Loomis Battery of the Michigan Light Artillery takes the field in Grayling

Father and son share the task of swabbing the barrel to eliminate any remaining sparks from the previous shots.

By Jim Smith

GRAYLING–For more than 27 years, the Loomis Battery of the Michigan Light Artillery has taken to the range, courtesy of the Michigan National Guard, to compete in their annual Long Range Artillery Match. 

The Loomis Battery was formed in 1961 during the Centennial Celebration of the American Civil War.  It was organized by Matt Switlik and a small group of black powder artillery enthusiasts as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation in Monroe, Michigan. 

The group was modeled after the original Civil War Artillery Group formed by Cyrus O. Loomis in 1861.  Assembled in Coldwater and made up of volunteers from Branch, Wayne and Oakland Counties the original unit was called to action on April 23, 1861 by Abraham Lincoln. 

The Loomis Battery served in numerous battles from Cheat Mountain, West Virginia to Perryville, Stone River, Chickamauga and the Battle of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The Unit was released from duty on July 12, 1865 having suffered 12 men lost to battle and 28 to disease for a total of 40 fatalities over their three years of service.

Don Lutz, Loomis Battery Commander, stated that the mission of the modern Loomis Battery is the preservation of the history of one of the great groups of Michigan volunteers that served to defend the Union during that great upheaval in our country. Their goal is to educate interested persons in the artillery used during this critical time in our history.  

This year saw the largest number of entry’s the Loomis Battery has ever hosted for this special event.  Competitors from as far away as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and West Virginia began arriving at Range 35 as early as Thursday, setting up their living quarters in everything from motor homes to civil war  style campaign tents. 

They all arrived with their artillery pieces, some on trailers, some in trucks, all original or reproductions of pieces built prior to 1898 and designed to use black powder.  Most of the artillery pieces are reproductions as the originals are far too valuable to shoot.  Cannons range from the Coehorn Mortars firing at a white flag 350 yards away to the rifled mountain guns that aim at targets 1,000 to 1,200 yards distant. 

Loomis Battery Adjutant, Matt Switlik led the way down range where the targets were being set.  The targets were four by eight foot sheets of plywood set in trench’s in the dirt at a 1,000 yard distance.  Range 35 has available distances of up to 1,200 yards. 

However, in 1987 a 3,000 yard range was made available to the battery for demonstration and educational purposes. Camp Grayling is the only range where the cannons can be used at their intended distances.  Where ever else the demonstrations are held the shots are restricted to a maximum of 200 yards and at times, blank shots only. 

The competitions are by invitation only.  The current Loomis Battery has a total membership of about forty artillery men and women that mostly live in S. E. Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois..  This year’s lineup included 30 field and mountain guns, three siege mortars and twelve Coehorn mortars. 

These cannon still use the original loads of coarse black powder.  The squads tend to stay away from the modern black powder substitutes as they don’t perform as well as the “old stuff”. 

The ammunition used today is usually home-made, die-cast in zinc or zinc alloy which has a density similar to the original “iron” cannon balls.  The calibers range from mountain guns with a one to one and one-half inch bore to six pound rifled field guns at 3.6 inch’s in diameter to 5.8 inch balls used in the 24-pound mortars.  Some of the siege guns go up to eight to ten inch’s in diameter. 

The average cost-per-shot, including powder and projectile runs from under ten dollars to sixty dollars or more. After the shooting is over the squad members go down range to recover their projectiles many times having to dig them out of the soil. Each cannon ball is labeled.

Judging the mortars, the closest to the flag wins the round.  Each gun crew takes careful and detailed notes regarding each projectile and how it performed.  Differences in temperature, humidity and how the barrel heats up, all have an effect on how each projectile shoots.  This information allows the crew to select which projectiles should be used and in what order.

Most of the artillery pieces present were muzzle loaders.  Several cannon were breech loaders but this type of artillery didn’t really enter into service until the Spanish-American War era.

For those who see one of these shoots and get “the bug,” a gun carriage and iron barrel starts at around $12,000. 

A bronze barrel quickly raises the ante to $30,000 or more.  The Coehorns are a little cheaper, starting at around $2,000.00 plus another $500.00 for the carriage.  That doesn’t include all the extras, the trailer to haul it with or the care and feeding of the crew you will need to actually shoot the thing.  The average gun crew consists of anywhere between three to six members, depending on the cannon.

One great benefit is obvious by the number of wives, girlfriends and children present behind the scenes and even on the firing line.  This really is a family affair and well worth a Saturday afternoon, note attendees  

When the boom, the shudder, the whistle of the cannonball and the smell of burning gunpowder get in your blood, it’s hard to resist the call of the artillery.

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