Pirate Ships at Sea ~ Tricky Business of Shooting Cannon Broadside ~ FIRE!

October 22, 2015 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Pirate History


During the age of sail (and of Piracy at sea) much more went into the manning of a “Fighting Ship” than one might expect in today’s world of push button, gps targeted, cruise missile popping Naval warfare. On a “Ship of the Line” the preparations for battle were extensive and well thought out. son-of-a-gun One did not just pull up and shoot at the other guy.  

The seamanship involved with getting your massive sailing vessel into a position to shoot is one thing, but then there was the actual shooting and the inherent danger of being a member of the gun crew or on the gun decks to consider. But then at the time, you would not have considered such things as you were proud to be a member of the gun crew on any vessel, be they Rogue Pirates or sailing for King & Country.


Below is a complete description of the process by which a sailing ship would fire just one gun, consider then if you multiply that one, by a factor of ten, or even twenty per side, well you will get a small inkling of the concept of what it was like to be aboard a ship at sea in battle, and assigned to the gun deck. Pirating and or sailing a Ship of War, was not all fun and games like Johnny Depp movies portray… 

Firing of a 12 pounder 1805 naval cannon by the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson for the CS Forester Society. John Forester, son of CS Forester was present at the event.

To celebrate the amalgamation of Royal Navy museums, a rolling broadside was fired by HMS Victory. This was set up and fired by HFM Pyrotechnics in conjunction with The Master Gunner Ltd. HFM are a specialist pyrotechnics display company experienced in this type of activity. www.hfmgroup.com The filming and editing has been undertaken by Avalon Video Productions www.avalonvideo.co.uk

Process :

Constitution – under the command of Isaac Hull

Constitution – under the command of Isaac Hull

During the firing sequence, the lieutenants would shout out the orders throughout the gun deck, and the gun crews would carry them out. As the speed of a ship was limited by the wind, it could take hours for two opposing ships to get within gun range of each other, and the crew normally had plenty of time to prepare the ship for action. The Captain would call out “Clear for Action”, and this was the signal to convert the ship from a peace setting to a war footing, and required the crew to remain on alert until that command had been lifted, or action had ended. After the ship was cleared for action, the crew would report to their gun stations for the first set of commands.

Gun crews consisted of between a minimum of seven and a maximum of fourteen men around the gun. They consisted of the following:


Gun Captain: Fired the gun and assisted in its handling during combat.

Second Captain: Would normally act as a gun captain on the opposite side of the ship the gun captain was working on, if both sides of the ship were engaged.

Loader: stood to the left of the muzzle, and would load the gun with cartridges and shots, and wads.

Gun Crew

Gun Crew

Assistant Loader: Stood behind the loader, and would pass him wads and shots.

Sponger: Stood to the right of the gun muzzle, and rammed cartridges and shots down into the gun chamber with the rammer, as well as cleaned the gun vent with the worm, and sponged the inside of the gun down to extinguish stray sparks.

Assistant Sponger: Handed the sponger his tools in combat, standing directly behind him.

Handspike Man 1 and 2: These two stood behind the gun to the right and left. They elevate and depressed the gun using their handspikes, or giant wooden crowbars, and also levered the gun left or right.

Powder Carrier: Usually younger boys, they would hand the cartridge over to the loader, as well as run down to the magazine, retrieve a new cartridge, and bring it back up to the gun in order to keep the flow of powder moving in battle.

Auxiliaries: There were normally five auxiliaries, who stood on either side of the gun, and would haul on the side tackles to move the gun forward and point the muzzle out of the gun port.

All of this and the ship was at sea, pitching and rolling, with the guns wanting to break free from their restraints even when not being fired, to roll across the deck and crush a man jack to death under its massive weight…


Stylized by “Assassins Creed” but gives a good idea of the movement of a ship at sea.

The commands that were shouted out were as follows:


This was the first order shouted by lieutenants, and though achieving full silence in the middle of battle was next to impossible, the crew did their best to quiet down to hear the orders. Lieutenants were assisted by speaking trumpets, in order to aid the carrying of their voices throughout the gun deck.

Cast loose your gun

What you are looking at is the gun deck of the American Sloop-of-War, USS Richmond. This photo was taken about the year 1900.

What you are looking at is the gun deck of the American Sloop-of-War, USS Richmond. This photo was taken about the year 1900.

Outside of combat, the guns were secured to the hull of the ship with side tackles and a rope that hung from the ceiling and was looped around the mouth of the gun, pointing it upward. Tompions, or “tompkins” as they were pronounced by the sailors, were plugs that were inserted into the mouth of the gun to keep out moisture and foreign objects while the guns were not in use. Upon hearing the order to cast loose your gun, the loader and sponger removed the rope from around the muzzle of the gun, so that it sank down, and both unhooked the side tackles on either side, and handed them over to the auxiliaries. The sponger and loader would open up the closed gun port, while the assistant sponger and two handspike men retrieved their tools from the hooks on the ceiling, and laid them out next to the gun. The gun captain also attached the gunlock to the gun, through the use of nuts and a bolt. The gunlock mechanism could be screwed right onto the back of the cannon.

Take out your tompion

The loader or sponger would pull out the tompion and let it hang under the muzzle by its lanyard. The gun captain attached the train tackle to the back of the gun, and also to the ring amidships. The train tackle prevented forward movement of the gun, while the breeching rope prevented backward movement. The auxiliaries would pull on the side tackles to move the gun back until it reached its limit with the breeching rope, and with the train tackle attached, the gun was immobile and could not move forward or back, and was ready for loading.

Level your gun

The handspike men would raise the breech (rear) of the gun up to allow the gun captain to insert the quoin, which was a wedge shaped block of wood, under the breech. He would push it in until the gun was level with the deck, or just about as perfect horizontally as he could get it.

Load with cartridge

The loader was handed the cartridge by the powder carrier. If it was the opening shot, the carrier would step forward with his salt box (a box that had salt on the inside to keep moisture off the cartridge), open it up, let the loader take out one of the two cartridges, and then step back. The loader would shove the cartridge into the gun’s muzzle, seam down. The loader was handed a wad by the assistant loader, and that was stuffed into the muzzle as well, in front of the cartridge. Both were rammed into the gun chamber by the sponger, who used the ramrod to do so. The gun captain would stick his vent pricker (a thin copper wire) down the vent into the gun chamber, and if he punctured the cartridge, he knew it was properly positioned. If not, the gun captain would call for the sponger to ram again, until the cartridge was in the gun chamber.

12pounder-FrenchShot and wad your gun

The loader was handed a shot from the assistant loader. The shots were stored in shot garlands, or loops of rope off to the side in between each gun, and were brought up before the battle from the shot locker in the hold during the “clear for action” stage. The loader would roll the shot into the muzzle, and hold his left hand over the mouth to keep the shot from rolling back out when the ship rolled. He would then receive a wad from the assistant loader, place that in front of the shot, and both would be rammed up against the wad in front of the cartridge by the sponger, who would then hand his rammer back to the assistant sponger to be placed on the deck.

Run out your gun

The gun captain would call out “heave!”, and the auxiliaries would begin to pull on the side tackles, moving the 3.5-ton weapon forward until its mouth stuck out the open gun port and its front wheels were right up against the hull of the ship. They would have to hold it there until the order to fire was given, though the French had a way of preventing this by looping the breeching rope several times around the gun, but the breeching rope would have to be unwound right before firing. The train tackle was unhooked at this time to allow the gun to move forward.


Powder Monkeys at the Ready


The gun captain thrust the vent pricker down the vent several times in order to rip the cartridge open and create a hole big enough to insert the firing quill, or fuse. He then poured a small amount of black powder into the pan of the gunlock from his powder horn before then snapping it closed.

Point your gun

This order was only given if the gun needed to be aimed. At close quarters this wasn’t necessary, but at longer ranges it was. The handspike men would either lever the gun right or left, or use their handspikes to force the breech up so that the gun captain could push the quoin further in if the gun needed to be depressed, or take the quoin out a bit if the gun needed to be elevated. The quarter gunners, Master’s mates, or Midshipmen would be responsible for deciding where to aim, unless they were countermanded by the lieutenants, who would receive their orders from the captain himself.


At this command, the auxiliaries would let go, and everyone would step back from the gun, lest they risked being crushed as it recoiled. The gun captain yanked the lanyard, and the gunlock snapped forward, the flint striking the metal frizzen, which produced a spark, opening up the lid to the pan of black powder, which the spark would ignite, which in turn would set the fuse alight and explode the powder in the cartridge, propelling the gun out of the barrel. This was a monstly instantaneous process. British ships tended to fire on a downward roll of the ship, to hit the hull of the enemy vessel and kill the crew, whereas French and Spanish gunners tended to fire on the upward roll to hit the masts and rigging and disable their opponents. British crews had a high amount of training in firing their guns, and could fire three shots every five minutes. The French and Spanish were slower, and generally could manage only one shot every eight minutes. As the gun recoiled, the gun captain quickly retrieved the train tackle as the right handspike man shoved his handspike down in front of the gun carriage to chock the wheels. The train tackle was attached, and gun was stopped from rolling forward, whereas the breeching rope arrested any further backward movement.

Serve your vent

This was a vital order, as the gun captain needed to prevent stray sparks from flying up into the open vent when the sponge was inserted. He placed his thumb into a thumb stall, a special leather pouch lined with horse hair that rested over the gun’s vent. He would close up the vent in order to prevent any sparks from flying up into the vacuum of the open vent when the sponge was inserted. If sparks flew up and then drifted back down, the loader could have his arm blown off when he inserted the next cartridge and it detonated prematurely. The stall prevented the gun captain from involuntarily jerking his thumb back when the hot air traveled up into the vent. It also protected his thumb from the heat.

Worm and sponge

A worm would only be used every three or four shots. It was a corkscrew wire on the end of a ramrod that would be inserted into the gun barrel by the sponger and run over the entrance to the vent to clear out any debris that might have gotten jammed in there. A wet sponge on the end of a ramrod was then dunked in a bucket of water, and the inside of the barrel was sponged down to extinguish any stray sparks. This would keep the cartridge from going off too soon when the loader inserted it into the muzzle. Sponging was done after every shot, whereas worming was done after every third or fourth shot.

After this, the lieutenants went back to “load with cartridge”, and the process was repeated.

Scene from "Master and Commander"

Scene from “Master and Commander”

Sources: Adkin, Mark. The Trafalgar Companion. London: Aurum Press, 2005.
Adkins, Roy. Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004