Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Artillery range finder

I recently started rereading Glenn Tucker's "Chickamauga: Bloody Battle in the West" and was struck by a passage I've obviously read before but did not remember. In telling the story of the Union entrance into Chattanooga in early September 1863 Tucker has a passage about an artillery range finder.

Colonel Smith D. Atkins of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry, of Wilder's Brigade, is near the Tennessee River with two rifled 10 pounders of the 5th Wisconsin Battery. There is a small Confederate fort across the river with a brass gun in the center and two steel guns on its flanks. Atkins asks the battery's lieutenant to fire at the fort and the lieutenant pulls out a "flat piece of brass full of holes of different sizes." He finds the hole that corresponds to a man standing up across the river and thus has the range. The first shot dismantled the brass gun and killed four men. (page 17 in the 1992 Morningside reprint)

The source is a speech Atkins gave in 1907 so his memory could be flawed. I did a google image search and found nothing. Has anyone seen this in a museum anywhere? Can anyone verify if the thing even existed?

I would think that if it existed there would be a ton of these made during the war. Word would quickly spread that the 5th Wisconsin Battery always fired its shots at the proper range. The other batteries would want to know how they did so well. Other commanders would want one for the batteries under their command. Sure men could become proficient at judging ranges with their eyes alone but once the first range finder was made it would be pretty simple to make copies. Then every battery in the service could have a bunch so that if the sharp-eyed officers were wounded or killed the other men could still find the correct range quickly. Of course the range finder would be of little use once smoke obscured the enemy but there would be plenty of times it would come in handy. Plus once you got the first range right then adjustments would be very easy as the enemy advanced or retreated.


Craig Swain said...

Nick, see page 252 of the 1862 Artillerist's Manual (

Nick said...

That solves part of the mystery, now we just need a picture of one

Craig Swain said...

You mean Griffin's line diagram is not enough? That and the description of sticks with marks? Now I've got to get in the time machine and go find some fancy range finder!

Seriously, however, I think Griffin pointed out why these things were not issued to every battery as standard equipment. The Army wanted it's gunners and officers to estimate range without depending on aids. Such explains the long description of what infantry troops look like at distance.

I understand the logic Griffin had. But that fancy range finder would be just "wicked cool."

Anonymous said...

Nick, i have an original artillery range finder, used by Lt. Col. Carter E Braxton of the Virginia Militia. It's really a neat tool. If you send me your email address i willsend photos.