Friday 11 November 2016

Nelson's Ship Smasher - the 32 Pounder

This article was first published exactly two years ago but it is, I believe, one of my best. I hope you like it if you did not see it then!

The fact that often strikes one regarding even the largest ships of “The Age of Fighting Sail” is the sheer number of men – and of guns – that they carried. As an example, Nelson’s HMS Victory, which is still extant at Portsmouth in all her glory, carried a crew of 850 plus 104 guns of varying sizes. It is all the more remarkable that all these were carried in a ship 227 feet long overall. (the photographs in this article were taken by myself, Antoine Vanner, prior to the recent refit of Victory).
HMS Victory at Portsmouth - 32-pounders mounted on lowest tier. Gun ports closed.

The number of guns determined the total number of men carried, since the crew for crew needed for sailing only was considerably fewer. The size of the crew required to serve a single gun was remarkable by modern standards and this was brought home to me by an account in a book entitled “Naval Gunnery”, by Captain H. Garbett R.N., published in 1895. The greater part of the volume deals with the breech-loaders of the 1890s but the first chapter discusses the smooth-bore cannon era in considerable detail. A full account is provided of how a 32-pounder – the largest type of gun carried by Victory and her contemporaries – was served. Due to their size and weight these weapons were carried on the “gundeck”, the lowest tier, 30 of them in total on Victory. The next level up, the middle-gundeck, carried 24-pounders, and above that again the upper-gundeck with 12-pounders.Guns of the latter size were also carried in the open on the quarterdeck and forecastle, where the close-range, large calibre Carronades were also mounted.
32-pounders on HMS Victory's gundeck - as cleared for action

Gun deck when not cleared for action - note that crews messed on tables between the guns
and slung their hammocks over them. Note the fleece sponge at end of heavy rope.

The ship carried only enough men to crew the guns on one side of the ship only and should it be necessary to fight on both sides simultaneously – as when breaking the French line at Trafalgar – the guns could only be served with half-crews. The weapons were heavy – a 32-pounder’s barrel alone weighed almost three tons – and considerable strength was demanded to run them out and to train them on target. 

Elevation was controlled by a “quoin”, a graduated wedge placed under the rear of the barrel (see illustration) and if all guns on a broadside were to be fired together at the same target the amount of elevation, as per marks on the quoin, was ordered for all guns by the officer in charge. In training the gun to left or right to lay on the target “handspikes” – wooden crowbars – were used to lever the entire carriage across, aided by hauling on rope “side-tackles” which linked the carriage to the ship’s side. The illustration below shows this, and also the crew positions, as will later be discussed further.
Note "Breeching" on second and third guns from camera and
side tackles on the first, rammers and sponges stored on deckhead 

There was no way of controlling the recoil other than by a heavy rope – called the “breeching” – which passed through an eye on the breech of the gun and the ends of which were secured to ringbolts on the ship’s side. Then the gun fired it recoiled back the full length of the breeching. This brought the weapon into the loading position, with the muzzle just inside the gun-port and was restrained against running back out with the ship’s roll, by another tackle at the rear.

 The normal crew for a 32-pounder was 14 man and their positions are identified in the illustration above. Their roles were as follow:

                No.1  -   Gun Captain, at the rear and facing the port
                No.2  -   “Second Captain”, assisting and being ready to take over if needed
                No.3  -   Loader, on left side
                No.4 -    Sponger, on the right side
                No.5  -   Assistant Loader, left side
                No.6  -   Assistant Sponger, right side

These six men were called the “Gun Numbers” and the numbers above them were called the auxiliaries, Nos. 7, 9, 11 and 13 on the right and Nos. 8, 10, 12 and 14 on the right. Numbers 9 and 10 were the handspike men and Nos. 11,12,13 and 14 hauled on the side tackles to assist them.

It can be seen from the diagram, and from the photographs of Victory’s middle gun-deck, that this large crew had to operate within a very confined space. The physical labour required was immense. If a high rate of fire was to be maintained then all fourteen men needed to function as a single well-rehearsed team and to do so, amid the choking and eye-stinging smoke and despite crashing noise that made verbal commands inaudible. Add to this the fact that the ship might be under fire itself and that great rents might be torn in the walls to either side by enemy shot, and that guns to right and left might have been dismounted and their crews killed or wounded. The size of the gun-crew meant that even with members knocked out of action sufficient men remained to maintain fire, albeit at a lower rate.

The Gun Captain was responsible for his gun’s maintenance and for command of his gun-crew in action, during which he supervised laying, training and firing. After each round was fired No.4 sponged the gun with a wet fleece to ensure that any residual and glowing particles of gunpowder had been left by the previous discharge.  The cartridge and shot were then inserted by No.3 – manhandling one 32-pound shot after another demanded considerable strength and stamina.  No.4 now inserted a wad to prevent the ball rolling out and he rammed them home. During these operations Nos. 5 and 6 provided support by passing ammunition and tools.

The Second Captain was responsible for supervising elevation, via the quoin, for inserting the firing tube – which carried the ignition charge from the firing lock – and for cocking the lock itself, which was essentially a pistol, to be fired by the Gun Captain by jerking on a lanyard attached to the trigger. When laying the gun the Gun Captain retreated to the full extent of the trigger lanyard, bent over to get his eye lined up along the fore and back-sights, but positioning himself (“contorting” might be a better word) to spring safely on one side when the weapon was fired. When training, the Gun Captain ordered “Muzzle Right” or “Muzzle Left” as appropriate to guide the handspike and side-tackle men until the aim was achieved. When laying for elevation he gave the handspike men the order “Elevate” and they levered beneath the breech , he giving hand-signals to raise or lower until he was satisfied.  The Second Captain inserted the quoin and final adjustments up or down might then be needed until the exact elevation was set.

The procedure outlined above related to the gun firing more or less at right angles to the ship’s side but if it was necessary to train to extreme angles, as shown in the illustrations above, the crew positions would be changed accordingly. Managing this required an extreme degree of familiarity with the movements required if men were not to trip over and impede each other. Once again one is impressed with the degree of training and practice that must have been demanded.

 Two methods of firing were practised: “independent firing”, when each Gun Captain laid and fired his weapon independently and “broadside firing” in which all the guns were laid on the same target and fired simultaneously by order. In the Napoleonic period broadsides were fired by a “directing gun”, whose Gun Captain was regarded as the best marksman on board, and who gave the elevation and moment of discharge to all the others but the bearing was ordered from the upper deck.

The description above related to a single gun. As a ship like Victory sailed into action fifteen such weapons lay close together along a single side, with comparable numbers on the two decks above. It is difficult to image just what a hell these gundecks must have been on close action – which sometimes lasted for hours on end – and that firing continued in a smothering haze when the decks around might be slippery with blood and strewn with body parts.

 It may have been the era of wooden ships, but it was also one of  iron men.

HMS Victory - launched 1765 and still in commission

Click here to see a video-interview with Antoine Vanner about his latest book, Britannia's Amazon

Click here to read the opening chapters

This volume also includes the long short-story Britannia’s Eye, which casts a new light on Nicholas Dawlish’s relationship with his uncle, an invalided naval officer who made him his heir. But Nicholas was never to know - or even guess - the truth about what his uncle had really been…

Britannia's Amazon - available in paperback and Kindle formats

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  1. Now you have to execute crossing the T

    1. Richard:

      I guess this is and excellent suggestion for a future blog!

      Regards: Antoine

  2. Excellent article, and great photos. It is my dream to see the Victory some day!

    1. Dear Lucy:

      Well worth a detour to Portsmouth when you visit the UK. HMS Warrior, close to her, is also beautifully restored.

      Best Wishes: Antoine

  3. A very good description, particularly of the laying of the guns. I have to wonder if a big gun laid to its extremity as two ships were coming to broadside ever took out its opposite number on the opposing ship such that the lead 32 pounder would smash the aftmost 32 pounder opposite. The British crews were purportedly more adept and better trained at using the full sweep of their guns, allowing a more destructive "drive-by" than were generally the French and certainly the Spanish. Raking shot could therefore cause considerable mayhem before actual "broadsides" in the Hollywood sense were exchanged.

    1. Ryys: I suspect that you're spot on as regards raking fire. I imagine that RN training was so relentless that the guns could be shifted - and manned - rapidly on any bearing.And considering the often poor morale and training of the French and teh earlier, often literal, decapitation of experienced officers, I suspect that A British ship could almost always get in its first broadside obliquely, before swinging weapons around to bear on the beam once distance had closed.

  4. Another excellent article Antoine.
    With my own marine background, and family history I find it fascinating.
    When you take into account the movement of the ship due to sea and swell, they performed wonders. I think their advantage was increased by their practice of "live firing" and actually using powder and ball.

    John Jackson

    1. I agree, John. It was the ability to choose exactly the right moment to fire on the roll that always impressed me. All the more so since there was a slight delay - which probably wasn't consistent, between pulling the firing lanyard and the main charge igniting.

  5. From what I understand the RN managed a higher rate of firethan enemy ships and concentrated on firing into the hull to maximise casualties. In a long engagement I assume that the rate of fire would slow down as gun crews became tired and suffered caualties. Do you know how many rounds a gun crew could manage in an hour?

  6. I've no details on that but I imagine that it slowed down very considerably, due not only to casualties but exhaustion, thirst, reduced visibility within the ship, breathing problems etc. A glimpse of Hell! I suspect that broadsides were much more ragged after the first three or four.

  7. Thank you for a marvelous article. I had no idea of the complexity required to load and fire a 32 pounder. The enormous manpower is unimaginable. Hell would have been a welcome relief in the minds of some, I'd imagine. Your writing has made their lives heroic.

    1. Many thanks Thomas - I'm very pleased that you enjoyed it. Feedback like yours keeps me researching and tapping the keyboard.

      Best Wishes to you and yours for Christmas and New Year: Antoine

  8. Great article if anyone wants to get a feel of just how big these guns were please see the below link.