Koninklijke Vereniging - Société Royale



Bombars and Serpentines

It might be said that Naval Warfare as we understand it today did not exist prior w the invention of the cannon. True, there was warfare between ships, on the sea; but on analysis much of it comes down to laying one ship against another and then the two crews having it out, band to" hand, something they could equally well have done on dry land. The arrival of the cannon did not immediately change this. In fact the cannon became simply an accoutrement to the other weapons used in the mêlée. But gradually, as the cannon improved, the tactic of striking from a distance appeared, the importance of manoeuvre developed, and the whole science and art of naval warfare began to develop. It reached its zenith on 25 October 1944 \-when the U.S.S. Mississippi sank the Japanese Yamashiro salvoes of i6-inch gunfire at eleven miles range, and since then the face of naval warfare has turned away from 'the gun and towards the aircraft and the guided missile. But those intervening years contain some absorbing detail.

The question of who invented gunpowder and the gun, and its lack of positive answer, is one which has been most thoroughly ventilated in the past, and there is no need to explore it further. Indeed, the early days of gunnery appear to have had little significance for sailors. Theirs was a perilous enough calling without adding the hazards of mysterious explosive devices to it.

It seems probable that the Venetians were the first to put cannon into a warship. They had long enjoyed a measure of maritime superiority in the Mediterranean, using their fighting galleys, and in 1378 a fleet of these, armed with 'bombards', attacked the Austrian port of Zara and later captured Cataro. Earlier records speak of cannon being used in a sea fight between the Moors of Tunis and those of Seville in 1350, but the evidence seems doubtful; and there is an English record of 1358 which records the delivery of 'ij canons de ferr' and 'un canon de ferr ove II chambres et un outre de bras ove un chambre' to two of the King's ships, though this seems to be for the purposes of transportation to France rather Chan for armament.

The Venetian `bombard' was a species of short cannon firing a stone shot, and it was widely used as a land service weapon by them. Its application to the galley was a logical step, since the Venetians — and many others — had been accustomed to mounting various war engines — catapults, ballistae and slings — in the forecastle of their galleys, and substituting a bombard for these merely duplicated the progress in land armies where the cannon was gradually usurping the functions of the old engines. It is likely that this first recorded installation was done specifically for the purpose of bombarding Zara, but it was then perpetuated as the galley's main armament. Soon the fitting of a bombard in the forecastle, mounted so as to fire over the bow, became standard practice with the Venetian fleet, and as different natures of firearm were developed, small-calibre swivel guns appeared alongside the bombard so that fire could be directed to the rides of the ship.

Although no precise delineation of these early cannon remains, there can be little doubt of the form they took. Two methods of construction suggested themselves to the first gun makers, both based on existing techniques; cast­ing, as was done with bells, or building up from staves and hoops as was done with domestic tubs and barrels. The former method was, at that time, only applicable to brass, since the technique of casting iron had not yet been developed. But brass was an expensive material — in 1375 it was 20 pence a pound, while iron was but six pence —which tended to keep brass guns on the small side. Iron, being cheaper, was more favoured, but in the absence of a casting technique it was necessary to fabricate them from strips of wrought iron and 'blister steel', a primitive form of steel forged from bars of iron which had been kept air­tight in charcoal at a yellow heat for several days and then hammered together.

An interesting record of the manufacture of a cannon at Caen in 1375 has tome clown to us; this records how six smiths and nine labourers set up three forges in the market place. The 'cuve', or barrel, was made from 650 lb of best Spanish iron, which was first hammered out into strips. These were then built up around a former, probably of wood, so that the strips lay along the axis of the barrel, after which they were heated and hammered so as to weld them together. After this, more iron was used to manu­facture rings or hoops which were forced over the 'cuve' so as to reinforce it and hold the strips secure against the power of the explosion. After this the whole affair was tightly bound with rope, and rawhide was then sewn round to prevent rain attacking the rope or rusting the iron. An iron apron was bolted over the vent, so as w prevent rain entering the vent when the gun was loaded. Finally the cannon vas fitted to a bed built of elm, and secured there by various bolts and pins; stone shot were procured, and the gun was taken out of the town to be proof-fired, after which it was taken off to war.

The calibre of this cannon was not recorded, but since the construction used up 2110 lb of iron and 200 lb of steel, it was obviously a sizeable weapon. Nothing of such size could have been accommodated on a ship of the period, and while the seagoing cannon may have been built on similar lines, it is unlikely that they exceeded two or three inches in calibre or 300 lb in weight. Another factor contributing to the adoption of small calibres was the very practical one of expense; where iron cost six pence a pound, gunpowder cost 120 pence a pound, and it was obviously advantageous to use the smallest gun possible.

It follows that the early guns were, by virtue of their small calibre, purely anti-personnel weapons and were scarcely expected to be able to do serious damage to ships. Indeed, if contemporary prints and reports are to be believed, their prime purpose was not to fire outboard of the ship so much as to fire inboard, from the fore or after castle into the waist so as to deal with boarding parties. The nature of sea fighting remained the same, and the cannon merely made the affair more bloody.

These small man-killers came to be called 'serpentines', though the origin of this title is lost to us. The same word was applied to the contemporary gunpowder, and whether the powder's name begat that of the gun or vice versa, we cannot be sure. But the serpentines spread, and by the fifteenth century they were a common enough article on shipboard. And since they were there to be used, used they were, and in the using some disadvantages appeared. One of these was the problem of reloading; the usual method of loading the serpentine was simply to ladle a sufficient quantity of powder clown the barrel, follow it with a stone shot and a wad of straw or rag to hold it in place, sprinkle powder into the touch-hole or vent, and ignite it by apply­ing a hot iron or other flame. The land soldier found this eminently satisfactory; he arrived on the battlefield, posi­tioned his gun, loaded, fired, and immediately afterwards the tide of war rolled over him. Either he was behind the battle and masked from firing by his own side, or he was a prisoner; either way, speed of reloading bothered him not.

To the sailor, speed in reloading was everything; when the enemy were pouring over the side waving swords, there was no time to start fussing about with ladles and wads in order to get off a second shot. Moreover, with the muzzle of the serpentine poked over the side of the ship or the side of the castle, it meant swivelling the thing round to get at the muzzle, a highly inconvenient opera­tion in times of stress. From these considerations came the first attempts to load the gun from the breech end instead of from the muzzle - the `petrara'.

An early name for these guns was the Petrero da Braga' which suggests a Portuguese origin, and there are several specimens in the Lisbon Museu Militar which must date from the earliest days. The basic form of the petrara was of a tube open at both ends ; the rear end of the tube was internally tapered - according to one early reporter 'in the manner used for water pipes' - and into this was fitted the externally-tapered mouth of a separate chamber piece. This was simply a cylinder, closed at the rear and provided with a handle for lifting it into and out of position. Ob­viously, the chamber had to be securely held against the rear of the barrel, and this was done either by anchoring the barrel into a wooden bed with an upstanding end in front of which the chamber rested, or by fabricating an iron extension behind the barrel to hold the chamber and keep it aligned with the barrel. In either case, the chamber was prepared before time of need by loading with powder and wad; sometimes with powder, ball and wad, depending upon the ideas of the gunner in charge. One such loaded chamber was fitted behind the barrel and secured there with wedges, and, when the time came, was fired in the usual manner. The wedges were then quickly knocked out and the chamber removed; a ball loaded into the barrel; a fresh chamber dropped in place and wedged; and the gun fired once again. The whole sequence of load­ing could not have occupied more than half a minute with a well-practised crew, and a number of pre-loaded Cham­bers kept Kandy would have allowed several shots to be fired in quick succession.

On the face of it, this system appears to be quite sound; it is, after all, much the same thing as a present-day revolver, presenting Chambers to the barrel in quick suc­cession. But good as the theory may be, the practice was less good, largely because of the impossibility of obtaining a gas-tight joint between the chamber and the barrel the days when the most precise instrument for metal working was a chisel. Any mis-mating of the two connect­ing surfaces would permit a gas leak, and the temperature, pressure and velocity of the gas would rapidly erode a gutter into the joint faces. The next shot would permit a greater leak and more erosion, until within a short time there would be so much leakage that the gun would both lose power and be unsafe to fire. Examination of any petrara in a museum today will bear out this contention.

Nevertheless, for all its defect, the petrara solved the problem of hasty reloading, and it was to remain in use in minor-calibre guns for very many years. But, as was to be re-discovered in the nineteenth century, if a gun is to develop maximum power, then its breech closure must be perfect, and as the use of cannon for inter-ship combat grew, so the power needed grew with it and the petrara had to give way to the plain muzzle-loaded piece. Breechloading was only retained for small shipboard guns needed for close defence against boarders and for raking the decks of enemy ships when closing in to boarding distance.
Another factor in the decline of the breech-loader was the improvement in gunpowder. The early serpentine gunpowder was a simple mixture of sulphur, charcoal and nitre, ground into a fine powder. This had its drawbacks; when transported in the customary barrels, the heavier sulphur and nitre tended to settle through the mixture to the bottom of the barrel, leaving almost entirely charcoal at the top. The only remedy for this was to tip out the contents and re-mix them, and with gunpowder's great sensitivity to friction, this could be a hazardous business.
Another weakness was the fine powder's affinity for moisture, a particular difficulty aboard ship. And a final prob­lem was that the degree of ramming of the powder, into the gun, affected its performance; powder too firmly rammed would pack tightly, and the ignition flame passing down the vent would first burn on the outside of the mass before igniting it completely. This led to hang fires and diminution of power from failure to completely consume the powder before the shot had been ejected from the muzzle. Conversely, if the powder were not rammed well enough, it failed to generate a violent enough explosion due to the excessive air-space and, again, the performance fell away. Gauging the exact degree of ramming needed was part and parcel of the gunner's art.
In the middle of the fifteenth century, though, an unknown French experimenter perfected `corned powder' ; `corned', in this context, means `granulated' — as in corned beef. The gunpowder was made as before, by mechanical mixture of the three constituents, but was then mixed with water to form a paste, which was then spread thinly on plates and left to dry. When dry, this 'cake' was broken up and then passed through a sieve in order to produce -grains — or `corns' — of the requisite size. Three sizes were originally developed, a fine grain for hand guns and arquebuses, a medium and a large grain for various sizes of artillery. The advantages of this system were, firstly a regularity in the size of grain which led to a more predictable result from a given quantity of powder; secondly, that the powder could be rammed tightly into the gun chamber but, due to the irregular shape of the grains, there was sufficient space between them to allow the in­gress of flame, leading to efficient ignition of the whole mass and rapid explosion; and thirdly, the corned powder was more resistant to damp and less liable to generate fine explosive dust when in store. Because of the more efficient ignition, it was commonly found that less corned powder was needed to perform a specific task than had been needed with the old serpentine; or, looking at it from the point of view usually adopted by the gunners of the day, corned powder was more powerful when the same loading was used. There is no record of how many old guns were blown to pieces by the new corned powder before the gunners got used to its peculiarities.

As a result of the adoption of corned powder (though at first, it was regarded as an expensive luxury) breechloading took another backward step and the muzzle loader was universally adopted. Corned powder also searched out the weaknesses of the old built-up guns, so that cast ordnance became the rule. Cast bronze guns appeared in France in about 146o, and as the iron industry gradually improved, it became possible to cast guns of iron, a far cheaper material than bronze.

The problem of mounting the gun was met in simple fashion; no more than a grooved wooden bed into which the. gun barrel could lie, with a substantial block at the rear end to prevent the barrel recoiling out of the bed and some wrought-iron straps to hold it down. Ropes secured it in place, prevented the entire affair from recoiling too far, and enabled the gun's crew to slew it around in order to take a rudimentary aim. The question of varying the elevation appears not to have been catered for. If the ship was rolling — as the small ships of the day undoubtedly would. be — then it was simply a matter of waiting until it rolled the gun up to a suitable angle before applying the fire to the vent.

Smaller guns were slung into an iron frame mounted on a pivot and with an arm extending to the rear, so that they could be freely swung in any direction. So the armament of a ship might well consist of three or four bombards on wooden beds and six or more serpentines in swivel mountings, all disposed around the alter and fore castles where they would have the advantage of height and also be best positioned to cover the waist of the ship deal with boarders. And having thus catered for the advance of military science, the sailors were more or less content.


Towards the middle of the fifteenth century, gunfounding began to become a better-understood art. Some unknown Dutchman invented trunnions, short axles of metal protruding from the sides of the gun which allowed it to be held in supports and elevated. This addition appeared in field guns at first, and led to improved carriages, At much the same time it was found that a long gun barrel allowed the shot to go a greater distance. This, although it was then but imperfectly understood, was simple a matter of giving the propelling powder more time in which to burn and to impress its force on the bail ; this improved the muzzle velocity and hence the range. But all that was appreciated then was that the gun threw its shot harder and farther, and this feature attracted the attention of one or two sailors.

The Low Countries had, by this time, emerged as de premier source of artillery in Europe; Brabant, Dinant and Malines soon became renowned for the quality of their: cast bronze and later iron guns, and their products were exported to all parts. Inevitably, some of the specialists were also attracted to other countries ; King Henry VIII of England bought guns from Hans Poppenruyter of Malines but he also attracted one Peter Baude, who came to England and began to instruct local artisans in gunfounding. He was followed by Peter Van Colin, and these two men, with the assistance of Ralphe Hogge, cast the first English iron cannon in 1543.

Henry was fond of ordnance; he had, moreover, a fondness for ships, and the two were now to come together and take naval gunnery a further step. On rebuilding his father's ship Sovereign, he re-armed her, adding to the existing light serpentines four built-up iron guns of the class known then as `curtalls' and three bronze long guns known as `culverins'. Curtalls or courtalls, a narre which appears to have been a corruption, via the French, of `quarter-cannon', were originally land service siege weapons, usually of about 7 inches calibre. Culverins were long — some ten or eleven feet — with a calibre of about 5 inches. These two made a useful combination, the curtall launching a heavy bail at short range, while the culverin fired a lesser bail of about i 7-lb weight but could reach out farther.

In spite of this, it appears that the sea battles of the time were still fought on the same principles as before — close and board — though there was a brief salvo of cannon fire just before the vessels carne together, in the hope of reducing the number of effectives on the enemy deck. But in the early I5oos a major step was taken with the adoption of gun-ports cut in the side of the ship. This allowed more cannon to be mounted and, most important of all from the sailor's point of view, it enabled them to be placed lower down in the ship where their weight helped to stabilise the vessel instead of tending to imbalance it by being placed high up on the weather decks.

Henry's Mary Rose of 1513 had gunports, and in the following year his Henry Grâce à Dieu, the Great Harry, used them. This latter vessel had to use them, since  Henry stuffed it with 122 iron serpentines, twenty-two iron guns, two Spanish iron guns, eighteen `periers', two bronze culverins and a bronze curtall. The `periers' were shortbarrelled, large-calibre weapons intended for throwing stone shot. In order to accommodate all this ordnance a row of gun ports were cut into the hull at the level of the main deck, and the cannon were arrayed for the entire length, thus arriving at the 'broadside' configuration.


Henry was not entirely satisfied with his great ship, and in 1536 she was rebuilt. The stern was cut squarely and gun ports there allowed the mounting of `chase guns' ; two tiers of gunports in the hull doubled the broadside firepower, while more guns were mounted in the various levels of the after and fore castles. The full list of armament was revised, and although down in numbers represented a much greater fighting power. Four brass cannon, three bronze demi-cannon, four bronze culverins, two bronze demi-culverins, two cannon-periers, six bronze curtalls, fourteen built-up iron port-pieces, six built-up iron `slings' or %lingers', eight iron `fowlers', 102 iron serpentines and smaller pieces and Io° `hand-gonnes' to be fired by men manning the rails of the castles.
It is obvious that with this sort of array disposed in broadside tiers, plus the piled levels of guns on the castles, that boarding was becoming a hazardous business, any lesser ship coming up with the Great Harry would have her decks thoroughly blasted with gunfire before she ever got close enough to think of grappling, with the result that the tactics of sea warfare began a gradual change to the `stand-off fight' in which two ships stayed clear of each other and pounded until one or other gave way, after which grappling and boarding followed merely to underline the victory and secure the prize.

Another point which arises from the description of the armament of the Great Harry is that by this time there was a great deal of peculiar terminology creeping into the cannon business. Not only was there now the culverin, there was the demi-culverin and the `ordinary culverin' as well. Where all the names came from is not a question to be asked lightly, since some seem to be grounded in mythology, some are corruptions and some have no discernible basis at all. But standardisation was not apparent in ship or any other armament at that time, and gunfounders tended to cast guns on their own systems; what the ammunition supply problem must have been is another question entirely.

From time to time tables were produced, giving the titles and salient features of the different types of ordnance, but it is rare to find two tables which agree in every particular. Nevertheless, they are of use to give some idea of the comparative sizes, and one published in 1574 reads as follows :


Weight Calibre


















Extra Cannon



















































An interesting point about this table is the relative weights of shot and charge; in later years a rough rule of thumb was that the charge weight of gunpowder was one­-third to one-half of the shot weight, but here, as can be seen, it is more often the same weight as the shot, arguing a somewhat weaker powder and probably indicating that the old 'serpentine' powder was still in use.

The projectiles used with these guns were all solid shot — 'cannon balls' — though a surprisingly large proportion was of stone rather than iron. For a given sphere, a stone was lighter than an iron ball, developed a faster velocity, and threw less strain on the gun, so that the use of stone shot with built-up guns was almost mandatory. Only bronze or cast iron guns would stand up to the additional pressure developed in firing an iron ball ; and, of course, iron balls were more expensive. Land gunners were less concerned with this, because after the battle — or even during it — they could pick up expended balls from the ground and implement their ammunition stocks, but sailors were denied this relief.


Another innovation which arrived at about this time was the packing of gunpowder into cartridges for easier and safer loading. With greater numbers of guns on board ship, and with more gunners leaping about with firing matches in their bands, the prospect of having open barrels of powder about the deck and loading the charge by simple scooping the stuff into the bore was daunting. A far safer method was the weighing out of the charge at some convenient and quiet time, wrapping it in parchment and stowing it away in barrels. Then when needed, the `powder monkeys' or ship's boys could run back and forth bringing prepared cartridges. From a place of reasonable safety to the guns. Loading was simpler since the gunner simply thrust the prepared cartridge into the muzzle, havinig slashed it with his knife so as to expose some powder, and rammed it down into the gun chamber, following it with shot and wad.

By a fortuitous accident, much of the details of the ordnance of this period has been made available to us. In 1536 the Mary Rose, which Henry had built in 1513, was rebuilt, with fresh armament. In 1545, the French fleet attacked the Isle of Wight and Henry himself went to Portsmouth to supervise preparations for retaliation. The French being sighted, the English fleet set sail, but the Mary Rose suddenly developed a list, heeled over, and sank, taking most of her crew of zoo with her. The precise reason has never been established, but apparently the gunports, which were open, allowed water to enter once the heel had developed and compounded the mischief. The inrush of water increased the amount of heel until the heavy weight of guns on the upper deck took control and completed the fatal movement.

In 1836 some of the armament of the Mary Rose was recovered and is now to be seen in various museums. Since the ship vas setting forth to war, many of the recovered guns were loaded. Among them were built-up guns on wooden beds, cannon and demi-cannon cast of bronze and culverins. One carnage shows evidence of having had a pair of small wheels at the rear end, in order to facilitate running the guns in and out of the ports in action.
,ty the latter part of the fifteenth century wheels had become more common on ship carnages ; the simple wooden bed may have been easy to make, but it cannot have been easy to manipulate, and at an unknown date the first suggestions of the 'truck carnage' began to appear. The gun was mounted upon two stout side-pieces of timber, suitably shaped at their top edge to accept the trun­nions, which were then held in place by a curved strap of iron, the 'Cap-square'. Robust transoms joined these side pieces to form a box-like structure, and four small wheels or 'trucks' went on the bottom corners so that the whole equipment could be trundled about the deck by hand­spikes (a form of lever) and rope tackle. Small trucks were adequate on a smooth wooden deck; moreover they could be wedged easily, to prevent movement in a seaway, and, being small, they allowed the carnage to be run up close to the ship's side.

This very fact of the guns being close to the side also led to a change in the construction of the ship. By and large the ship had evolved into a straight-sided affair so as to encompass the greatest amount of space within its sides, but when the demands of war or defence began to place heavy masses of cannon along each side, questions of stability and equilibrium were raised. Again, the Mary Rose was a significant pointer in this matter ; once the ship heeled to a degree which brought a substantial portion of this mass of iron and bronze outboard of the waterline, balance rapidly became critical and disaster was likely. The solution adopted was to make the ship to a maximum width at the waterline and then gradually reduce the beam dimension at each successive higher deck, so that the main deck would be substantially narrower than the waterline. This technique, which became known as the `tumble-home', concentrated the weight Gloser to the axis of the ship so that any heeling motion had to be of gross magnitude before the weight of metal moved outside the bounds of the waterline; indeed, with this form of concentration a heeling movement capable of invoking disaster from the displacement of the weight of cannon would doubtless have provoked disaster in any case.



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