While many readers of our beloved series are already experts in Napoleonic Era naval warfare by the time they discover the novels (seriously, many more than you’d expect!), others like myself stumbled upon the world of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin with only Hollywood as our guide. Perhaps due to the Pirates of the Carribean movies (and I assure you I feel great shame for this), I always assumed that ammunition for the great guns was limited to cannon balls. However, those experts among you will already know that is absolutely not the case. And so I present to you this handy dandy ammunition guide, complete with pictures.
(It should be noted that much of this information also applies to ammunition on land, as the same guns were often used to guard forts etc.)
Sailing Ship Ammunition
Cast iron with no explosive. Used against cavalry, troops in a column, buildings and other solid objects. More accurate than shell or spherical case with a longer range.
Solid Shot is what is classically known as a cannonball. The weight of the solid shot that a gun would fire determined whether a cannon was a 6-pounder, 12- pounder, etc. Solid shot did serve as an antipersonnel weapon, but its main purpose was to batter down walls, buildings, and other fortifications.
Its smashing effect was used against opposing batteries, wagons, buildings as well as against infantry and cavalry. A skillful gunner could cause the shot to skip across the ground in front of advancing troops, causing it to throw rocks, dirt and debris. At Pea Ridge, Federal gunners fired shot into the rocky ridge that the Confederates were sheltering in, causing the projectile to shatter when it hit the trees or rock face. These fragments multiplied the shot’s killing power.
Stone balls, cheap to manufacture, relatively light and therefore well suited to the feeble construction of early ordnance, were in general use for large caliber cannon in the fourteenth century. There were experiments along other lines such as those at Tournay in the 1330′s with long, pointed projectiles. Lead-coated stones were fairly popular, and solid lead balls were used in some small pieces, but the stone ball was more or less standard.
Cast-iron shot had been introduced by 1400, and, with the improvement of cannon during that century, iron shot gradually replaced stone. By the end of the 1500′s stone survived for use only in the pedreros, murtherers, and other relics of the earlier period. Iron shot for the smoothbore was a solid, round shot, cast in fairly accurate molds; the mold marks that invariably show on all cannonballs were of small importance, for the ball did not fit the bore tightly. After casting, shot were checked with a ring gauge — a hoop through which each ball had to pass. The Spanish term for this tool is very descriptive: pasabala, “ball-passer.”
Shot was used mainly in the flat-trajectory cannon. The small caliber guns fired nothing but shot, for small sizes of the other type projectiles were not effective. Shot was the prescription when the situation called for “great accuracy, at very long range,” and penetration. Fired at ships, a shot was capable of breaching the planks (at 100-yard range a 24-pounder shot would penetrate 4-1/2 feet of “sound and hard” oak). With a fair aim at the waterline, a gunner could sink or seriously damage a vessel with a few rounds. On ironclad targets like the Monitor and Virginia (Merrimack), however, round shot did little more than bounce; it took the long, armor-piercing rifle projectile to force the development of the tremendously thick plate of modern times.
Developed by the British Lieutenant (later General) Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842). Hollow shell with powder and 40-80 musket balls that exploded in all directions. Fused; used 500- 1,500 yards. More effective than shell, but more difficult to manufacture.
Spherical Case, or Case Shot was the same size as the solid shot. The one major difference was it was hollow in the middle. Inside the hollow case or round was black powder filled with iron balls. Initially, when the powder bag was ignited, the fire would encircle the round inside the cannon tube, igniting a paper fuse that was inserted into a wooden plug at the top of the round. As the ball traveled down range, the fuse would burn until it reached the inside of the round and the black powder would be ignited. The case would burst in the air and above the enemy causing fragments of iron and balls to rain down upon the unlucky foe.
Similar to the common shell, this had thinner walls and was filled with small lead or iron balls, called case shot. The case shot scattered over a wide area when the projectile burst, giving it an added killing effect. On land this was used against both men and animals.
Spherical case shot was an attempt to carry the effectiveness of grape and canister beyond its previous range, by means of a bursting shell. It was the forerunner of the shrapnel used so much in World War I and was invented by Lt. Henry Shrapnel, of the British Army, in 1784. There had been previous attempts to produce a projectile of this kind, such as the German Zimmerman’s “hail shot” of 1573—case shot with a bursting charge and a primitive time fuze—but Shrapnel’s invention was the first air-bursting case shot which, in technical words, “imparted directional velocity” to the bullets it contained. Shrapnel’s new shell was first used against the French in 1808, but was not called by its inventor’s name until 1852.
Tin can containing 27 iron balls packed in sawdust. Tin can ripped open at the muzzle and showered the balls directly at the troops. Good for repelling the enemy at close range–50-300 yards. For more devastating effect, could be used in double load. This turned a cannon into a giant shotgun.
One of the earliest kinds of scatter projectiles was case shot, used at Constantinople in 1453. The name comes from its case, or can, usually metal, which was filled with scrap, musket balls, or slugs.
Canister was also an antipersonnel weapon. The size of a large orange juice can, it was packed with layer upon layer of 1 inch diameter iron balls and sawdust. When fired, it was basically a gigantic shot gun shell as the powder charge disintegrated the can and it would mow down anyone by spraying out iron balls 400 yards down range within a width of 25 yards as it was being propelled out of the tube.
A tin cylinder filled with iron balls, it was fired at extremely close range (less than 400 yards) against attacking infantry or cavalry. At ranges of less than 200 yards, 2 and 3 rounds of canister were fired at once. The effect of a canister round firing was similar to a giant shotgun blast.
Incendiary / Hot Shot
Incendiary missiles, such as buckets or barrels filled with a fiercely burning composition, had been used from earliest times, long before cannon. These crude incendiaries survived through the 1700′s as, for instance, the flaming cargoes of fire ships that were sent amidst the enemy fleet. But in the year 1672 there appeared an iron shell called a carcass, filled with pitch and other materials that burned at intense heat for about 8 minutes. The flame escaped through vents, three to five in number, around the fuze hole of the shell. The carcass was standard ammunition until smoothbores went out of use. The United States ordnance manual of 1861 lists carcasses for 12-, 18-, 24-, 32-, and 42-pounder guns as well as 8-, 10-, and 13-inch mortars.
During the late 1500′s, the heating of iron cannon balls to serve as incendiaries was suggested, but not for another 200 years was the idea successfully carried out. Hot shot was nothing but round shot, heated to a red glow over a grate or in a furnace. It was fired from cannon at such inflammable targets as wooden ships or powder magazines. During the siege of Gibraltar in 1782, the British fired and destroyed a part of Spain’s fleet with hot shot; and in United States seacoast forts shot furnaces were standard equipment during the first half of the 1800′s.
Loading hot shot was not particularly dangerous. After the powder charge was in the gun with a dry wad in front of it, another wad of wet straw, or clay, was put into the barrel. When the cherry-red shot was rammed home, the wet wad prevented a premature explosion of the charge.
Chain shot ususally consisted of two balls of shot that were joined together by a chain. But chain shot was made in a variety of forms. A “split shot” was a split ball, the two halves of which linked together by two heavy links of chain. “Split chain shot” and “spider shot” were other variations of chain rounds. The type known as “star shot” was a bag containing an iron ring to which were fasted five 3 to 4 foot lengths of chain. There is one apocryphal tale, about an experiment with chain shot as anti-personnel missiles: instead of charging a single cannon with the two balls, two guns were used, side by side. The ball in one gun was chained to the ball in the other. The projectiles were to fly forth, stretching the long chain between them, mowing down a sizeable segment of the enemy. Instead, the chain wrapped the gun crews in a murderous embrace; one gun had fired late.
Bar shot appears in a Castillo inventory of 1706, and like chain shot, was for specialized work like cutting a ship’s rigging. Bar shot consisted of two spherical balls of shot joined together with a bar. The principle of these types of shot was that they could be fired at the masts and rigging of ships and their whirling action would mangle and ruin a ship’s sails and rigging, or to destroy her masts and yards.
Round, hollow projectile with a powder-filled cavity. Fused; exploded into 5-12 large pieces. Loud air burst terrorized troops and horses.
The word “bomb” comes from the French, who derived it from the Latin. But the Romans got it originally from the Greek bombos, meaning a deep, hollow sound. “Bombard” is a derivation. Today bomb is pronounced “balm,” but in the early days it was commonly pronounced “bum.” The modern equivalent of the “bum” is an HE shell.
The first recorded use of explosive shells was by the Venetians in 1376. Their bombs were hemispheres of stone or bronze, joined together with hoops and exploded by means of a primitive powder fuze. Shells filled with explosive or incendiary mixtures were standard for mortars after 1550. The idea of firing shells from long naval guns was not new. It had been proposed on and off since there had been shells and naval guns to combine. Probably the most serious unfruitful proposal was in 1765, by Bigot de Morogues, one of the more influential naval writers and thinkers of the 18th Century. The French did, eventually, conduct tests with shells fired from heavy 24- and 36-pounder naval cannon. These began at Toulon in 1789 and moved to Meudon in 1790.
Shells came into general use for flat-trajectory weapons early in the nineteenth century, whereafter the term “shell” gradually won out over “bomb.” This projectile was one of the most effective ever used in the smoothbore against earthworks, buildings, and for general bombardment. A delayed action shell, diabolically timed to roll amongst the ranks with its fuze burning, was calculated to “disorder the stoutest men,” since they could not know at what awful instant the bomb would burst.
A bombshell was simply a hollow, cast-iron sphere. It had a single hole where the powder was funneled in—full, but not enough to pack too tightly when the fuze was driven in. Until the 1800′s, the larger bombs were not always smooth spheres, but had either a projecting neck, or collar, for the fuze hole or a pair of rings at each side of the hole for easier handling. In later years, however, such projections were replaced by two “ears,” little recesses beside the fuze hole. A pair of tongs (some thing like ice tongs) seized the shell by the ears and lifted it up to the gun bore.
During most of the eighteenth century, shells were cast thicker at the base than at the fuze hole on the theory that they were (1) better able to resist the shock of firing from the cannon and (2) more likely to fall with the heavy part underneath, leaving the fuze uppermost and less liable to extinguishment. Müller scoffed at the idea of “choaking” a fuze, which, he said, burnt as well in water as in any other element. Furthermore, he preferred to use shells “everywhere equally thick, because they would then burst into a greater number of pieces.” In later years, the shells were scored on the interior to ensure their breaking into many fragments.
A fuse caused the shell to explode after a specified amount of time. The shell would explode in the air, showering the ground with fragments. The eighteenth century fuze was a wooden tube several inches long, with a powder composition tamped into its hole much like the nineteenth century fuze. The hole was only a quarter of an inch in diameter, but the head of the fuze was hollowed out like a cup, and “mealed” (fine) powder, moistened with “spirits of wine” (alcohol), was pressed into the hollow to make a larger igniting surface. To time the fuze, a cannoneer cut the cylinder at the proper length with his fuze-saw, or drilled a small hole (G) where the fire could flash out at the right time. Some English fuzes at this period were also made by drawing two strands of a quickmatch into the hole, instead of filling it with powder composition. The ends of the match were crossed into a sort of rosette at the head of the fuze. Paper caps to protect the powder composition covered the heads of these fuzes and had to be removed before the shell was put into the gun.
Bombs were not filled with powder very long before use, and fuzes were not put into the projectiles until the time of firing. To force the fuze into the hole of the shell, the cannoneer covered the fuze head with tow, put a fuze-setter on it, and hammered the setter with a mallet, “drifting” the fuze until the head stuck out of the shell only 2/10 of an inch. If the fuze had to be withdrawn, there was a fuze extractor for the job. This tool gripped the fuze head tightly, and turning a screw slowly pulled out the fuze.
Wooden tube fuzes were used almost as long as the spherical shell. A United States 12-inch mortar fuze, 7 inches long and burning 49 seconds, was much like the earlier fuze. During the 1800′s, however, other types came into wide use.
The conical paper-case fuze, inserted in a metal or wooden plug that fitted the fuze hole, contained composition whose rate of burning was shown by the color of the paper. A black fuze burned an inch every 2 seconds. Red burned 3 seconds, green 4, and yellow 5 seconds per inch. Paper fuzes were 2 inches long, and could be cut shorter if necessary. Since firing a shell from a 24-pounder to burst at 2,000 yards meant a time flight of 6 seconds, a red fuze would serve without cutting, or a green fuze could be cut to 1-1/2 inches. Sea-coast fuzes of similar type were used in the 15-inch Rodmans until these big smoothbores were finally discarded sometime after 1900.
The Bormann fuze, the quickest of the oldtimers to set, was used for many years by the US Field Artillery in spherical shell and shrapnel. Its pewter case, which screwed into the shell, contained a time ring of powder composition (A). Over this ring the top of the fuze case was marked in seconds. To set the fuze, the gunner merely had to cut the case at the proper mark—at four for 4 seconds, three for 3 seconds, and so on—to expose the ring of powder to the powder blast of the gun. The ring burned until it reached the zero end and set off the fine powder in the center of the case; the powder flash then blew out a tin plate in the bottom of the fuze and ignited the shell charge. Its short burning time (about 6 seconds) made the Bormann fuze obsolete as field gun ranges increased. The main trouble with this fuze, however, was that it did not always ignite!
The percussion fuze was an extremely important development of the nineteenth century, particularly for the long-range rifles. The shock of impact caused this fuze to explode the shell at almost the instant of striking. Percussion fuzes were made in two general types: the front fuze, for the nose of an elongated projectile; and the base fuze, at the center of the projectile base. The base fuze was used with armor-piercing projectiles where it was desirable to have the shell penetrate the target for some distance before bursting. Both types were built on the same principles.
A Hotchkiss front percussion fuze had a brass case which screwed into the shell. Inside the case was a plunger (A) containing a priming charge of powder, topped with a cap of fulminate. A brass wire at the base of the plunger was a safety device to keep the cap away from a sharp point at the top of the fuze until the shell struck the target. When the gun was fired, the shock of discharge dropped a lead plug (B) from the base of the fuze into the projectile cavity, permitting the plunger to drop to the bottom of the fuze and rest there, held by the spread wire, while the shell was in flight. Upon impact, the plunger was thrown forward, the cap struck the point and ignited the priming charge, which in turn fired the bursting charge of the shell.
Sabot & Fixed Ammunition
In early days, due partly to the roughly made balls, wads were very important as a means of confining the powder and increasing its efficiency. Wads could be made of almost any suitable material at hand, but perhaps straw or hay ones were most common. The hay was first twisted into a 1-inch rope, then a length of the rope was folded together several times and finally rolled up into a short cylinder, a little larger than the bore. After the handier sabots came into use, however, wads were needed only to keep the ball from rolling out when the muzzle was down, or for hot shot firing.
Gunners early began to consolidate ammunition for easier and quicker loading. For instance, after the powder charge was placed in a bag, the next logical step was to attach the wad and the cannonball to it, so that loading could be made in one simple operation—pushing the single round into the bore. Toward that end, the sabot or “shoe” took the place of the wad. The sabot was a wooden disk about the same diameter as the shot. It was secured to the ball with a pair of metal straps to make “semi-fixed” ammunition; then, if the neck of the powder bag were tied around the sabot, the result was one cartridge, containing powder, sabot, and ball, called “fixed” ammunition. Fixed ammunition was usual for the lighter field pieces by the end of the 1700′s, while the bigger guns used “semi-fixed.”
Long pieces were at first loaded with loose powder, carried to its place at the bottom of the bore by means of a long-handled ladle; and although cartridge bags were sometimes used, it was not until Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval substituted the use of them entirely that they were permanently adopted. This French artillery general, was the son of a magistrate of Amiens and was born there on the 15th of September 1715. He entered the French royal artillery in 1732 as a volunteer, and became an officer in 1735. For nearly twenty years regimental duty and scientific work occupied him. In 1757, being then a lieutenant colonel, he was lent to the Austrian army on the outbreak of the Seven Years War, and served as a general officer of artillery. The siege of Glatz and the defence of Schweidnitz were his principal exploits. The empress Maria Theresa rewarded him for his work with the rank of lieutenant field-marshal and the cross of the Maria Theresa order. On his return to France he was made marchal de camp, in 1764 inspector of artillery, and in 1765 lieutenant-general and commander of the order of St Louis. For some years after this he was in disfavour at court, and he became first inspector of artillery only in 1776, in which year also he received the grand cross of the St Louis order. He was then able to carry out the reforms in the artillery arm which are his chief title to fame. The powder was in a pre-designed charge, contained in a cartridge.
By the War of 1812, the advantage of a much higher rate of fire came from the use by the United States of a new powder cartridge made of thin sheets of lead. The British used flannel bags of powder, and the gun crews had to swab out their guns after each use to extinguish any embers left in the gun. [Super Frigates]
In the fight between the HMS Macedonian and the USS United States, for example, the United States got off 66 shots per gun as compared to 36 of the Macedonian. United States began the action at 0920 by firing an inaccurate broadside at Macedonian. This was answered immediately by the British vessel, bringing down a small spar of United States. Decatur’s next broadside had better luck, as it destroyed Macedonian‘s mizzen top mast, letting her driver gaff fall and so giving the advantage in maneuver to the American’s frigate. United States next took up position off Macedonian‘s quarter and proceeded to riddle the hapless frigate methodically with shot. By noon, Macedonian was a dismasted hulk and was forced to surrender. She had suffered 104 casualties as against 12 in United States, which emerged from the battle relatively unscathed. The two ships lay alongside each other for over two weeks while Macedonian was repaired sufficiently to sail. United States and her prize entered New York Harbor on 4 December amid tumultuous national jubilation over the spectacular victory.
About the time of artillery’s beginning, the military fireworker came into the business of providing pyrotechnic engines of war; later, his job included the spectacular fireworks that were set off in celebration of victory or peace.
Artillery manuals of very early date include chapters on the manufacture and use of fireworks. But in making war rockets there was no marked progress until the late eighteenth century. About 1780, the British Army in India watched the Orientals use them; and within the next quarter century William Congreve, who set about the task of producing a rocket that would carry an incendiary or explosive charge as far as 2 miles, had achieved such promising results that English boats fired rocket salvos against Boulogne in 1806. The British Field Rocket Brigade used rockets effectively at Leipzig in 1812—the first time they appeared in European land warfare. They were used again 2 years later at Waterloo. The warheads of such rockets were cast iron, filled with black powder and fitted with percussion fuzes. They were fired from trough-like launching stands, which were adjustable for elevation.
Rockets seem to have had a demoralizing effect upon untrained troops, and perhaps their use by the British against raw American levies at Bladenburg, in 1814, contributed to the rout of the United States forces and the capture of Washington. They also helped to inspire Francis Scott Key. Whether or not he understands the technical characteristics of the rocket, every schoolboy remembers the “rocket’s red glare” of the National Anthem, wherein Key recorded his eyewitness account of the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The U.S. Army in Mexico (1846-48) included a rocket battery, and, indeed, war rockets were an important part of artillery resources until the rapid progress of gunnery in the latter 1800′s made them obsolescent.
Courtesy of Global Security.
Image: Inside the gun deck of a French frigate in action, preparing to load red hot shot, title and artist unknown.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading: