South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


The Chairman welcomed those present and informed the members of our Secretary, Mr Ray Hattingh's motor cycle accident. He undertook to convey the best wishes of all the members to him.

He then introduced our speaker for the evening, Cdr Gerry de Vries SM, MMM SAN (Retd), a former champion shot of the SADF and one of the foremost authorities on muzzleloading cannon. He had been advertised as speaking on the History or Wingfield, a wartime RN Fleet Arm Base and later the home of the SAN's stores and workshops. Cdr de Vries chose rather to talk about the history and development of muzzle-loading cannon and their ammunition. We apologise to those members who came to hear about Wingfield - we were not informed beforehand that the topic would be changed.

He introduced his talk by explaining how much one can learn about the history of a cannon if one has learnt how to interpret the available clues. Artillery has its origins in the slingshot used by David to kill Goliath! Later catapults were used to hurl rocks at castle walls and the rounder the rock the better its flight path. Obviously, this was a somewhat hit and miss process!

Gunpowder is believed to have been invented in the first half of the 13th century by the Chinese. By 1338, the French were using iron cannons. These fired 48 feathered iron bolts. One pound of saltpetre and half a pound of sulphur were used to propel these. By 1377, round stone shot was being used - this is to say that a rock had to be chipped down by a stonemason using chisels! Gun founders made mistakes and cannon blew up from time to time. As Cdr de Vries commented, we only know about the successful founders and not the others. These had blown themselves up! He then pointed out that the use of stone shot against stone castles was not very successful. The stone firing cannon grew in size, with Mons Meg (to be seen in Edinburgh Castle) built between 1461 and 1483. This required 47,6 kg/105 lbs of gunpowder at an elevation of 45 degrees to fire an iron cannon 1 288 m/1 408 yards or a stone cannon ball for 2 630 m/2 876 yards. It is not certain whether Mons Meg was ever fired though. The cannon had a habit of blowing up and killing the gunners and King James II of Scotland was killed by an exploding cannon in 1460.

Iron shot was effective in destroying the walls of a city or castle, but was less useful against troops in the field. When a gun was longer and lighter, the bore smaller and the iron shot more perfectly round, then the shot would have a better flight path and longer reach.

Cdr de Vries explained that, while modern guns have a life span of some ten years, the early cannon could remain in use for up to 200 years, outliving seven or eight carriages, unless the barrels burst. Technological advances, plenty of saltpetre and sulphur, better grinding processes and the reduction in the amount of powder used in older guns all contributed to the successes achieved.

Our speaker described the dangers of using the old black powder (known as serpentine powder). This was a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal which tended to separate back into its individual constituents if subjected to vibration, i.e. when transported. This led to gunners transporting the ingredients separately and mixing them immediately prior to use. Improved and safer methods of manufacture were developed. The ingredients were mixed in a wet state and dried into a solid cake. This was broken up and the grains were ground down by passing them through a sieve. This was known as corn powder.

The increased pressure caused barrels to burst and shorter ones were developed. The introduction by the French of iron warships necessitated further important changes in the ammunition used. Pointed and rifled shells were developed to meet the new threat. A better propellant, lyddite, was developed.

Cdr de Vries posed the question to the audience of which gun was the oldest one in South Africa and, with no correct answer forthcoming, proceeded to explain that this was a Portuguese gun cast in 1520 by Sebastian Cobles. It was 130 years old when Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652 and yet it is not regarded as a heritage item by the SA Heritage Resources Agency!

He next discussed the seven 18 pounder guns at the East Fort in Hout Bay. All of these are on carriages and all are fired from time to time. He described the inscriptions on the trunnions and explained what these mean.The "VB" stands for von Buchner of Sweden. The weight of each gun is also indicated.

Cdr de Vries described his pioneering work recording and photographing South African muzzle-loading cannon, rescuing a great many of them from scrap yards and finding sponsors to purchase them and maintain them on various sites.

He singled out the successes achieved by the people of Hout Bay with their battery and the gun salutes fired on Bastille Day, for visiting ships, etc., and the popularity of these events. He described how muzzle-loading gunners are trained and the other centres where these guns are being fired - Grahamstown, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and Cape Town. He explained the legal situation with regard to the firing of historic cannon and developments in this regard. He recalled some notable successes - the Battle of Blouberg re-enactment, Heritage Day gun salutes in the Cape Peninsula, Navy Day at Simon's Town, the start of yacht races and the Duzi canoe Marathon.

Cdr de Vries discussed the safety manuals which the Cannon Society had prepared and detailed some of the other important records which have been compiled, such as catalogues of guns used as bollards in the Table Bay docks and the 73 guns in the Castle of Good Hope. He also expounded upon the peculiarities of the legal hurdles that had to be crossed to get the necessary authorisation to purchase and use bulk quantities of black powder in firing the muzzle-loading cannon - apparently a concept initially beyond the bureaucratic comprehension of the lawmakers and -enforcers!

Cdr de Vries then described the signal gun system at the Cape which was used to call up the DOIC officials, soldiers and citizens in remote inland settlements when the colony was threatened in any way. This system had a modest beginning with a gun on the farm Rustenberg on the lower slopes of the Tygerberg near the track which led from the Castle of Good Hope to Stellenbosch in 1687. This is now Voortrekker Road. When danger threatened, a horseman was sent from the Castle across 16 km/10 miles of sand dunes to fire the gun.

The growth of the settlement resulted in an expansion of the system and, by 1734, there were about 20 guns linking the Castle to Citrusdal in the north, Worcester in the north-east and Swellendam in the east. The new guns were not always effective as some of them were poorly sited and others were too far apart. So further improvements were made to the system in 1758 and 1759. At some of the posts fire beacons were used. The signalling system proved to be very effective during the first British Occupation of 1795.

The Vice-Chairman, Mr Johan van den Berg, thanked the speaker for another most interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift.

Those members who want to learn more about this topic will be pleased to know that the book written by Cdr de Vries and Mr J Hall, "The Muzzle Loading Cannon of South Africa", is still in print.



New Members: We welcome Miss M Glossop, Mr I Goldie and Mr W Els who recently joined the Branch.

On a sad note, we announce the passing to higher service on 29 December 2008 of Mr Alan Nathan, a previous chairman of the Cape Town Branch. The Chairman paid tribute to Mr Nathan who had served as committee member and chairman and asked members to stand in silent tribute to him.

We are also saddened to announce the passing of Mr Neville Thomas. Our sincere condolences and sympathy are extended to the families of both Mr Nathan and Mr Thomas.




BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 or 021-531-6781

South African Military History Society /