02740 - Piles of solid and canister shot; Arsenal grounds, Richmond, Va; 1865 [LC-DIG-cwpb-02740]
We generally think of cannons firing just cannon balls, in fact they could fire a number of different types of rounds. Four common types of shot were used during the war. Solid shot was literally a large metal ball with no explosive. The damage was done by the impact of a heavy object striking the target. To increase the destruction, the ball could be hollowed out and filled with explosives. The explosion was timed to detonate in the air just above the enemy, causing 6-12 large chunks of metal that could kill or wound troops in the area.
To make the weapon more effective, the ball could be filled with 40-80 musket balls, causing a much greater amount of destruction. The term shrapnel was named for British General Henry Shrapnel, who thought up the idea. While extremely effective, this shell was very hard to produce and a simpler method was needed to produce the same results.
In the background of this image, you can see wooden disks with rows of small balls stacked to form a “canister”. It was easy to load the disks into the cannon and fire them at a target. The wooden disks would break apart after leaving the cannon. What remained airborne was a set of small cannon balls, that acted like a giant shotgun and caused devastating damage. This stockpile was used during the siege of Richmond between 1864 and 1865.