Simply Skiffs

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CANNONS

My Wooden Ships Cannons are generally based on the traditional ships signal cannon. This was a smaller version of a conventional naval Cannon. Unlike my Wooden Cannons, the real thing would have been made from wrought Iron, cast Iron, or bronze.

Small, lightweight, basic Cannons, or Culverins, had been used on ships throughout the middle ages. They were generally fired by individuals or two to three men from firing positions on deck. Ships could only have a small number of lightweight cannons because large cannon are very heavy, and a heavy object placed on the deck of a ship will always make it unstable. It was not until Gunports were invented around 1501 that ships could rely on full size cannons as a main armament. A gunport is a window, cut in the side of a ships hull, that a cannon could be fired from. They allowed the cannon to be installed low down in the ship. Gunports had wooden doors hinged above them, so that the gunport could be closed when the gun wasn't being fired. This stopped water washing coming into the ship from waves, or when the ship was heeled over. This meant that a ship could have lots of heavy powerful cannons, without becoming unstable, and the cannon soon became the main armament in naval warfare. An early example being the Mary Rose, built in 1512. The Mary Rose Had 78 guns, but this was later increased to 91.

From the mid 1600's onward war at sea was dominated by the tactical system known as 'line of battle', this involved a fleet navy ships forming a long line, parallel to their opponents. The ships would then fire 'broadsides' with their cannons at their opponents in an effort to sink or cripple them. With this in mind, the British navy divided their ships into six ratings, based on how many guns (military term for a cannon) they could carry, only the top three ratings were known as 'ships of the line'. A first rate ship of the line had to carry over 90 guns and could have as many as 140 guns, spread over 3 or 4 gun decks, a second rate ship had over 80 guns, and a third rate over 54. A fourth rate (not a true ship of the line) had over 38, a fifth rate over 18, and a sixth rate over 6 guns.

Naval guns are generally referred to by the weight of the shot they fire, so a '42 pounder' was a cannon that fired a cannon ball or 'shot' that weighed 42 pounds. The 42 pounder, also referred to as a 'standard' size cannon, was used on ships from around 1600 till the early 1700's. They were huge. The barrel was about ten feet long, and weighed approximately 3.4 tons on its own. A 42 pounder would have required an 8 man team to fire. They were very powerful, and had a good range, the disadvantage was that they were cumbersome, slow to fire, and required a large gun crew. The 42 pounders would always be kept on the lower gun decks otherwise their weight could make the ship unstable.

A more widely used cannon in the British navy during the 1600's, 1700's and early 1800's was the 'Demi Cannon', or 32 pounder. This was smaller and lighter than the 42 pounder, requiring a 6 man gun crew, and having a 9'6" barrel weighing around 2.6 tons. The Demi Cannon was in use from the early 1600's right up to the early 1800's. It had a maximum range of 1.5 miles and was reputed to be able to punch through a meter of oak at short range.

12 and 24 pound cannon were also very popular, being lighter and faster to reload, they could be mounted on the upper gun decks of a ship without making her unstable, these made up the bulk of the armament on HMS Victory.

The 'Carronade' was a design of cannon that was used in a range of sizes, from 6 right up to 68 pound shot. It was developed in the 1770's and used until the 1850's. The Carronade was developed by a Scottish company and machined to a high standard to allow a tight fit between the ball or shot, and the muzzle. This meant that the cannonball only just fitted in the cannon, (the bore was only slightly larger than the shot diameter, there was less 'windage' in naval terms). The chamber for the powder charge of a Carronade was one caliber smaller than the bore where the cannonball sits and is fired out of, this meant you had a smaller powder charge firing a bigger shot. This meant the internal stresses on the gun were much reduced, so you could have a small light barrel which fired a big heavy shot. The downside was a short range and limited accuracy. A Carronade could be fired by a 5 man gun crew, and its light weight meant it could be used on a ships deck. A Carronade be about a third the weight of the equivalent standard cannon. A 68 pounder had a maximum range of about .7 miles. The Carronade was effective at short range and was referred to as "the smasher" because of the splinters it caused on impact.

Most of a ships guns would fire to the side (to port and starboard), however it was common practice to have a few guns aimed from the bow or stern. A gun called a "long nine" was used for this purpose, firing only a nine pound shot, the longer barrel gave extra power and accuracy, and fitted well into the available space.

The Paixhans gun was introduced in the 1840's and revolutionized the naval combat because it was a direct fire gun that could fire an explosive filled shell on a time delay fuse. This signaled the end of the conventional cannon. The introduction of rifled bores, and steel jacket barrels heralded a new era of naval combat, and led to the demise of the wooden hulled man'o'war.

SHOT TYPES

Here is a list of the common types of ammunition used in naval cannons from the 1500's through to the mid 1800's

Stone shot, a cannon ball carved from solid rock, these would often have been fired from wrought iron cannon, and were used on the Mary Rose. These would usually shatter on impact.
Round shot, a simple cast iron ball, heavier and capable of carrying more energy than stone shot, these were the standard ammunition for cannons until the mid 1800's
Heated shot, an Iron cannonball could be heated, till red hot, then fired at the enemy to cause fires in their ship or rigging. Extra wadding would have been used to prevent the shot setting off its charge prematurely. This technique was rarely employed on ships due to the fire risk however.
Chain shot, two cannon balls fired from the same cannon, joined with a chain.
Bar shot, two cannon balls joined with a bar, a telescopic bar could be used.
Grapeshot, nine smaller shot, packed together.
Link shot, effectively a pack of chain links.
Fire arrows (a small dart wrapped in canvas and soaked with pitch)
Canister shot, a can filled with musket balls.
'Langrage', effectively just scrap metal, loaded into the cannon to cause a hail of shrapnel.


FIRING SEQUENCE

The firing sequence for a six man gun grew firing and reloading a 32 pound cannon from the loaded position would be as follows.

The six members of the gun crew each had a number, one through six.

Number 6 was the powder monkey who would be responsible for bringing the powder charges up from the ammunition store in the base/bilge of the ship, whilst the remaining five members worked in sequence to fire the gun.

no1 (the gun captain) would instruct no2 and no5 to aim the cannon. no 2 and 5 would use 'handspikes' to push the cannon forward, pushing the muzzle out of the gunport, and lever their handspikes under the barrel to achieve the correct elevation. The elevation would be locked with the Quoin. The rest of the crew would help to shift the cannon using pulleys.

no1 (the gun captain) would then pull the cord attached to the gunlock to fire the cannon, which would then recoil back into the ship, restrained by ropes attached to the carriage and carabel.

no4 would then use the 'wormer' to pull out the old powder back and any debris from the barrel. He would then use a 'sponge' to wipe the inside of the barrel, to remove any embers.

no3 would then load the charge of powder, ramming it home before ramming some wadding on top. He would then load the shot, ramming home a second piece of wadding over the shot, to stop it rolling out if the cannon if the barrel dips due to the movement of the ship.

no1 (the captain) would then pour fine gunpowder into the priming hole, he would then cock the firing mechanism.


EQUIPMENT USED TO FIRE A CANNON

Wormer, a pole with a double corkscrew on the end
Handspikes, long poles used to lever the cannon wheels and barrel when aiming.
Vent Apron, a thin square of lead that would be placed over the firing hole when the gun was not in use to prevent sparks setting off the charge. (Cannons were often kept loaded when not in use, so they could be fired at short notice).
Tompion, A timber plug that would go over the muzzle of the cannon when the cannon was left loaded, this would prevent water or sparks getting to the charge accidentally.
Sponge, a pole with a wooden cylinder on the end wrapped in sheepskin, which was kept damp and used to extinguish any embers in the cannon prior to loading.
Linstock, a pole with a slow burning match cord on the end. On early cannons this would be presented to the firing hole to ignite the fine powder and fire the cannon.
Gunlock, a mechanism fixed to the firing hole of the cannon. It allowed the gun captain to fire the cannon by pulling a cord which would cause a spark in the mechanism, igniting the powder and firing the gun.
Cascabel, the small ball that forms the rear of the cannon. This was used to hold the restraining ropes that stopped the cannon as it recoiled.
Ladle, a scoop with a long pole handle, this was used to measure out a powder charge and load it into the barrel, this had become obsolete by the late 1700's, as powder charges were pre measured and packed into powder bags.
Quoin, a fixed screw device used to alter the trajectory of a Cannon
firing hole, a small hole at the back of the cannon, from which the charge inside the cannon is ignited.

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