Artillery can play a decisive role in deciding a battle or a war. History is littered with armies that were not able to bring artillery to bear on their enemy and lost significant battles. For some enterprising or desperate commanders lacking the punch that a cannon can bring they improvised and made their artillery out of wood.
Wooden cannons typically date to the 19th century (but were in use earlier) and could be found in countries that were heavily forested but lacking in other resources. Romanian rebels in Transylvania used wooden cannons against the Hungarian army in the 1840s made from fir, cherry or beech wood. Hand labor drilled out the bores and they used a firing system similar to a flintlock musket. What iron could be manufactured or salvaged were used to ring the barrel to strengthen it. The projectiles fired were either captured iron cannonballs, rocks or wooden cannonballs. While producing very little actual damage the sound that was made, amplified by the Transylvanian Mountains was enough to give the impression of a large army.
Here in the New World Native Americans made wooden cannons for use against settlement fortifications. The settlers also found them useful. Squire Boone (Daniel’s brother) crafted one for the defense of Boonesborough, Kentucky when it was besieged by Native Americans in 1778. This may be the only successful deployment of a wooden cannon but the besieging forces lacked any artillery of their own necessary to achieve victory. The native peoples of South America also employed wooden cannons against their Spanish and Portuguese overlords. As those nations took control of that continent it should be no surprise that the natives and wooden cannons failed.
The Vietnamese also developed wooden cannons against the French in 1862 and they were also employed during the Boshin War in Japan in 1868. Russian Tsar Peter the Great’s pastime was building wooden cannons, though his army had the use of metal cannon. The Bulgarians used cherrywood cannons during the April Uprising of 1876 and wooden cannons were even in use during the 20th century when the Macedonians also employed a cherrywood cannon during the Ilinden Uprising in 1903. Both uprisings opposed the Ottoman Empire and it should be no surprise that both were suppressed.
Using a wooden cannon is employed as a last ditch effort. Manufacturing them takes many hours of labor and due to the shock produced when firing them they would break apart after only a few firings. As artillery became more modernized their lack of range became a glaring drawback.
For any enthusiast out there or anyone who is thinking about overthrowing the United States government by bringing a wooden cannon to bear they should know that wooden cannons are illegal here in the US. The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 banned wooden cannons and was reauthorized in 2013 to include plastic guns made with a 3-D printer. By law steel must be a major component of any firearm. So, if you have a wooden cannon sitting in your backyard you should dispose of it.