How to be an Artilleryman – How to fire a Cannon

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How to be an Artilleryman

This is based upon the requirements to be an Artilleryman within the Sealed Knot and is based around UK gun laws, but may be of use to Artillerymen taking part in re-enactment anywhere. Please feel free to copy this article freely as long you bear in mind that the author reserves all reproduction and other rights to this article.

If you want to reproduce this for commercial gain please contact us and I’m sure we can arrive at a mutually agreeable deal.

I apologise for the lack of pictures to enliven this page – this will attended to as soon as I find some suitable.

“Behold the ordnance on their carriages,
with fatal mouths gaping…
… and the nimble gunner,
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
And down goes all before them.”


The Nimble Gunner



Anyone can become a Artilleryman, you don’t need to have expensive licences or be built like a brick outhouse in order to be part of a Gun Crew, you just need a modicum of common sense and a liking of loud noises. If you want to become a Gun Captain then I’m afraid that you’ll need spend some money to get the licences. The outhouse part remains an option.

If you want to get these licences you will need a Shotgun Certificate (Yes that’s all a cannon is unless it’s a Firearm, more of that later) and a Licence to Acquire Black Powder. Apply for the Shotgun Certificate and the Licence to Acquire Black Powder NOW as they can take a time to arrive – especially the Shotgun Certificate, which does have a cost. Guidance notes for the completion of the Black Powder application are included at the rear. Once you have got the Licence to Acquire Black Powder you can become a part of the Gun Crew, it will take a few battles to become confident enough to take your Gun Captains Test.

Before the new Firearm Laws were introduced in 1989 all Cannons were classed as Shotguns, as they were Smooth Bore weapons with a Barrel length of over 24 inches. After the Law was changed any weapon with a bore of over 2″ became a Firearm which requires a separate Certificate and caused lots of hassle for those with big guns. If you have any problems obtaining your licences ask for help from your existing Gun Captains, they’ve been through it all before and probably will know the answers.

A Cannon is, in fact, the name of one of the large family of guns that were
mounted on wheels, Guns held by hand were called Muskets. The use of these
guns is covered in the in the page How to be a Musketeer.
Guns mounted on wheels were called by a variety of names depending on their
size, ranging from the Robinet a 3/4 pounder which was not much bigger than
a musket to a Cannon Royale which was a 63 pounder. For the purposes of this
book we will use the word “Gun”, “Piece” or “Ordnance” to describe the weapon.
Click here for a full range of gun sizes available in the 17th Century.

Throughout this book the Crew Member will be referred to as an Artilleryman. This is because historically Soldiers of the 17th Century were men. There are documented incidences of women counterfeiting their sex in order to take part in battles, as some were found out it could be assumed that many more went undetected. If you are of the female persuasion this means that, in addition to the fact that in 20th Century we are equals, there is nothing whatsoever to stop you taking part in battle re-enactments – as long as you do your best to hide those bits of you that may give you away as being a woman. There is not, to the best of my knowledge, any documented evidence of women taking part as Gun Crew dressed as women. If you find otherwise please let me know and I can amend this page.

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What do I need to be an Artilleryman?


A shirt (of mid 17th Century pattern).



Hose (socks) of whatever colour or colours takes your fancy (as long as they are awfentik to the period).

Shoes of the variety worn by Pikemen. Sorry but no Bucket Tops, Firemen’s Boots, Sandals or Plastic Bags. Bare Feet however, are OK if you’re feeling really brave.

Either a wide-brimmed felt Hat, Montero or Monmouth Cap.

Gauntlets. A good fitting pair of Gauntlets will give some protection to your fingers from Sword Blows, Singes and Burns and, should the worst happen, go someway to protecting your hands should the Gun go off prematurely (it can happen if you don’t take care).

A short skirted Buff-Coat may also be worn.


A current Sealed Knot Membership Card.

A current Shotgun Certificate. (if you’re the Gun Captain)

A current Licence to Acquire Black Powder.

A card showing that you have passed your Gun Captains Test. (again only if you’re the Gun Captain)

A copy of the Code of Practice for Black Powder Users. A copy is at the end of this page – read and memorise.

A Blue Drinking Voucher in case we stop off at the Beer Tent on the way back from the Battle (Artillerymen don’t drink before battles – do we)


A Sword. This is optional but well worth it if working on a small Gun that gets in close, when it comes to the Hand to Hand stuff it’ll come in useful, especially as we no longer use the Ramrod or Wet Mop as weapons. You will need to take a Sword Test to show that you are competent to use this weapon on an SK battlefield.

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This is, of course, the most important aspect of this pamphlet. Without training you will not become a competent crew member and will not be able to assist in making the gun go BANG on the battlefield. You should make sure that you have read and understood the Code of Practice for Gunners in the Sealed Knot.

Guns are essentially safe; the danger (such as it is) is the same as with all firearms – namely carelessness. As long as the operating procedure and “rules” are carefully adhered to there should be no problems. These notes are not the official drill and are intended only to provide guidance for members of gun-crews as to acceptable safe practice.

Each member of the crew has particular jobs to do – and should know the reason for each job and how it relates to other tasks. In addition, every crew-member has a responsibility to ensure that the gun runs smoothly and that any problems are sorted out quickly.

The particular tasks of the gun-crew are as follows:

Under the command “MAKE READY” the crew should carry out the following as far as, and including, RAMMING.

SEARCHING. After the gun has been fired the barrel must be ‘searched’ using the corkscrew-like tool. This is done to dislodge any burning/glowing embers from the walls of the barrel and to remove any unburnt/burning material (of which there should be none!)

MOPPING. In order to ensure positively that there is nothing still burning in the barrel it must be cleaned out with a wet mop. The mop should be dipped into the bucket before use.

DRYING. After the barrel has been mopped it must be dried out with dry mop(s) before it can be reloaded. If this is not done some powder is likely to stick to the barrel and could subsequently become a hazard. It is worth noting that gunpowder becomes more unstable when it is damp and burns much more rapidly.

CHARGING. Unlike our seventeenth-century counterparts we do not normally use loose powder but made-up charges in paper or plastic bags. “Charging” involves the collection of such a charge from the powder-box and inserting it into the barrel using the ladle. The ladle is mainly for show – some gun-crews do not use them – and the charge should be held on the ladle with the spare hand.

VENTING. From the moment that powder is put into the barrel there is the possibility of accidental ignition. As soon as the gun is “charged” – and until it is fired – the touch-hole must be covered by the hand of one of the crew. Should the charge break during ramming this will also prevent powder being pushed out of the touch-hole.

PLACING. To ensure that firing is successful it is necessary to ‘place’ the charge at the back of the barrel. This is done by pushing it back carefully using the ramrod. This must be done slowly.

WADDING. The secret of getting loud bangs from cannons and muskets lies in the wadding – not in the use of large quantities of gunpowder. The wadding should be dry and soft and should be pushed gently into the barrel. It should be a close, rather than a tight, fit.

RAMMING. This is where the loudness really comes from – getting a good tight wad to compress the explosion. The wadding should be pushed down to the powder and then ‘rammed’ to compress it. It is particularly dangerous for there to be any gap between the powder and the wadding – hence the comment in 6 (above) that the wadding should initially be a close fit.

At this point the Rammer will shout PIECE READY to the Gun Captain, who should acknowledge this information. When he judges the that the time is right to give fire he will give the command “PRICK AND PRIME”. The following operation will then be carried out:

PRICKING. First puncture the bag holding the charge by pushing the “pricker” down the touch-hole. The venter may find that moving his hand away during this procedure assists the Pricker and does not result in a sudden sharp jabbing pain on the back of the hand.

PRIMING. Secondly “prime” the touch-hole by filling it with powder from the small powder-flask. The Venter must now replace his hand over the pan.

At this point the Gun is very live and should be fired as soon as possible. When he has established that it is safe to do so the Gun Captain will shout “GIVE FIRE”.

FIRING. This is the easy part and must be preceded by ensuring that nobody is within close proximity of the muzzle of the gun and the shouted warning “HAVE A CARE”. The person firing the Gun will hold the linstock at the opposite end to where the match is and, at arms length, place the lit end of the match into the Pan. The Gun will go BANG and everyone will be pleased.

The various jobs are divided up between the crew-members depending on the number of people available. The minimum number is FOUR, this includes the Gun Captain, Powder Monkey and two others. Excluding the captain and powder monkey, gun-crew are referred to by numbers which indicate their position in the pecking order – the heavy and dirty jobs thus fall to the person with the highest number.

The powder-monkey has a role, rather than specific tasks. This role is to guard the powder-box and more particularly its contents. He must never be close to the gun during any time when it is firing and must never leave the powder-box unguarded. He should be prevent anybody approaching the powder-box with any burning object (e.g. musketeers with lighted match) and should convey the powder-box to safety if the gun is captured. He is responsible for giving out powder for charging the gun and should not issue any more until the gun has been fired.

The allocation of the primary tasks described above can be done in various ways; the following is reasonable when five people are available and the Gun-Captain does not even need to fire the gun!

 Number OneNumber TwoNumber Three
1. Searching 
2.  Mopping
3. Drying 
5. VentingPlacing
7. VentingRamming

With the allocation as described above it is best that numbers one and two operate from one side of the gun, number three from the other. For reasons which will become apparent the Number One should always operate on the upwind side of the gun.

The distinction between the two sides on which the crew-members operate is purely for safety. On no occasion should anybody pass in front of the muzzle once the gun has been charged. To avoid doing this accidentally it is best to get into the habit by never going in front of it. All operations should be carried out from the side of the barrel.

For very similar reasons you should never lean over the touch-hole; the use of the linstock for firing is because of the blast which comes up the touch-hole.

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Loading &amp Firing

Guns are usually referred to as PIECES and commands thus take the form “Search the Piece”. Commands may be given for all but one of the tasks described earlier. The exception is VENTING. If this task is not being done it is the right and duty of the person with ramrod to remind the relevant crew-member by hitting him with it!

Commands for each stage are not strictly necessary and the gun-captain should be informed of progress with shouts of “PIECE SEARCHED”, “PIECE MOPPED”, etc.

There is one command that will normally only be given once a position has been taken up on the battlefield, namely “PREPARE THE PIECE”. This involves:

  • Removing all the tools etc. from the gun
  • Removing the powder-box to a safe position
  • Filling the water-bucket, if this has not already been done
  • Searching, mopping and drying the barrel
  • Lighting the match on the linstock

The reverse of these actions (with the exception of searching, mopping and drying which are unchanged) is obviously necessary when the piece is to be moved on, or from, the field and are accommodated in the command “PREPARE TO MOVE THE PIECE” though it is not necessary to empty the bucket until the end of the battle when its contents can be poured down the barrel to clean it.

Moving the gun is much the same as with other arms – one tries to keep in step! There are only two commands peculiar to cannons:


These are equivalent to ADVANCE and ORDER for pikemen.

While the Gun Captain is in overall charge of the gun (subject to orders from his superiors) the gun crew should be prepared to dispute any order that is clearly stupid or likely to be dangerous. They must also assist by remaining aware of what is happening elsewhere on the battlefield (e.g. parleys or impending attack).


Occasionally you will find that when the gun is fired the powder in the pan ignites but the main charge does not. From this comes the saying “A Flash in the Pan”. This is called a misfire. The Gun Captain will shout “MISFIRE” for the benefit of those around who are keeping their heads down waiting for the BANG. The Gun Crew should remain at a distance and ensure that no one enters the line of fire. There are occasions, known as a hang fire, when the charge will remain smouldering and suddenly go off. Hence you keep your distance (within reason). After a suitable time (the recommended is 8 minutes) the Gun Captain should very carefully Prick & Prime again, making sure that the charge is properly pricked and the touch hole completely filled with powder. The Venter should then resume venting and the Firing procedure recommence , including a fresh cry of HAVE A CARE.

If the gun misfires for a second and third time water should be poured into the touch hole and carefully down the barrel and the gun withdrawn to a safe place for the charge to be withdrawn using the searcher. It is normally the Gun Captain’s job to do this task. When the Piece has been thoroughly searched and mopped, battle can usually continue (unless it’s finished).

Safe Distances

Recommended safe distances are:

45 yards in front of the gun. It should not be fired at horses within this range – In fact you should avoid firing at horses all together if at all possible

25 yards in front of the gun. It should not be fired if anyone is within this range.

15 yards to either side. There should be at least this distance between cannons.

10 yards to the rear. The powder-box should be this far behind the gun.

These distances may need to be varied to suit weather conditions and the constraints of the battlefield. Although these should always be treated as the minimum distance allowable.

Wind Direction

The prevailing wind is important for cannons because of the danger of wind-borne sparks. The linstock must be positioned so that sparks cannot fly to either the gun or the powder-box. It will therefore be downwind of both. The powder-box should be upwind of both the gun and the linstock (and ten yards from both)


All of the members of the crew must at all times do their best to keep a look out for impending hazards such as runaway horses or out-of-control pike pushes. Imagine the consequences of one of these running into a loaded gun just as it fires. The Gun Captain or whoever is actually firing the gun cannot see what is going around him in those few seconds when he touches the match to the pan, so the rest of the crew must be his eyes and ears. If something or someone suddenly comes into the line of fire they must shout the command BELAY, at which point the Gun Captain (or whoever) must immediately lift the match from the area of the pan and the venter replace his (gloved) hand on the powder. When it is again safe to fire, the cry of HAVE A CARE must again be given before ignition takes place.

It is of course imperative for all crew members to be aware of the safety distances as laid down in the Code of Practice which appears at the end of this book along with the other procedures for the handling of Black Powder. Just because you are not the person who draws the powder from the magazine does not mean that it’s not your problem. An experienced Gun Crew is worth their weight in something very expensive to a Gun Captain who can then get on with job of finding a battle to fight.

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Hand to Hand

The time comes when the enemy gets a bit close. Tempting though it may be to blow their heads off, this is not the general idea. If you are loaded then the Gun Captain or his representative will inform the enemy with the cry of “LOADED GUN”, they should then retire to a safe distance until you have fired. Then comes the fun bit. You aren’t loaded so you can’t tell them to go away and they’re going to be on top of you before you can load. It is therefore necessary to do your best to protect the Piece using the available sticks. You must not however use the following items: The Searcher, the Ladle, the Pricker, the Linstock, the Ramrod or the Mops. Unfortunately this means that you can’t use ANY of the tools. In days gone by, if you were lucky enough to get hold of the Wet Mop, you would dunk it in the water first, if you got the chance, and pick on the most ornately dressed of the opposition. Beware of his loyal companions who would do their utmost to stop you splatting anyone with the soggy mop. How you had fun watching people avoid it! For safety reasons we have put a stop to this practice – broken or splintered tools pose an immense safety problem, imagine if splinters got left in the barrel. There is, however, nothing to stop you using an oversize mop purely for fighting with! It is obvious by now that the crew will need to take on spare sticks etc. to defend themselves. Or you could pass your Sword Test

If you have hold of one of those implements that are not allowed when the attack starts then PUT IT DOWN. Imagine the catastrophe if your lit match got entangled with someone’s Bandoliers during a hand-to-hand tussle, or if you got impaled on the Searcher. YUK.

If you are the Powder Monkey you must not take part in Hand to Hand. Just stay back and keep yourself AND THE POWDER away from the fighting.

When hitting your opponent remember to pull the blow. Don’t aim for the head. You could cause someone some serious damage.

You can also “Prod” your opponent, again pull the blows but also avoid the head, groin and appendages. If you recognise your opponent as being female she will also no doubt be appreciative of not being hit in the upper torso. This actually only really leaves the stomach as a viable target so don’t prod too hard ‘cos stomachs aren’t very tough. As some people can be a little prone to coming in rather harder than they should it is not recommended to go in hand-to-hand if you suffering from the after effects of surgery or if you have come over pregnant.

On the subject of opponents coming in hard, if you feel that you are risk either run away or fall down “dead”. Do not hit him or her back harder. There are proper grievance procedures if you feel that an opponent is deliberately out to cause physical harm – see your Officer.

Despite these heavy points you will usually have a good scrap. If you are not enamoured with the idea of Hand-to-Hand fighting, don’t worry as it can be very fortuitous to leave behind a skeleton crew to stop some sneaky person who’s parents weren’t married stealing the gun (it has been known!). The capturing of Ordnance can only take place with the agreement of the Gun Captain who should remain with the gun. In fact unless the whole crew are captured the incident would be a complete waste of time.


If you get hurt badly enough to get carted off by the medics and you are the Gun Captain, get another Gun Captain to take charge of the weapon, crew and powder. Ideally there should at least always be another Shotgun Licence holder on the crew, if not Gun Captain. On no account is a Gun or Powder to be left unattended. A NOTE TO THE PERSON TAKING CHARGE OF THE WEAPON: Whilst you have taken charge of the means to go BANG, you are not allowed to use this equipment to do so. Sorry. Notify the Gun Captain that you have taken charge of the Gun etc. and at the end of the battle make sure that any unused powder is returned to the Firemaster and the Gun given into the safe keeping of someone who knows the injured party!

On the subject of powder, in order for the Sealed Knot to keep in with the Home Office, Health & Safety Executive, Local Authorities etc. the following points are to be strictly adhered to: Unless by prior arrangement with the event Firemaster you must not bring Black Powder on to a Sealed Knot Campsite/Battlefield. You must also not take any away with you. If you do and you get caught you’ll get thrown out of the Sealed Knot and cause your Officers to get severely disciplined. If you want to do some “live” training elsewhere there are ways of arranging it.

The making or filling of charges, cartridges or powder flasks is only to take place in the area designated by the event powder master, immediately following issue of black powder. No powder is to be held overnight in anywhere but the designated magazine (store).

All unused powder is to be returned to the magazine immediately after the display or battle.


      – 9 December 1998

The Health & Safety Executive(HSE) have issued new guidance called ‘Acquisition and use of explosives by historical societies’ ISBN 0-7176-1622-3, price £3.50, (or £7 for three copies) It’s available from the HSE at PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 6FS, tel: 01787-881165 or fax: 01787-313995.

It has been prepared by them with the assistance of representatives from historical societies, the police and local authorities and has been produced to advise on good practice in acquiring and controlling the use of explosives.
There are 13 separate pieces of legislation relevant to historical societies involved with explosives.

I believe that this help file meets the guidelines laid out in that document

Well, we’ve gone through the processes involved with being a Artilleryman. Obviously no amount of carefully written instructions will replace good old fashioned drill practice – sorry. An hour or so’s practice every so often can make all the difference between getting the stuffing beaten out of us and out manoeuvring, out gunning and out doing the opposition.

Please make sure that you also read the following pages.

Jeff Vincent November 1993 Updated April 1999
With thanks to Philip Wills of Dalbiers
for his instructions on the use of Cannons dated April 1986

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This came into force on 1 November 1991 and relates to the acquisition and keeping of Black Powder. The major changes come with the introduction of a standard application form for the new certificate. No fee is currently payable. At first sight it is a fairly lengthy and complex document. Do not however, be disheartened. The following is taken from the December 1991/January 1992 copy of Orders of the Daye.

Parts A & D should be completed in all cases. Part C is to be completed if Black Powder is to be acquired only (i.e. in the case of musketeers). In the COER Notes for Guidance, one of the Categories for an Acquisition Only Certificate is historical re-enactment society members. These certificates are valid for one year only. Advice has been sought from a Senior Firearms Officer as to acceptable answers to some of the questions, as it requires in the notes for completion that answers to certain questions should be as accurate and comprehensive as reasonably possible. Here are some suggested answers:

PART A,Q9PURPOSE“As a member of a re-enactment society”
  WHERE“At sites of re-enactment events”
PART A,Q10EXPERIENCE“Trained/ (receiving training) as an artilleryman within the Sealed Knot. An artilleryman for the last * years”
PART C,Q16ESTIMATED NUMBER OF ACQUISITIONS“Numerous” (Try not to restrict yourself)
  TYPE AND QUANTITY“Up to 4kg black powder”
  PLACES“At sites of re-enactment events”
PART C,Q17Tick Boxreturned to supplier
  At name &amp address“Registered site of event”
  County etc.“N/A”

Whilst the above are not definitive answers, they will hopefully provide some guidelines. Completed applications should be sent to your local Police Explosives Liaison Officer at least 30 days before expiry of any existing licence. It is a good idea to renew your certificate “out of season” otherwise you may be disappointed at a few battles.

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(C) Sealed Knot


  • All persons using firearms and/or gunpowder will at all times comply with the Law (Firearms Act, Explosives Act, Gun Barrel Proof Act, etc.)
  • All Gun Captains will register details of name, address, regiment, shot gun Certificate and Control of Explosives Order (Form F) with Sealed Knot Membership Secretary.
  • All Gun Captains will submit themselves for examination by the Inspectorate of Artillery. They will be required to prove their ability to command a gun on the field and they will undertake to employ as crew only persons who are competent to carry out the duties assigned to them. The Gun Captain commands the gun and is responsible for the discipline of the crew.


  • Each Gun Captain will draw his/her own powder from the Magazine prior to each battle. The individual to whom the powder is issued is solely responsible for its safekeeping and must not transfer possession of any powder to a third person. (Explosives Act). All powder remaining at the end of each battle will be returned to the magazine. No powder will be retained after an event.
  • All powder containers, horns, flasks, ready boxes, etc. will be fitted with a flash-proof closure. Ammunition boxes should be lined with wood and have no exposed iron or steel on the inside. No container will be left open or unattended at any time and must not be used within 15 yards of any member of the public.


  • Guns must be at least 15 yards apart when being fired and no other weapon will be discharged within 15 yards of a member of the public or any ammunition box.
  • The minimum distance at which the Foot can accept fire from Artillery is 25 yards. Cavalry must not be fired upon at less than 45 yards. Steps will be taken to alert the “enemy” before a gun is discharged in their direction. Guns will only be attacked with prior agreement between the attacker and the Gun Captain. No attack will be made frontally on any gun.
  • No gunner will approach an ammunition box whilst carrying a linstock or a lighted match.


    1. No gun will be loaded off the battle field except under the direction and supervision of a responsible officer during organised training. All weapons will be unloaded before removal from the battlefield.
    2. Guns will be charged only with the quantity of powder appropriate to the bore, as laid down by the Board of Ordnance. No propellant other than commercially made black powder will be used. Blasting and other coarse grained powders are forbidden.
    3. Wadding must be of a soft material, free from extraneous hard matter. Soft paper, shredded carpet felt, straw and hay are the only acceptable materials. The thickness of the wadding should not exceed the bore of the gun. The wadding will be rammed fully onto the powder charge. Care should be taken to ensure that the gun is not over-wadded.
    4. No projectile will be fired from any gun.
    5. The rate of fire should not normally exceed one round every two minutes.


  1. In the event of a misfire the gun shall not be re-primed until a period of approximately eight minutes has elapsed.
  2. Guns which cannot be fired will have the vent and bore flooded with water before pulling the load. Care will be taken to ascertain the reason for any misfire or hang-fire.
  3. Before pulling the load, the gun should be removed to a safe section of the battle field. On no account will a loaded gun be removed from the field or left unattended at any time.
  4. The gun should not be reloaded until the Gun Captain is satisfied that the fault has been corrected.