We've discussed the ingenious Native boat that is common all along the Atlantic coasts of both North and South America as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the piragua, periauger or pirogue, these versatile vessels were originally a hollowed out tree trunk. Advances to improve handling resulted in the boats being made from two tree trunks fused together with a keel piece running down the middle.
Around 1800, when the protection of U.S. coasts and waterways became an issue for the young nation, both the Navy and the newly formed Coast Guard began clamouring for small ships that could carry heavy guns but still sail into shallow waters including inlets and rivers. The places most favored by pirates and smugglers. Sloops and schooners could only do so much in this line of work. It was clear that a new kind of boat was in order.
The answer came in 1806 when designer Christian Bergh took the sleek serviceability of the pirogue and married it to the sailing sloop. In Bergh's original design, the gunboat had two masts. Both were given a marked rake with the foremast tipping forward and the mainmast back. This allowed for a large single sail on each mast to maximize wind propulsion. A flying staysail could also be set between the two masts for even faster running.
Unfortunately, the commanders - usually Lieutenants looking to make their mark - of the first 14 gunboats produced complained bitterly about this arrangement. It wasn't speed that troubled them but looks; that staysail in particular gave the initial impression of laundry on a line. The little ships were amazingly effective despite the grousing. They were, on average, about 48 feet long and 18 feet in the beam. Their sturdy hulls generally had a draft of no more than 5 feet and they could support a 24 pound cannon on a swivel dead center. Most had the added armament of two 18 pound guns on either side of the ship. Given her size and small compliment of eight to ten men, this was impressive armory.
So impressive, in fact, that it was almost immediately considered excessive. The guns took up so much room on deck that they were hard to work and harder still to live with on a cruise of any length. By 1810, revisions had been made that gave the gunboat her more familiar mast orientation (as shown above in a model from ModelShips.com) and saw the removal of the 18 pounders. Now pared down, sleek and easy for a sailor to be proud of, the gunboat design quickly spread to Europe and from there all over the world. Britain was using them in India by 1812, for instance.
Gunboats of another sort but in a similar spirit are still in use today by many navies and coast guards around the world. And they can all trace their evolution back to the efficient, beautifully made pirogues and periaugers native to North and South America.