a carpenter but becoming an expert on machinery used in the textile industry. James also adapted steam technology to the milling process, placing him at the fore of technology at that time. Banking on that proficiency, he established numerous mills throughout the country and advocated for further industrialization of the cotton industry. In 1850, he sought and won election to the US Senate, serving just one term. His assignments included the chairmanship of the Patents Committee.
James’ early military pursuits were limited to service in the Rhode Island militia, in which he rose to the rank of Major-General. But while serving in Congress, James took active interest in the advancement of ordnance. Granted in 1856, while still seated in the Senate, James’ first projectile patent cited the use of “… a band of fibrous packing around a cannon-ball with a means of distending it into the scores or rifles of the cannon… by the pressure of the explosive gas….” Initially, James used hemp or other textiles to form the band. After repetitive testing using various materials to include rubber, he eventually settled on a band composed of lead under a tin sleeve, covered with lubricated canvas. When completed, the projectile resembled a large bullet with a band over the base. Underneath, a structure of ribs supported the band and allowed the pressure of propellant gases to force the lead into the gun’s rifling, and thus impart the required spin.
James was in the proverbial right place at the right time with his invention. Having adopted rifled-muskets, the Army was keen to do the same with its artillery. Demonstrations and tests impressed a board of Army Ordnance officers. The most appealing feature in James’ favor was the projectile worked from modified versions of existing service artillery pieces. An appealing option to a cost-conscious War Department anxious to rapidly introduce the new technology to the artillery. The Ordnance Department issued a contract to James on December 15, 1860 to rifle one half of the cannon in the Army’s inventory. This order included both bronze and rifled guns. And it covered all calibers from 6-pounder field guns up to 42-pounder seacoast guns. Notably, the Army did not specify the details of rifling, either in the number of grooves, pitch, or profile. The contract specified most of the work to be done at Chicopee, Massachusetts, near the Springfield Arsenal and also the home town of Ames Manufacturing Company, one of the Army’s primary cannon providers.[i] This established the connection between “James” and “Ames,” further confusing some contemporary correspondents and no small number of later-day historians!
More orders followed, but with the need to equip so many new volunteer batteries, the Army could ill-afford to send old cannon to Massachusetts for modification. Instead, Ames began casting new bronze 6-pounder field guns and completing them as 3.80-inch James Rifles. The initial batch, numbering at least 30, used the same molds as the Model 1841 field gun. Later Ames switched to the Model 1861 pattern molds, resulting in a “bottle” shaped appearance to the last 100 or so produced.[ii] Lastly, Ames produced a half-dozen steel rifles in the 3.80-inch caliber. These were likely the weapons McClellan mentioned in June 1862.
In addition to Ames, the Cincinnati firm of Miles Greenwood produced over fifty 3.80-inch James rifles on open purchase contracts, using the Model 1841 pattern molds. And the Boston firm of Cyrus Alger added a small number of bronze 3.80-inch James to a non-standard casting pattern.
With loud demands for anything capable of filling the new volunteer batteries, cannon-makers across the north agreed to modify existing or cast new 6-pounder field guns with rifling compatible with James projectiles. These were usually bored out to the standard 6-pounder caliber of 3.67-inch, but with various rifling patterns. While practical, these were not compatible with the ammunition purchased under the James or Ames contracts, and thus not properly James Rifles. More than a few batteries, particularly in the western theater, found themselves in possession of both “true” James rifles of 3.80-inch caliber alongside those rifled 6-pounders of 3.67-inch. Thus more confusion about the guns and proper designations ensued.
Early field experiences brought complaints about the projectiles. Often the lead band broke up in the bore. Such presented a danger to any troops the guns were firing over, a common tactical need on a battlefield. Furthermore, officers complained that for the caliber, the James projectiles were lacking in explosive content. This was due to the large amount of space needed in the projectile for the band and supporting rib structure.
In an effort to resolve these problems, James went back to the drawing board and redesigned his projectile. This resulted a new patent issued on June 10, 1862. Key design change involved expanding the interior of the shell further to the rear, shaped much like a modern football. Replacing the ribbed support structure, flanges extended off base of the shell. The lead then attached between the flanges, thus fixing the material firmly to the projectile. A tin and canvas coating remained over the band to reduce fouling and erosion of the bore. [iii] Though it should be noted the coating still did not sufficiently reduce wear of the bronze field gun bores. This remained an unresolved issue throughout the weapon’s service.
In service, the larger-caliber James rifles acquitted themselves well, although in limited combat service. The field guns, however, saw very active service from the war’s start. At First Manassas a battery of James Rifles was the first in action on Matthews Hill. But the James was never very popular in the east. By the battle of Gettysburg only one battery brought James rifles to the fight. However, it was the western armies which used the James most. James Rifles played a prominent role at Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. Though by the Atlanta Campaign, the bronze rifles were on the decline, mostly going to outposts and garrisons as front-line batteries received Ordnance and Parrott rifles. Confederates did use the James Rifles they captured. But given limited ammunition supplies a good number of these were salvaged for the bronze, being recast as Napoleons.
Ever persistent, Charles James continued with work to improve, refine, and promote his projectile. However this came to an abrupt end on October 16, 1862. During a demonstration, one of his projectiles exploded accidentally, killing a handler and mortally wounding James, who died the next day.[iv] With his demise, James Rifles had no proponent to refine the design in the face of ever increasing technological advancements. The one saving grace of the James system, its economy, was no longer a factor under wartime budgets. And opponents in the Ordnance Department, who always felt the projectiles were inferior to those of other inventors, did not renew contracts.
While in most measures the James Rifle was ultimately a failure, it did provide a starting point for several projectile improvements. James’ patents were cited by several post-war patents in that regard. And while those bronze cannon were not considered worthy of use in battle after 1865, they were still in the Army inventory. Eventually, when the need arose to mark battery locations on the battlefields, there were ample numbers of excess James and rifled 6-pounders to fill that need. In that regard, the James Rifle might have been a disappointment when taken into battle, the same cannon became important in the struggle to preserve those same battlefields decades later.
[i] Contracts Made with Charles T. James, Ordnance Department Reports to Committee on Ordnance, 40th Congress, 2nd Session, pages 3-4.
[ii] Ibid. Also see Hazlett, Olmstead, and Parks, “Field Artillery Weapons of the Civil War,” pages 147-57.
[iii] US Patent Number 35,521, Issued June 10, 1862.
[iv] Dicky and George, “Field Artillery Projectiles of the American Civil War,” page 147.