Cannon Cartridges?

Sometimes in going through the literature concerning combat during the Age of Sail you run into things that just don’t sound right.

For instance, this quote from an otherwise excellent website:

By the War of 1812, the advantage of a much higher rate of fire came from the use by the United States of a new powder cartridge made of thin sheets of lead. The British used flannel bags of powder, and the gun crews had to swab out their guns after each use to extinguish any embers left in the gun.

In the fight between the HMS Macedonian and the USS United States, for example, the United States got off 66 shots per gun as compared to 36 of the Macedonian. United States began the action at 0920 by firing an inaccurate broadside at Macedonian. This was answered immediately by the British vessel, bringing down a small spar of United States. Decatur’s next broadside had better luck, as it destroyed Macedonian’s mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the advantage in maneuver to the American’s frigate. United States next took up position off Macedonian’s quarter and proceeded to riddle the hapless frigate methodically with shot.

This doesn’t ring true for any number of reasons.

1. Even if a metallic cartridge was used the bore would still have to be swabbed out to extinguish burning power residue. Gunpowder of this age was not particularly fast burning and not all of the powder was consumed with each shot.

2. Manufacturing the cartridge cases aboard ship seems to be an insuperable problem both from a standpoint of having the workshop available, having the craftsmen available, and performing this task during combat as most powder was stored in barrels.

3. How was the cartridge pierced to allow the primer to ignite the charge. A serge bag could be pierced with a goose quill filled with primer.

4. Cost effective? Hardly. And the US Navy during the War of 1812 did not fight with silver bullets.

5. A Military Gazetteer from 1881 has this to say about artillery ammunition:

Cartridge. For cannon, is the powder charge and its case. The case is a cylindrical bae of flannel, wildbore, or serge, in which the charge is placed. The mouth is closed by tying with twine, forming the choke, which is always turned towards the muzzle when the gun is charged. For chambered pieces the mouth of the cartridge- bag is closed with a cartridge-block to give it a proper form. For some services the cartridge is attached to the projectile, in others it is carried separately.

6. If a metallic cartridge was used in a muzzle loading cannon it has to go somewhere. A typical design, that of a cylinder closed on one end would seem to be driven away from the muzzle by the ignition of the charge and would require extraction before another round could be inserted.

7. What of the United States vs. Macedonian match up. Any fair reading of the battle would quickly surmise that the United States fired more rounds than Macedonian not from any technological advantage but because, to use the same quotation,

Decatur’s next broadside had better luck, as it destroyed Macedonian’s mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the advantage in maneuver to the American’s frigate. United States next took up position off Macedonian’s quarter and proceeded to riddle the hapless frigate methodically with shot.

I’m open to being corrected on this issue, but until such time I think the idea of the US Navy using lead cartridges for the Great Guns is simply wrong.

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3 Comments

Filed under Age of Sail, Famous Ships, Naval Gunnery, Naval Operations, single ship actions

3 responses to “Cannon Cartridges?

  1. Maskman

    The metal pricker that pierces the flannel bags just as easily pierces lead sheet. The lead sheet itself is very thin, and vaporizes in the firing of the charge.

    If you peruse the Papers of the War Department site, and search under “Sheet Lead” you will find that it was a common military munitions consumable, with large amounts delivered to the various warships of the era, most especially the frigates.

    http://wardepartmentpapers.org/searchresults.php?searchClass=fulltextSearch&fulltextQuery=sheet+lead

    • billcrews

      Lead does not vaporize at any temperature generated by black powder. If that were the case then the projectiles inside canister shot would also be vaporized. A consumable is an item that is expected to be consumed by use. Rope, canvas, timbers, tar, were all consumables. These differ from accountable items, like guns, etc. which were expected to have a service life.

  2. Ben

    There are few mentions of ‘sheet lead’ on that war department site, three or four at the most and the rest of those results are returned due to ‘sheet-lead’ being a keyword on those pages, without reference to it in the content.

    They would often use sheet lead aboard a ship for a variety of purposes.

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