The Operation of a 24 lb. Naval Cannon on the Gun Deck of a British Ship-of-the-Line During the American Revolution
There can be no doubt that the scene of a gun deck in action was a vision of hell – sixteen cannons in a row all thundering and recoiling with great billows of smoke filling the gun deck. In the murk and stench one could hardly see at all and due to the great thunder of the cannon, the noise would be almost unbearable. It is a credit to the bravery and fortitude of these sailors that a gun crew could fire off seven shots in five minutes.
A 24 lb. naval cannon was a smoothbore mounted on a truck carriage. A truck carriage was made of wood. The preferred wood was elm for its strength, durability and resistance to shock. A carriage for a 24 lb. cannon was 72” long; the sides were 5 ½” thick. The trucks were small, solid wood wheels designed to give high rolling resistance to help resist the recoil of the cannon. The largest 24 lb. cannon was 9 ft. 6 in. long. The length of the bore was 8 ft. 11 in. A charge of powder for maximum range was 8 lbs. Its point-blank, no elevation range was 297 yards and its extreme range at 10º elevation was 2,870 yards. Because accuracy dropped off very quickly as elevation increased, an elevation greater than 4º was rare in naval actions.
The main parts of the cannon were the breech, which ended in a rounded iron ball called the pomelion or cascabel, the trunnions that were the heavy iron extended arms that supported the cannon in balance in its carriage, and the bore into which the powder and ball would be loaded. Trunnions were secured to the carriage by hinged iron clamps called cap-squares. They prevented the trunnions from jolting out of the half round slots in the carriage when the cannon was fired. When resting on the trunnion, the cannon would tilt toward the breech. It was kept at the desired elevation by a coin or quoin that was a wood wedge placed on the bed of the carriage. By moving the wedge, the cannon’s elevation was set. The coin had scales cut on it and scales were cut on the base ring of the cannon. By using these, a point of elevation could be set with accuracy. When the cannon was level, its point was said to be blank. The range was close. Thus the modern phrase “point blank.”
The cannons were worked or secured by means of breeching and tackles. There were gun or side-tackles attached to each side of the carriage and to a heavy iron ring in the side of the ship. These were used by the crew to run the cannon out to its firing position with the muzzle of the cannon out the gun port. A tackle, called a train tackle, prevented the cannon from running out when the ship rolled. The train tackle was attached to the breech end of the carriage and to a ring in the deck near the middle of the gun deck. If the cannon did not fire, the train tackle could be used to pull it in. When a cannon fired it recoiled. This recoil was resisted by the weight of the cannon and carriage, the rolling resistance of the trucks up a deck that sloped upward toward the middle of the gun deck, and finally by a very heavy hemp rope of the finest quality called a breeching. The breeching passed through a ring called a thimble that was on the pomelion of the cannon. Both ends of the breeching were attached to heavy iron rings in the side of the ship. The breeching stopped the cannon in a position within the gun port where it could be reloaded.
Four men could fire a 24 lb. cannon, but the rate of fire would be quite slow. To achieve more rapid fire, a crew of 10 or 12 men was common. It was rare for there to be a full complement of 12. A crew of 10 gives a better example of the work of each man in the operation of the cannon.
Shot was stored in racks around the hatches and on shot racks near the centerline of the gun decks. Generally 15 to 20 rounds of clean, painted or greased shot were available for each cannon. If more shot was required, rusty rounds from the hold had to be brought up. Ship’s boys carried cartridges of powder weighing eight lbs. to the cannons from the ship’s forward and aft magazines during the fighting.
All during the action, lieutenants walked back and forth along the gun deck regulating the fire. A stream of powder-boys ran to and from the magazines and cannon delivering powder. The sponger would sponge out the cannon to remove any burning fragments of powder cartridge left in the barrel. The loader would insert the cartridge using a ladle that looked like a copper shovel with a long wooded handle. This shovel was like a half round spoon into which the cartridge fitted. A cartridge was shoved down the cannon, and then the ladle was turned over to drop the cartridge at the end of the bore. The sponger rammed a wad of rope yarn into the cannon to hold the cartridge in place. Shot was passed along the left side of the cannon from provider to side tackle to assistant loader to loader who dropped it into the cannon. The sponger then rammed the shot down the cannon with a wad on top of it.
The sponger and loader stepped back behind the side tackle ropes. The sponger, loader, assistance loader, assistant sponger and side tackle manned the side tackle ropes to help if needed in training the cannon. The two providers stepped forward with hand spikes to push the cannon to the side to train it. The gun captain peered over the barrel to aim the cannon. The gun captain and second gun captain, with the providers help if needed, would adjust the coin for the desired elevation.
Everyone stepped back. The gun captain moved up to the left side of the cannon. He inserted his priming iron and thrust down the touchhole to cut through the cartridge. He next opened his priming box and took out a tin or quill priming tube. The priming tube was filled with the best powder and inserted into the touchhole down into the cartridge. If no priming tubes were available, the gun captain primed the cannon from a powder horn pouring fine powder down the touchhole and along a channel cut in the cannon. The gun captain awaited his opportunity to fire as the roll of the ship raised the cannon. A slow burning match, which was kept in tubs beside the cannon, was used to fire the cannon. Some gun captains held the match in their hands; others used a forked staff three feet long to hold the match. The gun captain applied the match to the powder and moved back very quickly. This was to avoid the huff or stream of fire that would erupt from the vent when the cannon’s cartridge exploded. This huff burnt pockmarks in the heavy wood beams above the cannon.
This process was repeated over and over, often with the crew taking casualties and suffering from exhaustion from the hard work. Yet despite all the hardship, many sailors delighted in battle, not because they liked to fight, but because discipline was relaxed for a day or two after the battle and because victory could mean prize money. A fight broke the monotony of a terrible life and it was exciting. Their motto was, “The hotter the war, the sooner the peace.” They knew they would not be discharged from the cruel discipline of a sailor’s life until the peace was won.
By George V. Schubel
First published in The Artilleryman Magazine, Spring 1994