You can’t understand the structure of Ruapekapeka Pā and the layout of the battlefield without thinking about the armaments in use during the battle. The pā is dramatically different from traditional Māori pā designed to defend against traditional Māori weapons. Ruapekapeka was especially designed to resist artillery fire and to provide high quality firing positions to defend against assault.
The British gun batteries were carefully placed to maximise the effectiveness of the heavy artillery at their disposal. They had a massive advantage in terms of fire-power. Expert artillerymen from the navy were sent to Ruapekapeka with an impressive array of cannon, mortar, howitzers and rocket tubes. The troops were armed with high quality percussion muskets, modern technology at the time.
Ngāpuhi inside the pā were armed with older-style flint-lock muskets and double-barrelled muzzle-loaders (tupara). Māori chief Te Ruki Kawiti had two pieces of artillery (a carronade and a 4-pounder gun) but he was unable to use them effectively against the British. The warriors also carried traditional club-like weapons such as patu, but this was a battle defined by the use of muskets and artillery.
|3 x 32-pounder cannon (sea service)||one at the main camp, two at the main battery|
|1 x 18-pounder cannon (sea service)1
|1 x 6 pounder brass gun (field service)||main camp|
|4 x 5 ½ inch mortars||main battery|
|2 x 12-pound howitzer||one at advanced battery, one at main camp|
|2 x rocket-tubes2 (Congreve rockets)||main camp|
|possibly some Coehorn mortars (4 ½ inch)3
2 In a despatch dated 9 January 1846, Despard refers to “an apparatus for throwing rockets”. According to J. Cowan (The New Zealand Wars 1955:75,81) the British had “two rocket-tubes” at the main camp.
For more information about arms see also: New Zealand Arms Register website
The British had three 32-pounder and one 18-pounder cannon. Transporting these large artillery pieces up to Ruapekapeka was a gruelling experience. A track had to be cut through the bush, and the soldiers and sailors had to pull on ropes to supplement the efforts of the bullocks. Cannon were installed at each of the three British positions: a 32-pounder at the main camp, along with a 6-pounder brass gun, two 32-pounders at the main gun battery, and the 18-pounder at the forward gun battery.
The cannon were cast-iron muzzle loaders, typical of that time period. The cannonballs were solid cast iron, weighing up to 14.5 kg (32 pounds). To fire, the gunner loaded a fabric powder cartridge down the muzzle, then the shot, and a wad to hold it in place. A wire pricker was inserted into the vent to prick the charge, which was filled with gunpowder. A gunlock or a slow match was held at the vent to fire the gun4. Although not very accurate or reliable (by modern standards), cannon like these were very good at smashing field fortifications.
Along with the 32-pounder cannon, there were four 5 ½ inch mortars5 at the main battery. The mortars were small and portable, basically a stubby bronze tube mounted on a wooden platform. Used in European sieges since the 17th century, they launched bombshells at a high angle, ignited by a burning fuse. Mortars were commonly used in siege-type situation, because they could fling projectiles up and over defensive walls and down onto the people sheltering behind. Open-top trenches were no defence against mortar shells, but the under-ground shelters within Ruapekapeka pā did offer Kawiti and his men protection.
Photo: Phil Cregeen
Howitzers are somewhat similar to mortars, but the barrel is much longer. The bombshells are fired at a lower angle and follow a flatter trajectory. There were two 12-pounder howitzers at Ruapekapeka, one at the main camp and the other at the advanced gun battery. Accuracy was a problem with howitzers and mortars alike. The range of the shell was determined by the powder charge, and it took a very skilled artillerist to determine exactly how much powder was required.
Congreve rockets were visually spectacular and wildly inaccurate. They inspired a line in the United States National Anthem after the British used them during the 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry: “… and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.”
Two rocket-launchers were used at Ruapekapeka, positioned at the main camp quite a long distance away from the pā. The British had used them before during the Northern Wars campaign. Twelve rockets were fired during the Battle of Puketutu but only one actually hit Te Kahika pā, prompting Heke’s derisive question, “what prize can be won by such a gun?”6
Kawiti had a carronade and a 4-pounder gun within the pa, one at the rear and one just inside and above the trench on the western face7. It wasn’t particularly surprising that the defenders possessed some larger guns. Over the years, Māori had acquired a few artillery pieces8. There was a gun-battery inside the pā at Ohaeawai comprising two 9-pounders and two smaller pieces. However, at Ohaeawai and again at Ruapekapeka Kawiti was unable to make effective use of his big guns due to a lack of projectiles9.
Kawiti's carronade before restoration.
Photo: Department of Conservation
Kawiti's carronade after restoration.
Photo: Department of Conservation
Before treatment, a large piece of the barrel was in storage at the Whangarei Museum. The pieces were reassembled around an internal steel tube, and the carronade was mounted on a replica wooden carriage.
Today, there is an 18-pounder carronade on a wooden mount near the centre of Ruapekapkea Pā. The weapon has long been known as Kawiti’s carronade, thought to be one of the pieces of artillery that Kawiti had inside the pā during the Battle of Ruapekapkea. Colonel Despard mentions a broken 12-pounder carronade in one of his official despatches:
“His Excellency Governor Grey,
Camp at Ruapekapeka
14th January, 1846
SIR, - I have the honour to state, for your Excellency’s information, that in my despatch dated the 12th inst., I omitted to mention, that two guns were taken in the pah, at the Ruapekapeka, - one 12 pound carronade, broken by one of our 18 pound shot; and the other, a 4 pounder, in serviceable order. The latter has been bought away with the troops, and will be conveyed to Auckland."
A few years ago this gun was in several pieces, held together with a rusty metal band. During a recent re-assembly project, the pieces were re-attached around an internal steel tube, and painted with a rust-resistant coating. During the conservation treatments, engravings were revealed on the side of the barrel. The carronade was manufactured for the British government in a foundry in Falkirk, Scotland. The engraving states the calibre (18-pounder) and the year it was proof-tested (1811)11.
10 Despard, H. Despatch published in The New Zealander, 21 February 1846. www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
People writing about the Battle of Ruapekapeka have focussed upon on the heavy artillery. The artillery certainly damaged the structure of the pā, but most of the deaths and injuries were at close quarters caused by a range of hand-held weapons. Unfortunately we don’t have a great deal of specific information about the small arms in use on Sunday 11 January, when the soldiers entered the pā. There were certainly muskets and bayonets, probably double-barrelled shotguns, and perhaps pistols, swords, and traditional hand-held weapons such as patu(short clubs).
Muskets and bayonets
The 1840s were a transitional period in terms of firearms technology. The long reign of the flint-lock musket drawing to an end, and percussion-cap mechanisms were coming to the fore. The British Army started to issue percussion-cap muskets in 1839. The new mechanism had several advantages over the flint-lock variety: it was much more reliable and there wasn’t a flint to wear out after twenty or so shots.
Phil Cregeen firing a percussion cap musket at Ruapekapeka.
Photo: Department of Conservation
Close-up of a Percussion musket P1839 and lock (Photos: J Osborne)
Although percussion-cap muskets were clearly superior to the flint-lock variety, the rate-of-fire was still very slow. The soldier was desperately vulnerable while reloading. At close quarters muskets of any kind were of limited use.
When it came to hand-to-hand fighting, the British had a significant advantage over their Māori opponents. The troops had bayonets whereas the Māori generally did not13, instead using hatchets or traditional club-like weapons. A bayonet basically converts a musket into a spear, allowing the soldier to slash and stab at their opponent from a greater distance. The bayonets in use during this time period were of the “socket” variety, where the blade is set into a tube which fits over the barrel of the gun14.
The defenders inside the pā were armed with flint-lock muskets and double-barrelled shot guns. Flint-lock muskets had been the weapon of choice for European armies for several centuries, and in the early 1800s Ngāpuhi began trading for muskets with great enthusiasm. By 1845 Ngāpuhi had plenty of muskets, and decades of experience using them in battle.
The musket most commonly available to Ngāpuhi was the famous “Brown Bess”15. These were muzzle-loading smooth-bore muskets, issued by the British Army or based on the same design. The Brown Bess muskets in Ngāpuhi hands were of the flint-lock variety.
They were originally fitted with a goose neck cock, but many of them snapped off through the neck and were replaced with a reinforced neck ring cock as shown. The triangular socket bayonet was held in place by a spring lever pressing against the foresight16.
In a nutshell, this is how flintlock muskets work: a shower of sparks is generated when the flint hits the frizzen, a hinged steel cover on top of the pan which is filled with powder. The power ignites, the flash passes through a vent to the combustion chamber, igniting the main powder charge, and firing the gun. Loading a flintlock musket was time-consuming, and an average soldier could be expected to fire only once or twice per minute17.
Phil Cregeen firing a flintlock musket at Ruapekapeka.
Photo: Department of Conservation
Close-up of a Flintlock musket P1797 and lock (Photos: J Osborne)
Flint-lock muskets were not particularly accurate, best used at ranges less than 50 – 70 yards (45 – 65 metres). Nor were they very reliable: the barrel tended to clog up, the powder got damp easily, and the flints began to wear out after about 20 shots19. Kawiti’s men at Ruapekapeka did have problems with range, as reported by Major Cyprian Bridge in his diary:
“… the enemy had opened a hot fire of musketry on [the main camp], but from the distance his no one. Most of their shots fell short, except some rifle balls which whizzed over our heads…”
Major Cyprian Bridge, diary entry for 30 December 1846
The muskets belonging to Kawiti’s men may not have been the best quality in the first place: there was a difference between military issue “Tower” muskets and cheap “trade” muskets. Tower muskets were tested by government inspectors at the Tower of London, and although trade muskets were meant to be checked at commercial proof-houses, the quality was often dubious20. We don’t know whether Kawiti’s men were armed with Tower muskets or trade muskets. It seems likely that they had some of each.
As well as flint-lock muskets, Ngāpuhi were in possession of double-barrelled shotguns known as tupara. These guns were loaded musket-balls, and so did not resemble modern shotguns which fire many small pellets.
Close-up of a Percussion Tupara musket and lock (Photos: J Osborne)
(Percussion Tupara were double-barrelled muskets introduced c1835)
Kawiti’s men at Ruapekapeka may actually have had more tupara than they did muskets. In late 1845, Governor Grey wrote the following about “the enemy”:
“Their arms are generally a double barrelled shotgun, sometimes a musket without a bayonet, and a hatchet for close quarters, but which is a useless weapon when opposed to bayonets … They invariably carry two of three pouches filled with cartridges, they put a larger charge of powder in their cartridges than Europeans use, and the guns consequently carry further than the muskets of the British Soldiers. They are at present abundantly supplied with arms and ammunition.”
Memorandum, G. Grey, 6 December 1845
Tupara were not very accurate but at close quarters they were absolutely deadly. There was a bloody demonstration of this fact during the Battle of Ohaeawai in mid-1845. The defenders were armed with double barrelled shot guns21 and safely hidden behind the palisades. They opened fire upon the charging British troops, their musket balls scything through the mass of bodies at almost point-blank range. We don’t know to what extent the defenders used tupara during the Battle of Ruapekapeka, as opposed to single-barrelled “Brown Bess” muskets.
Heavy Artillery versus Timber and Earth
It can be difficult for modern readers to grasp the scale of the bombardment of Ruapekapeka Pā. In context, the British had an enormous amount of firepower at their disposal. This was their third campaign inland against pā belonging to their Ngāpuhi enemies. During the Battle of Puketutu, the British hit Te Kahika Pā with one Congreve rocket (out of 12 that were fired). And that was the extent of the bombardment. After failing miserably at Puketutu the British adjusted their strategy to focus upon the use of artillery. At Ohaeawai soldiers bought with them two brass 6 pounders and two 12 pounder carronades, but it soon became apparent that the guns were not big enough to breach the defence. Colonel Despard sent for a 32-pounder cannon, which arrived a week later. It was big enough. If only he’d possessed a modicum of patience the outcome of the Battle of Ohaeawai may have been different.
Ohaeawai Pā and Ruapekapeka Pā were strong fortifications, well designed and solidly built. But they were constructed of timber and earth. No matter how well designed, a timber palisade cannot withstand concerted bombardment from 32-pounder cannon. At Puketutu and again at Ohaeawai the British were surprised by the strength of the outer defences. At Ruapekapeka they knew what to expect, and so they bought with them sufficient firepower to achieve their objective. Finally, the British had realised what it took to knock down a Maori pā.
Bridge, Cyprian. 1845-6. Diary. Original held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, transcript held at the Department of Conservation Whangarei Area Office.
Cowan, J. 1955 . The New Zealand Wars: A History of the Maori Campaigns and the Pioneering Period: Volume 1 (1845-64). R. E. Owen, Wellington.
Despard, Henry. 1845-6. Official Despatches. Published in the New Zealander, 21 February 1846. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.nz.
Despard. H. 1846. Narrative of an Expedition into the Interior of New Zealand during the Months of June and July 1845. Copy held at the Hocken Library, bound as Item 10 in Hocken Pamphlets Volume 18.
D’Arcy, P. 2000. Maori and Muskets for a Pan-Polynesian perspective. New Zealand Journal of History 34:117-132.
Grey, G. Memorandum upon the mode in which military operations can be most advantageously conducted in New Zealand. 6 December 1845. Entry in letter book (copy held at Department of Conservation Whangarei Area Office).
Henderson, A. et. al. 2008. The Gunners: A History of New Zealand Artillery. Reed, Auckland.
Johnson, R. 2006. The Northern War 1844-1846. An Overview Report Commissioned by the Crown Forestry Rental Trust.
Jones, G. (ed.). 2012. The Military History Book: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Weapons that Shaped the World. Dorling Kindersley, London.
Osborne, J. 2007. Brown Bess Muskets. Unpublished Report.
Weir, W. 2005. 50 Weapons that Changed the Warfare. New Page Books, Franklin Lakes, NJ.