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"Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail " Topic

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305 hits since 13 Dec 2017
©1994-2018 Bill Armintrout
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Tango0113 Dec 2017 2:04 p.m. PST

"Theodore Roosevelt's The Naval War of 1812 vividly made me aware of how sailing ships fought at sea, and dispelled many erroneous impressions that I had held. Among my more correct impressions is the supreme importance of maneuver. The ship could be moved only by the wind pressing on its sails or hull, by currents, by lines attached to anchors, docks, or the shore, or by oars, either sweeps of its own, or in small boats towing it. All these methods were used, sometimes desperately, to retain advantage of position, without which the ship was lost. The warship of 1800 had grown too large and unwieldy to be effectively managed by rowers. A ship sought weather gage of its enemy, so that it had freedom of maneuver, and could close if it wished. In every encounter of sail, wind and position were of supreme importance.

Next in material importance was armament. Smooth-bore cannon were the universal choice. No other invention except the wheel was better-suited to its duty, and remained less changed in fundamental nature from its inception in the 15th century, to its final disappearance in the middle of the 19th. The shock power of this instrument, on land as well as on sea, cannot be overestimated. The cannon was first of bronze, then of cast iron as this cheaper material became available. It was simply a smooth bore, closed at one end, with a touch hole drilled to the surface of the breech. It projected solid shot of cast iron or stone, later also bags of musket balls or grapeshot, and even lengths of chain, and other inventive loads for special purposes. Iron shot could be heated red-hot in a furnace to cause fires when embedded in a wooden hull or palisade. A shell was a hollow ball filled with powder and provided with a fuze that would be lighted when the shell was fired, sputtering as the shell flew, and finally setting off the powder, shattering the casing. This was purely an antipersonnel load. To fire a cannon, the bore was first swabbed with water to extinguish any sparks that would make loading unsafe. A measured quantity of gunpowder was then poured into the bore, and rammed down behind a wad of some material. A small amount of powder was also poured down the touch hole. The load was then rammed onto the wad. The gun was set to bear, and a match (a glowing stick called a slow-match was popular) touched to the touch-hole. A flash, a boom, a cloud of smoke, and the load was sent on its way at the speed of sound. The gun recoiled, hurling its mass backwards against any restraint provided. A gun rigidly mounted had to be very well mounted indeed, to prevent destruction of its mount. By 1800, the match had been replaced by some kind of lock that ignited the powder in the touch hole (or other kind of fuse) by a spark when a lanyard was pulled. Also, the powder, wad, and load could be pre-measured and packed in bags or cartridges to make loading faster. The phrase 'to spike a cannon' meant to disable it by driving a tapered wrought iron plug, or spike, down the touch hole with a hammer until it was level and firmly embedded. I suppose the spike could eventually be drilled out, but tools to do this were not readily available, and the process would take some time…"
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