High-tech Equipment Helps Build Civil War Cannons

Marshall Steen in a shop

NOTE: The following op-ed column was published April 13 in the Charleston Gazette and April 25 in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.

By Charlotte Weber

The Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) has worked with all types of manufacturers since its inception in 1990. We never thought we’d be helping build Civil War cannons, however.

But that’s just what we’ve been doing for the past few years.

The Steen Cannon & Ordnance Works of Ashland, Ky., undoubtedly is RCBI’s most unusual client, leasing time on some of the world’s most technologically sophisticated manufacturing equipment to produce weapons from an earlier time.

Marshall Steen went into the 19th Century field artillery business in 1993. Seems he wanted a cannon to decorate the yard of a historic home he had acquired in Ashland. He soon found that original Civil War cannons were far too expensive. He couldn’t find reproductions of the quality he wanted, so he decided to build his own. Thus was born in his garage what has become a thriving small industry. Steen Cannon & Ordnance Works now is considered the country’s top manufacturer of full-scale, fully-functional reproduction field artillery.

Steen’s grandest achievement to date is a 30-pounder Parrott cannon, the largest fully functional Civil War reproduction cannon in the United States. The 4,200-pound weapon was fired for the first time in April, 2007, at its new home, Fort Pulaski National Monument, Georgia. Steen’s cannon easily eclipsed the next largest functional reproduction cannon in the U.S., a 1,750-pound Parrott. Using visitor fees, Fort Pulaski paid $50,000 for the big gun, and has a demonstration firing every Saturday.

The National Park Service, which has original and reproduction cannons at its sites throughout the country, has become Steen’s best customer, particularly for gun carriages. An integral part of the cannon, the Civil War gun carriages were made of wood, which has deteriorated over the years. Steen uses iron or aluminum, made to look like wood, to build replacements for sites throughout the National Park Service system.

Steen uses RCBI equipment to make parts for his gun carriages. With only manual machining capability in-house, he employed a 2005 graduate of RCBI’s Machinist Technology Program, Jason Clagg, to operate the computer-controlled equipment he was leasing from RCBI. The advanced equipment produces parts much more quickly and with greater efficiency than manually-operated machinery.

In a radio interview last year, Steen said the average price for one of his iron cannons, including carriage, ranged from $16,000 to $18,000. Bronze versions were priced up to $45,000. Of course, the skyrocketing prices for metal are pushing costs ever higher.

The Steen company is only one example of the hundreds of small- and medium-sized manufacturing entrepreneurs across the region who have taken advantage of RCBI’s resources. Access to sophisticated, high technology equipment is important for many who, like Steen, cannot immediately make the large investment required to begin their own American dream. RCBI makes that dream possible by providing access to the advanced technology. Further, when firms do make the investment their employees can be trained to operate the equipment at RCBI. In addition, our Machinist Technology Program graduates nationally-certified CNC-trained machinists ready to move immediately into industry and help alleviate a countrywide shortage.

Access to equipment and training are available through all four RCBI manufacturing technology centers in Huntington, South Charleston, Bridgeport and Rocket Center (near Keyser in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle), as well as extensive workforce development, quality certification and hands-on and online business development services.

If you’re looking for the most unique manufacturing technical assistance center in the region, look no more. Just give us a call or visit us at www.rcbi.org.

Charlotte Weber is director and CEO of the Robert C. Byrd nstitute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI).