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"The Spanish at Trafalgar: Ships, cannons, men and ..." Topic

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741 hits since 7 Jun 2017
©1994-2017 Bill Armintrout
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Tango0108 Jun 2017 2:38 p.m. PST

…a problematic alliance.

"In order to suitably analyse a naval battle of the importance of Trafalgar, it should be established whether the victors had any decisive advantage in the technical field and, if so, of what did this consist. The British numerical superiority in ships with three decks, which were the largest and best equipped at the time, has traditionally been stressed, together with the widespread use of carronades, those short and relatively powerful guns of great calibre and a short range, but which had devastating effects over a short distance, which swept across the decks of the Spanish and French vessels, decimating their crews, preventing them from boarding and thus making it easier for the British.

Emphasis has also been placed on the better aim and firing speed of the British artillery as the fundamental reason for their victory. In the following pages, we will analyse these factors in some detail.

As other papers are going to examine the quality of the crews and the strategy and tactics, we will make only some specific comments on the crews. On the other hand, the highly difficult strategic situation of Spain at that time should be remembered. Spain was forced to ally itself with its main ideological enemy, revolutionary France, even though the latter had traditionally been allied with Spain against the pretensions of the colonial and naval dominance of Great Britain. This would lead to a total strategic rethink of the armed forces of the Spanish monarchy, and even if these were under threat at sea from their traditional English enemy, they feared the arrogance on land and even the interference shown by their dubious ally.

Finally, we shall point out how differences on the ideological front made it difficult for the Franco-Spanish alliance to be effective, especially for the seamen from the two countries, and the much greater ideological proximity between the Spanish and English sailors, which could be clearly seen from the chivalrous contact before and after Trafalgar…."
Free to read here

Hope you enjoy!


Andrew Preziosi Supporting Member of TMP09 Jun 2017 4:28 a.m. PST

Thanks, Armand!

Volunteer Fezian Inactive Member09 Jun 2017 8:07 a.m. PST

Awesome Armand, thank you for finding this for us.

Tango0109 Jun 2017 9:49 a.m. PST

Happy you enjoyed it my friends!. (smile)


devsdoc09 Jun 2017 5:49 p.m. PST

You find some wonderful bits around the internet. All I can say is think you. This post I enjoyed a lot. This site would be the poorer without you.
Be safe

Andrew Preziosi Supporting Member of TMP10 Jun 2017 6:55 a.m. PST


You are correct. Sometimes, even for a period of a few weeks, Tango hits little, or nothing… or even crap.

But…when he's on a roll, he comes up with some amazing material and finds, which is why I think he's worth his weight in gold!

Volunteer Fezian Inactive Member10 Jun 2017 7:27 a.m. PST

Ditto what Andrew and Rory said! Armand you are highly appreciated by many folks on TMP, not just Age of Sail. Your contributions are everywhere across all boards.

Tango0110 Jun 2017 10:50 a.m. PST

Many thanks for your kindly words my friends!. (big smile)


Blutarski10 Jun 2017 2:43 p.m. PST

Armand, thank you for your diligence in chasing down such items and articles for our enjoyment and education. This particular essay, although valid in certain areas, has some holes in it however specifically its attack upon the "myth of British gunnery".

Must run right now. More later.


Tango0111 Jun 2017 2:21 p.m. PST

A votre service mon cher ami!. (smile)


Blutarski12 Jun 2017 11:44 a.m. PST

Re the "myth of British gunnery" (and believe me, I am no believer in the triumphalist school of British Victorian naval history), there was nothing mythical about it. It was very effective.

Rate of Fire
We've all read the stories about Collingwood's "broadside per minute" rate of fire. This was never about a sustained rate of fire; it referred to an initial burst of rapid broadside fire. Collingwood trained his gun crews by telling them that, if they could deliver three well-directed broadsides within three minutes, no opponent could stand before them. His highly-trained crew proved able to deliver such a fire and events proved Collingwood's prediction to be largely correct. In terms of sustained rate of fire, Duffy and Padfield have pegged it somewhere between one rounder every 1.5 to 2 minutes for a properly drilled crew. Some anecdotal ammunition consumption figures from the AWI period, cited by either by Clowes or Allen (can't recall which), suggest a sub-3 minute rate of fire.

Why the difference at Trafalgar?
The Allies were arguably opposed on that day by the best led, most experienced and trained ships available to the British navy. For example, compare the types of British 74's under Nelson to the generality of 74's in the navy at the time. Their crews were, by and large, better drilled, better equipped (gun locks, quill primers, flannel cartridges) and probably healthier and better fed (see Duffy on this point). French and Spanish rate of fire was also hindered by their continued reliance upon 36lbr guns aboard the ships of their line-of-battle. These guns were extremely heavy, nearly the same weight as the British 42lbr which had been removed from their 1st-rate ships because they had been found to be too cumbersome and slow-firing. I don't think it was a coincidence that the post-Napoleonic Bourbon navy retired the 36lbr and adopted the 30lbr as a uniform caliber for all gun decks still heavy hitting, but handier with a better rate of fire.

Accuracy of Fire -
The British clearly preferred the doctrine of hulling fire. Hulling fire killed enemy crew, dismounted their guns, disrupted their shipboard command and control, holed the lower masts and cut up its fair share of their standing rigging, and would occasionally hole the enemy's hull below the waterline which would perforce require men to be called from the guns to man the pumps. The problem was that aimed fire at the hull of a ship at, say, 600+ yards is a functional non-sequitur; Experience over many years demonstrated to the British that 200-300 yards ("Musket Shot") was really the range limit for truly effective fire to be delivered by a ship at sea.

What about dismantling/dismasting fire? Dismasting fire has two definitions:

(A) Fire directed upon vulnerable points of masts and rigging with the intention of disabling. The British were impressed by the effectiveness of dismasting fire by both the French during the AWI and by American frigates during the War of 1812. But the French and Americans navies of those war periods were very well trained and equipped.

(B) The random effects upon masts, sails and rigging by generally ill aimed fire from poorly trained crews ….. which is largely what the British faced during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic War periods.

There was nothing especially unique or otherworldly about British gun crews. There were times when they faced opponents of fully equal gunnery skills: the Dutch, the French in the AWI and the wars prior to the 7YW, the Americans.

I can't say whether the British fired at 3x the rate of the French and Spanish at Trafalgar, but I'd take a bet that over the course of the fighting they fired twice as fast ….. and did so with much greater accuracy and effectiveness.


p.s. I will be at HCon running AoS games on Thursday (Great Frigate Actions), Friday (Willaumez vs Cochrane off Tortola) and Saturday (Nelson and the Inshore Squadron). Please look me up if you want to chat about AoS stuff.


SgtPrylo12 Jun 2017 12:31 p.m. PST

Couldn't have said it better, Blutarski. This article was an interesting read – thanks Armand – but it struck me as an author looking for facts to support excuses for the performance of the Spanish. Trafalgar was a clear example of well-trained and experienced crews vs poor crews. As B stated, when the British faced off against crews of equal skill the gap was much reduced, if not reversed.

Blutarski12 Jun 2017 12:40 p.m. PST

Sarge I noticed that the article was published in 2005 the bicentennial of Trafalgar. Don't absolutely know if that's meaningful, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the author was approached by the journal itself to produce an essay placing the Spanish effort in a more favorable/sympathetic light.

In a similar situation, there was concern in the UK regarding potential German sensitivities in connection with last year's Jutland centennial. The UK organizer made a special effort to reach out to the German academic community and involve them in a joint program.


Tango0113 Jun 2017 10:22 a.m. PST

Glad you like it too my friend!.

Great thread Blutarski… thanks!.


Mark Barker13 Jun 2017 12:09 p.m. PST

One of the Editors of the book that this article was originally published (in Spanish) presented at the 200th Anniversary Trafalgar Conference.

The Conference took particular care to invite French and Spanish speakers as well as British historians – we presented the movements of the battle itself using 1/1200 miniatures and a computer reconstruction.

This article is important to wargamers because amongst other things it lists (I think for the first time) the upgunned armament that the Spanish fleet left Cadiz with, especially on the top-decks. When this research came to light, we needed to change the factors for the ships involved and this also lead to replacement counters for GMT's Flying Colors that I worked on.

A few points to add to Blutarski's excellent overall review:-

1) Those rules that translate Collingwood's '3 broadsides in 5 minutes' into a 90 second reload time for the entire of the British fleet are wide of the mark. This was an exceptional performance by a commander famed for gunnery drill across the fleet, not the norm. It is like basing your average sprint speed for a foot soldier in a rule set on Jesse Owens or Usain Bolt …

2) Dumanoir's squadron conducted gunnery firing drill in the run up to Trafalgar and their initial reload times were in the same order as recorded British ones. What they could not do was sustain that output as their crews were undoubtedly less well fed than the British facing them (See Janet MacDonald's book on feeding the fleet that Duffy takes his points from). Even when blockading, the British fleet's daily calorific input was at levels we associate with an athlete in training.

3) Shipboard health was also better, Cadiz had recently suffered a widespread disease outbreak.

4) and finally, as if the advantages of being able to hold closer tolerances in cannon manufacture to reduce windage and make the carronade practicable across the fleet, British gunpowder manufactured using the new 'cylinder' method was more consistent and powerful. When captured French powder was tested it was found to have 20% less 'bang for the buck' than the British, meaning the British shot caused more damage when it arrived.

It was this combination of incremental technological improvement that produced the advantage that the British enjoyed, not any individual factor of Victorian racial superiority.

That said, do remember that when playing the British in this period winning is the done thing, by Gad !

Eventually the French get so tired of losing they decide to stop playing cricket entirely and invent the Ironclad …

(This is a joke, OK ?)

Mark Barker
The Inshore Squadron

devsdoc13 Jun 2017 12:31 p.m. PST

Hi Mark,
Would not the frist Broadside be loaded before the Battle?
So would the 2nd and 3rd broadsides be the only ones That where timed in the "3 broadsides in 5 minutes?"
I'm only thinking about it!
be safe

Mark Barker13 Jun 2017 1:57 p.m. PST

That has been written about a lot …

Yes, I see it is as the time to Fire, Reload, Fire, Reload, Fire – stop the clock !

Collingwood was of the view that no ship could resist getting hit by that at close range and would be effectively out of action.

Remember that the broadside was never discharged by all guns firing at the same time (even if much loved by video game animators), therefore you have to allow time in that 5 mins for a rolling discharge/firing by divisions.


Blutarski13 Jun 2017 3:57 p.m. PST

Re the missing obus and carronade armament data for Sta Trinidad, Rayo and Santa Ana, here is some armament data that a Spanish friend of mine succeeded in locating in Spanish archives some years ago:

Santissima Trinidad
16 x 24lbr obus
4 x 4lbr obus

Santa Ana
10 x 48lbr obus
2 x 32lbr obus
6 x 24lbr obus
4 x 4lbr obus

4 x 4lbr obus
4 x 28lbr carronade


devsdoc13 Jun 2017 4:00 p.m. PST

Thank you Mark
Be safe

Blutarski13 Jun 2017 4:14 p.m. PST

Re "broadside", it was a practical impossibility to assure an instantaneous discharge of all guns, even if all the guns were loaded, primed and run out and their gun captains calm and collected.

1 The guns were typically located on multiple decks, making coordination difficult at the least.

2 Depending upon the range and bearing of the target and the motion/maneuver of the firing ship there was no guarantee that all the guns would be bearing at the same moment in time.

3 Prior to the introduction of reliable gunlocks, firing by applying a smoldering linstock to loose priming powder likely would have produced a distinct variance in the time between lighting the priming powder and the actual discharge of the gun.

My belief is that broadsides were actually a very rapid succession of gun discharges, starting with the gun(s)furthest downwind, which would minimize the degree to which the smoke from one discharge might interfere with the laying of the next gun(s) to fire.


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