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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8 Comments

Filed under Age of Sail, Naval Equipment, Naval Gunnery, Naval Weapons

8 responses to “Introducing the Carronade: The Range Myth

  1. > The carronade fired a hollow shot which reduced the notional weight of a
    > 32-pounder into the 20-something pound range.

    Interesting — was that standard practice? It seems largely overlooked in both fiction and non-fiction.

  2. William Carter

    I think it was due to the casting of the balls, it would be casted as the correct size for a certain gun, but would be made thinner

  3. Rob

    Not meaning to be belligerent but what is the source of your statistics? I have heard that large calibre carronades had ranges of around 1,000 yards but, with an initial muzzle velocity of merely half that of a long gun, they had very little hitting power beyond short range. Musket balls can travel in excess of 200 yards when fired but will cause little more than bruising at that range. Hence, tactical usage was rarely beyond 80 yards for trained troops and primary usage was at about 40 yards from the enemy. Similarly, a carronade was rarely fired at greater range than about the canister range for a long gun of the same calibre. Your “factoid” that carronade round shot was hollow is extremely questionable. I am very interested to know your sources.

    • billcrews

      Brian Lavery’s books are the primary source, one has extensive range tables. Your information on musketry is not very accurate. The reason muskets had a short effective range is that armies of the era did not aim their weapons, they pointed them. Prussian Army drill through the Seven Years War had the stock of the musket held under the armpit, not on the shoulder. A smoothbore musket would do substantially more than bruise at 200 yards and there is extensive documentation. Carronades were fired at close range because British tactics/fighting instructions dictated close range engagement. In fact, British long guns were not even cast with a dispart sight until well after the War of 1812. When Nelson was offered the opportunity to test a gun sight he demurred saying he didn’t see the need for it.

  4. Rob

    I apologise, Bill, for my gross inaccuracy and generalization on the effect of musket fire at 200yds. I am well aware that muskets were pointed rather than aimed, as their windage prohibited accurate fire and they were most effective when fired at a large body of close-formation troops. The tactics were dictated by the weapon. Field trials of ordnance can be misleading and practical application extracted from first-hand accounts can indicate a more reliable effective range. The naval engagements between the Americans and British on our Great Lakes are a case in point. The naval action on Lake Erie was pretty much decided by long range fire, the British squadron’s carronades being out of range for crucial parts of the battle. Similarly, on Lake Ontario, the British squadron under Sir James Yeo was at a distinct disadvantage against the American squadron under Chauncey as it was primarily armed with carronades. In the engagement on September 28, 1813, the flagship, HMS Wolfe, fired only her two long 12pdrs, not one of her eighteen 18pdr carronades or two 68pdr carronades could be brought to bear on the enemy when engaged at a distance of 1,000yds. The Americans also fired their long guns exclusively in this action. While carronades may, indeed, have had a longer range, they had a muzzle velocity of only about one half that of long guns of a similar calibre and, thus, half or the striking power. I shall need to find statistics as to the relative penetrating power at long range but I am sure that this is the reason that they were not employed at long range in addition to the fact that they threw the shot high in relation to long guns and this made them more difficult to aim beyond short range. I definitely have some research to which I must attend. Again, with regards to hollow round shot for the use of carronades I can find no documentation. The returns for ordinance in the military establishments of Upper Canada during the War of 1812 do not distinguish between carronade round shot and that for long guns because they used the same shot. If you can enlighten me as to the primary source this information came from I would be most grateful.

  5. Adrian

    Hollow shot were certainly used in Victorian times (from at least the mid 1800s) & often shells were used for this purpose, but I am unaware of when it was first introduced.Therefore I am intrigued by the mention of hollow shot in the early 1800s & would very much like to learn of any info source for that please.

  6. Ben

    I have read accounts of the time, one in the quarterly journal of science literature and the arts (I think, I’ll check and post if found) of carronades firing hollow shot. Take a 64lb ball in your hands and ask why you might want to make it hollow.. Also consider whether you really needed the ball to be that heavy to penetrate a wooden wall or would 10-20lbs taken off make much difference..

    As for the range, I’ve read several books and papers from the time, as I’m sure many others have, stating carronade ranges to be far shorter than that of long guns. Sir Howard Douglas, a treatise on naval ordnance etc. I would like to see Brian Lavery’s sources myself before stating his word to be fact.

    • billcrews

      It is always good to check sources. If you find Lavery is wrong you can, as they said, dine out on that for years. Most gunnery before the mid 1800s was by-guess-by-God. Very few publications from the time on artillery are reliable as most of the physics used in gunnery had yet to be documented.

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