Notes on Sailing Warships Part I

Cannon and Carronades


The term CANNON describes the large, smooth-bored, muzzle-loading guns used before the advent of breech-loading, rifled guns firing shells.

In the 16th century the "Great Guns" were classified according to size with such names as:- Cannon royal, Cannon, Demi cannon, Culverin, Demi-Culverin, Falcon, Falconer, Minion, etc. but by the 18th century they were classified by the weight of the round shot that they fired. Thus the demi cannon was described as a 32-pounder. Smaller guns were 18-pounders (culverin), 12-pounders, 9 pounders and 6-pounders. The gun barrel is mounted on a wheeled carriage, as shown in the drawing, balanced on two trunions, the short metal projections on either side of the barrel, the invention of some unknown Dutchman. The angle of elevation could be altered by moving a wooden wedge under the rear end of the gun.

The early big guns were built up from strips of wrought iron, heated until they glowed yellow,and then hammered to weld them together to form the barrel. Rings of iron were forced over the barrel to reinforce it. Smaller guns were cast in brass or bronze, using techniques used for centuries to produce statues. In the 16th century the Dutch developed cast-iron cannon and the technique was imported into England where the first iron cannon was cast in 1543.

Various kinds of shot were fired from cannon:-

THE CARRONADE was a short gun developed by the Carron Company, a Scottish ironworks, in 1778. Known as a "Smasher" it was half the weight of an equivalent long gun, but could throw a heavy ball over a limited distance. Because of irregularities in the size of cannon balls and the difficulty of boring out gun barrels there was usually a considerable gap between the ball and the bore - often as much as a quarter of an inch - with a consequent loss of efficiency. This gap was known as the "windage". The manufacturing practices introduced by the Cannon Company reduced the windage considerably. The carronade was mounted on a sliding carriage with ropes to restrain the recoil. Lack of range against an opponent who could keep well clear and still use his long guns, led to its disappearence.

BLACK POWDER or GUNPOWDER consists of a mixture of saltpetre, sulfer and charcoal, originally in equal proportions by weight, but later approximately 75:15:10. The earliest gunpowder was simply a fine powder produced by grinding the three components together and was known as serpentine. It was dangerous to handle and frequently had to be remixed before use. Later on powder was mixed with water, sometimes plus wine and other liquids, pushed though a screen and allowed to dry as small pellets.

An 18 pounder long gun with a charge of 5lb of powder was capable of penetrating nearly 2 feet six inches into oak at a range of 400 yds. and over 1 foot at 1000 yds.

Gunpowder produced vast amounts of thick smoke which rapidly obscured the area of any naval battle. A thick coating was also formed inside the barrel of the gun which had to be scraped out.

To prepare a gun for firing a charge of gunpowder in a cloth bag is pushed down the barrel by a ram-rod and followed by the round shot. This is held in place by a wad. The gunner pushes a spike down the "touch-hole" on the top near the rear end of the barrel to break the powder bag and pours a little fine powder down the hole. The gun is then run out through the gunport by the ropes attached to the carriage. In earlier times the gunner would have fired by lighting the powder in the touch hole with a "slow match", a glowing piece of material, but later a flintlock as on a pistol or musket was used to produce a spark to fire the charge. When the gun fired it recoiled violently back into the ship, restrained by the `breeching ropes` attached to the carriage. The bore was swabbed out with water to remove any glowing pieces of residue, and the process repeated.

The gun`s crew for the great guns consisted of six men,

Up to nine more men, depending on the size of the gun, were required to man the breeching ropes, which checked the recoil, and to man the tackles for running out and training. They also performed the duties of firemen.

                                                        Range       Recoil
                     Total   Diameter         Powder  with 5deg.  on Ship's           .    
  Nature of Gun.     Length  of Shot   Weight Charge  Elevation   Carriage                   
                     Ft. In.  In.      Cwts.   Lbs.    Yards.       Ft
42 Pdr                9  6    6.7      67      14     1,940         -
32 Pdr                9  6    6.1      55.5    10.5   2,080         11
24 Pdr                9  6    5.6      50.0     8     1,800         11
24 Pdr                6  6    5.6      33.0     6     1,550         10.5
l8 Pdr                9  0    5.1      42.0     6     1,800         -
l2 Pdr                8  6    4.4      34.0     4     1,580         -
 9 Pdr                8  6    4.0      31.5     3     1,620         -
68 Pdr. Carronade     4  1    7.9      36.0     5.5   1,280         -
42 Pdr. Carronade     4  4    6.7      22.2     3.5   1,170         -
32 Pdr. Carronade     4  0    6.1      17.1     2.625 1,087         -
24 Pdr. Carronade     3  0    5.6      11.5     2     1,050         -
18 Pdr. Carronade     2  4    5.1       8.5     1.5   1,000         -
l2 Pdr. Carronade     2  2    4.4       5.9     1       870         -
                      Cwt = Hundredweight = 112 lb.

Rating of Warships

Ships were classified or rated according to the number of cannon they carried, carronades were never included in the number, although rated ships could carry up to twelve 24 or 32-pounders.

All rated ships (1st to 6th) were commanded by a POST CAPTAIN. Sloops, bombs, fire ships and ships armed en flute, that is a rated warship with some or all of its guns removed and used as a transport ship, were commanded by COMMANDERS. Smaller vessels like schooners and cutters were commanded by LIEUTENANTS. Sometimes a MASTER or a MIDSHIPMAN would command a very small vessel or a sloop used to carry stores. A LIEUTENANT, a MIDSHIPMAN or a MASTER`S MATE could be put in temporary command of a captured prize.

SHIPS-OF-THE-LINE were those which were powerful enough to take their place in the line of battle. That is, a 3rd Rate or larger which carried guns on two or more decks. The rated ships smaller than this were known as FRIGATES and carried all their guns on a single upper deck.

     1st  Rate       100 guns or more    875  to 850 men *
     2nd Rate        98 to 90 guns       750 to  700 men
     3rd  Rate       80 to 64            650 to 500
     4th  Rate       60 to 50            420 to 320
     5th  Rate       40 to 32            300 to 200
     6th  Rate       28 to 20            200 to 140 
     Sloops          18 to 16            125 to  90  
     & Cutters       14 to  6              5  to 25

* This number was increased by 25 when used as an Admiral`s flagship, by 20 with a Vice Admiral and 15 with a Rear-Admiral.

© Michael Phillips 2000
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