Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tools of the Trade: Heavy Lifting

Guns, as they were referred to by pirates and privateers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, were not the weapon of choice for sea raiders. I've said it before - and I know you long time Brethren are clear on the concept - but just to avoid any confusion: the prize ship and her crew may have as much or more value as what she is carrying. All this sink and burn mentality that romances and Hollywood like to throw out is absurd. Even the true sociopaths among the pirate ranks, guys like L'Olonnais and Teach, knew a prize had value. So why fill it full of holes if you don't need to? Of course those two crazies never did. Men would happily swim for it to avoid a random shot to the knee cap (Teach) or being cut to pieces by a pirate cutlass (L'Olonnais). You just didn't argue with Edward or Francois.

But sometimes, if you were new at the game and didn't yet have a reputation for gnawing on peoples hearts or if a Navy vessel caught you off guard, a fight was inevitable. Cannon had to be run out. So today, a few interesting facts about the big guns of privateers and pirates.

Many buccaneer ships went without cannon at all. The vessels were too small to support even the smallest bore guns (more on that in a minute) and the element of surprise followed by bravery and terror were their most trusted weapons. By the Golden Age of piracy, most pirate ships carried guns but again speed and maneuverability were more important than sheer might. Two to four 4 pound cannon were average and larger ships might carry 6 pounders. By the American and French Revolutions, when the great age of privateering began, lighter and longer carronades were becoming more common. More guns could be added, if the ship had room for them, without adding bulk and accuracy improved.

The weight of a cannon is truly the measure of whether or not it is feasible to carry it. Most people are unfamiliar with just how heavy these behemoths could be. When talking about a 6 pound cannon, for instance, what is being referenced is the size of the ball and the bore of the gun. Actual weights would look a little something like this:

A 4 pound cannon would be 6 feet long and weigh 1,400 pounds
A 9 pound cannon would be 8 feet long and weigh 2,300 pounds
A 12 pound cannon would be 9 feet long and weigh 3,700 pounds

The weights given are approximate. All the same, they point to the potential for damage when you consider getting the gun aboard ship, making sure there is room for both the gun and its carriage, recoil during firing and the ever present possibility of a cannon coming loose from its moorings and rolling free on a crowded deck. More than one limb was lost to crush injuries during any of the above maneuvers or accidents and the deck of a ship had to be sturdy enough to hold whatever size gun was mounted on her. The huge men-of-war that carried 32 and 44 pound guns in multiples boggle my mind.

Another interesting point is the carriage itself. Carronades were mounted on slide carriages that took up much less room compared to the size of the gun. Conventional cannon sat on four wheeled carriages made of wood. By the late 18th century these were painted different colors depending on the ship's country of origin. American yankees painted their carriages red while the British favored gray. French ships carried yellow carriages as did the privateers out of New Orleans until after the War of 1812, when they switched to the American red.

Of course, as any tactful rover will tell you, it's not really the size of the gun but the expertise of her handling that matters. Perhaps our Brethren had more panache than those big bang navies after all. Something to ponder.

Mind your guns, mate, and keep your balls free of rust. You might need them after all.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Another great post concluding with excellent advice, as usual... I will certainly do my best to follow it, too. Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! It never hurts to mind your balls, does it?

Timmy! said...

Sometimes it does hurt, even if you do... especially when a 150 lb. St. Bernard jumps up on your bed... I'm just saying.