Category Archives: Naval Equipment

The Blomefield Pattern Cannon

Once John Armstrong had finished his basic design for British artillery in 1725, there were only marginal changes to the template over the next 70 years.

That changed In 1780, when a 36 year old artillery captain was appointed as Inspector of Artillery and Superintendent of the Royal Brass Foundry.

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The Armstrong Pattern Cannon

NPG 5318, John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough; John Armstrong
Rabinet, serpentine, falconet, falcon, minion, saker, demiculverin, basilisk, culverin, pedrero, demicannon, bastard cannon, cannon serpentine, cannon, and cannon royal.

None of these terms mean much to us today but in the army and navy of the late 17th century they were important. They were types of cannon. While there may be virtues to biodiversity, the same isn’t true of weaponry. Successful militaries have generally been characterized by a standardization of their weaponry and organization. Different classes of cannon had different weights, ranges, and projectile size. The characteristics within the class also varied with the armory where they were produced.
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Introducing the Carronade: The Range Myth

In Nelson’s Navy, Brian Lavery makes an interesting observation. Contra what we read in naval fiction set during the Age of Sail, or even what some contemporaneous writers assert, the range of the carronade was not significantly inferior to the long guns it replaced.

Experiments conducted by the Admiralty in 1813 determined that at point-blank range, that is, an elevation of zero degrees, a long 24-pounder had a range of 200 yards. A 32-pounder carronade, under the same conditions had a range of 340 yards. When the 24-pounder fired at its maximum elevation, 9 degrees, it could reach 2213 yards. The carronade firing a it’s max elevation of 11 degrees could reach 1930 yards.

To a certain extent that isn’t surprising. The carronade, as we’ve noted were bored with a much tighter windage than long guns making the propellant more efficient. The carronade fired a hollow shot which reduced the notional weight of a 32-pounder into the 20-something pound range. Powder was probably apportioned based on the notional weight of a 32-pound shot and not on its actual weight which means the 24-pounder was using 8 pounds of powder while the 32-pounders was using slightly more than 10 pounds.

As we’ve noted, though, the whole issue of range is simply a smoke screen. Naval artillery during the Age of Sail simply did not have the fire control equipment and range tables to fire competently beyond point blank range. The crews of ships had neither the training nor, in the overwhelming number of cases, the interest or inclination to employ the guns as other than sort range weapons.

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The Wreck of the HMS Association and Consorts

association
In 1707, Britain was embroiled in yet another of its seemingly interminable wars with France and Spain. Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was the British naval commander in the Mediterranean. Working in close cooperation with the British Army under Earl Peterborough, quite an unusual occurrence, Shovel had helped take Barcelona and had effectively blockaded Toulon.

The fleet, however, was falling apart. Having been at sea nearly constantly for three years the ships were in need of a complete refit. In October, Sir Cloudesley departed for shipyards in the Channel ports.

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Introducing the Carronade: All Carronades All the Time

In the aftermath of Nymphe’s being taken by Flora, the Navy Board quickly became enamored of the carronade and the weapon’s effectiveness in combat had silenced naysayers. By January 1781, 604 carronades were mounted on 429 ships. This is probably a record for a new weapon being adopted.

The next step in the experiment was an all-carronade frigate. For this project the HMS Rainbow (44) under Captain Henry Trollope was chosen. Rainbow exchanged her 20 long 18-pounders and 22 long 12-pounders for 20 68-pounder, 22 42-pounder, and 6 32-pounder carronades. Then went out hunting.

On 2 September 1782 Ile de Bas she encountered the French frigate Hebe (40). The ships maneuvered for position and Captain Trollope engaged Hebe with the 32-pounders on his forecastle. One or more of the shots hit killing five Frenchmen. The captain of Hebe examined the fragments of the hollow carronade shot and concluded that if she was firing 32-pounders as chase pieces she was actually a ship of the line in disguise. He fired one broadside, “pour l’honneur de pavilion,” and struck his colors.

Rainbow lost only one man. The French lost five killed, including the second captain, and several wounded out of a crew of 360 men.

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Introducing the Carronade: The Debut Under Fire

The Navy Board began introducing the carronade to the fleet in 1779. It is thought that the first engagement involving the carronade occurred on August 11, 1780 between the HMS Flora (36) and Nymphe (32).

The Nymphe was overmatched by the Flora carrying 26 long 12-pounders and 6 long 6-pounders against Flora’s 26 long 18-pounders, 10 long 9-pounders, and 6 18-pound carronades.

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Casting the Log

log-and-line1
from the National Maritime Museum

It was well that he did, for with the rising of the moon the wind increased, blowing straight into her round, foolish face and across the growing swell. By the time he came on deck Mowett had already takin in the lower studdingsail, and as the night wore on more and more canvas came off until she was under little more than close-reefed fore and main topsails, reefed courses and trysails, yet each time the reefer of the watch cast the log he reported with mounting glee, “six and a half knots, if you please, sir. — Seven knots two fathoms. –Almost eight knots. –Eight knots and three fathoms. –Nine knots. –Ten knots! Oh sir, she’d doing ten knots.”

The Reverse of the Medal, Patrick O’Brian.

Navigation was the critical function required of a ship’s captain and master during the Age of Sail. It made little difference how fast your crew could make sail or serve the great guns if you didn’t know where you were going.

We’ll cover calculating northing and easting in the future. In the last story we looked a how casting the lead allowed a ship to be sure it was in water of a safe depth. In this story we’ll answer the question “How fast am I going?”

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Casting the Lead

leadsman

“Mr. Bush, do you see the battery?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will the longboat. Mr. Rayner will take the launch, and you will land and storm the battery.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“I will give you the word when to hoist out.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“Quarter less eight,” droned the leadsman — Hornblower had listened to each cast subconsciously; now that the water was shoaling he was compelled to give half his attention up to the leadsman’s cries while still scrutinizing the battery. A bare quarter of a mile from it now; it was time to strike.

From Ship of the Line, C. S. Forester.

For a sailor, knowing the depth of the water under the keel was probably more important than knowing a precise northing and easting. You can fix being lost. Not so much with being sunk.

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Naval Telescopes

Though telescopes have a long history they were only produced in quantities to be widely available in the late 18th century.

Problems of lens polishing, lens composition, and manufacturing were slowly overcome and the telescope became a vital element of seafaring equipment. Superior optics meant that navigation hazards could be identified at longer distance, and in time of war and piracy it meant that approaching vessels could be recognized at longer distances. It also made the use of communications by signal flags practical. Continue reading

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