Secrets of the Patriot Limbers

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Karl G. Elsea

When visiting Revolutionary War battlefields there are often replica field guns on the grounds. Not shown, in almost all cases, is the vehicle that pulled the gun to the battle – the limber. Though less “cool” it was essential.

Author’s limber and photo. Obsolescent British design with cart hook-up hardware modification

Today, there is no surviving original Patriot field gun limber from the American Revolutionary War. That is a problem when attempting to reproduce representative Patriot field gun limbers. The normal starting place, Muller’s A Treatise of Artillery, does not include information concerning British field (light) gun limbers. Muller’s Treatise only contains information on limbers for medium and heavy guns.

The absence of any original limbers is especially gulling because the Patriots had access to both obsolescent designs and the most advanced designs. The Hessian field gun limber was probably the most advanced limber design in 1776, and the Patriot forces captured six of them at Trenton on December 26, 1776. The Hessian limber design had three important improvements; firstly, the pintle (pin that connects the gun carriage to the limber) was behind the axle of the limber thus allowing a shorter turning radius and less likely damage to the gun carriage. Secondly, an ammunition box containing sixty rounds was on the limber. Thirdly, two wheel-horses were used instead of one thill horse thus providing twice the braking power. It would be interesting to know if the Patriots reproduced or incorporated those design elements.

(1770 drawing showing top view of Hessian three-pounder gun limber (courtesy of Kriegskarten from Hessisches Staatsarchiv Marburg, Germany at

The Patriots did what they could to use the “best” designs whenever they could. For example, the most common field gun in the Patriot army from late 1777 till the end of the war was the French four-pounder a la suedoise. The Patriots quickly realized the four-pounder barrels had enough gun metal that they could be bored out to be six-pounders, and many were quickly rebored to six-pounders. The Patriots thus converted an obsolescent gun barrel design to a competitive gun design.

The limber may appear to be simple but there is more to the design than what one might initially think. If one takes a careful look at a field gun carriage, then one can notice the trail transom (the piece of wood that connects the cheeks together at the rear) is at a strange angle, not parallel to the ground. Also, the hole in the trail transom that the limber pintle (pin) connects to the gun carriage is also at a strange angle. To understand those angles you must start at the opposite end of the limber, the horse.

The gun carriage and limber were designed at the same time. To understand a design, it is easier to explain with the simplest limber design, a British three-pounder gun limber. The design starts with an assumed horse size and shape. The horse applies force for forward movement by pushing into a collar. The collar hangs at an angle on the shoulders of the horse. The angle where the shaft connects to the collar is called the “angle of draft” and should be 90 degrees. The shaft connects to the axle of the limber and when the shaft is connected to the horse collar the limber axle and pintle plate are at a noticeable slant. That slant marries up with the angle on the gun carriage transom and pintle hole. The slant causes the gun carriage cheek pieces to be level to the ground thus keeping ammunition on the gun carriage level.

Thanks to the Germans there is information for a British six-pounder field gun limber. The Germans made a detailed drawing of the British six-pounder field gun carriage and limber used during the Seven Years War. That type six-pounder gun with limber was likely used by Alexander Hamilton at Trenton, and George Rogers Clark at the Battle of Peckuwe. It is noteworthy that the limber wheel diameter is 36 inches. William Congreve complained that these light field gun limbers had, “Wheels are so low that the Axletree often drags upon the Ground in bad roads.” He also complained, “The Naves of the Limber Wheels are too small to admit of their being put upon the Axletree of the Gun Carriage.”[i]

Drawing from the digital archive of the Germanisches National Museum)

There were other limber designs. Lamb’s Artillery reenactment unit in the Brigade of the American Revolution has a correct Congreve model 1776 (British) three-pounder gun, carriage, and limber with shafts design. The Patriots captured more than six of these type guns and limbers during the Saratoga campaign. Its limber design was somewhat advanced but was also heavy. The light British six-pounder (field) gun carriage and limber of 1776 design is also well known.[ii] In addition, the Patriots captured three Townshend three-pounders during the war. There are drawings and a 1775 model that provides information concerning the Townshend limber.[iii]

In much greater numbers, the Patriots, in year 1777, received 173 French four-pounder guns/carriages, a la suedoise, with 138 compatible limbers.[iv] Some drawings of these limbers and a model of this gun/carriage/limber exist. These French limbers were similar to the obsolescent limber design shown above. The more advanced Gribeauval designed limbers were not provided to the Patriots. However, French officers with the Continental army may have provided information concerning these more advanced French designs.

Sadly, we shall likely never know what improvements, if any, were incorporated in the limbers the artisans built for the Patriot field guns. Any changes made to these initial designs remain a secret. 


[i] Adrian Caruana, The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776 (Museum Restoration Service, Alexandria Bay, NY, 1993), 17-19

[ii] Adrian Caruana, The Light 6-Pdr. Battalion Gun of 1776 (Museum Restoration Service, Alexandria Bay, NY, 1993), 12

[iii] Eric H. Schnitzer, The Last Arguments of Kings, A Study in Metamorphosis (Ticonderoga Press, Ticonderoga, 2018), 113

[iv]Robert A. Selig, The Last Arguments of Kings, The Politics of Arming America (Ticonderoga Press, Ticonderoga, 2018), 36

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