While our modern sensibilities cause us to look askance at primitive weapons, like boarding pikes, they were incredibly effective weapons. One has to consider that under the best of circumstances the reliability of flintlock firearms was problematic. When used at sea they were often unreliable. The most reliable weapons for boarding enemy ships or repelling boarders were the point and edge weapons available to the crew. Cutlass, boarding axe, and boarding pike.
While most useful for repelling boarders, the boarding pike was a formidable offensive weapon. As we recounted in The Taking of Banda, when Captain Christopher Cole attacked this Dutch outpost he had his men armed with boarding pikes in anticipation of frequent tropical downpours making their muskets inoperable.
Boarding pikes were about eight feet long and stored in beckets around the masts.
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.
We’ve discussed some of the esoteric armaments that have come in the possession of Dewey Lambdin’s naval character, Alan Lewrie. In The French Admiral he acquired a Ferguson rifle. In The Captain’s Vengenace he picked up a Girandoni air rifle. At least since The Captain’s Vengeance, though possibly as early as Havoc’s Sword, he has been in possession of a pair of double barrel dueling pistols by gunmaking legend Joseph Manton.
We’re not sure of the provenance of these pistols but these pistols were the pinnacle of the gunmaker’s art in the late 18th century.
Dewey Lambdin’s naval hero, Alan Lewrie, has a way of collecting unique weapons. He owns a pair of double barrelled Manton dueling pistols and a Ferguson rifle.
In The Captain’s Vengeance, he adds yet another. The Girandoni air rifle.
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.