What is this?
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
This is a 3-inch bore “brass” gun. Guns of this size went by a number of different names but most often were referred to as either “swivel howitzers” or “cohorns.” By most accounts, howitzers of this type were made for the U.S. Navy by Paul Revere or by Daniel King, who worked out of Pennsylvania. King gave all of his guns a maker’s mark. This gun does not match the pattern of any King guns, nor does it have any of his marks, but it also lacks any markings that would confirm it as a Revere make. The only marking to be found on this howitzer is “U.S.” stamped into the end of one of the trunnions (the part of the gun where the mount attached). However, it is similar in design to the other probable Revere weapons, such as a ship’s cannon, which also has no maker’s mark but bears an American eagle. There are also historical documents that state Revere’s howitzers had a 3-inch bore like this one, while King’s had a 2¾ -inch bore.
Regardless of the maker, this howitzer shows signs of an eventful service life. The gun still has lacquer in many of the recesses, evidence that it was once heavily japanned. (Japanning was the process of coating an item, particularly weapons, in a heavy black lacquer, thus protecting the item from the elements). The howitzer was found without the original mount or tiller. They probably were broken, reused, or melted down for the iron from which they were made.
A notable feature of this howitzer, though an easily overlooked one, is that it has been spiked. Spiking was a last resort when it was clear a gun was going to fall into enemy hands. It involved driving a metal object into the touch-hole thus rendering the gun useless. In the case of this howitzer, it was done with a nail. Exactly why this gun was spiked is unclear, though it may have been in danger of capture or disabled so that it could be put on display at some point.
There are many firsthand accounts of guns like this being used “for the ship’s tops” on both the USS Constitution and on other frigates. From this high perch they would be fired down on the opposing crew. Reports suggest that some American captains would also have them mounted on the front of the ship’s boats to defend landing parties. While howitzers could fire grenades, this was extremely dangerous as the gun could easily explode. Howitzers of this size would more often be used like a big shotgun, firing canister or grape shot. From the fighting tops a howitzer firing canister shot could hit a large swath of the enemy deck. The effectiveness of howitzers kept them in use until just before the Civil War. Around this time it was decreed that the use of any firearms in the tops was too dangerous to be worthwhile.
Text © 2010 USS Constitution Museum