General Information


Cannons and Machine Guns

Part I


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HMS Victory - the gun decks and main armament

A First Rate Ship of the Line - mounting 104 guns on 3 gun decks

Gundeck - HMS Victory
HMS Victory - the lower gundeck

The upper gun deck has 12  pounder cannon, the middle gun deck 24 pounder guns and the massive 32 pounder cannon are mounted on the lower gun deck.

32 pounder cannon

The 32 pounder cannon weighs 3.5 tones - 2.75 tones for the gun barrel and 0.75 tones for the wooden gun carriage. It fired a 32 pound (14.7Kg) ball, usually propelled by an 11 pound (5Kg) gunpowder charge giving a muzzle velocity of 1600 feet per second (487 meters per second). Fired from the lower gun deck, with the muzzles some 2m above the waterline, this gave a point blank (fired flat) range of approximately 1000 feet (300m).

The Royal Navy trained hard and well - and could reload the guns in 90 seconds. This was a quite remarkable time - given the considerable amount of manhandling required to move the 3.5 ton gun backwards and forwards - and far shorter than that achieved by French or Spanish crews. It is little wonder that the most common injury to gun crews was abdominal rupture.

When the gun was fired it recoiled inboard, restrained by the large ropes attached to the rear of the gun barrel. A sponge was dipped in water and thrust down the barrel to remove any traces of burning powder. The new charge and wad were then inserted into the barrel and rammed hard against the rear of the gun. The wad held the charge in place and ensured that the powder was tightly compressed. Next, the rammer was removed and the ball inserted, held into place by a further wad rammed hard down the barrel. A pricker was inserted into the breech hole to open the gunpowder charge and then a small quantity of fine powder poured down the firing hole and into the flintlock pan. The flint lock was cocked and the gun was ready to fire.

The gun was served by a six man crew - known by numbers to make orders easier in the noise of battle. Number 1 was the Gun Captain who aimed and fired the gun. Number 2 used a long spike to turn and raise the barrel; Number 3 loaded the gun and rammed the shot and powder home. Number 4 sponged out the gun, ensuring that no burning powder or waste was left to cause premature ignition of the new charge. Number 5 worked opposite 2 to move the gun whilst Number 6 was the smallest and youngest member of the crew - the powder monkey. Often young boys, perhaps only 10 or 12 years old, the powder monkey collected the gunpowder charges from the magazine deep in the hold of the ship and carried it to the gun.

The whole 3.5 tones was now run out, with the crew straining on the carriage ropes to pull the gun muzzle through the gun port in the side of the ship. When the gun came to bear on the target, the gun captain pulled the lanyard to the flint lock. As the flint scraped across the pan a shower of sparks ignited the fine powder - which ignited the main charge and the gun fired, ejecting its iron ball with a forward velocity of some 500 meters per second. The gun would recoil backwards at some 2 meters per second, and the process of cleaning and reloading began again.

32 pounder cannon - HMS Victory
32pdr gun and equipment: ball, chain, bar and grape shot, rammers, sponges etc.

The gun could be loaded with a variety of shot - from the plain cannon ball to bar shot, chain shot and grape shot. Bar and Chain shot whirled around in flight and was intended to cut through enemy rigging, bringing down masts, sails and spars and disabling the ship. Grape shot was an anti-personnel weapon, firing a quantity of smaller balls in a cluster. These spread out and created a murderous hail of metal across an enemy deck. The 32 pound cannon ball was effective in punching holes through the wooden walls of the enemy - creating a huge spray of deadly flying splinters. At close range, the 32 pound ball was capable of penetrating wood to a depth of 2˝ feet.

With the enemy holed and disabled and the crew killed or wounded with grape shot, the attacking ship could now close the enemy and board the vessel to secure victory. Boarding with close quarters hand to hand fighting was often the deciding factor in battle.

Chain and Bar shot

Grape Shot

Chain and bar shot

Grape shot

Cannons and Carronades

Mortars - Lantakas - Rail Guns

The term CANNON describes the large, smooth-bored, muzzle-loading guns used before the advent of breech-loading, rifled guns firing shells.

In the 16th century the "Great Guns" were classified according to size with such names as:- Cannon royal, Cannon, Demi cannon, Culverin, Demi-Culverin, Falcon, Falconer, Minion, etc. but by the 18th century they were classified by the weight of the round shot that they fired. Thus the demi cannon was described as a 32-pounder. Smaller guns were 18-pounders (culverin), 12-pounders, 9 pounders and 6-pounders. The gun barrel is mounted on a wheeled carriage, as shown in the drawing, balanced on two trunnions, the short metal projections on either side of the barrel, the invention of some unknown Dutchman. The angle of elevation could be altered by moving a wooden wedge under the rear end of the gun.

The early big guns were built up from strips of wrought iron, heated until they glowed yellow, and then hammered to weld them together to form the barrel. Rings of iron were forced over the barrel to reinforce it. Smaller guns were cast in brass or bronze, using techniques used for centuries to produce statues. In the 16th century the Dutch developed cast-iron cannon and the technique was imported into England where the first iron cannon was cast in 1543.

Various kinds of shot were fired from cannon:

* THE ROUND SHOT, in early times made from dressed stone, but by the 17th century from iron, was the most accurate projectile that could be fired and was used to batter the wooden hulls of opposing ships.

* CHAIN SHOT, Two small round shot linked by a length of chain. This was used to slash through the rigging and sails of an enemy ship so that it could no longer maneuver. Because the projectile was a good deal smaller than the bore of the gun, chain shot was inaccurate and only used at close ranges.

* CANISTER or CASE SHOT, 12 or so small round shot in a metal can, which broke up when fired scattering the shot over the deck of an enemy ship.

* GRAPE SHOT, The small balls were contained in a canvas bag. Both the last two kinds of shot were anti-personnel weapons, designed to kill and maim the men on the deck of an enemy ship.

THE CARRONADE was a short gun developed by the Carron Company, a Scottish ironworks, in 1778. Known as a "Smasher" it was half the weight of an equivalent long gun, but could throw a heavy ball over a limited distance. Because of irregularities in the size of cannon balls and the difficulty of boring out gun barrels there was usually a considerable gap between the ball and the bore - often as much as a quarter of an inch - with a consequent loss of efficiency. This gap was known as the "windage". The manufacturing practices introduced by the Carron Company reduced the windage considerably. The carronade was mounted on a sliding carriage with ropes to restrain the recoil. Lack of range against an opponent who could keep well clear and still use his long guns, led to its disappearance.

BLACK POWDER or GUNPOWDER consists of a mixture of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, originally in equal proportions by weight, but later approximately 75:15:10. The earliest gunpowder was simply a fine powder produced by grinding the three components together and was known as serpentine. It was dangerous to handle and frequently had to be remixed before use. Later on powder was mixed with water, sometimes plus wine and other liquids, pushed though a screen and allowed to dry as small pellets.

An 18 pounder long gun with a charge of 5lb of powder was capable of penetrating nearly 2 feet six inches into oak at a range of 400 yds. and over 1 foot at 1000 yards.

Gunpowder produced vast amounts of thick smoke which rapidly obscured the area of any naval battle. A thick coating was also formed inside the barrel of the gun which had to be scraped out.

To prepare a gun for firing a charge of gunpowder in a cloth bag is pushed down the barrel by a ram-rod and followed by the round shot. This is held in place by a wad. The gunner pushes a spike down the "touch-hole" on the top near the rear end of the barrel to break the powder bag and pours a little fine powder down the hole. The gun is then run out through the gun port by the ropes attached to the carriage. In earlier times the gunner would have fired by lighting the powder in the touch hole with a "slow match", a glowing piece of material, but later a flintlock as on a pistol or musket was used to produce a spark to fire the charge. When the gun fired it recoiled violently back into the ship, restrained by the `breeching ropes` attached to the carriage. The bore was swabbed out with water to remove any glowing pieces of residue, and the process repeated.

                                               The gun's crew for the great guns consisted of six men,
                                                    1. The Captain of the Gun.
                                                    2. The Second Captain.
                                                    3.The Loader.
                                                    4. The Sponger.
                                                    5. The Assistant Loader.
                                                    6. The Assistant Sponger.

Up to nine more men, depending on the size of the gun, were required to man the breeching ropes, which checked the recoil, and to man the tackles for running out and training. They also performed the duties of firemen.



Ships were classified or rated according to the number of cannon they carried, carronades were never included in the number, although rated ships could carry up to twelve 24 or 32-pounders.

All rated ships (1st to 6th) were commanded by a POST CAPTAIN. Sloops, bombs, fire ships and ships armed en flute, that is a rated warship with some or all of its guns removed and used as a transport ship, were commanded by COMMANDERS. Smaller vessels like schooners and cutters were commanded by LIEUTENANTS. Sometimes a MASTER or a MIDSHIPMAN would command a very small vessel or a sloop used to carry stores. A LIEUTENANT, a MIDSHIPMAN or a MASTER'S MATE could be put in temporary command of a captured prize.

SHIPS-OF-THE-LINE were those which were powerful enough to take their place in the line of battle. That is, a 3rd Rate or larger which carried guns on two or more decks. The rated ships smaller than this were known as FRIGATES and carried all their guns on a single upper deck.

                                                                                 1st Rate, 100 guns or more, 875 to 850 men *
                                                                                 2nd Rate, 98 to 90 guns, 750 to 700 men
                                                                                 3rd Rate, 80 to 64 guns, 650 to 500 men
                                                                                 4th Rate, 60 to 50 guns, 420 to 320 men
                                                                                 5th Rate, 40 to 32 guns, 300 to 200 men
                                                                                 6th Rate, 28 to 20 guns, 200 to 140 men
                                                                                 Sloops, 18 to 16 guns, 125 to 90 men
                                                                                 Gun-Brigs & Cutters, 14 to 6 guns, 5 to 25 men

*:* This number was increased by 25 when used as an Admiral's flagship, by 20 with a Vice Admiral and 15 with a Rear-Admiral.                                           

Southeast Asian (Portuguese) Cannons (local common name - Lantaka)

Known as a Lantaka, these brass cannons were popular in Borneo, where they were mounted on small ships, and also considered a form of currency. The back end socket on the Lantaka is for a long wooden tiller pole, so the cannoneer could aim and steady the Lantaka, and more importantly, not be too close to the cannon when it was fired (Indonesian casting processes didn't quite match European for quality control). They were not only intended for use as weapons, but were admired for their beauty.

Sample Lantaka

Swivel Rail Cannons

The Swivel Rail Cannon or Lantaka types of cannon were produced throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines (Mindanao), and also in Holland. Although the somewhat generic term “Lantaka” may be derived from a Malaysian dialect, it is generally applied to cannons of this unique design.  They are usually not longer than 2 meters (6.5 feet); they have a unique first reinforce octagonal design and a heavy swivel at the trunnion.  They usually have a short tube at the breech for inserting a long wood rod enabling the gunner to train the gun and stand back from it.

These cannons may be as small as six inches in length (Although most average out at four to five feet).  We have seen rare examples as long as nine feet!  Most of these highly prized collectables are working cannons that have been extensively used in salutes, ceremonial firings, conflicts, as well as a form of local currency.  The more cannons a man possessed the greater his wealth and he “paid” for a wife or a water buffalo with a certain “weight” of cannons!

Usually the better quality Lantakas were cast by the Dutch colonials after 1650. Finer detail, design, and quality control prevailed as many were founded in Holland for export to the Spice Islands.  A number of foundries were also located in Java and Sumatra, in particular, Batavia (Now Jakarta) – which was the capital of the Dutch East India Company in Indonesia.

These guns were primarily used as “currency” for trading for spices. The Portuguese Lantaka were usually cast in Malaysia and Borneo (What is now Brunei) up to the early 1600's. They were not as refined as the Dutch but rather set the standard design which the Dutch would later replicate, embellishing them with various designs. These cannon can occasionally be viewed in the more remote villages throughout the Indonesian and Malaysian archipelago.  

The most extraordinary examples of intricate designs are found in Brunei, where they have recently been banned from export.  There are over 3,000 of these fantastic cannons located in the armory of the Royal Brunei Museum, with about 36 currently on display.


Dictator - 13-inch Mortar

Perhaps the most famous mortar used during the war was the "Dictator." This weapon was a 13-inch Model 1861 seacoast mortar which was mounted on a specially reinforced railroad car to accommodate its weight of 17,000 pounds. Company G of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, served the "Dictator" at the siege of Petersburg, Virginia in 1864. The mortar could lob a 200-pound explosive shell about 2 ˝ miles. The "Dictator" was usually positioned in a curved section of the Petersburg & City Point Railroad and was employed for about three months during the siege. 

The world's largest cannon is located at the Kremlin in Moscow and is called the Great Mortar of Moscow or the "Czar's" Cannon. 

Located just outside Cathedral Square in the Kremlin, you will find this stunning cannon. The Czar's Cannon was built in 1586 (Or 1525 – depending which source you read).  It's considered the largest cannon in the world, sixteen feet long, weighing 85,000 pounds. It was Czar Fyodor I, Ivan the Terrible’s son, who commissioned master craftsman Andrei Chokov to cast the giant bronze weapon to better protect the Kremlin. 

It is the largest recorded caliber gun ever made and has a caliber of  36 inches (914.4 mm). It fired a stone projectile that weighed about 900 kilos or 2000 pounds or grapeshot.  This is the largest bore of any cannon in the world.  Its ornate carriage and the cannon balls lined up near it are only decorative and were cast of pig-iron in 1835 at the Berd works in St. Petersburg. The cannonballs weigh a ton each.  The cannon itself was designed to fire grapeshot, not cannon balls.



HMS Warrior (1860) - the gun decks and main armament

Gun deck banner               Starboard after entrance to the citadel
Starboard after entrance to the citadel: Photo - © Peter Milford

Warrior was designed to be the most powerful warship afloat - with a superior armament to any other ship she might meet. The design of warships had evolved to use more and larger cannon - leading up to the great three deck ships of the line of the Nelson era. HMS Victory, built at Chatham and launched in 1765, mounted 104 guns on three decks, with the lowest deck containing her most powerful 32 pounder cannon. The three decked design was almost at the limit of stability, and mounting large numbers of heavy 32  pounder guns on the middle and upper decks would almost certainly have caused a ship of the line to capsize.

To achieve fire superiority, Isaac Watts, the designer of Warrior had to mount heavier guns - but he decided to do this on a single long gun deck, breaking the traditional design concept. Watts designed Warrior to carry 26 muzzle loading 68 pounder (32kg) guns - together with 10 of the new breech loading Armstrong 110 pounder (50kg) weapons. With all main armament on a single gun deck, Warrior was technically a frigate, the most powerful frigate in the fleet!

To protect the guns from bombardment by a similar ship, Watts designed the guns to be inside an armored citadel. The citadel was sealed at each end with strong bulkheads and doorways (see photo at the top of this page) - the armored box was constructed of 4.5 inch (11cm) wrought iron plate bolted to 9 inches (23cm) of teak - all mounted on to the ships hull and framework. The citadel was tested against the most powerful guns of the day and none were able to pierce the armor, even at point blank range. Watertight compartments (another newly introduced idea) were built into the bow and stern sections of the hull, further enhancing the ship's resistance to attack.

Armstrong 110 pd breech loading gun
Warrior mounted 10 Armstrong 110 lb (50kg) breech loading guns - Photo: © Peter Milford

The Armstrong 110 pounder  breech loading guns were a new design - and were mounted in Warrior as a trial for the fleet. These guns were only designed during the period in which Warrior was being built at Blackwall, so the decision to mount 10 was very much a last minute design change. The barrels were rifled which improved the accuracy, spinning the projectile as it traveled along the barrel. The guns fired a 110 pound (50kg) shell or lead coated ball shot (the soft lead 'bit' into the rifled barrel) and had a range of over 4500 yards (4150m) - approximately 2.5 miles.

Unfortunately, the trials of the Armstrong design were not successful. The guns tended to overheat in use with the result that the breech block could be blown out as the barrel expanded - extremely dangerous for the gun crew! Just two years after first commissioning (1861), most of the Armstrong guns were sold to the Confederate forces in the American Civil War.

64 pd muzzle loading cannon
Warrior mounted 28 - 68 pounder muzzle loading cannon - Photo: © Peter Milford

The main armament would have been instantly recognizable to any seamen from St Vincent, The Nile, Trafalgar or earlier. Although these were heavier 68 pounder cannon, they remained muzzle loading and were serviced and fired as cannon had been for centuries - but with the technical improvement of a percussion cap firing lock instead of a flint lock or 'match' smoldering rope end. The basic gun mounting remains the same - with the iron barrel mounted on a wooden truck, secured to the ship's side by thick manila ropes. When the gun fired, the recoil was absorbed by the rope - preventing the gun from flinging itself across the deck! The recoil effect was massive - a 68 pd ball fired at some 1200 feet per second results in a 5 ton gun recoiling at some 7 feet per second!

The 68  pounder cannon had a range of some 2,500 yards (2,300m - about 1 and a half miles) and generally fired round shot - iron or stone. The guns could fire round shells containing a variety of small fragments - and would then have a devastating effect against the crew of an enemy ship.  

Gundeck - port side
The Gun Deck - port side - Photo: © Peter Milford

When 'Clear Decks for Action' was piped through the ship, all equipment and gear not required in the service of the guns was immediately cleared away. Partitions were removed to open up the gun deck as a single compartment, valuable and delicate items (furniture etc.) were removed and taken below to safe storage, guns unlashed and made ready, buckets of water placed along the gun deck in case of fire and sand sprinkled on the deck planking to improve grip. Powder charges were brought up from the magazine below the waterline (charges were placed into leather containers and handed up by the magazine crew to runners who would carry the black powder charges to their guns) and shells raised from the magazines. In just a few minutes, all guns would be ready for action.

In action the barrels were sponged to remove any flaming residue from the previous shot. The outside was washed down to cool the barrel, then a fresh powder charge pushed down the muzzle and rammed home. This was followed by a rope ring (or grommet, then the shot was inserted followed by a further rope ring. Everything was firmly rammed together using a rammer - a cylindrical wooden block on the end of a rope (flexible rammers speeded up the reloading sequence - and required less space to use). The loaded gun could now be run out, manually hauled up to the gun port using blocks and tackle, and slewed (if required) by the use of a strong metal spike, worked between the deck and the bottom of the gun truck. A percussion cap (in a brass tube) was place into the firing lock and the lock cocked ready to fire. On the order - FIRE - the gun-captain pulled on a thin rope lanyard attached to the lock - the hammer fell, detonating the percussion cap which ignited the main charge - the gun fired!

When fired, the gun leapt back against the restraining ropes. The crew rushed forward to sponge out and reload - with the complete firing cycle taking only a matter of some 55 seconds (hauling a 5 ton gun, manually, on a moving deck!)

Fo'csle - bow chaser
The fo'csle - bow chaser 110 pounder breech loading Armstrong gun - Photo: © Peter Milford

Two 110  pound Armstrong guns were mounted on the upper deck - fore and aft as bow and stern chasers. These guns were mounted on special sliding trucks which could also be slewed across the deck on heavy brass rails. The chasers could fire almost ahead and astern, to allow Warrior to engage an enemy in a chase.  

Warrior - shell magazine
Shell magazine: Photo © Peter Milford


Shells for the Armstrong breech loading guns were stored in a shell magazine (below the water line amidships) and hoisted to the gun deck when required.

Warrior - Navy Colt revolvers
Navy Colt revolvers in crocus mount: Photo © Peter Milford



Pistols were kept on a 'crocus' mounting aft for use by officers. These are Navy Colt revolver type weapons using the new percussion cap cartridge with six shots in each gun.

Warrior - Lee Enfield rifles
Lee Enfield rifles: Photo © Peter Milford



The Warrior carried 350 muzzle loading Enfield .577 rifles for use by seamen and Royal Marines. These were fitted with bayonets and were kept in racks on the gun deck. Marines would still be stationed in the fighting tops in actions - as they had been at Trafalgar.

The Warrior marks the end of an era - the end of the large open gundeck with guns ranged on both sides, firing broadsides to port and starboard. Although her fire power is formidable, it still assumes the same fighting tactics as had gone before. In just a few years she would be obsolete.

On the other side of the Atlantic a new design was about to appear - John Ericsson's Union Ship Monitor with her guns mounted inside an armored barbette or turret. Monitor engaged the Confederate Ship Merrimack on March 9th 1862 at the Battle of Hampton Roads, the first clash between armored ships. Although the engagement was indecisive, the Monitor clearly indicated the future trend for warship design. The turret could be trained (swung from side to side) and could support the emerging heavier rifled guns which, over the next 40 years, developed to the immense firepower of the Dreadnoughts with 12" diameter and more long rifled barrels - and the long distance naval battles of the First World War (Jutland 1916)


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Last up-dated on 6/14/2011