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Naval Cannons From the 16th Century Till the 1840s
Cannons were historically made of wrought iron, cast iron or bronze.
Small, light, basic guns, or Culverins, had been used on ships throughout the Middle Ages. They were generally fired by individuals or two to three men from firing positions on the deck. Ships could only have a small number of lightweight guns because large guns are very heavy and a heavy object placed on the deck of a ship will always make it unstable. It wasn’t until Gunports were invented around 1501 that ships could rely on full size guns as their main armament. A cannon port is a window cut into the side of a ship’s hull from which a cannon can be fired. They allowed the cannon to be installed low in the ship. The gunports had wooden doors hinged above them so that the gunport could be closed when the gun was not being fired. This stopped water washing into the ship from waves or when the ship was heeled. This meant that a ship could carry lots of heavy, powerful guns without becoming unstable, and the gun quickly became the main armament in naval warfare. An early example was the Mary Rose, built in 1512. The Mary Rose had 78 guns, but this was later increased to 91.
From the mid-17th century onwards, warfare at sea was dominated by the tactical system known as the ‘line of battle’, this involved the navy’s naval ships forming a long line parallel to their opponents. The ships would then fire ‘broadsides’ with their guns at their opponents in an attempt to sink or cripple them. With this in mind, the British Navy divided their ships into six classifications, based on how many guns (military term for a cannon) they could carry, only the top three classifications being known as ‘ships of the line’. A first-rate ship of the line had to carry over 90 guns and could have as many as 140 guns spread across 3 or 4 gun decks, a second-rate ship had over 80 guns and a third-rate over 54. A fourth-rate (not a true ship of the line) had over 38, a fifth-rank over 18, and a sixth-rank over 6 guns.
Naval guns are generally referred to by the weight of the shot they fire, so a ’42 pounder’ was a gun that fired a cannon ball or ‘shot’ weighing 42 pounds. The 42-pounder, also referred to as a “standard” size cannon, was used on ships from about 1600 to the early 1800s. They were huge. The barrel was about ten feet long and weighed approximately 3.4 tons alone. A 42 pounder would have required an 8 man team to fire. They were very powerful and had a good range, the downside was that they were cumbersome, slow to fire and required a large cannon crew. The 42 pounders would always be kept on the lower gun decks, otherwise their weight could make the ship unstable.
A more common cannon in the British Navy in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was the ‘Demi Cannon’, or 32 pounder. This was smaller and lighter than the 42 pounder, required a 6 man gun crew and had a 9’6″ barrel weighing about 2.6 tons. The demi-cannon was in use from the early 17th century right up to the early 19th century. It had a maximum range of 1.5 miles and was known to be able to punch through a meter of oak at short range. 12 and 24 pound guns were also very popular as they were easier and faster to reload, could they are mounted on the upper gun decks of a ship without making her unstable, these formed the bulk of the armament on HMS Victory.
The ‘Carronade’ was a design of cannon used in a range of sizes, from 6 all the way up to 68 pound shot. It was developed in the 1770s and used until the 1850s. The carronade was developed by a Scottish company and machined to a high standard to allow a close fit between the ball or shot and the muzzle. This meant that the cannon ball only just fit into the cannon, (the bore was only slightly larger than the shot diameter, which was less ‘windy’ in naval terms). The chamber for the powder charge of a Carronade was a caliber smaller than the bore where the cannon ball sits and is fired from, this meant you had a smaller charge of powder that fired a larger shot. This meant that the internal stresses on the gun were greatly reduced so you could have a small light barrel which fired a big heavy shot. The downside was a short range and limited accuracy. A Carronade could be fired by a 5 man gun crew and its light weight meant it could be used on a ship’s deck. A carronade would be about a third of the weight of the equivalent standard cannon. A 68 pounder had a maximum range of about .7 miles. The carronade was effective at short range and was referred to as “the smasher” because of the shrapnel it caused on impact.
Most of a ship’s guns would fire sideways (to port and starboard), but it was common practice to have a few guns aimed from the bow or stern. A gun called a “long nine” was used for this purpose, firing only a nine pound shot, the longer barrel giving extra power and accuracy and fitting well into the available space.
Introduced in the 1840s, the Paixhans gun revolutionized naval combat because it was a direct fire gun that could fire an explosive-filled shell on a time delay. This signaled the end of the conventional cannon. The introduction of rifled bores and steel jacket races ushered in a new era of naval combat and led to the demise of the wooden-hulled man-o’-war.
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#Naval #Cannons #16th #Century #1840s