Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Speaking of safety

Yesterdays post brought this thoughtful question from Hank:

Ranger Mannie,

I always wonder with all that black powder and sparks in one area...are extra precautions taken with swabbing, safe distance, time between discharge, et al?

It could ruin a great day to be half finished loading a gun and encounter an ember...



I'm glad you asked. Every agency is different, but the National Park Service requires that "black powder events" (like cannon fireings" be scrupulously supervised by trained "black powder safety Rangers". Training for such Rangers requires an intensive and hands-on two week course in the safe operation and handling of black powder, black powder small arms, and cannons. Refresher training (another two weeks) is required every few years.

Here's Ranger Keith inspecting Cartridge and Cap boxes to insure that they are empty as a group marches on to park property last year during battle anniversary. Rangers Keith, Christie, and Brian, our black powder Rangers, are on hand at all of our black powder events. They have eagle eyes and are absolute sticklers for safety. And all of them have extensive experience with black powder weaponry, from side arms to twelve pound light-gun howitzers.

Ten minutes have to elapse between shots from an individual tube. Yes, the cannons are swabbed out with a damp sponge rammer to extinguish any sparks or smoldering embers that may be left behind. Also to prevent those embers in the first place, cartridges are made from foil rather than flannel.

The safety requirements at the National Parks are absolutely inflexible, as many a disgruntled reenactor will attest. Safety of the participants, the visitors, and the park will always trump any other considerations, like "ooh ahh" rapid firing, or photographers trying to worm under the saftey line to get that perfect, though dangerous, angle ( I use a remote and a tripod for my pics).

The group that I most often videotape is from South Mountain State Battlefield Park, headed up by Al Preston. They are all State Park Rangers and are absolutely no-nonsense about saftey, which they achieve through practice, practice, practice, plus a large helpiing of professionalism.

So much for the sublime, now for the absolutely ridiculous. Here is one of my favorite videos. It nearly defies description. 

To entice you to follow the link, imagine a real-life granny from the tweety-pie cartoons leading an army of post adolescent girls in the unsafe loading and firing of a battery of the goofiest (though quite lethal) cannons you'll ever see.

"Give that powder a good bashing, luv"

Click here, and prepare to cringe.

I'll meet you in the bunker,

Ranger Mannie


Anonymous said...

Mannie, Iknow you guys have to excercise strong control over the reenactors that live fire,but the reality of it all is lost. Different war different time. In Vietnam we fired many preps. A six gun battery could easily fire over 200 rounds in 5 minutes. I'am certain CW batteries could fire high rates; you know why, they had to. It was my priviledge to order fire many times.

Mannie Gentile said...

Dear anonymous,

Actually, the standing order in the Army of the Potomac (AOP) was to maintain a rate of fire of no more than one round every three minutes per gun tube.

Certainly gunners would fire at faster rates if their position was becoming threatened but the rate of fire during the Civil War was much more sedate than that of, Civil War movies, or of more modern wars.

AOP Artillery chief, Henry Hunt, set that rate of fire not simply for reasons of saftey but for his concern that batteries were shooting up their ammunition as quickly as possible so as to be able to retire from action just that much faster. Hunt put an end to such shennanigans by slowing, and enforceing, the rate of fire.

Vietnam, I'm sure you'll agree was a more modern war. The five-inch destroyer gun mount that I served during that time period was also capable of very high rates of fire for a non-mechanized gun, often twelve rounds per minute per tube. Such rapid rates are possible with the modern luxury of
metallic propellant containers rather than the flimsy flannel powder bags of the ACW.

So actually, the more sedate rates of fire mandated by the Park Service as well as the Maryland State Parks are a reasonable representation of artillery fire. Where any reality is lost is simply, and certainly, in the utter absence of actual carnage.

Thanks for your comment,