Ask BigJules: The Big Guns

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P J Duncan emailed:
‘I have a question concerning the big guns on navy ships in Kydd’s day. There seems to be any number of different ones. Can you explain which were used on what type of ship and what is the difference between a carronade and a cannon.’

The carronade, a game changer!

The carronade, a game changer!

Thanks for the question, P J.

Basically, the classification of the big guns came from the weight of the solid round shot (cannon ball) fired – 42 pounder, 32, 24, 12, 9 and 6 pdr. (Ashore the standard army cannon was only a 6 pdr.)

HMS Victory’s armament at Trafalgar was 30 x 32 pdrs, 28 x 24 pdrs, 44 x 12 pdrs, 2 carronades.

The 24 and 32 pdr were the standard gun in ships of the line; they were never found in frigates.

Frigates carried 12 or 18 pounders and smaller, plus carronades. Sloops and smaller ships had 9 pounders and 6 pounders with their carronades.

Carronades were game changers – they could fire up to 68 pound shot but could be carried on small ships and even boats. A carronade was a short lightweight gun that fired a heavy shot at a low velocity over a short range. Unlike a cannon, it was mounted on a carriage fitted with a sliding block to take recoil. They could be reloaded very quickly. Because of its destructive power at short range the carronade was known as the ‘smasher’ by Jack Tar. The name carronade comes from the Carron Iron Company in Scotland, where the gun was originally developed. It was first introduced into the Royal Navy in 1779.

So successful were they that several ships were fitted only with carronades, no long guns, notably the Glatton, which commanded by William Bligh of Bounty fame, fought heroically at Copenhagen under Nelson.

Do you have a question for ‘Ask BigJules’ – fire away! I’ll answer as many as I can in future posts…

16 Comments on “Ask BigJules: The Big Guns”

  1. Hi,
    Whilst visiting Havana Cuba we stumbled across this pair of George III cannon. What do t he numbers around the base represent?
    23-3-19 and 23-3-26
    Anyway to figure out what ship they were from?
    Many thanks

  2. I was just wondering. You’ve mentioned about the big guns, what about some of the small arms used in boarding? You make mention that Kydd always likes to use a cutlass. I remember writing to you about sea service muskets. How about blunderbusses? How prevelant were grenades in actions?
    The pistols you have also mentioed were useful for only one shot, then were clubs.

    • HMS ‘Victory’, for example, carried 120 tons of shot in her locker and 35 tons of gunpowder. Stock depended on the ‘establishment’ which was the laid-down entitlement for every ship at construction (or capture!).

  3. Great, thanks for that information – but what were the ranges of the guns, effective and maximums, from a level deck? And how much did the heel angle affect it?


  4. Thanks Julian, a good article. I would have likened the carronade to a mortar – heavy ball, short distance and not overly accurate. Brian

  5. Thanks BJ…….have read many accounts of the destructive power of the carronade, however have never seen one.

  6. Thank you for the general overview of the placement of the big guns. For myself I was not aware of old ships big gun placement. As always, it is nice for some old chap to remind us of the exceptions. Good day Captain and God Bless.

  7. I was going to leave the same comment about the presence of 24# great guns on frigates as John Moon above.

    With respect to the Indefatigable, I am currently reading a biography of Sir Edward Pellew by Stephen Taylor. Highly recommended.

  8. Ref Blog 13th January – The Big Guns –
    It is incorrect to say that 24pdrs were NEVER found in frigates. Several ex-French prizes – Pomone, La Forte, Egyptienne carried 24pdrs although other ex-French 24pdr prizes were re-gunned with 18pdrs before commissioning in the RN.
    The RN commissioned 24pdr frigates, namely the Endymion (copied from the Pomone) in 1797, and revived the design in 1812 as a response to the big 24pdr US frigates.
    There were of course the cut-down 64s rated as frigates, perhaps the most famous being the Indefatigable captained by Sir Edward Pellew!

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