Cannister Shells’ Devastating Effect: Nightmare of the Infantry

In pre-20th century battlefields, canister shells ripped through the tightly packed ranks of the infantry.

Dec 4, 2023By Christian P. Martin, BA Multidisciplinary Studies/History, MA in progress

canister shells devastating effect


Canister rounds or even loading random metal objects into a cannon barrel is not a modern idea or strategy. This type of cannon ammunition was reportedly used as early as 1410 to protect the artillery piece and its crew, as they were relatively unprotected at close range. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War, the artillery had become an extremely effective battlefield force, integrating new technologies and production methods. These improvements would extend the range and effectiveness of the artillery and, combined with improved canister shells, could devastate infantry formations at close range. By the 20th and 21st centuries, tanks would become the primary weapon system of the US military to utilize the canister round on foreign battlefields.


Early Artillery: A Battlefield Beast

The Fall of Constantinople, 1453, via Today in History


Early artillery, such as those produced in the 14th century, were known as bombards; they were large, heavy, and therefore only mobile with great effort. The Ottomans produced some of the most fearsome and sizable bombards; these cast-bronzed giants weighed in at 19 tons (38,000 pounds or 17,236 kilograms) and could hurl a 600-pound stone seven times a day (Manucy, 1949, p. 4). Just one of these Ottoman bombards required “… 60 oxen and 200 men to move…and the difficulty of transporting such heavy ordnance greatly reduced its usefulness…” (Manucy, 1949, p. 4). While immensely destructive and terrifying, weight and the rate of fire would not permit such large pieces to be used as a tactical weapon.


Artillery under Napoleon

Napoleon at Lodi by Keith Rocco, via Keith Rocco Official Website


By the time Napoleon Bonaparte was at the helm of the Grande Armée in 1804, cannon artillery had changed greatly. Advances in “… metallurgy aided…new developments and gun tubes could be made just as strong with half the weight of the older guns” (Kiley, 2004, p. 34). Additionally, the weapon’s size is immediately noticeable; when compared to a Turkish bombard, the standard Napoleon 12-pound cannon was essentially a rowboat compared to a destroyer (in naval terms). Similarly, improvements in sights would allow for greater accuracy, and firing tables enabled the gun commander to quickly determine the correct angle of the cannon, as well as the best shell for the fire mission; this led to the greatest and most destructive effect upon an enemy force.


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While engaging an enemy formation or assaulting a fortification, the artillery batteries had several different types of projectiles to choose from, depending on situational opportunities. The oldest was round-shot (or solid-shot). As the name implies, this was a solid, spherical, cast-iron ball. The fused shell was another option. This was similar to a round shot, with the exception that its core was filled with black powder. Upon firing, the fuse would ignite, and the projectile could explode over an infantry formation raining down sharp metal fragments or explode in front of them if it ricocheted off the ground (a tactic of artillery commanders). The final option was the canister shot, as described by Canfield (1956):


“Canister consisted of a number of cast-iron balls, usually 27…and packed with sawdust into a tin cylinder to facilitate loading into the piece. It was truly the dismay of the infantry, and was effective up to 600 yards, although best results were obtained at about 300 yards.” (p. 437).


This diagram displays the various types of rounds that were fielded by artillery crews of the American Civil War, via Military Trader


Canister shells were typically reserved for the final phase of an engagement if the enemy infantry were bearing down on friendly lines or in the desperate final defense of an individual artillery crew or battery. When used, the canister shell was particularly devastating, as the canister was loaded with the twenty-seven 1.5-inch cast-iron balls, effectively turning the artillery piece into an enormous shotgun. Under periods of extreme duress, the artillery crew could load two canister rounds at one time for an even greater destructive effect. When fired, the canister itself would break apart, allowing the cast-iron balls to fan out in a conical formation, allowing them to maim or kill far more soldiers than a solid cannonball.


While the canister round could be used effectively to defend one’s battlefield position, Napoleon tactically and offensively utilized canister shells. Rather than being content to sit back and have his artillery pound his opponent’s position in preparation for attack, Napoleon directed his artillerymen to quickly advance to just out of musket range. Once in place, they would shatter the ranks of enemy infantry with canister shells (Manucy, 1949, p.12). Employing canister shells in this way would blow holes in the enemy formation, preparing the approach for his infantry and cavalry to strike the decisive blow.


The Battle of Friedland: An Imperial Russian Catastrophe

Marshal Ney at the Battle of Friedland by Alexander Yurievich Averyanov, via ArtHive


This tactic was aptly demonstrated at the Battle of Friedland in 1807 in modern-day Kaliningrad. At this location, Napoleon’s Grande Armée clashed with the army of the Russian Empire, as the latter we in a position of great vulnerability. In one engagement under the cool leadership of General Senarmont, two batteries (about 12 cannons) were deployed to within 150 yards of the Russian position at a point where the terrain narrowed, thus bringing to focus their destructive firepower. At 150 yards, the use of canister rounds did their destructive work, as Kiley (2004) clearly depicts:


“Rapid fire started to take the Russian center apart, and at this range the gunners simply could not miss: out of effective range of the Russian muskets, they blew the center out of the Russian line, round after accurate round going down range into the massed enemy infantry. In twenty minutes the Russia center was ruined, 4,000 mangled corpses marking the position.” (p. 198)


Russian Line Infantry, 1812-1814, via Gaming ASP


The final effect of this combined use of artillery and infantry was decisive, the Russian army was forced to retreat, and the French infantry units under the direct command of Marshal Nay and General Dupont were able to both trap the disorganized Russian soldiers up against the Alle River and mount an assault on the town Friedland itself.


As a result of this action, many more Russian soldiers met their fate in a frantic attempt to cross the river, which turned Friedland into both a bottleneck and, subsequently, a deathtrap, as the town was the only gateway for the fleeing soldiers to access their pontoon bridges. This frantic exodus of Russian soldiers again became easy targets for Senarmont’s bloodthirsty cannons, which began to sweep the streets of Friedland. In sum, the Corps artillery (about 50 cannons) under General Senarmont expended 2,600 roundshot and 400 canister rounds in a period of thirty minutes (Kiley, 2004, p. 200).


Artillery & Canister Shells in the American Civil War

Brothers of Ireland by Don Troiani, via Mutual Art


Moving forward just fifty-four years from the route of the Imperial Russian Army at the Battle of Friedland to the American Civil War, it can be seen that the battlefield tactics had not changed in a significant way. If one were to have a spectator’s view of a US Civil War battlefield, they would still see masses of men arrayed in long lines marching towards their enemy, presenting themselves as choice targets for their respective foes. While this was a typical tactic of the day, slight changes were made to the formation of the assaulting infantry forces in order to lessen the impact of annihilative firepower offered by the artillery.


One such change in tactics involved the way in which the infantry was arrayed while marching toward the opposing force. This rearrangement would have the soldiers march in a “…succession of lines, containing two ranks each, with a prescribed distance of thirty-two inches separating the ranks” (Mahon, 1961, p. 62). This modification would attempt to ameliorate the issue of bunching soldiers together, which had occurred at Friedland.


A Union Army artillery battery composed of 12-pound Napoleon cannons, via Library of Congress


Despite the alteration to the marching formation of the soldiers, problems remained. One glaring issue was that only the first or second rank could effectively fire, while all the ranks were equally susceptible to an artillery barrage. In like manner, the weapons of the artillery had not undergone extreme change. To highlight this, the “12-pound Napoleon” remained in use and was the primary workhouse of the artillery for both the Confederate and Union Armies. To highlight this point, at the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 320 Union artillery pieces on the field that day, 142 were of the 12-pound Napoleon variety (Greer, 1936, p. 16). Despite the lack of great advancement in weaponry, massed artillery during the Civil War still could shape a battle. During the Atlanta campaign in late Spring 1864, just twenty-nine cannons could hold off 12,000 Confederate soldiers, utilizing both spherical and canister rounds (Mahon, 1961, p.67).


Thunder at Dawn by Mark Maritato, via Saatchi Art


Perhaps one of the most vivid descriptions of the horror of an artillery strike during the Civil War is in a personal account of the Battle of Franklin. Crownover details the recollection of Confederate General George W. Gordon. As General Gordon’s soldiers pursued the retreating Union forces, they were met by the unexpected and destructive rebuke of combined Union artillery and small arms. General Gordon states:


“When it became no longer safe for themselves to reserve their fire, they opened upon us…such a hailstorm of shot and shell, musketry and canister, that the very atmosphere was hideous with the shrieks of messengers of death. The booming of cannon, the bursting of bombs, the rattle musketry, the shrieking of shells, the whizzing of bullets…and the falling of men in their struggle for victory, all made a scene of surpassing terror and awful grandeur.” (in Crownover, 1955, p. 305).


The Pacific Theater of World War II & the Utility of the Canister Shell

Photograph of soldiers advancing behind a Sherman tank on Bougainville Island, via World War Photos


During World War II, numerous new and terrible weapons made their debut on the field of battle. Among these weapons was the “Buckshot” shell developed for tanks (itself still a new weapon). This was a newer version of the canister round developed for tank crews to use against enemy infantry units. This weapon was put into effective use by US Marines in the Pacific theater of operations, as the Japanese soldiers would attack in massive suicidal waves in an attempt to overwhelm the attacking Marines.


Photograph of Japanese soldiers, via Warfare History Network


On the island of Bougainville —northeast of Australia — Marines would use their medium tanks (most likely Sherman’s) as bait in order to draw out Japanese soldiers while they were approaching their positions. As the medium tank approached, the Japanese soldiers would swarm “…over the tank to emplace a charge in order to destroy it, an unseen companion light tank would fire the “buckshot” round directly at the heavier one. The thumbnail- size projectiles would slaughter the attackers…” (Fuquea, 1997, p.114) while not doing any damage to the medium tank.


Modern Warfare: A New Home for a Weapon Hundreds of Years Old

M1A1 Abrams Tank taking part in the Battle of Falljuh, December 8, 2004. Photographed by Sergeant Jonathan C. Knauth, via PBS


A semi-recent use of canister ammunition occurred on the night of October 9th, 2006 in the Iraqi city of Diwaniyah (situated approximately 150 kilometers south of Baghdad). After midnight, the American tank platoon (comprised of four M1A2 Abrams tanks D21-D24) from Company D, 2nd Battalion of the 8th Infantry was conducting a raid into a hostile section of the city in response to inter-tribal violence; the raid morphed into a battle that would last for over four hours (Cameron, 2017, p. 406).


During this melee, tank D24 was targeted by a rocket-propelled-grenade (RPG) team; in response, D24’s gun crew loaded an M1028 canister round. This round, produced by General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, is possibly the most lethal canister round that has ever been in the US Military arsenal. Once fired, the canister opens in mid-flight and sprays out 1,200 quarter-inch tungsten balls, which can effectively neutralize exposed enemy combatants as well as light vehicles (Cameron, 2017, p. 410).


Specifications sheet for the M1028 Canister round, via General Dynamics – Ordnance and Tactical Systems


While the other members of a separate Shi’ite RPG team fled the moonlit battle space unscathed, one fighter did not. He decided to take on the Abrams personally in the hopes of disabling it, as another group had already done to D22, which was spewing out three-story tall flames. On the opposite end of the street within the turret of D24, the tank-commander and his gun crew had the greater reaction-time. Among their other duties, the gunner of an Abrams tank identifies targets and selects the round best suited for the mission at hand. As such, following target identification, the gunner selected the M1028 canister round which was then loaded into the breech of the 120mm main gun.


The effect was catastrophic, as the flight path of the 1,200 tungsten balls was unobstructed due to the vacant street. As a result, they achieved maximum impact, detonating the RPG on the insurgent’s shoulder while simultaneously destroying the insurgent’s body, leaving little in the way of identifiable remains (Cameron, 2017, p. 412). This action demonstrates the violent effects of the modern canister round as used by US tank crews and, for the foreseeable future, will ensure its place on the modern battlefield.


Warfare necessitates morbid creativity, as technology and tactics are continually evolving. For this reason, weapons manufacturers and military tacticians, if they are wise, will continually be aware of the ever-changing conditions of the battlefield. In doing so, newer and ever more efficient tools and strategies for killing the greatest number of combatants will be developed in order to gain the desired edge in combat. As such, canister shells have been continually adapted over time in response to dealing with the threat of massed groups of assaulting infantry, they will likewise continue to be employed into the future, as they have proven to be effective killers.




Cameron, R.S. (Ed.) (2017). Armor in Battle: Special Edition for the Armored Force 75th Anniversary. U.S. Army Armor School.


Canfield, E. B. (1956). Civil War Artillery. Ordnance, 41(219), 436–440.


Crownover, S. (1955). The Battle of Franklin.

Tennessee Historical Quarterly, 14(4), 291–322.


Fuquea, D. C. (1997). Bougainville: The Amphibious Assault Enters Maturity. Naval War College Review, 50(1), 104–121.


Greer, A.J. (1936). The Roaring Guns from the Seven Days to Cold Harbor. In D. Hudnutt (Ed.) The Field Artillery Journal, 26(1), 5- 30. https://tradocfcoeccafcoepfwprod.blob.core. 1936/JAN_FEB_1936_ FULL _EDITION.pdf


Kiley, K.F. (2004). Artillery of the Napoleonic Wars 1792–1815.

Greenhill Books.,%201792- 1815%20(2004),%20OCR.pdf


Mahon, J. K. (1961). Civil War Infantry Assault Tactics.

Military Affairs, 25(2), 57–68.


Manucy, A. (1949). Artillery Through the Ages: A Short Illustrated History of Cannon, Emphasizing Types Used in America. U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service.

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By Christian P. MartinBA Multidisciplinary Studies/History, MA in progressI am from East Lansing Michigan, however I have lived in Vietnam for nearly seven years now, during this time I have been teaching English. For about two years I have been working on completing my Master’s degree in Defense and Strategic Studies online through the University of Texas at El Paso. My greatest role is being a dad (and husband); I have a three-year-old son and I love to spend as much time with him as I possibly can. My main interests include reading history and military news, baking, playing drums and photography.