The Anatomy of a Wooden Ship: Part 7- The Guns, Boats, and Insignia


Built in 1765 as an East India Merchantman for France, the USS Bonhomme Richard was placed at the disposal by John Paul Jones in 1779 as a loan during the American Revolution. While taking a beating by the HMS Serapis, it’s from this ship where Jones stated after being called to surrender, “Sir, I have not yet begun the fight.” Though it won the Battle of Flamborough Head and captured the Serapis, it sank shortly after. Nonetheless, the battle’s outcome was one of the factors convincing the French crown to back the colonies to become independent.

A series on wooden ship parts wouldn’t be complete without discussing the ship’s guns, boats, and insignia. Since sailing the open seas may involve naval battles and encounters with pirates, most of these their share of guns which mostly consisted of cannon. While naval battles and pirate encounters are often depicted in movies as glorious spectacles with lots of swordfights, they were actually quite horrifying involving cannonballs, bullets, and debris flying everywhere. And if you got hit, there was little chance you’d survive the encounter, at least with all your limbs since early modern medical care was appallingly dreadful. But wooden warships had different kinds of cannon and shot classified by the weight and depending on the damage they wanted to inflict on their enemies. Then we have the ship’s boats which were often used as landing craft, rescue boats, reconnaissance, whaling, and even life boats should the ship wreck, mutiny, or be lost in some kind of catastrophe. Yet, while these often consisted of rowboats, some of them also had sails of their own but to a lesser extent. And finally, we get to the insignia which consist of the ship’s flags to identify the country it’s from, its type, and communicate messages with other ships through some kind of flag code.

The Guns:

Bar Shot- an iron bar with a half-sphere from each end. Fired from a cannon to damage an enemy ship’s rigging. Also, a cannonball cut in half with an iron bar wrought in between.

Basilisk- a generic term for a bronze cannon of exceptional power. Used in the 15th and 16th centuries. Named after the ‘king serpent’ or dragon of legend which had a supposed deadly breath or stare. From the 17th century on, a term for a ship’s cannon firing 14 ½ pound stone or iron roundshot.

Bow Chaser or chase gun- a cannon mounted in the ship’s bow used in a chase at sea.

Brass Monkey- a brass tray for holding cannon balls. In cold conditions, it would contract and expel cannon balls it holds.

Breech- a cannon’s solid metal base from the cascabel to the concave inside bore.

Canister Shot- a canister filled with small solid balls for inflicting damage on personnel, rigging, and sails. Think of it as giant shotgun ammunition.

Cannon- an artillery weapon made of bronze or iron from the 16th century on which is usually mounted on a wheeled gun carriage. Early ship’s cannons resembled nothing more than a barrel strapped to a plank with the ‘plank’ later developed into the full gun carriage. Elevation angle could be altered by moving a wooden wedge-like block called a quoin, under the barrel’s base. Size ranged from a 4 pounder to a 60 pounder with “pounder” meaning the shot’s weight. In and before the 16 century, cannons were classified by size. By the 18th century, cannons were classified by the kind of roundshot they fired. A typical cannon’s muzzle velocity was anywhere between 900-1700 fps with a practical range of 400 to 600 meters. Smoothbore, black-powder cannon remained the dominant artillery until the mid-19th century.

Cannon-Perier- a ship’s cannon firing 24 ½ lb stone or iron shot.

Cannon-Royal- the original designation for a cannon firing 60-66 lb stone or iron roundshot.

Capsquare- a metal covering plate for a gun carriage, which passes over the cannon’s trunnions, and holds it in place while allowing pivot.

Carronade- a type of heavy ship armament mounted on a non-moving sliderail, rather than a wheeled carriage. Carronades are usually more powerful, but less accurate and with less range than a cannon. But at short range, it can be enormously destructive to the ship’s timbers. Adding these guns on a ship wasn’t reflected in the ship’s nominal gun rate. A 52-gun ship mounting 10 carronades was still desiganted as a 42.

Cascabel- a rounded projection at the muzzle loading cannon barrel’s breech’s rear.

Chain Shot- a chain with a solid ball at each end, fired from a cannon to inflict damage to a ship’s rigging and masts.

Culverin- a long-barreled heavy cannon used in the 16th and 17th centuries. Often an 18-pounder with 2 serpent-shaped handles and a muzzle velocity of over 1200 fps.

Demi-Cannon- a heavy cannon. Usually a 30-36 pounder.

Demi-Culverin- a long barreled cannon used in the 16th and 17th centuries. Normally a 9-13 pounder.

Falcon- a small anti-personnel cannon. Usually a 2-3 pounder.

Falconet- a small anti-personnel cannon. Usually a 1-1 ½ pounder.

Grapeshot- usually a canvas bag filled with golf-ball sized solid balls, placed over a metal plate fitting to the cannon’s bore. And fired to inflict damage to personnel, rigging, and sails.

Gun- a generic term for a carriage mounted cannon in warships. By the 18th century, guns were rated according to the weight of shot fired, anywhere from 1 pounder to 42 pounders.

Hollow Shot- a cast iron ball with a hollow interior filled with gunpowder. One of the culprits that made wooden warships obsolete.

Lombard- a small cannon used in the 15th and early 16th centuries used by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Long Nine- a cannon that fires a nine-pound shot at an extra-long range.

Minion- a type of cannon, usually a 4-5 pounder.

Mortar- a piece of high trajectory artillery that’s shorter and wider than a cannon. Used to bombard a target from above. A bomb vessel’s main armament.

Murderer- a small anti-personnel cannon.

Patero- a swivel gun.

Port-Piece- a small or short range cannon firing 8-12lb shot. Sometimes all the ship’s guns were referred as port pieces.

Quoin- a wooden wedge used to raise or lower a cannon’s breech to the proper to the proper level for targeting.

Rabonet- a small anti-personnel cannon, usually around a 1/3 pounder.

Rammer- a wooden rod to push the charge (gunpowder) and shot down into a cannon’s breech.

Roundshot- a cannonball. Like a solid stone and later iron ball fired from a cannon.

Saker- a relatively small cannon. Usually a 4-9 pounder.

Serpentine- a small anti-personnel cannon. Usually a ½ pounder.

Shot- general term for all projectiles fired from a ship’s guns.

Shot Rack- a wooden frame holding shot. Usually in multiple and easily accessible locations near the guns.

Six-Pounders- cannons that typically fire a 6lb iron ball.

Slow Match- a rope of braided hemp, often infused with gunpowder that slowly burned like a candle wick and was applied to the cannon’s touch hole in order to fire it.

Sponge- a damp sheepskin sponge attached to a wooden rod’s end or rope end used to extinguish any smoldering residue or embers in a cannon after firing. Meant to prevent a new charge from prematurely igniting for obvious safety reasons.

Star Shot- a small iron ring holding a dozen or so pivoting weighted bars which when fired from a cannon, spread out like a “star” to do damage to a ship’s rigging and crew.

Stern Chaser- a cannon mounted in the ship’s stern aimed behind the ship for use if it’s being chased.

Tomkin- a bung (wooden stopper) used as a cannon muzzle plug to prevent water from entering the gun.

Trunnion- a cylindrical projection on a cannon’s each side forming the axis on which it pivots, and by which it rests on a gun-carriage. Normally located near the cannon’s center of gravity, closer to the breech and base.

Turret- a high part on a military ship where guns are attached used to turn to shoot the guns in any direction.

Wad- a ball or cylinder rolled from old rope yarns and hay that acted as a stop keeping the shot and charge of power in the cannon’s breech while the ship was in motion at sea.

Worm- an iron corkscrew for removing the charge and wad or the charge’s remnants after the last cannon fire to avoid material build-up in the cannon’s barrel.

The Boats:

Barge- a 17th century long and narrow ship’s boat rowed by 10-20 oars and often used to transport senior officials.

Boat- a small open vessel for water travel by rowing or sailing. Used as a tender for shore landing parties, towing, warping, rescue missions, patrols, escape from mutiny, and more. Come in a variety of shapes and sizes, depending on time-period, geography, and function.

Currach- a small rounded boat made of hides stretched over a wicker frame.

Dinghy- a small wooden sailing boat. Often a tender to a larger ship.

Dory- a small, narrow flat-bottomed and shallow draft boat between 15-20ft long. Has usually high sides, sharp prow, and propelled by oars.

Jolly Boat- an all-purpose boat onboard a ship.

Longboat- the largest boat carried onboard a larger ship. Propelled by sail or oars.

Oar- a flattened wooden pole flattened at the outboard end when pulled. Used in pairs to propel a rowboat forward. Consists of 3 parts: a broad blade for making water contact, a shaft which is its main length, and the loom or handle.

Oarlock- a metal piece holding a rowboat’s oar.

Pot Boat- an ancient boat made from clay or similar material for use in inland waterways.

Punt- a 14-18ft square ended rowboat.

Quarter Boat- a boat hung from or located on a ship’s quarter.

Ro- a traditional Japanese sculling oar, similar to the Chinese yuloh.

Rowlock- a U-shaped or O-shaped hole cut in a ship boat’s gunwale where an oar is located, or any number of devices providing a pivot point for an oar while rowing. Often consisted of a swiveling U-shaped or O-shaped holder located just above the gunwale.

Skiff- a small, flat-bottomed ship’s boat with a small pointed bow and a square stem. Can be propelled by oars or sails.

Stretcher- a staff or wooden bar fixed athwart the boat’s bottom for a sailor’s feet to push off against while rowing.

Sweep- a long and heavy oar used for propelling a ship or boat.

Thole- a vertical wood piece in rowboat’s side to keep an oar in place.

Thwart- a usually traverse seat used to maintain the topsides’ shape in a small rowing boat.

Wherry- a light and fast 17th century ship’s boats.

Yuloh- a long Chinese oar placed over the stern used for both steering and sculling without being taken out of the water.

The Insignia:

Burgee- a small ship’s flag used for identification or signaling.

Ensign- a large standard, banner, or flag. Hoisted on the ensign-staff. Used to distinguish ships from different nations from each other and to characterize different naval squadrons.

Flag- the colors by which one nation is distinguished from another. Flown from the fore, main, or mizzen mast. On a warship, a banner signifying the Admiral’s ship from all the others in the squadron.

Jack- a flag to indicate nationality. Can be flown on either bow or stern.

Signal Flags- flags used for ship to ship communication. Were read from top to bottom and were possibly flown from halyards on all masts to convey a message or condition onboard. A ship usually in the harbor and on special occasion may be dressed with signal flags along the ship’s entire length just for show.

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