“Carronades could throw astonishingly heavy ship-wrecking solid shot or oversize loads of man-annihilating canister.”
By John Danielski
IT WAS JUST after midday on Oct. 21, 1805 and the Battle of Trafalgar was in full swing.
Amid the withering broadsides, two massive carronades on the forecastle of HMS Victorysuddenly leapt backwards with an ear-splitting roar unleashing perhaps one of the single deadliest salvos in the history of naval warfare.
Each of the two weapons launched an enormous 68-pound round shot and 250 pistol-size balls. The speeding metal tore through the stern of the French flagship Bucentaure from a range of exactly five yards and in a split second travelled the entire length of the Frenchman’s gun decks shredding everything in their path. In one stroke, Victory had killed or wounded 400 men, half of the Bucentaure’s crew.
Fittingly, the nickname for one of the two carronades that fired the devastating volley was “the Smasher.” Never was a weapon better named.
In proportion to their small size, short barrel-length and relatively light weight, carronades could throw astonishingly heavy ship-wrecking solid shot or oversized loads of man-annihilating canister with deadly effectiveness. To be sure, the muzzle velocity of a carronade was slower than that of a cannon, but a ball fired from one would often lodge in a ship’s thick hull rather than passing through it, thereby increasing the volume of lethal splinters sent flying across the deck.
A carronade was typically one fourth the mass of a cannon firing a comparable ball. For example, a 32-pound carronade weighed about the same as a regular nine-pound gun and so could be mounted on the weather deck of a ship rather than much lower in the hull. And all that added firepower gave a vessel a much heavier broadside than might otherwise be the case.
Because of improved metallurgy, carronades’ sides were thinner than cannons and their barrels were much shorter. They were also wider at the breech than the bore and instead of featuring a continuous chamber, they had separately fashioned powder compartments.
Carronades were typically mounted on slides as opposed to wheels like regular ships’ guns. The breech end rested on two iron trucks that allowed the gun to be traversed laterally inside the ship. This design also meant that the weapon could be moved across the face of the gunport, increasing the number of targets that could be engaged. A horizontal iron loop at the barrel’s rear was designed to take an elevating screw, a significant improvement over a wedge shaped, wood quoin.
A carronade used a powder charge that was one sixth of that of a cannon, yet could project a comparably weighted ball. This was achieved by a reduction in windage: the difference between the size of the bore and the round to be fired. Carronade shot were cast to the same size as the bore; later shrinkage reduced the difference between bore and ball to .1 inch. In cannons, that difference would be as much as a half an inch. With less of the explosive gases venting out during firing, a smaller powder charge could be used.
A carronade’s compact size also meant that it could be reloaded faster than a cannon and it required a smaller crew go operate it.
Carronades were typically manufactured in various sizes ranging from six to 42 pounds. The 68-pound killer twins on Victory’s forecastle were uncommon since the outsized weight of those projectiles rendered the pieces hard to load.
Carronades were developed at and named for the Carron Iron Works in Falkirk, Scotland although the actual inventor of the weapon is in dispute. Most maintain that it was Sir Charles Gascoigne, director of the works, and that the piece had originally been called a gasconade in his honour. However, a good case can also be made for Lieutenant General Robert Melville as being its originator.
Carronades made their first appearance with the Royal Navy in 1778. They were initially distrusted because of the Carron Company’s reputation for underhanded business practices. By 1782, the weapons had found their way onto the decks of quite a number of ships. They were superb close-quarter weapons against which the French had nothing to compare.
One single ship engagement in that year cemented the carronade’s reputation as an indispensable weapon. During the Sept. 4 clash off the Brittany coast, HMS Rainbow compelled the surrender of the French frigate Hébé with a single broadside fired entirely from carronades.
Sir Charles Douglas, Admiral George Rodney’s gunnery expert, soon saw their potential and the weapons played a significant role in Rodney’s great victory at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. Douglas found that carronades could do significant damage to ships’ hulls, particularly when the weapons were double-shotted with canister — tin cases filled with 80 to 250 pistol size balls. In fact, they were far more useful as anti-personnel weapons, not unlike giant shotguns.
It was during the Napoleonic Wars that the carronade came into its own and enjoyed truly widespread deployment. Smaller ships such as the Royal Navy’s ubiquitous sloops-of-war gained a significant increase in firepower when they replaced many of cannon with carronades. Larger ships also found carronades useful as close quarter supplements to their longer-ranged cannon.
Some warships were fitted entirely with carronades with mixed results. The 50-gun Glatton under Captain William Bligh of HMS Bounty fame fought well at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, but that was a toe-to-toe punch up where range mattered little.
At the Battle of Lissa in 1811, the 32-gun HMS Volage scored initial successes against the French frigate Danae, but the enemy vessel soon moved out of carronade range and pounded the British with her cannon with impunity. Volage was ultimately saved by other frigates in Sir William Hoste’s fleet that were armed in the traditional fashion.
In the War of 1812, David Porter’s frigate USS Essex was outfitted exclusively with 32 carronades. His British opponent, James Hilyar of the conventionally armed frigate HMS Phoebe, refused to engage him at close range. Phoebe simply stood out of range and demanded his surrender. Porter had no choice but to strike his colours.
For their part, the French developed a weapon called an obusier de vaisseau in the late 1790s as a counter for the carronade. More of a howitzer, it never provided anything like the power or efficiency of the British gun. Indeed, Napoleon complained that France’s lack of carronades was one reason for his navy’s defeat at Trafalgar.
Perhaps the most intelligent mixture of carronades and cannons was achieved by the Americans in their super frigates USS Constitution and USS United States. During the War of 1812, both used cannons to shatter timbers at a distance and carronades up-close to kill men. The Constitution carried 30 long-range 24-pounders on her gun deck and 24 32-pound carronades on her spar deck. The United States carried 30 24-pounders on her gun deck and 24 42-pound carronades on her spar deck.
Stephen Decatur of the USS United States knew his 24’s outranged John Carden’s 18-pounders on HMS Macedonian, so he simply positioned his vessel beyond Macedonian’s range and calmly shot away her spars. After rendering Macedonian un-maneuverable, he brought his ship to point-blank range and let his carronades finish the business.
Although carronades were superseded in the 1830s by innovations like rifling and exploding shells, during the Napoleonic Wars, the snub-nosed guns were supreme in close-quarter combat, unparalleled in their ability to clear enemy decks fast and efficiently. Packed with a double load of canister at a range so close that ships’ hulls nearly touched, a single carronade discharge had the power to turn an enemy crew into nothing more than oddments of bone, muscle, and crimson mist
John Danielski is the author of the Pennywhistle series of novels about Tom Pennywhistle, a Royal Marine officer in the Napoleonic Wars. Book five of the series, Pennywhistle: Forged in Trafalgar’s Fire, is due from Penmore Press in March. For more, visit: www.tompennywhistle.com or check him out on Amazon.
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