The use of cannon aboard sailing ships is a topic of heavy discussion, including among those who follow the careers of the great pirates and privateers. As the Brethren know full well and good, pounding away at a prize with your guns in sheer folly. That being said, sometimes the enemy finds you at sea and, if running won’t serve, there is simply nothing for it but to engage them. A few of the most storied pirates died in fire fights of this kind but they are the exception. In the naval service however, death or severe injury during a sea battle were all too common (regardless of what the Mythbusters would have you believe).
Rarely spoken of, though, is the simple but dangerous minutia of loading, aiming and firing a gun followed by readying it to start the process all over again. Here it is in a nutshell, as I understand it anyway. Obviously deviations would occur depending on the size of the ship and gun in question and whether one was aboard a merchant, freebooter or Navy ship. In this case we will say we are aboard my Uncle Renato Beluche’s brig L’Intrepide engaging a Spanish Navy frigate. This, we will imagine, is not long after a fellow privateer warned him that a man-of-war was searching for him in the Gulf of Mexico. His response, documented by a fellow sailor, was to smile and say: “I would like to meet that warship.”
When a fire fight was imminent the gun had to be taken out of its securing ropes. The train tackle (used to haul the cannon inward for loading as pictured above) and the gun tackle and breeching rope (used to keep the gun from “jumping its track” when it recoiled after firing) would be attached securely. In out scenario, the gun crew is five men all together: gun captain (gunner), loader, rammer, sponger and gunner’s mate. Working as a team they could potentially load, fire and prepare to reload their gun in 1 minute.
Powder monkeys (usually agile boys who also worked in the tops) brought black powder from the powder chest in passboxes made of copper. Ball, shot or canister would be waiting nearby, buckets of water would be at hand for swabbing the gun and sand would be sprinkled on the floor to help with traction. When the gun port on the hull of the ship was opened, the gun crew would have no more than 20 inches of space from the muzzle of the gun to the port when the gun was run in. Our scenario allows us approximately 18 inches. That’s not a lot of room to do much of anything if you think about it, particularly when neighboring guns might be no more than a few feet away from yours.
Once this preparation was done the loader set to work priming the gun. After clearing the touchhole of any debris from prior firing with a 9 inch priming iron, he would dip a copper powder ladle into the passbox to retrieve powder equal to about 1/3rd the weight of the cannon’s ball. Copper was used at all possible times to avoid accidentally igniting the unstable black powder via a spark. Enough powder to prime the gun would be poured into the touchhole of the gun and then the mate would cover this hole with his hand while the loader placed the rest of the powder into the barrel of the gun. Covering the touchhole prevented errant breezes from blowing the priming powder out of the gun.
The powder was eased into the barrel by the rammer using the wooden rod of the same name. The gunner would then insert a fair amount of loose hemp yarn known as wad followed by another tamp down bay the rammer. The ball would be lifted in next and this might be a two or even three man job, depending on the size of the gun. Aboard our ship, with her 12 pounders, the loader could easily achieve this himself whereupon he would call to the rammer to “put it home”.
Another bit of wadding was placed in the muzzle before the rammer stepped up and tamped the entire mixture very firmly down into the gun’s barrel. This was not a gentle process; by now everyone is certainly shirtless and sweating. Slow match – made up of a lintstock staff three to four feet tall around which a hemp cord previously boiled in saltpeter and dried has been wound and then ignited – sits smoldering in a handy bucket of sand. It is almost time to let fly.
The loader now poured a bit more powder into the touchhole and gave a nod to the gunner when he was satisfied. At this point the gun’s muzzle was run out into the gun port and the gunner could sight it as necessary. Aiming the gun was in fact a haphazard proposition that involved more brute strength then accuracy. A wooden quoin and handspikes would be used to adjust and secure the gun barrel and then it was time to step back.
“Fire in the hole!”, the gunner would cry as an order and a warning. The loader would touch the fizzling slow match to just above the hole. With luck a misfire would be avoided, the ball would fly, the cannon recoil, all hands would be temporarily deaf but safe from injury and the final step could occur.
Now the men would haul in the gun with the train tackle and the sponger could take over. He would ram a saturated cloth at the end of a rod down the barrel, soaking it inside to extinguish any remaining bits of burning powder. He would then quickly insert a worm rod with metal spirals at the end to draw out any wadding left behind. The loader could again apply his priming iron and so it would go until the prize was taken or the enemy sunk. In our case Captain Beluche would have approved; the outcome was the latter.