Could an old (16th Century) cannon be heard five miles away?
November 11, 2010 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Could very old (16th Century) cannons be heard five miles away? This is pretty important for a story I'm writing. I know that later, huge artillery pieces could be heard for many miles, but these would be small iron pieces for a small military outpost. On a calm day, could their sound travel that far?
posted by bagadonuts to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
On a calm night, I can hear the rumbling of the railroad tracks (not the whistle, the wheels on track kuh-klunk) - over two miles away, in the city. I can hear a tugboat's horn - over three miles away. Again, in the city.

My hearing absolutely sucks.

A cannon? Four-pounder? oh yeah, you could hear it.
posted by notsnot at 3:26 PM on November 11, 2010

Depending on the geography, you can hear the launch of fireworks mortars from many miles away.

Likewise, a rifle shot can be audible for many miles.

I'm sure a cannon would be audible, if you're on flat ground and there are no intervening hills or structures.
posted by Netzapper at 3:27 PM on November 11, 2010

IANAAE (I Am Not An Accoustical Engineer) so I don't have a definitive answer, but I do know this:

It depends. (On intervening terrain and atmospheric conditions).

On windy, stormy day? No. On a cool, still, (sound travels better in cooler, moister air; fog helps a bunch) pre-dawn morning with no big hills in the way? Definitely.
posted by dolface at 3:28 PM on November 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks. Now it seems obvious, but I just needed some confirmation. The whole story kind of hinges on it.
posted by bagadonuts at 3:29 PM on November 11, 2010

Best answer: I used to be able to hear them practicing on the pistol range behind the state police station which was over a mile away from where I grew up and there was a pretty significant stand of trees between us and it. It wasn't loud, just a sort of pop pop pop that let you knew that someone was getting his monthly target practice in.

I'd estimate that a medieval cannon - particularly the breech loaders where the chamber was wedged into place - would be roughly a zillion times louder than a service revolver.

posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:41 PM on November 11, 2010

I can hear the gun range that is 4-5 miles from my house. I-75 is between us. So I say yes.
posted by patnok at 4:59 PM on November 11, 2010

Something to consider: gunpowder production techniques increased pretty drastically between 1300 and 1800. Older pieces frequently had to use more gunpowder for each shot as the earlier stuff didn't explode quite as forcefully, i.e. more of the energy was converted to sound and light than kinetic expansion.

Know how black powder muskets are way, way louder than modern assault rifles firing single shots? Yeah, that's why. You're basically talking about firing a ginormous black powder musket.
posted by valkyryn at 5:00 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can clearly the whistle at Folsom Prison from my house, which is about two miles away. Now if only they'd shoot off the cannon sometime...
posted by elsietheeel at 5:59 PM on November 11, 2010

Google for "acoustic shadows" - a lot of what you'd hear depends on the ground topology, weather, and trees.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 6:27 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fort Lewis College used to fire a small cannon every time the football team scored a touchdown. It was pretty clearly audible two miles away, but I'm not sure about five miles in that kind of hilly country.
posted by underflow at 8:18 PM on November 11, 2010

Best answer: It seems to me like it would be audible. And it will likely seem the same way to the 98% of people who read or watch or hear your story. That's pretty much all that matters. Or at least, it matters more than the actual scientific reality that 2% of your audience might get all up in arms about.

As Aristotle said, with regard to poetic effect, a plausible impossibility is preferable to what is implausible but possible. It doesn't matter as much that it is possible, it matters that it seems possible.
posted by visual mechanic at 8:33 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I live out on the edge of the suburbs, and I routinely hear fireworks in a park two miles away; I think that some years I've heard the big-city display, fully eleven miles away.

It's not entirely a question of how loud the sound is in absolute terms - to be heard, your cannon just needs to be louder than the background noise.

And the world was a lot quieter in the 16th century: no motorized traffic, no background electric hum. In Mozart's day, life in 18th century Vienna - a significant capital city - was so quiet that fire alarms were broadcast verbally, by a shouting watchman up on the cathedral.

And in several wars (later than the 16th century, but still), artillery fire on the continent could be heard in England, fully 20 miles across the Channel.

So, yeah.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 10:44 PM on November 11, 2010

Youtube vid of a tiny triple barreled 16th century hand cannon. It certainly sounds loud enough to be heard miles away on a calm day.
posted by Ahab at 11:45 PM on November 11, 2010

The A's have several nights throughout the season where they shoot off fireworks after the game. My house is 4.5 miles away from the Coliseum, halfway up a large hill, on the wrong side of two ridges, and in an area with a lot of trees. I can still hear the fireworks, even when I'm inside.
posted by clorox at 2:00 AM on November 12, 2010

Somewhat later (nineteenth century), but Edinburgh's One O Clock gun was fired for the sole purpose of being heard in the Forth, as timekeeping for ships. Since the very nearest bit of the Forth is about two miles away, they were expecting the sound to easily travel that sort of distance.
posted by Coobeastie at 3:53 AM on November 12, 2010

I have daily experience with hearing a cannon fire at noon!
Lou Canoun de Miejour (That's Niçois, in French it's "le canon de midi", English: "noon cannon".)

The small cannon was replaced by a bomb (heh, I love this place) a few years ago, but I live 5 miles away and can hear it go off every day. Through closed doors and windows.
posted by fraula at 5:24 AM on November 12, 2010

There's also a daily noon cannon at the citadel in Halifax, NS, that can be easily heard across the harbour in Dartmouth several miles away. On a cloudy or foggy night you can even hear bands playing at outdoor venues in Halifax when you're in Dartmouth (Barrett's Privateers every Thursday, Friday and Saturday get really old really fast).
posted by hydrobatidae at 10:40 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

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