An object with a secret even the curators didn’t know about!


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During last Saturday’s Gallery Crawl we ended up getting quite a surprise (and no, I don’t mean the visit by the gigantic bat to the buffet table in the Huntington Room. Okay so he wasn’t gigantic but he was bigger than any bat I’ve ever seen in Virginia!). Unfortunately, the surprise was given to us by one of our signal cannons.


Depot Central de l’Artillerie, 1826

Some of you may remember that the theme for this year’s event was the “secret life of objects” and boy did that cannon have a secret…and it was revealed right in the middle of the event!

For years we didn’t know anything about the two cannons other than they had a very interesting coat of arms that was identified as “French” (great cataloging huh?). The only other thing we knew was that they were named—one is “Henry” and the other is “Francois I”. The coat of arms is very ornate and half of it was most definitely House of Bourbon, but we didn’t have any clue what the other half stood for.


Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and one of our great curators, Marc Nucup, we identified the coat of arms as that of Marie-Caroline (Caroline of Naples and Sicily, November 5, 1798-April 17, 1870). Marie-Caroline was the daughter of Francis I of the Two Sicilies. In 1816, she married Charles Ferdinand, Duc de Berry, heir apparent to the French throne. Their marriage is what prompted the combination of the crest of the House of Bourbon with the crest of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In September 1820 Marie-Caroline gave birth to Henry, Comte de Chambord, Duc de Bourdeaux, the heir to the throne of France. But in 1824, Charles X became king and in the revolution of 1830 the dynasty of the older line of the Bourbons was overthrown and with it the claims of Henry to the throne. We aren’t sure why Marie-Caroline needed signal cannons but she apparently named them after her father and son (maybe she also a problem with party crashing bats).

During the event someone looked down the barrel of Francois and said “um…you know there’s something in there right?” Unfortunately having things jammed in our cannons is a frequent occurrence (someday I’ll tell you how a bowling ball ended up in our 9” Dahlgren) so I’m sure Marc immediately thought “great, I hope it’s not a golf ball” but when he looked inside I can only imagine he thought “oh shoot, I think the cannon’s loaded.” So, he just quietly carried on like there was nothing out of the ordinary.

The moment Marc realized the gun might be loaded

Afterwards Marc and I examined the cannon and the “thing” jammed in it and it does look like an old metal cartridge of some sort—or maybe some type of canister shot. First thing Monday morning I had our conservators x-ray the piece but unfortunately, it’s a little too thick for our equipment. Thankfully, we put out a call for help to Newport News Building and they are going to bring one of their handheld x-ray units to the Museum to see if we can figure out what’s in the cannon.

Unfortunately our x-ray machine wasn’t quite powerful enough to see through the walls of the cannon.

I did manage to get a good image of the thing with my wonderful Google Pixel. Take a look and see if you know what it is!

Here’s the object in the barrel. It looks turned and appears to be slightly tapered. There is a small strap at the 1:00 position.

Here are a few images of the elevation device:

26 thoughts on “An object with a secret even the curators didn’t know about!”

    1. That is a good thought! I hadn’t considered it might be a flare. I spoke with Newport News Shipbuilding yesterday and they are getting organized to come and x-ray everything. I might try and get a sample of the material behind the “canister” to see if the XRF can tell us what the chemical makeup of it is. Maybe that will help answer the question of whether its a flare or other type of charge.

  1. It isn’t a signal cannon but a swivel gun, in my opinion, used as an anti- personnel weapon at close range, say to repel boarders. I’ve studied swivel guns for decades and I’m 95% sure this is one. No idea what the obstruction is but I’m curious to learn, if it is a canister load a proper X-ray will reveal that easily.

    1. Come to think of it, the two metal projections tend to rule out this object being a canister round, particularly in a bronze cannon, Those projections would cut grooves down the bore when fired. The French used more swivel guns than any other maritime power. I’ve seen dozens of different models with barrels the size of yours up through the Model 1786 (barrel weighs nearly 200 lbs.) of which a huge number were produced by many foundries. Hundreds of these survive and are in museums and collections around the world. I’ve owned five or six myself, and I’d be surprised if your museum doesn’t have one.

    2. Thanks! I’ll defer to your judgement on the type of cannon. I thought the tab on the side would be an issue when firing as well. To be honest we aren’t even sure its something cannon-related jammed in there. A sweep of all our cannons on Friday revealed cannons stuffed with pine cones, soda cans, a coke bottle, a wad of tin foil and other assorted trash! We have an appointment with NNSBD in a couple of weeks (their machine is being repaired). I’ll let you know the results!

        1. We have been lately! Some of the trash we found in the cannons on Friday has been in there for 50 years! We have been plugging the cannons in the galleries to prevent things from being stuck in there. You know what works great? Pipe seals that you use in plumbing! They have an expanding rubber seal that you can put down the barrel and then expand into place.

  2. Small cannon were also used to fire a line from the ship to the shore so this could be the projectile used to fire the line which might explain the connection points on it. The other thing they were used for was flares or pyrotechniques (sometimes called blue lights) which is another possibility.

  3. If anyone can get me the length of the barrel from muzzle-face to rear of base ring (largest diameter at breech) it’ll help me match it to a particular year-model of French swivel guns, if indeed it is one, which I strongly suspect. I’d also want to know all markings, especially any on the trunnions ends, where the French marked the weight in French pounds on one trunnion, and the registry or serial or foundry number on the other. Weight is often accompanied by letter “P.” The obstruction in the bore can probably be removed by inertia, or more gently by applying a powered grease gun to the vent using a rubber adapter so as to avoid marking the cannon. The obstruction moves slowly to the muzzle as the barrel is filled with grease. I’ve seen this done and it always seems to work.

    1. I will get double check this dimension tomorrow when I get to work. Here is the computer record (which contains the dimension, but I suspect it’s the length overall.
      The record has the marks we have found, although I did notice that in the center of the four holes at back of the breech (which I assume was for some sort of firing mechanism) that there was single number stamped. I can’t remember if it was a 3 or 4 (both of the cannons were numbered). I will double check for additional marks as well.

      1. Thanks, you should update the material to read “bronze.” All French nonferrous cannons I’m aware of are made of “gunmetal” bronze, an alloy of about 90% copper and 10% tin. Brass, another common copper alloy, wasn’t normally used for cannon as it lacks the hardness and tensile strength required. The confusion seems to stem from the British ordnance establishment, which always referred to bronze ordnance as “brass.”

        If you have any trouble removing the bore obstruction, my machine shop in Alexandria, VA can do it without charge.

    2. The length of the cannon is 24-1/4″ from the end of the muzzle to the back of the breech. The length overall is 26-1/2″
      Unfortunately there are no other marks beyond “Depot Central de l’Artillerie AN 1826″ and the number 3 which is at the back of the breech where there might have been some sort of firing mechanism.
      It does look like these guns might have had some modifications–the touch holes looks like they might have been enlarged at some point. I also wondered if the trunnions had been reduced in size to fit the swivel mount. There is a larger collar right up against the cannon (1-7/8″) and the end of the trunnion is 1-1/4”. The only marks in the ends of the trunnions are small divots right at the center that look like turning points (as in putting it on a lathe to reduce the size–that’s probably not what they are, but that’s best describes them).

      1. Thanks, we’d get it out if you like, we’re good at it. Looks like she had at least 4 of these guns; sets of them like this always seem to have been made in even numbers. I once owned a pair of 2-pounder bronze guns which were part of the 12-gun battery Viscount Courtenay had cast for his yacht (name DOLPHIN?) These were about 4′ long and barrels weighed about 200 lbs. each. I think I had numbers VI and XII. He had his monogram cast into each, letter C surmounted by a viscount’s crown, which was how I identified the original owner.

  4. The elevation mechanism for this swivel gun is the only example of its type I’ve ever seen. If anyone doubts this is a weapon as opposed to a noise making device, please note the sights on top of the barrel, and the complex, expensive-to-produce elevating mechanism. Neither would be necessary for a signaling device.

    1. I’m going to start editing the computer records to take all this great information into account! I appreciate the help!

  5. A little googling reveals that the Duchesse always had a royal yacht available.

    Pp. 570

    The swivel gun pictured, and likely many other identical pieces, would most likely have been part of the armament of the yacht she used.

    1. I found the name of her yacht! Le Triton
      In “A Princess of Adventure, Marie Caroline, Duchesse de Berry”, H. Noel Williams states that Marie Caroline was “An excellent sailor, much of her time was passed upon the sea, either in a sloop-of-war [Ranger-found this in another publication] which the Admiralty had placed at her disposal, or in the royal yacht, le Triton, the most coquettish little vessel afloat, painted in white and gold, with a gilded triton at the prow, and a tiny chateau on the poop, which comprised three rooms: a salon, a dining-room, and a bedroom, sumptuously upholstered and decorated in crimson and gold. For these marine excursions Madame had had a special toilette designed; a blouse of black silk, a short skirt, high boots, and tall hat of cerecloth adorned with a gold anchor.

      1. “…Madame had had a special toilette designed; a blouse of black silk, a short skirt, high boots, and tall hat of cerecloth adorned with a gold anchor.”

        Fascinating, thanks. What a character she must have been! I was trying to think of a modern female celebrity I could compare to her but they all seem to fall a bit short.

      2. Other nondestructive cannon- bore clearing methods we’ve used successfully:

        1. Hose from “Shop-vac” type vacuum cleaner pushed down bore to contact obstruction, machine turned on, hose pulled out with obstruction stuck to it. We recovered 6-lb. . cannon balls this way.

        2. Strong permanent magnet fastened to end of stick can withdraw ferrous metal objects.

          1. There’s a thread running on another site regarding the elevation device on your cannons. I started it, I’m “cannonmn.” The folks there would like to see more photos of the mounting yokes including those devices. If you want to post there direct, feel free, if you’d like to put them in your blog, that’s fine too.

          2. I sent you some images of the elevating mechanism. Let me know if they didn’t come through.

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