Tag Archives: carronade

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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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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Introducing the Carronade

68-pounder carronade on HMS Victory

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.

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Why Splinters?

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.

aluminium_plate_spalling

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.

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