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The British Powder Cask
by Len Heidebrecht

When not serving as a cooper and interpretative guide at Black Creek Pioneer Village (Toronto), Mr Heidebrecht is active in recreating a British officer with the 8th (or King's) Regiment of Foot. Both talents combine in the following article.

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Sergeant, Royal Artillery, 1812 by Charles Stadden  Storage of powder
fell under the many responsibilities of the Royal Artillery
(courtesy of Parks Canada


  When a 40ish reenactor tosses about terms such as'bulge','head' and 'backend', the first reaction is not to think the author Is writing about barrel parts. Well, your first reaction might be that, but I'm going to write about those little known items, the British Powder Casks.

     It is interesting, to me at least, to watch people distributing powder to the troops at events. We almost universally, premake all rounds and distribute them out of sight from the visitors out of modern vintage ammunition boxes.  This is actually the safest method for the issuing rounds as the likelihood of a stray spark at camp is somewhat greater than at home, well most people's home I guess. Though as interpreters of our time period we should be able to answer any or most questions put to us including " How did the gunpowder get here anyway?" This would, from long experience, likely be the most intelligent question of the day, so it behooves us not to screw it up.

     Powder casks fall into the category of'dry tight' cooperage. That is, white oak casks that are tight enough for fine powders but not meant to transport liquids. Staves and heads (the top and bottom ends,) were manufactured from Quebec, Danzic, Hambro', or English Oak. Quebec
oak was considered superior to the others as it was both supple and quite fine grained being old growth wood.  As with the other types of cooperage the staves were joined flat against one another and the heads were set into a square croze ( groove) about 11/2 inches below the
top and bottom ends.

     The difference between civil and military powder casks was the method of hooping. The military used four or six copper hoops with as many as twelve wooden hoops, while solely plain wooden hoops were the domain of civil powder casks. The copper hoops were fairly heavy gauge metal though a redbrass example has been seen. These were required to resist the strains of ocean voyages and long periods in storage at magazines, Remains of these metal hoops are found throughout the Fort York site from the 1813 explosion of the Grand Magazine. Though badly twisted, many of the copper hoops still show manufacturing marks and even broad arrow stamps near the rivet points. One hoop from Fort Erie shows that hoops may have been reconstructed in Canada, if not locally.

    In the Napoleonic Period there were four main types of powder casks; Barrels (holding100 Ibs ), half barrels (50 Ibs), quarters (25 Ibs) and budge barrels (38 lbs). By 1813, the tendency was to pack only 90, 45, and 221/2 lbs of powder into the first three cask types to allow for 'shifting' of powder. Shifting is the periodic turning of the casks on their racks in the magazine. This shifting meant that the gun powder didn't settle back into its original component parts and the space inside the cask allowed for some movement. Shifting is also the description of the process of moving powder from one container to another. It is interesting to note that in the first American Civil War (read Rev War) British and Loyalist musket rounds were in most cases prerolled in Britain. I haven't as yet found any information that musket rounds were produced here in British North America, perhaps Halifax and Quebec during the 1812 period . The budge barrel was a cask or wide bottom pail, 101/2 tall and 13" at its bulge or widest point. This copper or wooden hooped container had a leather sleave attached by brass nails to the open top head. The sleeve was closed tight by a leather drawstring at the top end. This interesting little container was used to transport loose powder from the cask to where ever it was needed such as loading artillery cartridges or to the artillerist's ladle. A thing not likely to be seen at many a re enactment. Now the exact dimensions of the powder barrels is a bit of a problem, for in 1779 it is reported as 16" at the bulge and 30" to 32" long,making a tall thin cask. This seems to change by 1813 as it is described as 17.36" at the bilge and 21.62" in height. To my eye this is a more properly proportioned cask, though where the .36" and .61" comes from is anybody's guess. This is also about the size used by both the navy and the artillery for the rest of the century. Powder was manufactured in vast quantities in the three major military factories at Waltham Abbey, Faversham and Ballincollig. In Waltham Abbey alone, 22,000 barrels were manufactured in 1813, each cask was marked with location of manufactory, lot number, weight and type of powder. So, there you go. Now you can wander about a site and if you happen to see any iron hooped casks marked gunpowder, please remind the curator that another rook at their display is order. Oh yes, and you know someone who could, for a small fee, make up the correct containers.

Copyright : Len Heidebrecht 1998


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