GUNS AND GUNNERS by John Masefield

Breech-loaders—Cartridges—Powder—The gunner's art

Cannon were in use in Europe, it is thought, in theeleventh century; for the art of making gunpowdercame westward, from China, much earlier than peoplehave supposed. It is certain that gunpowder was used"in missiles," before it was used to propel them. Theearliest cannon were generally of forged iron built instrips secured by iron rings. They were loaded by movablechambers which fitted into the breech, and they wereknown as "crakys of war." We find them on Englishships at the end of the fourteenth century, in two kinds,the one a cannon proper, the other an early version ofthe harquebus-a-croc. The cannon was a mere iron tube,of immense strength, bound with heavy iron rings. Therings were shrunken on to the tube in the ordinary way.The tube, when ready, was bolted down to a heavysquared beam of timber on the ship's deck. It was loadedby the insertion of the "gonne-chambre," an iron pan,containing the charge, which fitted into, and closed thebreech. This gonne-chambre was wedged in firmly bya chock of elm wood beaten in with a mallet. Anotherblock of wood, fixed in the deck behind it, kept it fromflying out with any violence when the shot was fired.Cannon of this sort formed the main armament of shipsuntil after the reign of Henry the Eighth. They firedstone cannon-balls, "pellettes of lead, and dyce of iron."Each gun had some half-dozen chambers, so that the[299]firing from them may have been rapid, perhaps threerounds a minute. The powder was not kept loose intubs, near the guns, but neatly folded in conical cartridges,made of canvas or paper (or flannel) which practice prevailedfor many years. All ships of war carried "pycksfor hewing stone-shott," though after 1490, "the iron shottcallyd bowletts," and their leaden brothers, came intogeneral use. The guns we have described, were generallytwo or four pounders, using from half-a-pound, to a poundand a quarter, of powder, at each discharge. The carriage,or bed, on which they lay, was usually fitted with wheelsat the rear end only.
The other early sea-cannon, which we have mentioned,were also breech-loading. They were mounted on a sortof iron wheel, at the summit of a stout wooden staff, fixedin the deck, or in the rails of the poop and forecastle.They were of small size, and revolved in strong iron pivotrings, so that the man firing them might turn them in anydirection he wished. They were of especial service insweeping the waist, the open spar-deck, between thebreaks of poop and forecastle, when boarders were onboard. They threw "base and bar-shot to murder nearat hand"; but their usual ball was of stone, and for thisreason they were called petrieroes, and petrieroes-a-braga.The harquebus-a-croc, a weapon almost exactlysimilar, threw small cross-bar shot "to cut Sails andRigging." In Elizabethan times it was carried in thetops of fighting ships, and on the rails and gunwales ofmerchantmen.
In the reign of Henry VIII., a ship called the MaryRose, of 500 tons, took part in the battle with the French,in St Helens Roads, off Brading. It was a sultrysummer day, almost windless, when the action began,and the Mary Rose suffered much (being unable to stir)from the gun-fire of the French galleys. At noon, when[300]a breeze sprang up, and the galleys drew off, the MaryRose sent her men to dinner. Her lower ports, whichwere cut too low down, were open, and the wind heeledher over, so that the sea rushed in to them. She sankin deep water, in a few moments, carrying with her hercaptain, and all the gay company on board. In 1836some divers recovered a few of her cannon, of the kindswe have described, some of brass, some of iron. Theiron guns had been painted red and black. Those ofbrass, in all probability, had been burnished, like so muchgold. These relics may be seen by the curious, at Woolwich,in the Museum of Ordnance, to which they werepresented by their salver.
In the reign of Elizabeth, cannon were much less primitive,for a great advance took place directly men learnedthe art of casting heavy guns. Until 1543, they hadforged them; a painful process, necessarily limited tosmall pieces. After that year they cast them round acore, and by 1588 they had evolved certain general typesof ordnance which remained in use, in the British Navy,almost unchanged, until after the Crimean War. TheElizabethan breech-loaders, and their methods, have nowbeen described, but a few words may be added withreference to the muzzle-loaders. The charge for thesewas contained in cartridges, covered with canvas, or"paper royall" (i.e. parchment), though the parchmentused to foul the gun at each discharge. Burning scrapsof it remained in the bore, so that, before reloading, theweapon had to be "wormed," or scraped out, with aninstrument like an edged corkscrew. A tampion, or wad,of oakum or the like, was rammed down between thecartridge and the ball, and a second wad kept the ballin place. When the gun was loaded the gunner filledthe touch-hole with his priming powder, from a hornhe carried in his belt, after thrusting a sharp wire, called[301]the priming-iron, down the touch-hole, through the cartridge,so that the priming powder might have direct accessto the powder of the charge. He then sprinkled a littletrain of powder along the gun, from the touch-hole tothe base-ring, for if he applied the match directly to thetouch-hole the force of the explosion was liable to blowhis linstock from his hand. In any case the "huff" or"spit" of fire, from the touch-hole, burned little holes, likepock-marks, in the beams overhead. The match wasapplied smartly, with a sharp drawing back of the hand,the gunner stepping quickly aside to avoid the recoil.He stepped back, and stood, on the side of the gun oppositeto that on which the cartridges were stored, so thatthere might be no chance of a spark from his matchsetting fire to the ammunition. Spare match, newlysoaked in saltpetre water, lay coiled in a little tub besidethe gun. The cartridges, contained in latten buckets, wereplaced in a barrel by the gun and covered over with askin of leather. The heavy shot were arranged in shotracks, known as "gardens," and these were ready to thegunner's hand, with "cheeses" of tampions or wads. Thewads were made of soft wood, oakum, hay, straw, or"other such like." The sponges and rammers werehooked to the beams above the gun ready for use. Therammers were of hard wood, shod with brass, "to savethe Head from cleaving." The sponges were of soft fastwood, "As Aspe, Birch, Willow, or such like," and hadheads covered with "rough Sheepes skinne wooll," nailedto the staff with "Copper nayles." "Ladels," or powdershovels, for the loading of guns, were seldom used at sea.
The guns were elevated or depressed by means ofhandspikes and quoins. Quoins were blocks of wood,square, and wedge-shaped, with ring-hooks screwed inthem for the greater ease ofhandling.Two of the gun'screw raised the base of the cannon upon their handspikes,[302]using the "steps" of the gun carriage as their fulcra.A third slid a quoin along the "bed" of the carriage,under the gun, to support it at the required height. Therecoil of the gun on firing, was often very violent, butit was limited by the stout rope called the breeching,which ran round the base of the gun, from each side ofthe port-hole, and kept it from running back more thanits own length. When it had recoiled it was in theposition for sponging and loading, being kept fromrunning out again, with the roll of the ship, by a train,or preventer tackle, hooked to a ring-bolt in amidships.In action, particularly in violent action, the guns becamevery hot, and "kicked" dangerously. Often they recoiledwith such force as to overturn, or to snap the breeching,or to leap up to strike the upper beams. Brass gunswere more skittish than iron, but all guns needed a restof two or three hours, if possible, after continual firingfor more than eight hours at a time. To cool a gun inaction, to keep it from bursting, or becoming red-hot,John Roberts advises sponging "with spunges wet inley and water, or water and vinegar, or with the coolestfresh or salt water, bathing and washing her both withinand without." This process "if the Service is hot, asit was with us at Bargen" should be repeated, "everyeighth or tenth shot." The powder in use for cannonwas called Ordnance or Corne-powder. It was madein the following proportion. To every five pounds ofrefined saltpetre, one pound of good willow, or alder,charcoal, and one pound of fine yellow sulphur. Theingredients were braised together in a mortar, moistenedwith water distilled of orange rinds, or aqua-vitæ, andfinally dried and sifted. It was a bright, "tawny blewishcolour" when well made. Fine powder, for muskets orpriming seems to have had a greater proportion ofsaltpetre.[303]
The Naval Tracts of Sir W. Monson, contain a list ofthe sorts of cannon mounted in ships of the time ofQueen Elizabeth. It is not exhaustive, but as RobertNorton and Sir Jonas Moore give similar lists, thecurious may check the one with the other.

of Cannon
of Shot
of Powder
Point Blank
in Feet
Cannon Royal or Double Cannon800066308001930M.L.12
Cannon or Whole Cannon8600060277702000"11
Cannon Serpentine7550053½252002000"10
Bastard Cannon7450041½201801800"10
Cannon Petro or Cannon Perier6400024½141601600"4
Bastard Culverin4300071701700"11
Saker14001701700"9 or 10
To these may be added bases, port pieces, stock fowlers,slings, half slings, and three-quarter slings, breech-loadingguns ranging from five and a half to one-inch bore.
Other firearms in use in our ships at sea were thematchlock musket, firing a heavy double bullet, andthe harquabuse[21] or arquebus, which fired a single bullet.The musket was a heavy weapon, and needed a rest,a forked staff, to support the barrel while the soldieraimed. This staff the musketeer lashed to his wrist,with a cord, so that he might drag it after him fromplace to place. The musket was fired with a match,which the soldier lit from a cumbrous pocket fire-carrier.[304]The harquabuse was a lighter gun, which was fired withouta rest, either by a wheel-lock (in which a cog-wheel,running on pyrites, caused sparks to ignite the powder),or by the match and touch-hole. Hand firearms werethen common enough, and came to us from Italy, shortlyafter 1540. They were called Daggs. They were wheel-locks,wild in firing, short, heavy, and beautifully wrought.Sometimes they carried more than one barrel, and insome cases they were made revolving. They were mostuseful in a hand-to-hand encounter, as with footpads, orboarders; but they were useless at more than ten paces.A variation from them was the hand-cannon or blunderbuss,with a bell-muzzle, which threw rough slugs ornails. In Elizabethan ships the musketeers sometimesfired short, heavy, long-headed, pointed iron arrows fromtheir muskets, a missile which flew very straight, andpenetrated good steel armour. They had also an infinityof subtle fireworks, granadoes and the like, with whichto set their opponents on fire. These they fired from thebombard pieces, or threw from the tops, or cage-works.Crossbows and longbows went to sea, with good storeof Spanish bolts and arrows, until the end of Elizabeth'sreign, though they were, perhaps, little used after 1590.The gunner had charge of them, and as, in a way, thegunner was a sort of second captain, sometimes takingcommand of the ship, we cannot do better than to quotefrom certain old books concerning his duties on board.Mr W. Bourne, the son of an eminent mathematician, hasleft a curious little book on "The Arte of Shooting inGreat Ordnance," first published in London, in 1587,the year before the Armada. Its author, W. Bourne,was at one time a gunner of the bulwark at Gravesend.The art of shooting in great guns did not improve verymuch during the century following; nor did the gunschange materially. The breech-loading, quick-firing guns[305]fell out of use as the musket became more handy; butotherwise the province of the gunner changed hardly atall. It is not too much to say that gunners of Nelson'stime, might have studied some of Bourne's book with profit.
"As for gunners that do serve by the Sea, [they] mustobserve this order following. First that they do foreseethat all their great Ordnannce be fast breeched, andforesee that all their geare be handsome and in a readinesse.& Furthermore that they be very circumspect about theirPouder in the time of service, and especially beware oftheir lint stockes & candels for feare of their Pouder, &their fireworks, & their Ducum [or priming powder],which is very daungerous, and much to be feared. Thenfurthermore, that you do keep your peeces as neer asyou can, dry within, and also that you keep their tutch-holescleane, without any kind of drosse falling into them."
The gunners were also to know the "perfect dispart"of their pieces: that is they were to make a calculationwhich would enable them in sighting, to bring "thehollow of the peece," not the outer muzzle rim, "rightagainst the marke." In the case of a breech-loader thiscould not be done by art, with any great exactness,"but any reasonable man (when he doth see the peeceand the Chamber) may easily know what he must doe,as touching those matters." In fighting at sea, in anythinglike a storm, with green seas running, so that"the Shippes do both heave and set" the gunner wasto choose a gun abaft the main-mast, on the lower orlop,"if the shippe may keepe the porte open," as in that partof the vessel the motion would be least apparent.
"Then if you doe make a shotte at another Shippe,you must be sure to have a good helme-man, that canstirre [steer] steady, taking some marke of a Cloudethat is above by the Horizon, or by the shadowe of theSunne, or by your standing still, take some marke of[306]the other shippe through some hole, or any such otherlike. Then he that giveth levell [takes aim] must observethis: first consider what disparte his piece must have,then lay the peece directly with that parte of the Shippethat he doth meane to shoote at: then if the Shippe beeunder the lee side of your Shippe, shoote your peece inthe comming downe of the Gayle, and the beginning ofthe other Ship to rise upon the Sea, as near as you can,for this cause, for when the other shippe is aloft uponthe Sea, and shee under your Lee, the Gayle makethher for to head, and then it is likest to do much good."
The helmsman also was to have an eye to the enemy,to luff when she luffed, and "putte roomer," or sail large,when he saw her helmsman put the helm up. If theenemy made signs that she was about to lay the shipaboard, either by loosing more sail, or altering her course,the gunner had to remember certain things.
"If the one doe meane to lay the other aboorde, thenthey do call up their company either for to enter orto defend: and first, if that they doe meane for to enter... then marke where that you doe see anye Scottlesfor to come uppe at, as they will stande neere thereaboutes,to the intente for to be readie, for to come uppe underthe Scottles: there give levell with your Fowlers, orSlinges, or Bases, for there you shall be sure to do mostegood, then further more, if you doe meane for to enterhim, then give level with your fowlers and Port peeces,where you doe see his chiefest fight of his Shippe is,and especially be sure to have them charged, and toshoote them off at the first boording of the Shippes, forthen you shall be sure to speede. And furthermore,mark where his men have most recourse, then dischargeyour Fowlers and Bases. And furthermore for the annoyanceof your enemie, if that at the boording that theShippes lye therefore you may take away their steeradge[307]with one of your great peeces, that is to shoote at hisRother, and furthermore at his mayne maste and sofoorth."
The ordering of cannon on board a ship was a matterwhich demanded a nice care. The gunner had to seethat the carriages were so made as to allow the gunsto lie in the middle of the port. The carriage wheels,or trocks, were not to be too high, for if they were toohigh they hindered the mariners, when they ran thecannon out in action (Norton, Moore, Bourne, Monson).Moreover, if the wheels were very large, and the shipwere heeled over, the wheel rims would grind the ship'sside continually, unless large skids were fitted to them.And if the wheels were large they gave a greater fiercenessto the impetus of the recoil, when the piece wasfired. The ports were to be rather "deepe uppe anddowne" than broad in the traverse, and it was verynecessary that the lower port-sill should not be toofar from the deck, "for then the carriage muste beemade verye hygh, and that is verye evill" (Bourne). Theshort cannon were placed low down, at the ship's side,because short cannon were more easily run in, and secured,when the ports were closed, owing to the ship's heeling,or the rising of the sea. A short gun, projecting itsmuzzle through the port, was also less likely to catchthe outboard tackling of the sails, such as "Sheetes andTackes, or the Bolynes." And for these reasons any verylong guns were placed astern, or far forward, as bow, orstern chasers. It was very necessary that the gunsplaced at the stern should be long guns, for the tallpoops of the galleons overhung the sea considerably. Ifthe gun, fired below the overhang, did not project beyondthe woodwork, it was liable to "blowe up the Counterof the Shyppes Sterne," to the great detriment of giltand paint. Some ships cut their stern ports down to[308]the deck, and continued the deck outboard, by a projectingplatform. The guns were run out on to thisplatform, so that the muzzles cleared the overhang.These platforms were the originals of the quarter-galleries,in which, some centuries later, the gold-lacedadmirals took the air (Bourne).
Sir Jonas Moore, who published a translation ofMoretti's book on artillery, in 1683, added to his chapterssome matter relating to sea-gunners, from the Frenchof Denis Furnier.
"The Gunner, whom they call in the Straights Captain,Master-Canoneer, and in Bretagne and Spain, and inother places Connestable, is one of the principal Officersin the Ship; it is he alone with the Captain who cancommand the Gunners. He ought to be a man ofcourage, experience, and vigilant, who knows the goodnessof a Peece of Ordnance, the force of Powder, andwho also knows how to mount a Peece of Ordnanceupon its carriage, and to furnish it with Bolts, Plates,Hooks, Capsquares [to fit over the Trunnions on whichthe gun rested] Axletrees and Trucks, and that maynot reverse too much; to order well its Cordage asBreeching [which stopped the recoil] and Tackling [bywhich it was run out or in]; to plant the Cannon topurpose in the middle of its Port; to know how tounclow[22] it [cast it loose for action], make ready hisCartridges, and to have them ready to pass from handto hand through the Hatches, and to employ his mostcareful men in that affair; that he have care of all, that,he be ready everywhere to assist where necessity shallbe; and take care that all be made to purpose.
"He and his Companions [the gunner's mates] ought[309]with their dark Lanthornes continually to see if the Gunsplay, and if the Rings in Ships do not shake." (Thatis, a strict watch was to be kept, at night, when at seain stormy weather, to see that the cannon did not workor break loose, and that the ring-bolts remained firm intheir places.)
"If there be necessity of more Cordage, and to seethat the Beds and Coins be firm and in good order;when the Ship comes to Anker, he furnisheth Cordage,and takes care that all his Companions take their turn[stand their watch] and quarters, that continually everyevening they renew their priming Powder [a horn offine dry powder poured into the touch-holes of loadedcannon, to communicate the fire to the charge], and allare obliged to visit their Cannon Powder every eightdayes, to see if it hath not receiv'd wet, although theybe well stopped a top with Cork and Tallow; to seethat the Powder-Room be kept neat and clean, and theCartridges ranged in good order, each nature or Calibreby itself, and marked above in great Letters the weightof the Powder and nature of the Peece to which itbelongs, and to put the same mark over the Port-holeof the Peece; that the Linstocks [or forked staves of wood,about two and a half feet long, on which the match wascarried] be ready, and furnished with Match [or cottonthread, boiled in ashes-lye and powder, and kept smouldering,with a red end, when in use], and to have alwaies onelighted, and where the Cannoneer makes his Quarterto have two one above another below [this last passageis a little obscure, but we take it to mean that at night,when the gunner slept in his cabin, a lighted match wasto be beside him, but that in the gun-decks below and abovehis cabin (which was in the half-deck) lit matches wereto be kept ready for immediate use, by those who kept watch],that his Granadoes [black clay, or thick glass bottles,[310]filled with priming powder, and fired by a length of tow,well soaked in saltpetre water] and Firepots [balls ofhard tar, sulphur-meal and rosin, kneaded together andfired by a priming of bruised powder] be in readiness, and3 or 400 Cartridges ready fill'd, Extrees [?] and Trucks[wheels] to turn often over the Powder Barrels that thePowder do not spoil; to have a care of Rings [ring-bolts]and of the Ports [he here means port-lids] that they havetheir Pins and small Rings."
Sir William Monson adds that the gunner was toacquaint himself with the capacities of every known sortof firearm, likely to be used at sea. He also gives someprofessional hints for the guidance of gunners. He tellsus (and Sir Richard Hawkins confirms him) that no sea-cannonought to be more than seven or eight feet long;that they ought not to be taper-bored, nor honey-combedwithin the bore, and that English ordnance, the best inEurope, was sold in his day for twelve pounds a ton.
In Boteler's time the gunner commanded a gang, orcrew, who ate and slept in the gun-room, which seemsin those days to have been the magazine. He had tokeep a careful account of the expenditure of his munitions,and had orders "not to make any shot withoutthe Knowledge and order of the captain."
Authorities.—N. Boteler: "Six Dialogues." W. Bourne: "The Artof Shooting in Great Ordnance"; "Regiment for the Sea"; "Mariner'sGuide." Sir W. Monson: "Naval Tracts." Sir Jonas Moore. R. Norton:"The Gunner." John Roberts: "Complete Cannoneer."

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