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It’s about goddamn time. Last night’s episode of Top Shot finally¬†featured an interesting firearm. Well, cannon . . .

3.2 Inch 1898 Bag Gun

The 1898 was an improvement over the Parrot Rifle, the primary cannon used by the Union forces of the American Civil War. The Parrot Rifle was one of the first big guns to use a rifled bore; shots were more accurate than their smoothbore counterparts.

The main issue with the Parrot Rifle: it was a muzzle loader. Each round had to be pushed down the barrel from the muzzle before firing. That was dangerous to the cannon crew and strategically awkward. The cannon needed to be rolled back away from things like barricades and walls before it could be reloaded. It was a tedious process and a lot of work

By the end of the Civil War there was a better option.

The breechloading cannon (such as this one) began to replace the older stocks before the beginning of the Spanish American war. Breechloaders allowed for a quicker and safer pace of fire, but the loading process was still much slower than the guns of today. The reason is that the cannon were still using bags of gunpowder (hence the name “bag gun”) and loose projectiles instead of the complete cartridges we use today.

Firing a cannon is no easy task, and I was happy to see something on the show that was (A) something these guys had never fired before, (B) required some skill to use, and (C) historical in nature. Why can’t they do this every episode?

And then they threw some sticks or something.

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  1. If the “training” part really took place in a day, then count me impressed at how quickly the contestants learned to prep, load and fire the weapon reasonably accurately.

  2. “Breechloaders allowed for a quicker and safer pace of fire”
    I didn’t watch the episode, so maybe they said this, but one of the big improvements of these guns was that breech loading crews were much safer from enemy fire in one particular way. During the Civil War, sharpshooters would target the powder bags while they were being loaded. If the bag was hit, it was likely the bag would explode and kill or maim the entire crew. Loaders learned to keep their front facing the cannon at all times in order to put themselves between enemy fire and powder. The loader may get shot, but the powder bag was less likely to turn the crew into human smoothies.
    Keeping the cannon between the loaders and sharpshooters helped to minimize the chances of powder bags being targeted or even potshots igniting the bags.

    • Hm. I can’t imagine a relatively small black powder bag doing that much damage in open air. I also wonder if it’s possible to even shock-detonate one at significant range with a ball.

      Time for some range experimentation.

      • I haven’t read any period documents stating any occurences of this, but it was a fear. And the antis have shown us how fear motivates unnecessary behavior. I don’t know much about explosives other than blackpowder burns at a lower temperature because of the high amounts of sulfur. If the ignition temperature was low enough, isn’t it probable that the hot ball could ignite the powder?

        • I have my doubts. Black powder cooks off at around 570 degrees– slightly below the melting point of lead, and at sharpshooter range, I doubt the ball would be all that hot.

          Now, you can impact detonate black powder, but I’m not certain a relatively low velocity ball or Mini√© could do it. I’ll have to remember to give it a try when opportunity presents itself.

          Though, even if you could set it off with a ball at some range, I have my doubts how much damage it would cause. The loader would certainly be having a bad day, but without some method of containment, the powder would just burn off rapidly, rather than explode with force sufficient to pink mist the crew.

          • During the Civil War there was a serious concern that a stray ball might ignite the charge contained in the linen, wool or silk sack while it was in the open air being transferred from the gunner’s haversack to the bore of the gun. I do not know if such a strike would ignite the charge or no. I haven’t tried it. But the fear was there. This is why the #5 man on the crew who carried the charge up to the gun always stood with his body interposed between the charge and the enemy while handing the charge off to #2 who inserted it into the bore.

            As to damage, a 1 lb charge such as used in the 10 pdr. Parrot and 3″ ordnance rifle will do a lot of damage. Black powder, unlike modern powders, does not need to be contained in order to explode.

            Please note that the comment at the beginning of this thread the the Parrott was the primary gun used by the Union forces is incorrect. The 12 pdr. Napoleon (smoothbore) and the 3″ ordnance rifle were far more common that the Parrot.

            • And if you want to see how much power a small charge of blackpowder has, go to youtube and look up anvil chucking. Was a pretty popular activity at one time, but ultimately banned because the point of impact of a blacksmith’s anvil dropping from hundreds of feet was a might unpredictable, and the impact catastrophic.

  3. I enjoyed the flintlock pistols last week, the cannon this week was also good. It is entertaining to watch folks that are very accustomed to shooting their weapon of choice, get all discombobulated when shown something very different from the typical race gun or hunting rifle. Plus seeing the little kid inside some of the competitors pop out when they get all excited after seeing what they are going to shoot this week. Me personally? I wouldn’t mind losing as long as I got to shoot cannons, machine guns, cross bows, Gatling guns, etc. These guys are getting to lay hands on and use weapons that most of us can only hope to see in a museum.

  4. So, despite my posts in the past, I went ahead last week and bit the bullet, and marathoned the first 5 episodes of Top Shot. I was waiting ’til this week’s post was up to come here and say, “As it turns out, the drama not as bad as I remember/as I was expecting.” Through episode 5, the drama was minimal, and the guns were pretty fun.

    Episode 6 was good through the last 10 minutes, when all of a sudden a “conflict” came out of nowhere, and that “conflict” resulted in the elimination challenge, where the two people in “conflict” went head to head to finally resolve their “conflict.” I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I heard the word “conflict” 15 times in the last 10 minutes. Shut up already. Conflict.

    I am curious about something, though. Do you think the other (remaining) contestants are allowed to have a little fun with the weapons involved, during their down time? As an example, the grenade launcher… It was only fired, on film, by two contestants in elimination, but I’d have been pissed if that thing had been on the property and I hadn’t been allowed to at least lob a couple downrange. Anybody know if they let them play?

    Oh, and…


    • I met Caleb Giddings (competitor on Season 1) last year in Reno. Seemed like a really nice, smart down to earth guy. Go to and I’m sure there’s a contact form – he might have some ideas about that – I agree it would be pretty crummy to not let the others try out the goodies.

      • Not to mention only two competitors getting to use some of the weapons, one of the teams doesn’t even get to watch the elimination challenges with those weapons. I’d be ticked off if one team got to participate in a cool challenge (like the one a couple of seasons ago with the Thompsons).

  5. I am appalled at that language. There’s no excuse for it. Mr. Leghorn should apologize and resign.

  6. So why didn’t they use a Civil War Whitworth breechloading cannon? Made in England and sold to the Confederacy, used a hexagonal fitted “bolt”, accurate out to several thousand yards, and really obscure and cool. There weren’t many made, so the show probably couldn’t find one.

    • Finding one might be difficult enough, but finding one that the owner is willing to lend out so it can be shot repeatedly may be next to impossible. I wouldn’t want to risk the pride and joy of a collection to be used by a group of shooters with minimal training in how to safely fire the weapon.

  7. I am almost ready to write off this TV program due to their straying from the use of firearms. I am tired of knife, rock, hatchet throwing and I am not interested in archery. Top Shots infers …. Oh yeah … SHOOTING FIREARMS.

    Stick with that theme. There are many firearms that have not been showcased. Stick with the theme of SHOOTING.

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