The Gunner and His Crew in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

If there’s one thing Jack loves (aside from his dear Surprise), it’s gunnery! But alas, as Captain, Jack’s duties rarely allow him to take direction of the guns themselves during battle. The honor falls instead to the gunner and his crew…

The Gunner was the senior of any rated ship’s three “standing” warrant officers – along with the Boatswain and the Carpenter, that is to say one of the officers who theoretically remained with a ship throughout its life. In fact this was rarely so. In very small ships he often acted as an officer of the watch.

Socially he was usually of plebeian origins. Some gunners did use this post as a route to higher things, however. Like the Boatswain and the Carpenter he belonged to neither the Wardroom (or Gunroom on a smaller ship) or the lower cockpit, but made his own messing arrangements and had his own cabin. If married, he often took his wife to sea at this period. Here she would assume responsibility for the welfare of the Ship’s boys who lived in the gunroom on the larger ships.

As a Gunner, his responsibilities were considerable – the maintenance of all of the ship’s great guns and small arms, the powder magazines (for which the Captain kept the keys – the gunner having to ask for them), and shot. Strict arrangements were laid down for the movement of powder, and all stores and supplies had to be minutely accounted for to the Board of Ordnance as opposed to the Navy Board (or Admiralty). In Battle, his station was in the magazine, supervising the filling and issuing of cartridges to the guns. He would often be called upon for special jobs, laying guns personally for the captain, for example.

To assist him there were:

1. The Gunner’s Mate(s) – senior petty officers who assisted with the great guns. the Mate’s station in battle was on his gun deck with a bag of gun spares, ready to help any gun with problems. They in turn were assisted by junior petty officers, the Quarter gunners (responsible for four guns each).

The ordinary Gun Captains held no rank, and were not considered to be part of the gunner’s crew, but many of them were promoted up to the above ranks in due course.

In action, the actual command of divisions of guns fell to Midshipmen and Lieutenants, under the Captain’s direction.

2. The Armourer, a junior “inferior” warrant officer, was responsible for the ship’s small arms (muskets, pistols, cutlass, pikes and axes). He would have a mate to assist him, including a gunsmith(s) in larger vessels – a First-Rater would carry c.400 muskets and pistols all told. The mates were petty officers, while the gunsmith was a species of very junior warrant officer. The Armourer had a forge and a set of special tools issued to him by the the Ordnance Board. His responsibility was for maintenance, not for training, which was carried out by the Master-at-Arms and his assistants, the ship’s corporals, who were not part of the Gunner’s Crew.

3. In the larger ships, the Yeoman of the Powder Room, a petty officer paid at warrant officer rates because of his duties, assisted with the magazine(s).

Some interesting contemporary light has recently been thrown on the character of the gunner. He is:

“commonly a spawn of the captain’s own projection and has little Occasion to exercise his Art, as he desires, and I dare say, he desires never to have any; not that Gun-Powder stinks so very abominably in his nostrils, rather he loves dearly to hear his Guns speak, provided it not be against an Enemy.

He loves the King’s Birthday most loyally and wisheth he had Twenty every year, for those are the lucky times when he cheats his Majesty most zealously.

He commemorates Gun-Powder Traeson with a Treason upon Gun-Powder; for he defaults his guns so exhorbitantly, that a Tar, after a Hearty meal of Pease, shall make his Bum rattle a Thanksgiving Peal much louder than his Cannons. But whats wanting in his Guns is made up in his Cups which are sure to have full measure…”

Courtesy of the Historical Maritime Society.

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