THE PIRATE 'GUNNER'
Pirates had a great affinity with ‘big guns’ and gunpowder - their love for both of these them saw pirates imbibe a popular and powerful alcoholic drink known as ‘Kill-Devil’ (a sticky blend of beer or ale, sherry and brandy) given it’s particularly ‘diabolical’ flavour by adding a pinch of gunpowder as a salute to the pirates affection and association with this important chemistry !
The ‘Gunner’ aboard a ship had the responsibility for the use and maintenance of ‘the great guns’ : the cannons the ship was carrying. Most of the guns would kept loaded, their bores ‘stopped’ at the muzzle with a wooden plug known as a ‘tompion’ and the touch-hole covered with a lashed-on lead plate perhaps lined with a piece of oiled fleece beneath it to keep out the damp.
In the early part of the 18th Century, guns were no longer known as they had been known in the mid-17th century : the classifications given to cannon were now given under the weight of the solid-shot projectile for their bore and a bewildering variety of differently-bored guns had been partly ‘standardised’ into categories.
Early breech-loading guns were easier to handle and reload on ships than muzzle-loaders : once the captain and crew had been convinced the ship wasn’t going to sink or turn-turtle under the added weight, set fire to the sails or the ship be shaken to pieces by the detonations, having guns on board ships seemed to catch on. Fired singly or in broadside, the simple naval artillery tactic - as ships can’t typically shoot in the same direction as the one they are sailing - became to put your ship broadside-on behind or in front of the enemy vessel so you could shoot at him without being shot at in return. Vessels possessing sweeps (oars) had a distinct advantage in manoeuvres in anything except ideal wind conditions : a galley for example if there was no wind could placed itself under the counter of a square-rigged vessel under sail having no sweeps, remaining on station and firing a heavy bow-mounted cannon through the stern windows for the shot to pass the length of the target’s lower deck.
Most pirate vessels of this period carried guns of a calibre less than 12-pounders. The gun above would fire a roundshot about the size of the one shown : the cannons aboard ship came in different sizes, usually described by the weight of the roundshot they fired (i.e. 4-pounder, 9-pounder etc) and though similar in design as the above gun could weigh between a quarter of a ton up to five tons for a heavy 24 or 32-pounder. The gunbarrel itself rests on a stout wooden carriage made of oak, beech and elm clamped together by long ‘ring-bolts’ and fitted with small wheels named ‘trucks’. The barrel is clamped to the carriage by the ‘trunnions’, projections cast into each side of the barrel and held down by trunnion-clamps and bolts. The muzzle of the gun-barrel is elevated up or down by moving the sliding cheese-shaped ‘quoin’ in or out with the Gunner looking along the barrel itself - there are no sights fitted to these guns!
Most naval engagements subsequently occurred at close-range ; though a cannon could throw a heavy iron ball over a thousand yards, the chance of it striking a target (even coastal fortifications) at that range was minimal. Until the target completely filled the gun port, a gunner could not be reasonably certain of his projectile striking the enemy - and this was a common tactic used at sea. Ranges at sea were far less than could be gained on land - the artilleryman’s practice of aiming for ‘first graze’ to send a ball bouncing through an infantry or cavalry formation in a battle ashore was not available at sea (though very experienced gunners in Nelson’s navy were said to be able to judge the range to ‘bounce’ a solid-shot off the surface of the sea in order to strike an enemy hull right on the water-line).
Gun crews could be two seamen for a small cannon : but increasing the weight of shot meant the gun became heavier and more awkward in proportion. A team of three can manage a four or six-pounder, and though the reader may think there doesn’t sound much difference between a four-man crew operating a 9-pounder and using a 12-pounder instead, the 12-pounder gun would weigh half a ton more and require a team of six seamen to operate it. As there were no sights on cannons, range, aim and target all depended on the experience of the Gunner. As the ship rolled from side to side in normal progress through the water, a gunner had to judge just the right time to apply fire to the touch-hole in anticipating the target passing his view : ‘firing on the uproll’ meant a shot going into the rigging, but ‘firing on the downroll’ meant a shot aimed for the hull. In reality, most cannon-shots would probably miss at long to medium range unless sea was very calm … or the target was a damned big one!
LOADING AND FIRING
Loading a Gun began with throwing off any protective wrappings such as muzzle-tompions or vent-covers, unlashing the gun from the deck and freeing the gun-tackles to the gun-carriage. The gunner or gun-captain would ‘worm’ the bore of the gun with either a ‘pigtail’ or a double-worm - looking like a corkscrew in appearance, fitted onto a wooden shaft - to make sure that nothing had entered the bore and using a long ‘pricker’ would clear the priming vent. The powder charge would be contained in a cartridge, a linen or hempen cloth bag containing the required charge for the gun bore and sewn-up by the gunner or his mates and brought to the gun by a seaman or a ‘powder-monkey’ in a secure leather pass-box. The cartridge would be placed in a copper ladle to sparks and prevent any tearing on passage down the bore : the ladle upon reaching the breech and being turned through 180 degrees left the cartridge at or near the end of the breech to be gently pushed home with a touch from the rammer. The selected ammunition would then be loaded and rammed, often incorporating a ‘wad’ to secure the ammunition and prevent a loss of pressure. The gun would then be ‘laid’ - run out of the port using hand-tackles, pointed at the target using the handspikes and the elevation adjusted using the quoins if necessary. The gun would then be primed by the gun-captain who would pass his pricker down the vent to pierce the cartridge then fill the vent with gunpowder from a powder-horn. To discharge the gun, the gun-captain would order the crew to clear away from the gun before using a glowing match-cord fitted into a linstock to ignite the powder at the vent. The gun would then discharge with a tremendous boom, as the cannon recoiled ‘inboard’ the weight would be taken up by the tackles, with a cloud of gunsmoke drifting either downwind towards the enemy or temporarily blinding the gun-crew if upwind. To reload, the gun would be first wormed and then sponged-out using a bucket of sea-water for safety to remove any potential smouldering fragments of the previous cartridge before the loading process could begin again. The same procedure served for swivel-guns and if necessary a swivel-gun could be used and reloaded by a single seaman.
Slight changes occurred in gun-practice, tools, cartridge and ammunition design through the 18th Century ; some projectiles were incorporated into the cartridge along with the propellant gunpowder and red-hot shot was sometimes fired to increase the destruction at the target or in an attempt to set it on fire ; later a specific round would be designed named a ‘carcass’ for incendiary purposes. The rammer, ladle, sponge and worm were fitted to stout wooden staves between two and four inches in diameter and between four and eighteen feet long, depending on the power and hence size, weight and length of the gun. These tools hung on overhead racks above the gun if below deck or could be fitted to the gun-carriage, stacked along the rail or around the masts on smaller guns carried by smaller vessels. Priming later developed from linstock to quill-fuzes through to flintlock ignition.
A Gunner or Gunners Mates would train a gun-crew. Only in a matched battle would the speed of reloading be essential - but if a mistake occurred during loading it could cripple the gun and/or severely injure the gun-crew. By comparison, a properly-loaded gun, a well-timed and well-placed shot could equally immediately cripple an opponent or a prize. ‘Bursting’ gun-barrels were not unknown but this wasn’t common and usually resulted from bad usage, battle damage or simple wear and tear through old age or neglect. Guns aboard ship were also used for ‘signalling purposes’ - a gun could fire a blank as a threat or a warning-shot or as an agreed ‘time-signal’ to return to the ship if the crew were ashore, and a gun fired at intervals close to shore in bad weather would be taken as a ‘distress signal’. Modern maritime archaeologist or ‘treasure-hunters’ generally look for cannons lying on the sea-bed in trying to find a shipwreck.
AMMUNITION AND PROJECTILES
The ammunition cartridge for each gun would be a measured weight of gunpowder sewn up into a ‘cartridge’ made of cloth - the cartridge used was the same for each projectile. Most ‘Gunners’ recommended roundshot as the best form of all-round projectile for it’s overall destructiveness - if a roundshot struck timbers at close-range, it would pass through them and send out at high velocity a shower of ‘shivers’ in the form of sharp wooden splinters. These were deadly to a seaman on deck as some were of great size and even if they could be found and extracted by a surgeon, with an onion being the only regular ‘disinfectant’ even from a tiny shiver such a wound was disabling and could fester to cause a slow death by disease. The kind of projectile available to the Gunner ran through a choice of selective destruction:
Solid Shot or Roundshot : an iron ball fitting the bore of the gun, usually between two and eight inches in diameter. Extremely destructive at close-range and large calibres are effective ashore at ranges up to 2500 yards against wood or stone - a 12-pounder ashore would still be effective against flesh and blood at 1200 metres and there are records of larger roundshot being fired at sea at ranges of half a mile to the target. A variation on this would be to heat up roundshot in a furnace to fire ‘red-hot shot’ - the ball would lodge in timber and start a fire very difficult to extinguish aboard ship, a common practice by shore-based artillery against incoming vessels. Some cannonballs could be stored near a gun for ready use, but roundshot had to be kept clean so as not to jam in the bore of the gun : balls would be passed through a ring to ensure this. Cannonballs were stacked in ‘garlands’ to prevent any loose movement and is where the old saying ‘It is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ originates. Roundshot being rolled around the deck at night was a traditional indication that the crew were dissatisfied with the progress of the Captain !
Bar or Chain-shot : two or more iron balls linked by a chain or a forged iron bar. This form of projectile is ideal for smashing through sails, rigging and spars but the famous Admiral Benbow lost a leg to one of these fighting the French off Jamaica. Many variations of this particular shot can be found.
Grapeshot : a bundle of smaller iron balls bolted between two wooden discs which disintegrated on discharge, so named as the ammunition was said to resemble a bunch of grapes. Ideal for shredding timber, sails or groups of people fired at medium range. ‘Quilted’ grape were similar sized balls wrapped and bound in stout cloth.
Canister : musket-balls packed into a tin - these gave even a small cannon or swivel-gun a terrific sawn-off shotgun effect at close-range. Small swivel-guns loaded with this sort of shot were nicknamed ‘murderers’ by pirates.
Sangrel or Langridge : similar to the above but consisting of sharp iron fragments gathered in a sack or placed in a tin can. An English pirate in 1689 fired chopped-up horseshoes at a French prize and it was not unknown for any sort of material to be loaded into cannons for this purpose.
Partridge : similar to Canister but using pistol-sized shot or smaller in a bag, sack or can giving a terrific anti-personnel capacity but greatly reducing the risk of potential damage to solid materials aboard a target such as the hull, mast, spars or rigging.
Common Shell : not generally available until much later in the 18th Century, consisting of a hollow iron ball filled with gunpowder and fitted with a wooden fuse-plug. Shells were designed to be fired from guns to explode on board the enemy vessel, with the blast throwing out large pieces of the fractured shell casing. From the early part of the last quarter of the 18th Century, British ‘carronades’ were specially designed for this practice aboard ship, often cast in the enormous calibre of 68-pounder and placed as bow-chasers on manoeuvrable slides giving a very wide angle of fire.
A pirate ship laid-up for any length of time in ‘careening’ or a similar purpose would often land some of it’s guns and munitions and place them in similar defensive positions ashore around the ship to defend it from attack whilst the work was undertaken … all this meant hard work for all the crew, but especially the ‘Gunner’.
For Gunpowder or The Ships’ Magazine see - LOOK INSIDE AVENGER : A TYPICAL PIRATE SHIP (Coming Soon)
All images supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.