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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 cannons, or Culverins, had been used on ships throughout the Middle Ages. They were usually fired by individuals or two or three men from firing positions on the deck. The ships could only have a small number of light guns, because the big guns are very heavy, and a heavy object placed on the deck of a ship always makes it unstable. It wasn’t until Gunports were invented around 1501 that ships could rely on full-sized cannons as their main armament. A gunport is a window, cut into the side of a ship’s hull, through which a cannon could be fired. They allowed the cannon to be installed cheaply in the ship. The cannon ports had wooden doors hinged above them, so that the cannon could be closed when the gun was not being fired. This prevented the washing of water that entered the ship from the waves, or when the ship was hit. This meant that a ship could have many powerful heavy guns, without becoming unstable, and the gun soon became the main armament in naval warfare. A prime example is the Maria Rose, built in 1512. The Maria Rose had 78 guns, but this was later increased to 91.
From the mid-1600s onward, warfare at sea was dominated by the tactical system known as the “line of battle,” which involved a fleet of naval ships forming a long line, parallel to their opponents. The ships then fired “broadsides” with their cannons at their opponents in an effort to sink or paralyze them. With this in mind, the British navy divided its ships into six ratings, based on how many guns (military term for a cannon) they could carry, only the first three ratings were known as “ships of the line”. A first-of-the-line ship had to carry more than 90 guns and could have as many as 140 guns, spread over 3 or 4 gun decks, a second rate ship had more than 80 guns, and a third more than 54. fourth-rate (not a real ship of the line) had more than 38, a fifth-rate more than 18, and a sixth-rate more than 6 guns.
Naval guns are usually judged by the weight of the shot they fire, so a “42 pounder” was a cannon that fired a cannon ball or “shot” that weighed 42 pounds. The 42 pounder, also referred to as a “standard” size cannon, was used on ships from about 1600 to the beginning of 1700. They were huge. The barrel was about ten meters long, and weighed about 3.4 tons by itself. A 42 pounder would need a team of 8 men to fire. They were very powerful, and had good range, the downside was that they were bulky, slow to fire, and required a large gun crew. The 42 pounders would always be kept on the lower decks, otherwise their weight could make the ship unstable.
A cannon most used in the British navy during the 1600s, 1700s and early 1800s was the “Demi Cannon”, or 32 pounder. This was smaller and lighter than the 42 pounder, requiring a crew of 6 men, and having a barrel of 9’6″ weighing about 2.6 tons. The Demi Cannon was in use from the early 1600’s until early 1800s. maximum range of 1.5 miles and was reputed to be able to punch through a meter of oak at close range. 12 and 24 pound guns were also very popular, being lighter and faster to reload, they could be mounted on the upper gun decks of a ship without making it unstable, these made up most of the armament on HMS Victory.
The “Carronade” was a cannon design that was used in a variety of sizes, from 6 right up to 68 pounds. 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 tight fit between the ball or shot, and the muzzle. This meant that the cannon ball went straight into the cannon, (the cannon was only slightly larger than the diameter of the shot, there was less “windage” in naval terms). The chamber for the powder charge of a Carronade was a smaller caliber than the bore where the cannonball sits and is fired, this meant you had a smaller charge of powder firing a larger shot. This meant that the internal stresses on the gun were greatly reduced, so you could have a small light barrel that fired a big heavy shot. The downside was a short range and limited accuracy. A Carronade could be fired by a crew of 5 men, and its light weight meant that it could be used on the ship’s deck. The Carronade is about one-third the weight of the equivalent standard cannon. The 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 the ships’ cannons fired to the side (port and starboard), but it was common practice to have a few guns directed from the bow or stern. A gun called the “long nine” was used for this purpose, firing only one nine-pound shot, the longer barrel giving extra power and accuracy, and fitting well into the available space.
The Paixhans gun was introduced in the 1840s and revolutionized naval combat because it was a direct fire gun that could fire an explosive shell with a time delay fuse. This signaled the end of the conventional cannon. The introduction of rifled bores and steel-jacketed barrels ushered in a new era of naval combat, and led to the demise of the wooden man-of-war.
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