Son of a gun is a funny term, I think. All the funnier, frankly, because I know people who are convinced that it must have originated in the Wild West when even the horses carried revolvers. I'm sure all Texans are certain the term was born there because really, wasn't everything invented in Texas?
The term is nautical, of course, but you knew that my Brethren. Before we talk about the moniker and its possible origins, it helps to know a little bit about the terminology used aboard ship when referring to cannon. Here's a quick primer (pun intended, you son of a gun).
When ships were made of wood and the men who sailed them were made of iron, a cannon - no matter its size - was called a cannon and the round projectile it belched forth was called a cannon ball. But only on land. On a seagoing vessel the cannon was called a gun and that spherical object was referred to as shot or round. Anything other than a cannon ball that might be discharged from a gun (chains, grape and the like) was also called shot. Men who worked the guns were known as gunners (by land they were referred to as artillerists). By World War I the terms were interchangeable and now when we think of a gun we're usually picturing a pistol of some kind. But back in the day, though handy, guns aboard ship were a bitch to pick up and carry!
So a son of a gun must have been a gunner, right? You're close, maybe. There are two theories as to where the term came from but both, as you no doubt imagined, come from the preeminent source for all things afloat: The Royal Navy.
The first origin story comes from the fact that boys as young as nine were frequently aboard navy ships in the role of either cabin boy (essentially a servant) or Midshipman. Being a Mid was the navy's on the job training. The boys were most often the sons of friends of the Captain or another officer, taken on board and trained up to eventually pass the Lieutenant's exam and hopefully one day make Post Captain. It was rather a position of prestige, but the work was hard and Mids were often put in charge of those who tended to the sails (reefers) or gun crews or both.
Obviously, young people can't be left to their own devises regardless of how much responsibility they're given and aboard a large ship the number of boys could grow to as many as twenty or thirty. The go to person for looking after the monkeys was the gunner's wife who was almost routinely on board, living with her husband and helping out in the sick berth and even on the gun deck in battle. So much for that fantasy about never a woman aboard. Because the boys at sea were looked after by his wife, they were collectively known as "sons of the gunner". So each of them was a son of a gun, and right proud of it too!
The more salacious theory - and the one I like to tell to young people and those who don't talk about s*e*x - involves the visits from prostitutes that sometimes occurred aboard navy ships at anchor close to home. The gun deck became the place for trysts with the sailors, the orgiastic nature of which cannot be lost on anyone. And so, a boy fathered by a sailor at one of these shindigs was, of course, a son of a gun. Isn't that fun? Or something.
I like to think of a kid as both: born to a prostitute in some port town, raised on the mean streets and then sent to sea, maybe with his father. Aboard ship he makes good, going from servant to Mid to Lieutenant to Captain and with his prize money he sets his Mom up in a nice cottage by the sea. Happy ending. There was never a more egalitarian place than the navy, after all.
And there you are, my Brethren. Only two Sailor Mouth Saturdays until International Talk Like a Pirate Day! I'll spy ye in the week to come.