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Long Guns
Small Arms
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Long Guns

The cannon with which Nelson's ships were armed were made of brass or iron. The iron guns were cast in a mould, and then bored, or tubed by the insertion of a powerful cylindrical gouge. They do not appear to have been cast round a core. The brass guns were made of a proportion of " metal fit for casting " (generally about five-sevenths of the whole), to which was added a seventh part of copper, a rather smaller quantity of brass, and a few pounds of tin. The exact proportions were kept secret by the founders. German founders used more tin than brass, while the French used two formulae, in both of which more tin than brass was employed. 


The guns in use in our service were distinguished and named by the weight of the balls they threw. The guns were spoken of as 6-, 12-, 18-, 24-, or 32-pounders. The 32-pounder was the largest gun in use. Until 1790 a ponderous gun, throw ing a 42-pound round shot, had been mounted on ships of the line, but the gun was too unwieldy, and the shock of the discharge was too great to allow of its continued use. There were, however, 42-, and even 68-pounder carronade or" smasher" guns. These were mounted on improved carriages, the invention of Admiral Bertie.


The principal parts of a 32-pounder gun were the breech, which ended in a rounded iron ball called the pomelion, or cascabel ; the trunnions or extended arms, which supported the cannon (in almost perfect balance) in its carriage; and the bore or calibre, the" concave cylinder " down which the charge was rammed. The trunnions were placed, not in the centre of the piece, but rather towards the breech, as the metal at the breech was thicker and heavier than at the mouth, to withstand the shock of the explosion, and to prevent the gun " from starting up behind " when fired. The bore was, of course, of the same size throughout. " Taper-bored " guns had fallen out of favour.


All guns in use were mounted on strong wooden trucks or carriages. The carriages were composed of two " cheeks" or side pieces, held together by thick wooden cross pieces and iron axle-trees. The wheels on which the carriages rested were circular discs of strong wood, held to the axle by iron linch-pins. The trunnions of the guns rested on the top of the two cheeks, directly above the front wheels. They were placed in hollows cut to receive them, over which hinged iron clamps or cap-squares passed, to keep them from jolting out at the shock of the discharge. When placed on a carriage, and resting on its trunnions, the gun inclined to sag down towards its breech. It was kept from falling out of the horizontal position by a wedge of wood, called a coin (or quoin) which rested on the bed of the carriage. The withdrawal of the wedge caused the gun to elevate its muzzle. By means of graduated scales, cut upon the coins and upon the base-rings of the guns, the gunners could elevate or depress their piece with considerable accuracy, by the insertion and withdrawal of the sup porting wedges.


At sea, where the ship was in continual motion, either rolling or pitching, the guns had to be secured with great care by means of tackles and breechings. These ropes enabled the gun's crews to work their guns in action. A breeching was made of stout hemp rope of the finest quality. It passed through a ring or " thimble," which was strapped to the round iron ball or pomelion of the gun. The ends of it were secured or " clinched" to strong iron ring-bolts in the ship's side, one at each side of the gun port. This breeching secured the gun from rolling backwards towards the inner part of the deck, while it checked the recoil of the piece when fired. A breeching was of such a length that, when the piece was fired, it checked the recoil directly the gun muzzle was immediately within the gun port. In this position the piece could be reloaded without difficulty. The gun or side-tackles were pulleys hooked to the sides of the carriages, and to ring-bolts in the ship's side, to enable the gun's crews  to run the piece out when they had loaded it. The gun was kept from running out of itself with the roll of the ship by a tackle, called a train or preventer tackle, which was hooked to an iron ring-bolt in midships, and to a hook directly below the breech of the gun.  When not in action the guns were hauled close up to the ship's side by means of the side-tackles. The two parts of the breeching were then lashed together, to allow no possible play to the piece.


The coins were taken out, so that the muzzle of the gun just touched the upper part of the gun port, to which it was lashed with a t length of cord. In very bad weather, when the ship's rolling caused the guns to strain their fastenings, the tackles and breechings were doubled, and small wooden wedges were screwed under their wheels. A gun broken loose was a very terrible engine of destruction, for the two tons of iron, flying across the deck with the roll of the ship, would strike with fearful force against the opposite side. Such a force was more than likely to tear through the timbers, carrying with it any other gun it happened to strike. If a gun broke loose it was " tripped " or upset by hammocks or spare sails flung in its path; but the task of tripping a loose gun on a deck awash with the sea, and foul with all manner of floating gear, such as rammers and buckets, was by no means an easyone.


It was like playing leap-frog on a see-saw under a shower bath, with the certainty of horrible death if you missed your leap.   

When secured to the ship's side, and at all times when not in action, the muzzle of a gun was stopped with a circular plug of wood or cork, known as a tompion. This plug was carefully tallowed round its outer rim so that no water should pass by it into the bore of the piece. Over the touch-hole of the gun, when not in action, a thin sheet of lead was fixed. This sheet was about a foot square, and was known a the " apron," because it was tied to its place by two white cords. It kept the vent or touch-hole dry, and  defended the priming from chance ignition.    


Above the guns, hooked to the beams, so as to be out of the way when not in use, were the implements for loading and cleaning. A gun was loaded in the following manner :- The powder was inserted by means of a ladle - a sort of copper shovel - with a long wooden handle. The head of this shovel resembled a "cy lindrical spoon." Into its cavity the cartridge fitted, so that the loader had but to thrust the ladle down and turn it over to deposit the cartridge in its place at the extremity of the bore. A wad of rope yarn was then driven home upon the charge by an implement known as the ram mer. The shot was then rammed home, with a wad on top of it.  ( When the gun fired red-hot shot, as in many general actions, the wad driven down upon the powder was a disc of green wood, wrapped about with yams). The tightness or looseness of this, the containing wad, did not affect  the velocity of the cannon ball. As a rule, therefore ,  the upper wad was driven in with force just sufficient to keep the shot in the gun while aim was taken. Tight wads were seldom used, as they took too long  to drive down the muzzle.


When the piece was loaded the captain of the gun took out his priming-iron, an implement like a knitting- needle, with a few spirals (as in a corkscrew) at the end. This he thrust down the touch-hole into the cartridge, so that the iron not only cleared the vent, but also cut through the cartridge. He then opened his priming-box and took out a priming-tube, whi ch was either of tin or of quill, and, in either case, of less than one-fifth of an inch in diameter. This he placed in the touch-hole, so that the sharp end of it entered into the cartridge. Priming-tubes were filled with the very best mealed powder, " mixed up stiff with spirits of wine." Their upper ends were frayed, so that the fire might reach them the more readily. If there were no priming-tubes the captain of the gun primed his piece from a powder-horn, by merely pouring good mealed powder down the touch-hole, and then laying a little train of the same along a channel cut in the gun for the purpose. This little groove led from the vent towards the breech of the piece. The powder placed in this groove was always slightly bruised with the end of the powder-horn.


When the gun was primed and aimed, the captain of the piece watched his oppor tunity to fire, taking care to fire as his side of the ship rose slowly from a roll, so that his shot, if it missed the ship he aimed at, might yet cut her rigging. (The French invariably fired as the ship rose from a roll. Some English Admirals preferred to fire as the ship began to roll, so that the shot might strike the hull of the enemy either above or below the waterline.) The piece was fired, as a rule, by means of a match, or length of twisted cotton wicks soaked in lye, which burned very slowly, and remained alight when once lit for several hours. Matches in actual use were twisted about a forked staff some three feet long, which was known as the linstock.  Immediately before a battle matches ready for use were placed between the guns in tubs, known as match tubs, which were half filled with sand or water. The matches were fixed in notches in the rim of each tub, so that their burning ends overhung the water or sand. Their loose ends lay upon the deck. When a man gave fire to a piece he held the burning match below the level of the vent, and blew on the lighted end to make it burn clearly.


At the favourable instant he applied the red end to the train of powder leading to the touch -hole, and then smartly drew back the linstock to avoid the " huff " or spit of fire from the vent at the moment of explosion. The spirt of flame was sufficiently violent to blow the linstock out of a man's hand if he applied it carelessly. It also burnt pockmarks on the beams directly above the gun, so that in many old wooden men-of-war the beams were deeply pitted all along the deck. After 1780 the guns of some ships were fitted with flint-locks, by means of which a spark struck from a flint was thrown on to the pan or tube contain- ing the priming powder. The triggers of these locks were released by a smart pull upon a lanyard. These flint-locks were safer than the old arrangement of match and powder train.


They were also more certain and more easily managed. Their use enabled the gunners to fire more rapidly, but the sailors disliked them, and the captains looked upon them as dangerous innovations, opposed to the old traditions of the service. They were not generally adopted until after the battle of the Nile. A ship employing them in that engage ment made such excellent and such rapid practice that the seamen were convinced of their merit. A flint-lock was, however, always liable to lose its flint, either by fracture or by being stricken from its place. Many guns were fitted with double or even treble flints so that the breaking or slipping of a single stone should not stop the fire. Until long after Nelson's death it was the rule for ships going into action to carry lighted matches in match tubs between the guns, for use if the flint-locks missed fire.


The gun when fired recoiled with great violence to the limit of the breeching. When a gun had become hot from continuous firing the violence of its recoil became so great that the carriage would be lifted from the deck, and the whole contrivance would leap to the beams above at each shot. The breechings used to snap like twine under the tremendous strain of such recoils, particularly on the lower-deck, where the ropes were frequently wetted and subject to rot. In general actions the guns were fitted with double-breechings to prevent such ruptures. 


The recoil of the gun was very dangerous to the gun's crews, for no man, however experienced, could predict, from the direction in which the gun pointed and the motion of the ship, in what way the gun would run back. N umbers of men were killed or wounded by the recoil of guns, and no device checked the evil altogether, though several inventions modified it. The breeching always kept it within certain bounds, while it was checked naturally by the slope of the deck, from in midships, towards the ship's sides.

 When a gun had been fired successfully it recoiled into the position for reloading.


( Misfires were not infrequent. The priming powder sometimes fizzled and smoked, without setting fire to the charge. On these occasions the gun's crew stood aloof till all appearance of smoke had faded from the touch-hole, when the captain crept up cautiously, cleaned out the vent, and reprimed the gun.) 


Before a fresh cart ridge was thrust down the muzzle, an instrument called a worm, a sort of large edged corkscrew, was sometimes inserted to scrape out any burning scraps which might remain in the gun. With some kinds of cartridges this was necessary after each discharge. When the worm had been passed, a sponge was thrust down, and twisted round once or twice as soon as its head had reached the end of the bore.


By the time the gun had been sponged, and the sponge tapped out, a fresh cartridge was ready for insertion. The head of a sponge was usually of rough sheepskin wool affixed to a stout piece of rope, stiffened with spun yarn, at the other end of which was a wooden butt, studded with copper, for use as a rammer. A rope handle was found far safer than one of wood, for it allowed the sailor to bend it, so that he could pass it down the gun without leaning out of the port, as a mark for the enemy's sharpshooters. In sponging and ramming the sailor showed himself as little as possible. If he had to expose himself at the port as he sponged, he always held the sponge away from the ship's side, with his body between it and the timbers, so that if a shot struck the handle it might not force the implement through his body.


The guns were trained aft and forward by means of handspikes or wooden levers, which were sometimes fitted with iron claws. With these the carriage of a gun could be shifted, little by little, in the required direction. The handspikes were also used to raise the breech of the gun, when the gun captain adjusted the piece to the required height by means of the coins. In raising the breech, the sailor used as his fulcrum one of the steps cut in the cheek or side of the gun-carriage. The work of shifting one of these heavy guns by such a clumsy contrivance was very hard. In action the men stripped to their waists, yet a very few minutes of the work sufficed to make them hot. The exercise was so violent that in hot engagements the men sometimes fell exhausted beside their guns, and slept there in all the uproar of the fight.


The guns generally in use were cast in two lengths, " long" and" short," both varieties having about the same range, but with this difference. The long gun was more accurate, and could be laid point blank - that is, level or horizonta - to fire at an object at a distance, say, of 300 yards. To hit the same object at that distance a short gun had to be slightly elevated, and the more the gun was elevated the less accurate it became.


The short gun was the more popular in the years of which we write, for it was more destructive at close quarters, and commanders preferred to come to close quarters before engaging. In the American War of 1812 this preference for the short gun lost us several frigates. The American frigates which captured them were armed with long guns. With these they were able to remain aloof, plying our ships with shot at long range; while the short guns aboard our ships replied inaccurately, their shot falling short or missing, owing to the great elevation necessary to make them carry the distance. 


The guns at sea were invariably kept loaded, but the charges were frequently drawn, as the powder deteriorated if left too long in the gun. In action, when not in use, the crows, handspikes, rammers, etc., were laid on the deck near the ship's side. After an engagement the sponges and rammers were hooked to the ship's beams, above the gun. The other im plements were stowed under the gun. In action, the priming-horn was hung to the beams between shots. After action it was returned to the gunner and stored away in one of the magazines. Each gun was fought by a gun's crew of from eight to four men according to the size of the piece.


The guns were generally painted a sort of grey-blue steel colour, with a scarlet band round the muzzle. Some captains merely blackened their guns. Others blackened them, and kept the brass sights and steel cap-squares polished. These were, however, in the minority until 1811. One or two captains painted their guns a pure white. After 1811 the custom of " spit and polish " began, to the great misery of the sailors. Until that time the bright work of the guns was generally painted over.



The carronade guns, which were mounted on all ships in addition to their regulation iron ordnance, were the invention of a Mr Gascoine. They were named after the town in Scotland where they were first cast. They first came into use in 1779. They were short, squat guns, ranging from about five to two feet In length, and flinging balls of from 6 to 12 lbs. in weight. They were lighter than the ordinary guns, and were ", therefore useful for the quarter-deck, and spar-deck  batteries. They were easily managed, and a crew of four men could work the heaviest of them. They were mounted on sliding wooden carriages tra versing on a wheel, while the gun was so fixed upon the carriage that it would slide in or out as desired. They were not elevated by handspikes, like the iron main-batteries, for a screw which passed through the iron pomelion gave them their elevation or depression. The coins could be used to give ex traordinary depression if such were needed.


Being very short, the point-blank range of a carronade was small, varying from 450 to 230 yards, according to the size of the gun. At an elevation of 4, at which a 32-pounder gun would carry nearly a mile, the 32- pounder carronade carried less than 1000 yards. But at close quarters the carronade was a much more terrible weapon than any gun mounted on the lower-deck. At a short distance It made such fearful havoc of a ship's side that it was called the " smasher " or " devil- gun." It had several very serious defects. It was so short a piece that, when run out, it barely cleared the sill of its port.


To fire it in that position endangered the rigging and ship's side, though no case has been reported of a ship having been set on fire by the dis charge of a carronade. Another serious defect was the violence of the recoil, which sometimes split the carriage and dismounted the gun. Admiral Bertie's invention modified this evil, but never overcame it. Carronades were loaded and fired in precisely the same way as iron guns of the lower batteries.



The shot fired by guns and carronades was usually spherical or " round-shot," made of cast iron. Leaden round-shot was sometimes used, apparently with great effect, but the cost was too great to admit of its general use. A store of round -shot, scraped very clean, was always carried in the shot racks on the gun-decks. These shot were kept free from rust by paint or grease. Shot were sometimes so thickly coated with rust, when brought from the hold, that they would not enter the muzzles of the guns for which they were cast. The officers generally en deavoured to keep fifteen or twenty rounds of shot scraped clean in order to avoid the use of rusty balls until the brunt of the fight was over.  In close action another kind of shot was used as a scourer or mur derer.


This was grape shot, " a combination of balls," weighing each 2 lbs., which were packed up in cylindrical canvas bags, of the size of the cannon ball generally used for the gun. A bag of 16 iron balls was used for a 32-pounder, of 12 for a 24-pounder, and of 9 for an 18-pounder. The bags were strongly corded into their cylindrical shape. These 2-lb. iron balls could cut through chain, so that a discharge of them often helped to bring down an enemy's mast, by cutting the stays and standing rigging. In hot actions, when the ships lay " yard-arm to yard-arm," close alongside each other, every second gun was loaded with bags of grape-shot, because " in any close action they are capable of committing infinite ravages against both men and material." To clear an enemy's docks at close range, a kind of shot called case or canister was sometimes used. This was made of leaden musket and pistol bullets, or of shot of half-a-pound weight, packed up tightly in tin cylinders.


At very close range this sort of shot committed most ghastly massacre, but it could not be used at a distance of more than 200 yards, as the shot scattered over a wide area, and so lost its effect. Chain shot, or two balls linked together by an iron chain, was used to bring down masts and spars. Bar shot, or two half- round shot joined by a bar was sometimes used, particularly by the French. Bar shot were often frapped about with combustibles, which ignited when the gun was fired, and so set fire to the sails or hull of the opposing ship. Langrel, or langridge, was a collection of old iron, nuts, bolts, bars, and scraps of chain, tied by rope yarns into "a sort of a cylinder," and so fired at masts and rigging.


Dismantling shot or shot made of half-a-dozen iron bars, " each about two feet long, fastened by ring -heads to a strong ring," was most efficacious in tearing off sails, and bringing down masts and spars. In close action, and when the guns grew hot, the charges of powder were always reduced by at least a third. When the ships lay close together, the charges were made very small, because shot which barely penetrated a ship's timber occasioned " the greatest shake," and tore "the greatest number of, and largest, splinters." As splinters were nearly always more terrible (and more feared) than shot, the gunners did their best to pro duce them. In some ships the opening broadsides were fired with light charges in order that the bullets might shatter the enemy's timber and send the splinters flying.


Small Arms

The small- arms in general use in the N avy were the musket, the musketoon, the pistol, the cutlass, the boarding- pike, the axe or tomahawk, the bayonet, the sailor's knife, and the midshipman's dirk. The musket was the weapon of the marines. It was a flint-lock, muzzle-loading, smooth-bore, firing a ball of from I to 2 ounces, with a charge of 4 drachms of powder. It could be fired with comparative certainty at any object within 100 yards.


Its extreme range may have been a quarter of a mile. It sometimes killed at 200 yards. Its barrel was three quarters of an inch in diameter. Its length, from muzzle to pan, was 3 feet 6 inches. The musketeer carried his cartridges in a box. In loading he had to bite off the bullet from the top of the cartridge, so as to expose the powder. He then sprinkled a little of the powder into the pan of the gun, snapped the pan to, dropped the cart ridge down the muzzle, rammed it home, with the bullet on top, and then took aim and fired. The sailors were drilled in the use of the musket when ever opportunity offered. 


The musketoon was a short heavy musket with a big bore. I t threw a ball weighing from 5 to 7 ounces. It was only used at close quarters. Some musketoons had bell mouths, like blunderbusses. They kicked very dangerously, but were most effective in repelling boarders.


There were various kinds of pistols in use, some of them of more than one barrel. The boarders, or men told off from each gun to board an enemy's ship, if occasion served, were always supplied with at least two pistols for use at close-quarters. They were loaded with cartridges, which had to be bitten like the cartridges of the muskets. A boarder, in the rush and hurry of the hand-to-hand fighting, had never time to reload after he had emptied his pistol barrels.


He flung the weapons away immediately he had burned his cartridges, and laid about him with his cutlass, boarding-axe, or boarding-pike. As a last resource he had always his sailor's knife. The cutlass was a curved heavy cutting sword, about 3 feet long, with a black japanned hilt and basket -guard. The axe was a small heavy axe, with a short steel head and a projecting spike. It was used less as a weapon than as a tool for cutting the lanyards of stays and shrouds, the running rigging, etc. etc. The boarding -pike or half- pike was a spike of steel fixed on a staff of ash.


It was a very useful tool for the driving back of boarders. Rows of them, diversified with tomahawks, were sometimes placed along the poop and forecastle, with the hafts scraped clean, and the steels blackened. The other small-arms, such as pistols and cutlasses, were stored in arm-chests in different parts of the ship, and in stands about the masts below decks. Sergeants of marines still carried halberds or whole  pikes, about 8 feet long, with heads which combined the spear and axe, " so that they serve equally to cut down or push withal."


With these instruments the sergeants aligned their files at muster or inspection. As supplementary weapons some ships carried small swivel guns in the tops aloft, to scour the upper-decks and tops of the enemy at close range. A gun of this kind threw a shot of half- a -pound weight. I t mounted on an iron crotch, and had a long iron handle in place of a cascabel, by which it could be turned and pointed. 


Gun Ports

Before closing this description of the naval armaments in use we must give some short account of the gun ports. A gun port was a square opening in the ship's side, fitted with a heavy, hinged wooden lid opening outward. When closed, this lid was hooked an iron bar to keep it from swinging outward as the ship rolled.


To open a port one had to haul upon a rope, called a port-tackle, which led from the inside of the ship through a round hole above the port, and thence down to a ring on the outside of the lid. When the ports were open to admit the air the guns were sometimes fitted with " half- ports" or wooden screens, through which their muzzles pointed but which kept out most of the spray which dashed against the sides. The hinges of the port-lids were protected from wet by little semicircular slips of wood arched just above them. These slips were known as port-riggles. The carpenters were expected to attend to the opening and lowering of the ports, so that the lids, when opened, might all make the same angle from the ship's side.

In some ships the centres of the port-lids were fitted with thick glass bull's-eyes, which admitted light when the ports were battened in.



Near the two cockpits were the entrances to the fore and after powder magazines, where the ship's ammunition lay. The hatches leading to the magazines were covered over by copper lids, secured by strong iron bars and padlocks. The magazines were only opened on very special occasions by the captain's order. A marine sentry stood at the hatch of each magazine with a loaded musket, to prevent any unauthorised person from tampering with the padlocks or trying to enter. In battle this sentry was reinforced by a corporal's guard with fixed bayonets, or by midshipmen with loaded pistols.


The magazines were situated in the fore and after parts of the ship's hold. They were far below water, and situated in midships, so that no shot could pene trate to them. They were lit by ingenious contrivances called light-rooms, small chambers built just forward of them, and separated from them by double windows of glass. Lanterns were lit in these light-rooms and placed behind the windows, so that their light should illuminate the magazines.


The floors or decks of the magazines were covered with felt, or with a rough kind of frieze known as fearnought. The walls or sides were similarly covered. N o man was allowed to enter them until he had covered his shoes with thick felt slippers, and emptied his pockets of any steel or other metal, the striking of which might make a spark. The after-magazine was the smaller of the two. It con tained no powder casks, but only a store of filled cartridges for the supply of the upper-deck 18- and 24-pounders, and the forecastle and quarter-deck carron ades. In the fore-magazine were the tiers of powder casks, one above the other, the lowest tier having copper hoops about them.


This place was protected even more carefully than the after-magazine, for here the loose powder was handled and placed in cartridges ; and here the hand grenades and musket cartridges were stored. Here, too, were the cartridges ready filled for the batteries of 32-pounders on the lower or first gun- deck. This magazine was not reached by direct de scent from a ladder. To reach it one had to pass along a little passage protected by a copper door and guarded by a marine. The cartridges for the cannon were stored in cylindrical wooden tubs or boxes, ar ranged in racks and covered with movable wooden lids.


Forward of the fore-magazine was a lift or hoist, by which the cartridges could be passed from the magazine to the orlop, so that the boys employed in passing powder should not have to descend into the magazine. In some ships there was no such hoist, but a thick, wet, woollen screen with a hole in it, through which the cartridges were handed. The boys em ployed in carrying powder had to cover the cartridges with their jackets as they ran from the magazine to the gun they supplied. All magazines were fitted with a water tank and pipes, by which the chamber could be swamped in the event of fire.   


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