Scratch Building a 1/6 Scale M1857 12-Pounder Napoleon Gun
Geoff Kidd, a retired machinist from British Columbia, Canada, spent six years (2017–2023) scratch building his 1/6 scale M1857 12-Pounder Napoleon Gun. However, in reality the project was inspired many years prior, and the materials used to craft this historic firearm came from some peculiar places. Mr. Kidd’s 12-pounder Napoleon Gun was built to exact specifications, and includes a scale model “Limber” wagon as well as a separate ammunition cart, called a “Caisson.”
Every single component was built using conventional model making tools and a 40-year-old Sherline 4000 Lathe and Milling Machine. The only piece that wasn’t made by Geoff is a tiny gold chain. The craftsmanship is remarkable, and Geoff’s dedication to this passion project is evident in every tiny detail.
Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Geoff apprenticed as a machinist and tool and die maker. It was during his time as an apprentice that one of Geoff’s fellow tradesmen showed him a 1/4 scale firing Napoleon gun that he had made. Geoff was thoroughly impressed by the model, so much so that the desire to build one of his own stuck with him for many years. After leaving Australia in 1968, Geoff worked in many fields, including merchant marine work, factory maintenance, construction, mining, tourism, and the oil industry—all while traveling the world.
Geoff moved around for some time afterward, ultimately landing in Canada in 1976 and working in different provinces. He wound up working in the oil industry in Alberta for many years, primarily as a maintenance mechanic, until he got tired of the scenery and decided to move to the coast. He settled in British Columbia in 1984, working and living in a marina and boat repair facility on the coast. Along with his full-time job, Geoff also managed to build his own 40-foot sailboat.
It wasn’t until his retirement in 2013 that Geoff returned to model building. He had built several while working in remote locations, but this time Geoff set his sights on the Napoleon gun. After doing a lot of research, he acquired copies of the plans from the Artillery For The Land Services of the United States 1849 -1865 Field Artillery Plans. Then, Geoff had to rework those dimensions to 1/6 scale before he could set out to build the model.
Building the 1/6 Scale Model 12-Pounder Napoleon Gun
Geoff noted that construction was fairly complicated because of some peculiarities in the drawings. He also tried to follow the original woodworking methods of the era for authenticity, and that proved to be an added challenge. The original artillery pieces were built so that they could be repaired in the field with interchangeable parts taken from damaged units. Carpenters, blacksmiths, leather workers, and horse wranglers were all included in the artillery battery.
The M1857 Napoleon gun was a bronze smoothbore muzzleloading field artillery piece that was incorporated into the United States Army in 1857, and used by both sides in the American Civil War. The gun was the American-manufactured version of the French “Canon obusier de 12,” which combined the functions of both field gun and howitzer.
Geoff’s 1/6 scale model includes the M1857 12-Pounder Napoleon Gun, a scale model limber cart that would pull the gun, and an additional caisson to carry ammunition. The gun fired a 12-pound solid spherical projectile, using 2 Yz lb. of black powder, with a firing distance of 1,600 yards. It also fired canister, shell and spherical case shot. The gun was very maneuverable and quite accurate. The Napoleon gun required nine men to transport, supply, and operate, along with additional support wagons and personnel when not in action.
The gun was pulled behind a small two-wheeled cart called a limber. The limber was pulled by six horses arranged in pairs, with a driver riding on each left-hand side horse. One ammunition box was carried on the limber, which could also be used as a seat to transport cannoneers short distances when speed was required. The cannoneers generally walked, as a fully-loaded ammunition box weighed 650 lbs., and any additional weight was too much for the horses.
The caisson ammunition cart also accompanied the gun. The caisson was pulled behind another limber, again with three pairs of horses and mounted drivers. It carried two ammunition boxes, a spare wheel, an axe, a shovel, a mattock, and a spare cart pole slung underneath. Both armies manufactured the Napoleon guns. The Union produced around 1,600 while the Confederacy produced 500 or so units. The surviving Napoleons can be seen at military monuments, museums, and national parks around the country.
Geoff’s scale model Napoleon gun is also unique in that the materials consist almost entirely of reclaimed wood and metal. Part of Geoff’s work in the shipyard involved crushing up decommissioned, derelict vessels to be shipped off to the dump. From time to time, Geoff would pick small pieces of wood, steel, and brass from the piles if they were still in good shape or looked interesting.
As a result, Geoff had built up a small collection of reclaimed materials from these vessels, some of which could easily be at least 100 years old. Geoff collected these materials for ten years prior to retiring, and had been storing them in his garage with the goal of eventually building the Napoleon gun that he had so admired at his friend’s house. His model is a testament to patience and ingenuity.
All told, Geoff said that he probably built six scale model Napoleon guns before he felt that everything was right with his final model. He wanted to be able to fully replicate the gun with his modeling tools and Sherline machinery alone. Geoff felt that if he needed more than that, it wasn’t worth making.
Patience clearly prevailed, and the impressive scale model Napoleon gun is a great illustration of Geoff’s commitment to fine craftsmanship. Fortunately, Geoff was kind enough to donate this impressive scale model to the Miniature Engineering Craftsmanship Museum, where it is now on permanent display.
Geoff is in the process of constructing an additional piece for the model, as well as a traveling forge model. We look forward to seeing what Mr. Kidd builds next.
View more photos of Geoff Kidd’s 1/6 scale M1857 12-pounder Napoleon gun.