H. M. Royal Artillery

"Artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be a vulgar brawl"


Over the years, a number of projectiles were developed for use in smoothbore muzzleloading cannons. Some of the most common of these are:

Cannonball or Solid Shot or simply Shot

A solid, round projectile that was originally made from dressed stone. By the 17th century, shot was made from cast iron. It was the most accurate projectile that could be fired by a smoothbore cannon and was used to batter the wooden hulls of opposing ships, forts, or fixed emplacements, and as a long-range anti-personnel weapon.

Chain Shot  

Two sub-caliber round balls or half balls, linked by a length of chain. It was most often used in naval warfare to slash through the rigging and sails of an enemy ship so that it could no longer maneuver. The ship could then be boarded and captured. On occasion, chain shot was used in land warfare against infantry or cavalry and in this role it was devastating. Due to the fact it spins rapidly in flight, chain shot is not very accurate. However, since most naval battles took place at ranges of 100 yards or less, this lack of accuracy didn't matter to any great degree.


Bar Shot

        Similar to chain shot but with a solid bar joining two round or half round balls. Bar shot was used in naval warfare for the same purpose as chain shot.


Canister Shot 

An anti-personnel projectile which included numerous small round iron shot or lead musket balls in a metal can. The can broke up when fired, scattering the shot throughout the enemy personnel like a large shotgun. Very nasty when used against massed infantry or cavalry. It was also used for clearing the deck of personnel prior to boarding during naval battles.


An anti-personnel weapon, similar to canister shot, but with the lead or iron balls being contained in a canvas bag, and generally of a larger caliber. It was so named because of the resemblance of the clustered shot in the bag to a cluster of grapes on the vine. It was very effective against infantry in the open but, it had a relatively short range and was ineffective against infantry who had taken cover. Also used in naval battles for the same purpose as canister. Grapeshot was the starting point for the creation of shrapnel.


An explosive anti-personnel, anti-material and counter-battery projectile. It consists of a hollow iron ball that had its cavity packed with an explosive bursting charge. While it's main use was to destroy enemy wagons, breastworks, or opposing artillery, it was also effective against infantry. It used a time fuse cut to length measured in seconds that was ignited by the flame from the propellant charge. While occasionally fired from long barrel cannons, it was mainly fired from howitzers and mortars.

Spherical Case Shot or Shrapnel

An anti-personnel projectile that has an interior cavity packed with round lead or iron balls and a small bursting charge. This charge has just enough force to break open the thin-walled iron projectile. A time fuse, with a powder train that was designed to be ignited by the flame from the propellant charge, was inserted into the projectile just before firing. Ideally the fuse would detonate the central bursting charge when the projectile was six to ten feet above the heads of enemy infantry and shower them with the iron or lead balls and fragments of the casing. This projectile was invented in 1784 by Lt. Henry Shrapnel of the British Royal Artillery. As with shell, spherical case was mainly fired from howitzers and mortars.

Hot Shot

Hot shot was simply a solid iron cannonball that was heated red hot. Its main purpose was to set fire to enemy warships. The use of hot shot dates back centuries and only ceased when vessels armored with iron replaced wooden warships in the worlds navies. It was a powerful weapon against wooden ships where fire was always a hazard. It's use was mainly confined to shore batteries and forts because of the need for a special furnace to heat the shot. Due to the dangerous nature of this furnace as well as the red hot shot itself, very few wooden ships ever had a shot furnace on board. When loading hot shot, the ball had to be cushioned by dry wadding next to the powder followed by a good thickness of wet wadding. It then had to be fired while the ball was still red hot.

While we're on the subject of cannon projectiles, we would be remiss if we didn't mention an old saying that many people believe is based on fact. It's very doubtful you would ever hear this saying used here in Sunny South Florida but up North (aka 'The Frozen Wastelands') it's a totally different story.

During the seemingly endless winter months, you could very likely hear somebody complain that it's "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey". This saying is from the urban legend that in the days of wooden warships, there were brass plates, with hollows formed in them, bolted to the deck. These plates were called 'monkeys' and they supported stacks of iron cannon balls. As the story goes, in very cold weather the brass contracted, causing the balls to fall off and thus arose the saying.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the explanation for the origin of the saying is a complete myth. While on dry land, the obvious way to store cannonballs is to stack them, on board a ship it’s an entirely different matter. 

With the 30 cannonball stack alluded to in the legend; the 1st row is 16, followed by 9, then 4 and 1. It's also safe to assume that a warship would have more than one of these stacks on deck. The problem with such a stack is that as the ship pitched and rolled in heavy seas, it would easily be dislodged resulting in 30 (or more) cannon balls rolling all over the deck. Not a situation a crew would want to deal with.

The reality is that cannonballs were stored in planks with circular holes cut into them. These planks were known as 'shot garlands' not 'monkeys' and they date back to at least 1769 when they were first referred to in Royal Navy records. In fact, there is no historical record whatsoever of cannonballs having ever been stacked on a brass plate on the deck of either British or US warships.

For those inquiring minds that crave more detail, here's the science stuff ---
The coefficient of expansion of brass is 0.000019 while that of iron is 0.000012. If the base of the stack of cannonballs was one meter (39.37 inches) long, the drop in temperature needed to make the 'monkey' shrink relative to the balls by just one millimeter (.039 inch), would be 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). Such a small shrinkage wouldn't have had the slightest effect on the stack. In any case, in extreme weather like that, the sailors would have had much more pressing matters to deal with than coining new phrases.

Today, solid cannonballs, and 
occasionally canister, are the only projectiles that are normally shot during live fire events. Chain, bar and hot shot serve no purpose anymore. Because both shell and spherical case shot are explosive, they are classified as destructive devices under the  provisions of the National Firearms Act. As such they are not legal to have in your possession (let alone shoot) without a lot of paperwork and hassle.

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