Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Big Guns

Pirate ships were well equipped with weaponry. For any ship worth its reputation, shipboard guns were an important part of the arsenal. It was these guns that waged war, won battles, and kept crews alive. But they were more complex than just cannons that go boom.

The basics:

First and foremost, cannons were not cannons aboard a ship. They were called guns. And the projectiles they fired were not cannon balls, rather they were shot. Guns were made from cast iron or sometimes bronze. Iron guns were subjected to corrosion from saltwater causing misfires or the lodging of the shot. Bronze guns were expensive to make.  The longer the barrel of the gun, the farther it fired. Well, sort of, since the farther the distance the greater the inaccuracy. The guns could weigh anywhere from a few hundred pounds to several tons.  Smaller guns, such as swivel guns, could be fastened to the ship, but the larger guns were mounted on wooden carriages. These big guns were identified by the weight of the shot they were made for.  It was common for ships to carry 8-pounders, 12-pounders, 24-pounders, 36-pounders, and higher. There are a variety of small calibers, too.

Parts of a shipboard gun
Those suckers on carriages were big, weighed a ton (literally), and were dangerous.  Smooth sailing did not apply with guns on board. They had to be lashed down to prevent rolling. Gun tackle (ropes) were tied to both sides of the carriage. In addition, a breeching rope was tied to the knob at the rear of the gun (called a cascabel) and fastened to the ship’s hull (wall). The breeching rope gave way just enough for loading. It also helped prevent the gun from recoiling with such force to snap the lashing ropes – a term called jumping its track.  More rope was used to pull the gun up to the gun port. This rope, known as the train tackle, was attached to an eyebolt below the cascabel.

It takes a team:

Seriously, it took four to five men per gun working in synchronicity to fire. Men had assigned guns which totally makes sense when avoiding additional chaos in the heat of battle. After the gun was unlashed, hauled inward, the gun ports opened, and the equipment used for priming and loading were in hand, the real work commenced.

The gun’s barrel was swabbed with a wet sponger rod to remove residue or embers. Loose, measured gunpowder went in first using a scooped powder ladle. Gunpowder might also come wrapped in
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cloth. Once the gunpowder was in, it was followed by a cloth, paper, or sometimes hay wad, packed in using a ramrod. Shot and another wad (to prevent the shot from rolling out) were rammed in next. A priming iron was used to clear the touchhole of residue and, if using a cartridge charge, pricked open the charge to expose gunpowder. The touchhole was filled with more gunpowder. The men adjusted the gun’s height using a quoin—a wooden wedge with notches on the carriage. A two to three-foot lintstock with a slow burning match was then set near enough to the touchhole to ignite the powder. Bam! A good gun crew familiar with their weapon could swab, load, aim, and fire a gun within two to five minutes. Huzzah, ye sea dogs!

Types of shot:

  • Aside from spherical balls of varying size and weight, pirates (and naval crews) were creative in their deadly projectiles.
  • bar shot - two balls affixed at the ends of an iron bar (effective for maximum damage on men and rigging)
  • chain shot - two balls affixed at each end of a chain (also effective in destroying rigging and sails)
  • double shot - two balls with extra gunpowder in one gun
  • grape shot - small iron balls wrapped in canvas (think buckshot, lots of balls taking out more than one target, be it human or other objects)
  • langrage - canisters filled with scrap metal, nails, bolts, and even eating utensils (another impressive way to annihilate crew and rigging)
  • partridge shot - small bags filled with pellets of lead (excellent for saturating an area)
  • trundle shot - iron spikes or sharpened bars (good for impaling)

And these are just what was used in the guns. Weapons used by pirates were extensive—a topic for another post.

About the Author

Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

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