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Handling Naval Artillery

May 19, 2012
Handling Naval Artillery
  • How to handle Naval Artillery

    A ship's gun from the Age of Sail is commonly related to cannon. But the one thing about cannons is that they aren’t even called cannons. A true cannon during the 1600s was actually a cannon that was 12 feet long, and fired a 60-pound ball.   Usually, what we think of as cannons would be referred to as guns, or mounted guns, or naval artillery, or be called by their names or by the weight of the shot it used. But the guns used by the ship were the prime weapons fighting at long range. It could scare off pirates, or pirates could scare merchants into surrender. But a prime use was in the Navy, were ships could have 70 to 100 guns. So the Naval Artillery was a true tactical to practical.

    How to Fire a Gun

    For a gun, it takes several steps to load. The first step would be to have the gun back from the gun port opening, so it could be loaded. The powder monkey would bring up a load of powder, and occasionally more ammunition. There are several shot that were used by these guns. There was:

    Round Shot: This is your basic iron ball that was used to punch holes in a ship’s side, to dismantle guns, and to shoot down masts and yards.

    Stone Shot: Basically round shot only made of stone, shatters on impact, but does not pack the punch of Round shot. It is also cheaper than round shot. Bar Shot: Two iron balls connected by a bar. It was generally used for ripping holes in sails and rigging, and could do damage to the crew.

    Chain Shot: Two iron balls connected by chain. It was also generally used for tearing holes in sails and rigging, and could severe damage to the crew. It’s full length is longer than Bar Shot or Expanding Shot.

    Expanding Shot: It is sort of a cross between Bar and Chain Shot. A iron ball is put on a bar, which is coupled together to another ball with a bar, and so when fired, it expanded out, and was expanded twice the area of Bar shot, and would rip holes in the sails and rigging, and do damage to the crew. But it was never a long as Chain Shot.

    Canister: It was a can filled with small iron balls, and made the gun into a big shotgun, and was in primary use against crew.

    Langridge: A more scrap together version of canister. It was just loading anything like old nails, scrap iron, and anything that could do damage.

    Grape Shot: It was created during the earlier part of the 18th Century, and is more commonly used by the Navies of Europe. It was three layers of small iron balls, three to each layer. It was more effective in bigger guns; due to the iron balls would be the caliber of the smaller cannons. It stayed in the navy and was not as popular as Canister.

    There are other shots, like star and bomb, but they were rare and expensive.

    The powder boy, or powder monkey as he was known, would bring the powder and sometimes shot (sometimes the solid shot would be near the gun in holders). The powder would be in a cloth bag, and rammed down the barrel by the Loader. The Loader would have a rammer that was commonly stored on the ceiling of the gun deck if there was one. Sometimes the Loader would have an assistant Loader to hand him the rammer, to help handle the powder load and/or shot, and to take his place if he was killed. Then the shot was put down the barrel, and would be accompanied by a wad if it were round shot.

    Round shot, like the bullet in muskets, were actually smaller than the bore of the barrel, and would be accompanied with a wad so it would fit in the barrel. Sometimes on land when hot shot was used (the shot was heated), they would accompany double wads that were soaked in water. The wad would separate the powder from the hot shot, but the cannon was fired as soon as possible, due to the hot shot would burn threw the wad and set off the powder. This was only attempted on land. After the powder and shot was rammed down the barrel, a spike would be put down the touchhole, and the powder bag would be opened by this, and exposing powder. A priming horn with fine priming powder would be poured down the touchhole. Usually 100 to 120 grains would be poured down the barrel. This was all done by either a independent primer man, or someone in the gun crew could multi task. Many of the jobs on a gun crew could be multi tasked. The gun would be run out with breeching ropes attached to the guns. For smaller guns it was easier to pull out a gun, but the bigger the gun, the more manpower it would take to pull out into threw the gun port hole in the side of the ship. Some of the big guns would need 9 or 10 extra guns to be pulled out. But for smaller guns, the gun crew loading and operating it would be simple enough to do it.

    Then the gun captain would aim the gun, and a handspike man (or sometimes there were two for bigger guns) would adjust and elevate the gun according to the gun captain’s orders. On bigger guns, there would be a second gun captain to help operate the gun. Then everyone would clear away from the gun, so when it was fired the gun rolling back on the recoil would not smash anyone. Someone would take a slow match and light the powder on the touchhole. During the Napoleonic wars, a flintlock mechanism with lanyard would be used, which was more effective and safe. The Sponger would then sponge out the gun, and he too might have an assistant like the loader. Any burning embers and residue would be swabbed out. On the other end of the sponging stick, there would be a “worm”, which could grab scraps of cloth from the powder bag or big amounts of residue. Without doing this, the gun would build up residue from gunpowder, and become too dirty to operate. Iron guns commonly suffered from “honeycombing” which is what happened as gunpowder ate away at the barrel, and the inside of the barrel would look like a honeycomb. Brass guns didn’t do this, but brass guns were very expensive.

    Training of Gun Crews

    In the Royal Navy, drilling a gun crew in how to operate guns was a necessity. In combat, a battle could be decided by how accurate and quick a gun crew was. But training itself had some obstacles.

    First of all, gunpowder cost money, and the bigger the ship, the more it cost. Using shot in target practice cost money too. But in small ships, while it didn’t cost as much, the supply of powder was limited. Also, it was dangerous for an untested gun crew to operate a gun. Accidents were very common. It would take a combination of training and sometimes experience in combat to make a good gun crew.

    The goal for any captain was to have his gun crews fire 3 shots in 5 minutes. It would be better if it were 3 AIMED shots in 5 minutes. The Royal Navy of England (or Great Britain in 1707) generally practiced more than any other country. But the tactics on how they fought a ship was different too. While an English ship might fire 60 shots to the French and Spanish’s 40 shots, the English were aiming at the crew and the guns, and the hull so they could grapple with their enemy and board. The English had a good prize system set up, and a prize meant money. Meanwhile, a Spanish or French ship would be aiming to dismast you, and generally destroy your sailing ability, so they could get away.

    While the Navies were training to fire guns because that was their business, merchant ships with guns almost never did. The only reason they had guns was to mainly scare off possible pirates. The only way to have trained gun crews on ships would be if the seamen on board came from the Royal Navy. On Privateer and Pirate ships, they probably were as bad, but some crews did train their gun crews. But it was more likely that the Pirates and Privateers would have trained gun crews from the Royal Navy. After a war when tens of thousands of seamen were unemployed, they went into piracy, and were already trained. But usually you want to train so that gun crews could work together better.

    Where to Aim?

    In battle, there were several target places to aim for in battle. One shot alone could decide the outcome of a battle. There are particular “pressure points” you could call them to aim for. One place was the stern. The stern was the most vulnerable, with the captain’s main cabin, and probably only had few or no guns. It is also where the rudder was. If you could disable the rudder, then the ship could not be steered. The only way to steer it would be if boats would get in front and pull, and to go with what direction the wind was going. Other places to aim would be the quarterdeck, and eventually the poop deck. The quarterdeck is were the captain and his staff would command from, and if the leader was killed the crew, especially if it were a merchant crew, could be thrown into confusion and maybe be closer to surrender. When the ship’s wheel was introduced in the 18th century, the poop deck would be were the ship was steered from, and if you knocked out the wheel, the only other way to steer would be by hand below. Also, just killing the men on the wheel might knock it off course for a minute or so until someone else went to the wheel. The one place that would have been the most decisive place to hit in a ship, but hardest to hit, would be the powder room. Usually hitting the powder room was almost impossible, and when it was hit, was totally by luck. Usually,the powder room was in a more secure part of the ship, in the middle of the ship, away from places were shots would most likely be hitting the ship in battle. But this only rarely happened.

    Disabling your enemy would be a excellent way to slow your enemy so you could sail away, but your guns needed to be elevated enough to hit masts on the bigger ships, and hitting the masts or yards of a ship would take skilled gun crews. This is why shots like chain, bar, and expanding shot was used. It would rip big holes in sails, making them catch less wind, and maybe even a shot would rip threw a yard, taking down a part of a sail, or a whole sail.

    If you planned to board a ship, then trying to take down as much crew as possible was your best option. Not only did this make less resistance to you, but made jobs on a ship harder with less men. Shots like canister were the best option. When a ship used langridge that usually meant they were running out of ammunition, and/or were desperate to defend itself. Grape shot was more commonly used by the Navy in bigger guns, because those 9 smaller balls would be size of small caliber guns in smaller ships, and made a broadside from a warship seem like a broadside from a handful of small ships, which meant that more damage could be dealt in more places, but it wouldn’t be as effective. Sure a grape shot ball could kill someone, but having smaller balls in more numbers, like in canister, were more effective as an anti-personnel round than grape.

    The one thing that wasn’t commonly done was aiming below the water line. Firing at below the waterline, would let water into the ship. While it took men off deck so it could be fixed, in small ships it had a better chance of sinking. But in bigger ships, it was very hard to actually sink a ship. It would take a lot to sink a warship. Most likely, before you could sink a big warship, it would be turned into a pile of splinters. And most attacking ships wouldn’t want to sink their opponent, due to it most likely meant prize money, or their country could use it, or for pirates it meant supplies. The one thing that warships did the best was a devastating broadside. The broadside is just firing all the guns on one of the ships side all at once, creating a shower of metal on your enemy. But on smaller ships, it could inflict so much damage, maybe beyond repair, and most of the time an attacking ship would want to take a ship as a prize. So only in big ship-to-ship combats between navy warships would broadsides be used.

    Being able to load guns, aim them, aim them in the right spots of a ship, and to do it all under combat conditions took nerves of steel. This piece of technology was at the top in the Age of Sail, and always is related to the Age of Sail as the ship basher.