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U.S. Navy Bronze 12lb. Light Dahlgren Boat Howitzer

Documentation Signed
Origin United States, District of Columbia
Period 19th Century
Materials Bronze tube on wood and bronze carriage
Dimensions
W. 65 in; H. 27 in; D. 23 in;
W. 165.1 cm; H. 68.58 cm; D. 58.42 cm;
Condition Excellent.
Creation Date Dated 1871
Description Known as the “Father of American Naval Ordnance” John A. Dahlgren (1809-1870) was a United States Naval officer and engineer, Commander of the Washington Naval Yard during the Civil War and founder of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance.

Dahlgren began studying artillery in the 1840’s seeking improvements to cannon range, accuracy and safety. Known for his scientific approach and methodical experimentation, his assignment to the US Naval Yard in Washington D.C. afforded the perfect location to centralize design and production. He created the first naval foundry there soon after and the first of his innovations to come forth was the 12lb. Light Dahlgren Boat Howitzer such as this 1871 example.

In the early years of the US Navy, ships’ artillery were primarily repurposed guns made to Army requirements for land warfare. Boats were often outfitted with whatever could be found, from new weapons to old scrap pieces, none made for firing from the deck of a ship. After the Mexican-American War (1846-48) it was clear that the lack of standard purpose built guns was hurting Naval readiness.

In 1848 then Lieutenant Dahlgren was tasked with evaluating army mountain howitzers to see if they could be used on small boats and then carried onshore in support of landing operations. Finding these lacking, Dahlgren designed a series of bronze smooth bore muzzle-loading boat howitzers that could be mounted in ships’ launches and cutters as well as being mounted onto field carriages. By 1849 Dahlgren had made the first 12lb “Light” Boat Howitzer. This was the smallest of the first designs, meant for sloops and any other boat which could not bear the weight of a larger cannon.

All of the boat howitzers were similar in design- a clean bronze tube with a slight taper at the muzzle end, no rings or other decoration. Rather than swiveling on trunnions, they featured a mounting lug or loop on the bottom of the barrel and an elevating screw running through the cascabel. Having the single mounting lug expedited moving the howitzer from the launch to field carriage and back. The howitzers were designed to be fired by a special bronze percussion lock, a new technology just entering naval use.
The design was such a success that Dahlgren would create six sizes of Boat Howitzers in all, and they were in demand on Naval ships for decades. Some were even carried by the US Army into land combat, and were known to have been fired at the First Battle of Bull Run and on the Antietam Campaign.

Dahlgren would go on to design a range of large deck mounted shell firing iron cannons crucial to the Union Navy during the Civil War both aboard ship and for shore installations. With vastly increased range and accuracy the Dahlgren gun became the Navy's standard armament.

This Boat Howitzer gun has the detailed and clear marks of identification and measurements that were Dahlgren’s preference. The center top of the tube is engraved with a rope and anchor motif and reads 12 PDR / BOAT HOWITZER /1871 / F.M.R. – at the base of the tube near the breech it reads: DAHLGREN / U.S.N.Y. WASHINGTON / 428 LBS. 25 PRE, No. 167. PRE refers to preponderance weight- how heavy the breech is when you lift it when pivoted at the center of the barrel’s trunnion loop.

The mark U.S.N.Y. Washington identifies it as made at the US Naval Yard in Washington D.C. These cannon were also known to bear the initials of the US Naval Ordnance Inspector. The date and initials, 1871 F.M.R., on the cannon refer to Francis Munroe Ramsay who in 1871 was a Commander in ordnance at U.S.N.Y. in D.C.

Over his 40+ year career Ramsay had many postings and commands. He first distinguished himself during the Civil War and went on to command several vessels, lead multiple land expeditions and to oversee the Naval Yards in both New York and Boston. Ten years after this cannon was made Ramsay would become Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. By the time he retired in 1894 he had reached the rank of Real Admiral and was serving as the Navy’s Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

The muzzle of the cannon is marked HL. Many other surviving Boat Howitzers from the USNY D.C. are known to bear similar two letter combinations on the muzzle and it’s believed to be a foundry code of some sort, though the exact meanings haven’t been found in Naval records to date.

Over time the Navy came to favor the heavier and larger bore Boat Howitzers. So while the Light variety were in production for more than 20 years, relatively few were made- about 180 with only 20 guns still known to exist today.

The Dahlgren boat howitzers continued to serve long after the Civil War and were only phased out near the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrival of light breech loading steel rifles and machine guns.

Overall this is an excellent example of this rare piece of Naval history in very good condition with clear markings and a smooth bore. Presented on a bespoke naval style wood and brass carriage.

Overall with Carriage 65 in., Tube 51 in., 27 in. high, 23 in. at widest
Styles / Movements Americana, Other, Traditional
Incollect Reference Number 247193
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