Ammunition on British Ships in 1630
We are still pretending we are in the year 1630 and standing on the Talbot, one of the ships sailing to the Bay of Massachusetts with Governor John Winthrop’s fleet.
Let us return to the Talbot’s gun deck to check out her armament, just in case we run into pirates on our way to the New World. It is only in the last seventy years that ships have been built strong enough to fire guns from on board, becoming weapons in themselves. But we are not armed as a fighting ship like the Revenge was during the battle with the Spanish Armada in 1588. The Revenge carried thirty-four guns. Twenty-two of them were large demi-cannon weighing 4500 pounds each. The largest guns available in 1630 are cannon and cannon royal, which weigh from 6000 to 8000 pounds each. The cannon class of guns are too large for the Talbot and have a relatively short range. They are more effective in port or narrow channels than out in the open sea.
The Talbot carries nineteen guns. Four of them are culverins and six are demi-culverins, the best long range smashers available. The culverins are placed strategically amid ship. Each weighs about 4000 pounds and measures twelve feet in length; a third longer than a cannon royal. Shot [cannon balls] for culverins weigh eighteen pounds each. You can see them stacked in the crate in the middle of the deck. The demi-culverins flanking the culverins are only six inches shorter, but weigh only 3000 pounds. They shoot a nine pound ball.
The rest of our guns are sakers and minions. Sakers are nearly eight feet long, weigh 1800 pounds and shoot a five-pound ball. Minions are six and a half feet long, weigh about 1200 pounds, and also shoot a five-pound ball.
Four of the fourteen guns on the Talbot’s gun deck are sakers. There are two more sakers on the lowest deck of the sterncastle, placed at the very aft of the ship on the steerage deck. Those guns are referred to as stern-chasers because they point backward and are employed when pirates or other unfriendly vessels threaten to attack from the rear.
We have a small minion guarding the main deck. It points through a small porthole from the sterncastle, from where it can blast any intruders who make it on board. Two more minions reside in the forecastle, one facing from each side of the ship at the bow to shoot small craft that come close to the ship under the range of the large guns. The Talbot is not carrying any falcons or the small three-foot robinets commonly carried by merchant ships today.
You might have noticed that some guns are named after reptiles and birds. The French and Spanish call them by the same names with their own provincial flavor. The Spanish use the word falcon as we English do. But the French translation is faucon. On the other hand, the French have the same word for demi-cannon as we do, while the Spanish call them medio-cañon. Only the English use the term saker, which is called a sacre in both French and Spanish.
We also do not have a mortar on the Talbot. They are more typical for fighting ships. A mortar is a short, stump-like gun that is placed on the top deck of a ship because it shoots up into the air. The shot then descends vertically on the deck of the enemy ship. The trouble with mortars is that the only way to control how far the projectile flies is by varying the amount of powder inserted, which is a tricky calculation.
Guns salvaged from King Henry VIII of England’s flagship, the Mary Rose, on display at the Mary Rose Museum, Plymouth, England.
Most of the Talbot’s guns are cast of iron, even though many types of brass guns are still in use today. Though they are referred to as brass, they are really bronze, cast of a mixture of copper and tin. Brass guns were popular during the last century. But within recent decades, the cast iron guns, which are less expensive to fabricate, and equally suitable, have been replacing them.
Display of various types of shot in the Mary Rose Museum.
There are many types of projectiles besides cannon balls. Cannon-petro [petro means stone in Greek] shoot stone balls that are lighter than the typical lead shot. It is quite a bit more expensive to hand-chisel a stone ball than to mold an iron one.
An iron ball can pierce through five or six feet of solid timber when at point blank range. Point blank range means that your chances for hitting a target at that distance, or closer, are very good. Long range means the shot hits its target much more randomly, less precisely, and with less force up to that distance, after which the shot will not hit anything. For a large cannon, point blank range is 250 yards. Long range is about 1700 yards. Point blank range for a culverin, on the other hand, is about 300 yards with a longer range of up to 2600 yards.
If you are trying to damage another ship’s masts or rigging, you would use a chain-shot, which is two iron balls connected by a chain, or a bar-shot, which is two balls connected by an iron rod.
If your goal is to annihilate a crowd of people, you would choose one of two kinds of scatter shots: grape-shots and case-shots. Grape-shots are canvas bag filled with layers of small iron balls or musket shot, that are corded tightly into the shape of the muzzle of the gun. They look like clusters of grapes. Case-shots are metal cases designed especially to fit in a particular size muzzle, that are filled with small shot. Both shots are designed to explode on contact, scattering the balls hither and thither.
Fiery explosive shots are called bombs. Bombs are hollow cast-iron balls filled with gunpowder, usually shot from mortars. A match, or slow burning fuse, is attached to the bomb-shot and lit before the bomb is inserted in the muzzle of the gun. Bomb shots are very dangerous to fire. Too often the fuse is lit accidentally causing the bomb to explode prematurely.
We also have hot shot, which is an iron ball that is heated to a pulsing red before it is inserted in the gun. To keep the hot shot from lighting the powder prematurely, we insert an extra padding of wet straw or clay in the gun before the red, hot ball.
We can make another type of fiery projectile using a carcass, which is an iron frame made to hold any combustible materials. They look like the ribs of an animal. Carcass shot can be troublesome also, when the lighted material ignites the powder too soon.
Procedure for Firing a Muzzle-loading Gun
Tracing of the firing routine on display at the Mary Rose Museum.
The amount of men it takes to fire a gun varies by the size of the gun. About ten or eleven men are needed to work each of the culverins. The large cannon class requires a crew of fifteen. The falcons, on the other hand, need only three or four men. A crew is considered extremely competent if they can shoot ten balls within an hour.
Each gun rests in a heavy wooden stock that is fastened to the deck. Two small trucks [wheels] attached to the fore-end of the stock allow for inboard and outboard movement. During a battle, the hatches that normally cover the gun ports are hooked open. Even when they are shut, they are not completely water tight, so the deck gets damp and slippery.
- To prepare for battle, first remove the muzzle lashing from the gun and slacken the side tackles so the gun can be drawn back from the gun port for loading.
- Lay the tools, such as the sponge, crowbar, and handspike, out on the deck next to the gun, so they are close at hand.
- Remove the tampions [wooden plugs meant to keep moisture out of the gun] from the muzzle.
- Position the gun so it is heading in the right direction. You can raise or lower it by placing wedge-shaped pieces of wood under the breech [rear end]. It is more difficult to change the direction of the gun from right to left because several men must heave the after-end of the carriage to one side or the other with the crowbar or the handspike.
- Press a cartridge of gunpowder into the muzzle. (The gunpowder is a concoction of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter. The correct amount has already been measured into pouches made of cloth, creating cartridges.)
- Insert the shot. Ram it down snugly with the handspike.
- Insert the wad of cloth that holds the powder and shot in place. Ram it down snugly with the handspike.
- Haul the gun outboard by the side tackles and reposition it.
- Once the gun is in place, thread a wire down the touch-hole at the rear of the gun to pierce the powder cartridge, this allows the match to be inserted.
- Fill the touch-hole and the pan [flat area around the touch-hole] with more powder from a horn.
- Place the match (a length of rope that has been soaked in a solution of saltpeter to make it burn slowly) in the pan. Order everyone to step away from the gun. The discharge will cause the carriage to recoil back inboard. The movement of the gun is kept under control by a breeching, which is a thick rope fastened at one end to the gun’s breech and at the other to the bulwarks on each side of the carriage. The breeching keeps the gun from flying off its stock. But sometimes the breeching breaks.
- Light the match.
Remember, all of this happens in six minutes, if the crew has been practicing.
Next article: A Comparison of Medieval Shipping Containers
- Brian Lavery's The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815. UK: Convoy Maritime Press, Naval Institute Press, 1989
- Mary Rose Museum, Plymouth, England.