Napoleonic Era Naval Tactics (3/5): Types of Shot and Dismasting

Of the many forms of artillery ammunition used during the 18th century, case shot was second only to round shot. Case shot was used in battles against sails and crew on deck, whereas round shot [cannon balls] were directed against the hull and to dismount enemy guns. To make holes in the enemy ship, crews loaded two balls in the cannon with plenty of powder. This was called ‘double-shotting’.

Grape shot was a general term embracing all forms of artillery ammunition made up of small shot. At sea, it consisted of iron balls, each the size of a tennis ball, bound in a canvas bag. Canister Shot consisted of cylindrical cases containing pistol balls, used at close range to kill people or against rigging.

Tin case shot was originally classified as a variety of grape shot. Tin case shot consisted of a number of iron shot placed in a cylindrical box called a canister, which just fitted the bore of the gun. The first record found of Sea Service Case Shot is in 1773, and it survived unchanged into the next century. Generally, the shot tended to be about half the number of the Land Service variety, but twice the weight. Various types such as “langridge” shot, and “oblong shot and shell,” are also recorded but not described.

Case shot was essentially an ammunition designed for use against men and animals, though at sea it was used against ship’s riggings. At the Battle of the Nile in 1798 Nelson received a severe wound from a piece of langridge shot. He was struck on the forehead by a langridge shot and had for a time to go below It is perhaps to be lamented in the interest of his fame that the wound was not severe enough to compel him to return home.

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.

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.

A continued discharge of star and bar shot would cut away the rigging and sails of the enemy, and eventually completely dismast her. So devastating is the effect of close action that vessels were often damaged severely within minutes, their rigging shot away by langridge and chain-shot, their steering useless, until they drift like hulks within the bedlam of battle. But even dismasted they are still fighting ships until the enemy strikes or the combat turns.

Sheer is the longitudinal upward curvature of the deck, gunwale, and lines of a vessel, as when viewed from the side. Sheers are spars lashed together and raised up – an apparatus for hoisting heavy weights, generally known as sheer-legs. These consist of two or more upright spars meeting at the top, where the hoisting tackle is placed, and set wide apart at the bottom. The term “hulk” refers to a dismasted ship, usually old and past active service, used as a receiving ship, hospital or accommodation ship or some sort of stationary storeship. A Sheer Hulk is a floating crane, a vessel fitted with a pair of ‘sheer legs’ (two large span forming an ‘A frame’) to hoist masts in and out of vessels. The masting of ships was formerly carried out from another vessel, a dismasted hulk, on which the sheer-legs were placed, hence called a sheer-hulk.

USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere within an hour after two ships drew alongside at about six in the evening of 19 August 1812. A quarter-hour of intense gunnery by Constitution, delivered with much superior accuracy, battered Guerriere in the hull and masts.

About 2 P.M. the Guerriere standing by the wind, under topsails, foresail, jib, and spanker, with the wind blowing fresh from the N.W. discovered the Constitution bearing down towards her. At 4.30 the Guerriere laid her maintopsail to the mast to enable Constitution the more quickly to close, the latter then about 3 miles distant, shortened sail to double reefed topsails and went to quarters. At 4.45 Guerriere hoisted one English ensign at the peak another at the mizzentopgallant mast-head and a Union Jack at the fore. At 5.5 PM having run up one American ensign at the peak, lashed another to the larboard mizzen rigging and hoisted a third flag at the foretopgallant mast-head, the Constitution opened her fire and setting her maintopgallantsail brought the Guerriere to close action on the larboard beam, both ships steering with the wind on the larboard quarter.

At 6.05 Guerriere’s mizzenmast was shot away, it fell over the starboard quarter, knocking a large hole in the counter, and bringing the ship up into the wind. At 6.15 the two ships fell aboard each other Guerriere’s bowsprit getting foul of the Constitution’s starboard mizzen rigging.

The crew of the Constitution now prepared to board Guerriere, but in addition to the impracticability of the attempt owing to the motion of the ships, a shot from a British marine brought down the American first lieutenant of marines, another musket shot passed through the body of the first lieutenant of the ship, and a third shot entered the shoulder of the master. The riflemen in the Constitution’s tops, in the meantime continued their unerring fire. Captain Dacres was wounded in the back, but would not quit the deck.

In a few minutes the ships got clear. Some of the wads from Guerriere’s foremost guns set fire to Constitution’s cabin, which was soon extinguished. Guerriere’s bowsprit striking Constitution’s taffrail, slacked the forestay, and the foreshrouds, being mostly shot away, the mast fell over on the starboard side crossing the mainstay, the sudden jerk carried the mainmast along with, leaving Guerriere a defenceless wreck, rolling her maindeck guns in the water.

While the British frigate was in this state, Constitution at 6.45pm. having rove new braces, wore round and took a position within pistol shot on her starboard quarter. It being utterly in vain to contend any longer Guerriere fired a lee gun and hauled down the Union Jack from the stump of her mizzenmast.

The British frigate’s mizzenmast fell over the side, crippling her ability to maneuver. Constitution then moved ahead to rake Guerriere, whose bowsprit caught in the American’s mizzen rigging. Firing continued while the two ships were thus tangled, and both sides prepared boarding parties. Marksmen in the mast tops blazed away at exposed personnel, with deadly effect. Many officers and men were thus killed, including Constitution’s Marine lieutenant. Others, Captain Dacres among them, were wounded. As the ships separated, Guerriere’s foremast collapsed, pulling down the mainmast with it. She was now a “defenseless hulk”, and surrendered at 7 PM.

Shortly, after Christmas, 1812, Constitution was sailing in the Atlantic just off the coast of Brazil. On the morning of 29 December, sails were sighted on the horizon, and Constitution’s new captain, William Bainbridge, altered course to investigate. The ship proved to be HMS Java, a frigate similar to Guerriere. Both frigates stood for each other and cleared their decks for action.

The Java’s masts were wounded and her rigging cut to pieces, and Captain Lambert then ordered her to be laid aboard the enemy, who was on her lee beam. The helm was put a-weather, and the Java came down for the Constitution’s mainchains. The boarders and marines gathered in the gangways and on the forecastle, the boatswain having been ordered to cheer them up with his pipe that they might make a clean spring. The Americans, however, raked the British with terrible effect, cutting off their main top-mast above the cap, and their foremast near the cat harpings. The stump of the Java’s bowsprit got caught in the Constitution’s mizzen-rigging, and before it got clear the British suffered still more. Finally the ships separated, the Java’s bowsprit passing over the taffrail of the Constitution; the latter at once kept away to avoid being raked.

The British fought on with stubborn resolution, cheering lustily. But success was now hopeless, for nothing could stand against the cool precision of the Yankee fire. The stump of the Java’s foremast was carried away by a double-headed shot, the mizzen-mast fell, the gaff and spanker boom were shot away, also the main-yard, and finally the ensign was cut down by a shot, and all her guns absolutely silenced; when at 4.05 the Constitution, thinking her adversary had struck, ceased firing, hauled aboard her tacks, and passed across her adversary’s bows to windward, with her top-sails, jib, and spanker set. A few minutes afterward the Java’s main-mast fell, leaving her a sheer hulk. The Constitution assumed a weatherly position, and spent an hour in repairing damages and securing her masts; then she wore and stood toward her enemy, whose flag was again flying, but only for bravado, for as soon as the Constitution stood across her forefoot she struck. The Java sustained unequalled injuries beyond the Constitution. She was a riddled and entirely dismasted hulk.

The Constitution also suffered severely, both in her rigging and men having her Fore and Mizen masts, main topmast, both main topsailyards, Spanker boom, Gaff & trysail mast badly shot, and the greatest part of the standing rigging very much damaged with ten men killed.

Courtesy of John Pike and Global Security.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

Recently Entered in the Log

  • master-and-commander-the-far-side-of-the-world
  • Nelson
  • wood _texture1584
  • banks copy
  • (c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
  • lthickscoat19
  • desolation
  • tippoo

Leave a Reply