First use of standardized munitions at sea

Steve Johnson
by Steve Johnson

Back in the Age of Sail ships tended to carry many different types of cannons. The weapons mix was determined by the Captains preferences and what was available in the navel shipyard when the ship was being outfitted. Each cannon was crewed by the same set of men so they knew what had to be done to get the best out of it. Marine archaeologists


have discovered that the cannons on a English warship wreckage, dating back to the time of the famous defeat of the Spanish Armada, carried only one sized cannon ball and two of the recovered cannons both had the same bore size. The BBC reports:

“This marked the beginning of a kind of mechanisation of war,” says naval historian Professor Eric Grove of Salford University.

“The ship is now a gun platform in a way that it wasn’t before.”

The new research follows the discovery of the first wreck of an Elizabethan fighting ship off Alderney in the Channel Islands, thought to date from around 1592, just four years after the Spanish Armada.

The ship was a pinnace, a small ship carrying 12 guns, two of which have been recovered.

The BBC article has a lot of hype calling them “superguns”. I am an avid reader of novels set in that period and have read a lot of the period history, I can’t see anything impressive about the gun itself, rather how it was used and its superior logistics.

The BBC article more info and a video of a replica cannon modeled on those found in the wreckage.

Hat Tip: Slashdot

Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson

I founded TFB in 2007 and over 10 years worked tirelessly, with the help of my team, to build it up into the largest gun blog online. I retired as Editor in Chief in 2017. During my decade at TFB I was fortunate to work with the most amazing talented writers and genuinely good people!

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  • Sven Ortmann Sven Ortmann on Feb 25, 2009

    The English guns were IIRC a bit longer, that's the final opportunity for range increases that you didn't mention.

    I don't remember exactly the background of their rate of fire - I read about this topic several years ago.

    There are two usual suspects;
    - better conditions/training for reloading & moving the gun back into position (it moved back due to recoil).
    - better thermal capacity and cooling of the gun (avoiding cook-off - guns at that time could fire less than 200 shots on a land battle day).

    IIRC it was the latter, the first one doesn't provide as much room for superiority.

    The English used a firepower-centric tactic in the channel battles while the Spanish wanted to melee (they had additional army troops on board anyway). That's why the guns became relevant at all - guns were rarely the decisive element in earlier naval battles.
    I recall one or two battles which ended in the 16th century when captains became too shocked at one ship blowing up during a firefight.
    Guns very rarely had sunk any ships till that century, everyone was used to boarding with a single previous salvo.

    The battle of Lepanto was very much influences by a type of heavy galley with strong gun armament - something the Ottomans were not used to. That battle happened in the 1570's and the Spanish + allies had won.

  • Michael Michael on Feb 26, 2009

    The programme was interesting but jingoistic and rather Janet and John.

    Even a century or two later merchantmen usually carried an odd mix of whatever guns were cheap - one wreck had guns from something like four different countries on board so each gun had its own shot gauge to sort out what balls to use with it. Even during the Napoleonic wars a ship of the line would not have had a uniform armament - generally with a different calibre of gun on each gun deck though if I remember correctly the British tended to move towards the lighter, faster firing 24 pounder as opposed to the traditional 32 pounder on the lower deck of a three decker. Then of course there were Carronades, the sawn off shotgun of naval gunnery.

    Another big advantage of the English guns against the Armada was the mounts, they were easier and quicker to reload than the Spanish guns.

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