a Sea Battle
an enemy ship was sighted, the ship would “Beat to Quarters”
(the forerunner of the modern alarm bell ringing “General
Quarters”). A well-trained crew could prepare for action in less than a
quarter of an hour. This
involved stowing all excess furniture below decks to reduce the risk
of flying splinters. This
included cabin furniture, bulkheads, animal crates and other
unnecessary items, creating an open area, or “a clean sweep fore
and aft”. Other
preparations included wetting
and sanding decks to provide a firm footing and to reduce the risk
of fire, rigging wet screens over hatches and around magazines,
lowering the ship’s boats and towing them astern, doubling up on
vital rigging, preparing the guns and gunports for imminent action
and lashing the crew’s hammocks to the rail to create some form of
shield against musket fire.
guns were then loaded with gunpowder cartridges, shot and wadding
(usually a felt plug), and the guns were run out, aimed and primed.
When the order came to fire, the gun captains would fire off
their guns, either trying to gauge the right moment when the ship
was “on the roll” or simply firing on order.
Any commander needed to know that there was a delay of up to
a second or two between igniting the priming charge and the
gun firing. On a
rolling, pitching ship, this naturally made aiming and firing
the gun fired it recoiled backwards from the gunport, being stopped
by thick “Breeching Ropes” which held the gun and carriage in
place. Without it, or
if the rope was broken, the gun could run amok, careering across the
deck or even through the opposite side of the ship.
The force of the recoil intensified the more times the gun
was fired, and as the gun heated up, causing greater strain on the
breeching ropes. Sometimes,
two tons of gun and carriage could leap off the deck during its
recoil, making prolonged gunnery duels dangerous affairs.
soon as the gun was fired the Sponger would extinguish any burning
embers inside the barrel, then the gun would be reloaded and run out
once again. A well
trained crew in the late 18th century could fire a gun
every 90 or 100 seconds, though the rate of fire would drop as the
gun crews became tired. Traditionally,
certain navies were better at gunner than others, mainly due to
training and experience. It
was widely held that American and British crews were the fastest,
followed some way behind by the Dutch and French, and then the
Spanish bringing up the rear. As
an untrained crew might only fire a round every five minutes, this
gave experienced, well-trained crews a huge advantage over their
opponents. Certain members of the gun crew could also be called away
to serve as boarders, sail-trimmers or firefighters as required,
meaning that the rate of fire might drop.
maximum range of an 18-pounder gun (found on large warships) in the
late 18th century using its full charge (6 pounds of
powder) was 1 ½ miles, although at this range fire was extremely
inaccurate. The maximum
effective range was just under a mile, and at half a mile a
ball could penetrate a wooden hull two feet thick.
Due to less powerful gunpowder, guns before about 1720 had a
shorter range, and a Culverin (18-pounder) of 1620 had a maximum
effective range of about 1,000 yards, and a maximum range of a mile.
normal tactic was to batter the hull of an enemy ship causing damage
to her guns and crew, and then to finish the action by boarding the
enemy vessel. A warship
would usually only carry enough men to fight one side of the ship at
one time. If it became necessary to fight both sides at once, the crew
would split up into a firing party and a reloading party.
While the firing party was training and firing guns on one
side of the ship, the other party would be reloading on the other
main principles applied to firing guns at sea; “The Weather
Gague” and “Firing on the Roll”.
If a ship had the weather gague over its opponent, it meant
it was upwind of it. The
enemy to leeward would have more of its vulnerable hull exposed to
the enemy, and smoke would linger over its decks.
The guns on the weather (or windward) ship were also easier
(and quicker0 to run out, and she held a maneuvering advantage, able
to steer towards the enemy and board her whenever her captain
decided to. Ships
rolled around at sea, so gauging the right time to fire a ship’s
guns was very important. If
guns were fired on the downward roll the shot could hit the sea, and
on an upward roll it might fly too high, missing the enemy hull
vital maneuver was to “rake” the enemy ship.
Sailing ships could not really fire ahead or astern, but only
to the sides. If a ship
could maneuver so that the enemy exposed its vulnerable bow or (even
better) its stern to the firing ship the broadside could wreak
destruction down the whole length of the ship, causing far more
destruction than usual. These
tactical constraints, and the decision when to board and enemy (if
at all) were the primary considerations in any sea battle.
Whatever was happening in the battle itself, conditions on
the gundeck of a sailing warship in action were almost
deafening noise, confusion, the constant threat of maiming or death
and the hard, grueling labor of working the guns would have made
these gundecks a hell on earth while the battle lasted.