The Three Most Influential Changes in the British Navy From AD. 660-1815

by Stephen Horn
based on The Safeguard of the Sea and The Command of the Ocean by N.A.M. Rodgers

The seas were an influential part of the British Nation. They were used for raids and invasions by other nations, and since Britain is an island its ships were an important part of its defense system. Some of the important changes that were made to ships during AD 660-1815 were the removal of infantry from the ships, the addition of cannon, and the additions in sails and masts. All of these changed the ships and their warfare. Around 660, the ship was the Viking ship, with one mast, and oars for when there was no wind. The main way the ships fought was with the soldiers on board. Around 1815, the ships were mainly men o’ war, with three masts and many sails. The main weapon on these was their cannon, men only boarding a small minority of the time.

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The first that we will discuss is the removal of infantry. They did not totally remove them at first, for the sailors still fought when they boarded the enemy. Instead, it was a change from men at arms to bowmen, who shot at the enemy before they boarded, or were boarded by the enemy. They became more of the main weapon instead of the infantry, but they still boarded the majority of the time. Before that, the ships were to carry the troops. If they were attacked by another ship, they would grapple, and the infantry would fight. By the end of the this period which we are talking about, the only ships that would grapple would be privateers and pirates because they had more men then a normal ship of their size. Also, Men o’ War would sometimes board, because they carried a lot of sailors, and sometimes even some marines. With the invention of cannons, a ship could be pounded with cannon fire, and surrender without the ships grappling.

Cannons were a great invention, and as said before, they greatly reduced ships grappling with each other. Trebuches and catapults had been on ships before, but they were mainly used against land fortresses, and not against other ships. The first cannon were very short range, and were only used to prepare the way for boarding. They mostly shot stones, and some of them even shot large arrows. Better cannons were made with rifling, and the powder was improved, which made them be able to shoot farther. Also, the English had invented a trigger mechanism to shoot their cannons, much like for a musket or rifle at that time. With this they had an advantage, because they could aim the cannons accurately. The cannons the Spanish used, the gunner would aim it, and then light the fuse. These cannons could hit a ship, but it was very hard for them to hit a direct part of the ship, since the ship would rock up and down and roll with the waves, and the cannon would not fire at what it was aimed. This is one of the reasons the British beat the Spaniards at the battle of Trafalgar. The Spaniards had captured some English ships with these cannons on them, but the Spanish did not see how it was useful. One of the types of cannons used was called a carronade. England was the only nation that had carronades, since they were invented in a cannon foundry located in England. Another type of gun was called a Long Nine. This was a nine pounder gun, but it had a disproportionately long barrel, which gave it a long range, and greater accuracy. They were usually mounter on pivots in the bow or the stern of a ship. Some ships were tried using all carronades, and some were tried with all long guns. The long guns could pound a ship that was far away, but if the ship came in close, then the long guns were not nearly as useful as the short barrel carronades, which generally had a wider barrel and could throw grapeshot much more effectively.

A Replica Carronade:

The last addition we will discuss is the main use of sails, without any oars. At the beginning of the period we have spoken of, the ships still had oars because there was no other was to go against the wind. When they found out how to go against the wind, most ships stopped carrying oars. This made them be able to carry less crew. With the invention of cannon, many sea powers made galleys, especially the French, because they could have one gun in the front, which sailing ships could not have because of the bowsprit. This gave them an advantage, because they could all advance in a line, with their guns firing, while the sailing ships had to turn their broadsides on them, and they could not go forward while they were shooting. Several ships had them on the two sides where the front sloped in, but these still left a blind spot in the front. Sometimes, if caught in a lull of the wind, galleys could attack and defeat sailing ships which could not go anywhere. The sailing ships could put boats out to pull the ship, but this was much slower than the trained galley rowers. One of the things which ships tried to do in battle was knock out one of the other ship’s masts. This would cripple the other ship so that they could maneuver around her and blow her up as they wished.

A Man O' War Engaged with two Galleys:

The addition of cannons, sails, and the removal of infantry changed the sea battles which followed. With sails they could go faster, and carry less crew with the addition of cannons. The ships stopped carrying infantry, because they could be killed easily by the cannons. Some large ships carried marines, so that they could do land operations, and also repel boarding parties, but most ships had none. The most important was probably the addition of cannons. This made infantry impracticable, and sails were made better so that there was not as many men on board to be killed, and the sails made the ships go faster.


Sky said...

This is so well written, commendations for this piece.

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