The Great Guns: Weaponry in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

Firing the cannons on a ship of the line.

Until the time of cannons, warfare at sea utilized many of the same weapons that were used on land. Archers would stand on the deck and fire a storm of arrows at the opposing ship. Catapults, popular as siege engines on land, were sometimes mounted to the ships and used as offensive weapons. Fire was often used to enhance the damage caused by either of these two methods.

It was not long after the discovery of gunpowder that man found it made it possible to throw a stone at one’s enemies with astonishing force. This brought a new age of combat to the world and specifically to the sea, making sea power much more important.

Early ship borne guns were designed to be used as anti-personnel weapons. European ships were first fitted with these large guns during the early part of the fourteenth century. From the earliest times, these guns grew and improved, first throwing simple stone balls then progressing to a wide range of ammunition in the Napoleonic times. Initially, ships didn’t have their sides pierced for guns, but innovative ship designs like that of the Mary Rose introduced gunports and the concept of guns on more than one deck.


The great guns could be constructed by two methods, either forging or casting.  Guns were made initially from iron or brass (bronze – 90% copper with tin, lead, zinc and other metals added).

Simply put a forged gun was made up of strips (plates) of metal held together by rings, hoops or even ropes in their crudest form.  This was the most common type of gun until well into the 16th century.  It was less expensive to make and required less skill than a cast gun.  It was always done in iron and it was blacksmith work.  The work creating these guns was rather like the work done by a cooper creating a barrel.

Cast guns were made of both iron and brass, though brass was the first to be regularly cast due to the iron cooling too rapidly.  They were created in foundries and made by the same people who were making the church bells.  The gun founder would first create a mould using a piece of wood, wrapped in strips of hay or rope and covered with clay, hair and horse hiding.  The trunions (used for mounting on the carriages) were nailed on.  The rear of the gun was frequently a separate mould which would be joined with the main mould at the time of casting.  Then the entire thing was covered in clay (sand was used later). Once it was dried, molten metal was poured into the open muzzle end.  After cooling, the mould was then broken and the gun was finished.

Because of these methods, no two guns were alike and weight varied.  As technology improved, manufacturing guns became easier.  By 1716, full size drawings were sent to the foundries to develop some degree of standardization.  Later in that century, copper cores were delivered by the Ordnance Board.  By the time of the American Revolution, it was decided that all guns would be bored due to a series of problems.

By the 1790’s, standardization was the rule. The Board of Ordnance set the basic dimensions and a gun foundry would construct a full size model of the piece, primarily in clay. This model would be used to form the mould, with separate moulds being used for the breech and the cascabel (the rear section of the gun). After the gun was cast, the mould was split apart and the gun would then be sent to the drilling machines to be bored out as they were usually cast solid.

After completion they were sent to Woolwich to be tested by the Board of Ordnance. One of the tests would be to load it with a double load of gun powder, fire it, then inspect the guns for cracks. They would then insert water under pressure to see if any escaped. The guns could also be rejected for being excessively over weight. Upon passing the tests, the guns would then be sent to one of the Naval Ordnance Depots.

British guns were considered the best in the world.  A British gun was worth 4 to 5 times its purchase price in Europe.  Needless to say, the Crown did not want their superior guns ending up in the hands of possible enemies.

Weight of Long Guns

Guns were classified by the weight of the projectile, the length of the gun and the type. Cannons and carronades were classified by the weight of the shell that was used. The largest during this period was a 48 pounder (though only used on a few of the older first rates). The most common guns on a rated ship were 9, 12, 18, 24, and 36 pounders.

Smaller ships and a few older frigates also carried even lighter guns. A 6 pdr was found as a secondary gun on small frigates and sloops. There were also 3 and 4 pdr guns but they were rarely found on what would be classified as a fighting ship.

Due to the weight factor, the larger guns would normally be on the lower in the ship with each additional deck having lighter guns. A 100 gun ship would have 32 pdrs on the gun deck, 24 pdrs on the middle deck and 12 pdrs on the upper deck. There were also swivel guns, mounted at various places around the ship and in the tops. These were of various sizes, including 1/2 pounders.


The other type of gun common on ships of the Royal Navy were the Carronades. These were short and fat guns capable of throwing great weights a short distance.

The carronade was first invented in the late 1770’s by General Robert Melville and built by the Carron Iron Company in Scotland. It was first adopted by the Royal Navy in 1779. It was sponsored by Sir Charles Middleton, a important naval reformer who, in 1779, became Controller of the Navy. The idea was influenced by a proposal from Robins in 1747 which pointed out that most sea battles took place at short range so a short barrel cannon that used less powder but heavy projectiles would be effective in this situation. By making the projectile a tighter fit, less powder would be wasted. A shorter gun was also much lighter; a 32 Pdr carronade had the same weight as a 6 pound long gun.

Carronades were used initially on quarterdecks, forecastles and poops. While available, they had to be requested by the captain initially. In 1794 they were made compulsory for most ships, but they were often added when the ship required refitting so not all ships had them right away. The carronade was not an instant hit; in 1780 the Ordnance office in Plymouth reported that “most of the captains at that port disapproved of them, and do not intend to take any”. It took a while for them to be convinced. Meanwhile, Middleton continued pushing for them.

It was thought that maybe 44 and 50 gun ships (too small for the line) could be outfitted with them and sent to sea with the main fleet. An experiment was conducted on a 44 named Rainbow. She encounter a large French frigate named Hebe. The Hebe surrendered after one broadside by the Rainbow. By 1801, it was obvious that the carronade was there to stay. On new ships, barricades were built around the poop and forecastles to protect the carronade crews.

The arrangement of carronades varied greatly in the Royal Navy. The typical 74 (1808-1816) would carry 10-2 Pdr carronades on the quarter deck, 2-32 Pdr carronades on the forecastleand 6-18 Pdr carronades on the poop deck. While a 50 gun ship might have 6 Pdr carronades on the poop, 2 18 Pdr carronades on both the forecastle and on the quarterdeck. One of the most famous ships of this period, the Victory had only 2-68 Pdr carronades on her decks.

The muzzles of the carronade were different from the muzzle of a cannon. There a canon swells and is larger in the muzzle, a carronade actually gets smaller in the muzzle. The trunions (the part of the gun which attach the barrel to the gun carriage) were also in a different position, they were located on the underside of the barrel instead of the middle like a canon’s trunions were. And the button (the tail end of the carronade) also differed: it had a hole in which an elevation screw was placed. Carronades were also usually on special carriages, made by the Carron Iron Company, that came with each gun. By the 1790’s, many Carronades were on solid wood platforms which were easily traversed with the use of a slide. The platforms had small wheels on the back.

Small Arms

In close quarter actions the fighting might require the men to board or repel boarders from an enemy ship. For this purpose they were armed with cutlasses, pistols, tomahawks, and pikes. The muskets were generally used by the Marines.

The cutlass was a simple straight sword with a 28 inch blade, an iron grip and guard, worn in a leather belt diagonally across the shoulder. It was designed as a slashing and thrusting weapon and was not intended for subtle fencing.

The Tomahawk, officially known as a boarding axe, had a wedged shaped head with a slightly curved blade and a sharp spike on the back. It could be driven into the hull of an enemy vessel to make steps if there were no hand holds.

The pike was about 7 and a half feet long and designed to be used as a stab and move on weapon. The pikes were stowed on vertical racks on the main deck around the masts.

The pistols came in long and short barreled versions, 9 inches and 12 inches long, with a bore of 0.56 inches. The butt had a metal base (known as a skull crusher butt cap) so the pistol could be used as a club once fired. The muskets also came in two barrel lengths, 3 feet 1 inch and 2 feet 2 inches, both could take a bayonet, and the effective range was around 100 yards. Marine sharp shooters were placed in the rigging to fire down on enemy ships. Nelson was killed by a French marine this way, firing from the rigging of the Redoubtable.

Courtesy of Kevin Stall and Broadside. Editing by your captain.

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