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The big guns hang out at museum in Shilo

Award-winning showcase a slice of history

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SHILO -- The two small cannons at the entrance to the Royal Canadian Artillery Museum--one points directly at the ticket-taker's cubicle--look like derringers of the mounted artillery world.

Not only are the cannons small, weighing just under 1,000 pounds--a modern Howitzer across the room weighs 26 tonnes, by comparison--but they are mounted on short, ziggurat-shaped carriages, with small wooden wheels that look like they came from a kid's go-kart.

The cannons were used by Selkirk settlers in the Red River Settlement. "They actually brought them in canoes with them, all the way from the Hudson Bay. Pretty amazing," said Marc George, museum director.

Assiniboia governor Miles Macdonell, whose harebrained leadership netted him the disdain of both Selkirk settlers and their enemies, ordered the cannons fired at the North West Company during the Pemmican Wars of 1815-1817. The only casualties were his own when one of the cannons blew up.

Speaking of loose cannons...

There are 28 in total at the Shilo museum, from those first cannons used by Selkirk settlers to rocket launchers used in the Gulf War.

It's a superb, full-sized museum (12,000 square feet of exhibit space) that was recently honoured with one of the highest awards by the National Awards for Tourism Excellence: the Innovator of the Year Award. The museum was praised for its transformation "from a capable local museum to a dynamic tourism experience and one of the best military museums in the country."

There is a large glass display of what most of us think of as guns, including a 1722 flintlock musket, a 1840 Pocket Pistol (putting to rest Mae West's age-old question), First World War magazine-fed rifles, the rifle used in the Vietnam war, and the C7 assault rifle used by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan today.

But the museum's stock in trade is the large mounted artillery, what George calls "guns" but the rest of us call cannons and rocket launchers and Howitzers.

There's the nine-pounder smooth-bore cannon, the "shock and awe" weaponry of its day, that ushered in Canada's Confederation in 1867. It was only ever fired for practice and salutes.

There's the cannon George calls "the most important gun in our history." It was used to quell the North West Rebellion in 1885 in battles at Fish Creek and Batoche in Saskatchewan. About a hundred people died.

"The gun was certainly fired and certainly inflicted casualties but we don't know how many," said George.

But the round musket balls and round cannonballs made for some poor aerodynamics--and poor accuracy. The spinning ball coming out of the barrel behaved like a curveball over any distance, and could easily hook seven feet to the left or right, or up or down, George explained.

That's why in 19th-Century warfare, artillery men were grouped in tight formations and fired simultaneously: The effect was like buckshot to make up for the lack of accuracy.

Armaments were revolutionized when Alfred Nobel discovered a way to stabilize nitroglycerine in the mid-1800s for the manufacture of military weapons. Nitroglycerine made explosives six times more lethal than gunpowder.

When an explosion in his factory killed his brother Emil, Alfred got a hint of how he would be portrayed posthumously when newspapers mistook the death as his own. Merchant of Death is Dead, read the next day's headline. So Nobel created the Nobel Prize to rehabilitate his image.

One of the key pieces in the collection is a recently retired Howitzer -- essentially a cannon mounted on a tank body. Its guided missiles could pick off a house in Brandon 20 kilometres away, George said.

The sounds of all the big guns is deafening and tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ear, remains a big problem for military personnel.George ruptured his left eardrum while serving in Afghanistan, and today suffers from buzzing in that ear.

It's helpful to ask for a guided tour of the museum and staff will accommodate, if available. The museum is open from 10 to 5, seven days a week from Victoria Day to Labour Day, and Monday to Friday the rest of the year, except holidays. Admittance is $5 for adults, and a nominal charge for everyone else.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2009 A5

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