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.
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.
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.
Let’s face it. When it comes to nautical fiction we are all Anglophiles. The major fictional heroes of the Age of Sail are British. Alexander Kent is probably one of the few authors who have managed to sell books in the United States in which Americans are the enemy.
There are undoubtedly novels out there in which a French naval officer is the hero, but I’ve just not encountered them.
Just because our fiction in Anglophile, it doesn’t mean we should accept the prejudices held by the British Navy as being accurate.
In fiction, two of these prejudices have acquired the level of articles of faith. The first is the supremacy of the weather gage, the second is the superiority of aiming at the hull of the opponent, “‘twixt wind and water,” rather than the rigging.
Let’s look at them.
Captain Henry Trollope with the moratlly wounded Marine Captain Henry Ludlow Strangeways on the deck of HMS Glatton
We’ve observed on several occasions that many of the incidents in novels set during the Age of Sail are heavily influenced by actual events. In most cases, the novel’s protagonist expands on the accomplishments of the actual character. In Ramages’s Diamond
, Lord Ramage manages to turn the battery later known as HMS Fort Diamond
into a combat multiplier that enables his mini-squadron consisting of his frigate, a prize frigate, and a prize sloop to snap up a French convoy and its escorts.
Alexander Kent, on the other hand, perhaps feeling that the actual event was too improbable, actually downplays Nelson’s use of one Spanish ship of the line as a bridge to board and take a second, larger Spanish ship of the line and has Richard Bolitho use a friendly brig as a bridge to board and take a French frigate.
Every once in a while, though, the novel’s protagonist makes out worse than the actual character.
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.
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.
68-pounder carronade on HMS Victory
Warfare through the ages has been driven by the measure-countermeasure struggle between armor and armament.
Sometimes a breakthrough significantly shifts the balance one way or the other and changes warfare at least temporarily. Castles and armor dominated for a while but were driven into obsolescence by gunpowder. In our own era we’ve seen the tank reign supreme (World War II), have it’s death proclaimed with the advent of the man-portable guided missile and shaped charge (the Sagger missile during the Yom Kippur War) and then reemerge to dominate the battlefield thanks to the high velocity smoothbore cannon, reactive armor, and other advances in armor (the M1 Abrams).
The same saga played itself out at sea where naval architects had to deal in the assorted trade offs of weight distribution, handling, and the tensile strength of their basic construction material, wood.
Success breeds complacency. Few things are more devastating to an effective military than a long period without significant challenge. The US Army discovered this brutal lesson in Korea. The British Navy discovered this in the War of 1812.
By 1812 England had been at war nearly constantly for nearly 40 years. While British arms on land weren’t always victorious, indeed they suffered more than their share of debacles, the Navy had establish an estimable record of success against all odds and had achieved not only tactical supremacy but psychological ascendancy over it’s European foes.
This invulnerability was shattered in July 1812 when the USS Constitution beat the HMS Guerriere to a shambles in a 35-minute engagement that left 21 British sailors dead and 57 wounded. This was followed by the loss of HMS Macedonian in October and of HMS Java in December. To a Navy and a public used to victories in single ship engagements, this was an earth shattering development.
The pattern continued until June 1, 1813 just outside Boston Harbor.
One of the recurring themes in accounts of naval combat during the Age of Sail is the notion that splinters were more deadly than the projectile itself. There are doubters. But I am not one of them.
When a kinetic projectile hits an object it has two courses of action. It can penetrate or it can rebound (yes, some will say embed is a third choice but it is merely a subset of penetration.)
If it is of sufficiently high velocity to cleanly penetrate it will produce little in the way of splintering making an impact that is somewhat analogous to an icepick, that is, a hole approximately the size of the projo. Of course, in a sailing ship the aftermath of such a penetration was a significant emotional event to those on the same deck as the projo would not have enough kinetic energy to pass out the other side of the ship but would rather rattle around until its energy was spent.
If the projectile is only barely able to penetrate then the effect would more closely resemble that made by a sledgehammer. The entry hole would more than likely be a jagged square as the planks forming hull would be shattered by the impact. The pieces of the hull thus broken off would be propelled inward at approximately the same speed as the projo.
Should the cannonball fail to penetrate it would still impart it’s kinetic energy to the hull. This would cause the planks to quickly accelerate inward and then rebound. The impact of the projo creates an effect on the other side of the planks known as spalliing, that is, the interior of the plank, and in the case of a large frigate such as the USS Constitution that plank was some 22″ thick, is shattered resulting in splinters moving at several hundred feet per second.
Below shows an aluminum pellet, approaching from the left, hitting an aluminum plate. The pellet disintegrates but it creates an shower of hot, high velocity fragments on the inside.
One of the reasons the rather low velocity carronade gained popularity (in addition to providing improved hitting power to smaller ships, requiring fewer men to crew the piece, and using less powder per shot) was the fact that the carronade round worked in the sledgehammer model, not only making disproportionately large holes in the target ship but creating lethal splinters.