The popular image of a powder monkey from the Age of Fighting Sail is that of an impish youngster who, in battle, would dash below decks through all the noise and mayhem to the ship’s magazine, where he would get a powder charge to deliver to his assigned gun. This idea—formed in the public mind largely by the movies—gets wrong both the character of a powder monkey and the way he functioned.
In the early U.S. Navy, any enlistee without previous experience would be rated as a boy, regardless of his age. Such novices were ideal candidates to perform the simple task in combat of delivering powder charges to a designated gun—serving as powder monkeys. But men rated as ordinary seamen, the equivalent of today’s seamen apprentice, also were assigned the task on occasion. By the War of 1812, the rate of landsman was beginning to be applied to post-teenage newcomers, though the rate did not get standardized until 1838.
As for a powder monkey’s function, it is easiest to describe it in the context of an actual ship of the era. The USS Constitution, one of the largest ships in the early Navy, provides an excellent example. “Old Ironsides” is a frigate, a “full-rigged” warship (that is, with three square-rigged masts) with one covered gun deck and additional guns on the open weather deck above. Despite her nominal rating as a 44-gun frigate, in her battle with HMS Java in December 1812, the Constitution’s major weaponry consisted of 30 24-pounder long guns on the gun deck and 24 32-pounder carronades on the uncovered spar deck above. (Carronades were shorter, with less range than conventional cannon. They were much lighter, required smaller gun crews, and threw a ball with a smaller powder charge—better for close combat than long-range gunnery duels.) The ship’s larger powder magazine was aft, below the wardroom, and served the gun-deck battery. A smaller magazine was located in the forefoot at the bow to serve the carronades.
Shot lockers for both batteries were located under the orlop (lowest) deck immediately forward of the mainmast, deep in the ship. Here were kept solid round shot, as well as grape, cannister, and chain shot. In addition, round shot was stored between the guns and around the outer sides of the hatch coamings in shot garlands, shelves built on the bulwarks. To facilitate the delivery of powder charges to the great guns, a series of four scuttles was cut in either side of the gun deck just outboard of the centerline hatch coamings. The forwardmost pair were intended to speed passage of powder to the carronades on the spar deck. The other three pairs on either side were located at roughly the midpoints of the three gun divisions on the gun deck, each division comprising five guns per side.
When the ship “beat to quarters,” the gunner received the keys to the magazines, where he and his mates then took station. When the order to “load and run out” came, at the main magazine, the gunner or one of his mates passed a 6-pound clothbound gunpowder cartridge through a dampened felt fire screen to a man stationed in the entry passage. He, in turn, passed it to another on the next deck up, the berth deck. There, it was placed in a cylindrical hard-leather powder box, and then the box’s lid was closed. (A 6-pound full charge would have been placed in a box painted black; a reduced charge would go into a red box.)
A runner next received it and proceeded forward briskly but without running along the berth deck to his assigned scuttle, where another man was positioned to pass the boxes through the scuttle to the waiting powder monkeys of that division on the gun deck above. In just a few steps, each monkey passed a box to a member of his gun crew, who removed the cartridge and returned the container to him. The monkey then proceeded to the scuttle on the unengaged side of the deck and dropped his opened box through.
In preparation for battle, the scuttles on the unengaged side—ships ordinarily fired only port or starboard guns at one time, not both—were fitted with canvas chutes attached to the lower frame of the scuttle rim. These guided discarded powder boxes onto several swabs—wet, to dampen any loose powder grains that might be jarred loose in the drop—laid on the berth deck. An experienced sailor collected each box and knocked it against a fine mesh grate atop a water-filled fire tub as a further precaution against loose powder. He then handed it to a runner for return to the man aft on the same deck assigned to fill the boxes and send them on their way again. It is thought likely that the runners were drawn from among the nonwatchstanders known collectively as idlers: cooks, clerks, etc.
The 4-pound powder charges for the carronades, all coming from the forward magazine, were handled in much the same way. The boxes, painted black and white, were passed by ladders to the berth deck. A sailor then passed boxes through a scuttle to the gun deck; another passed it up a ladder in the forward corner of the main hatch to waiting powder monkeys on the engaged side of the forecastle. Powder boxes for the quarterdeck carronades similarly were run aft on the berth deck, then passed up through the steerage hatch ladders to powder monkeys on the spar deck. Returning powder monkeys sent their empty boxes down a chain of people along the unengaged side.
Because the average firing rate of a muzzle-loading cannon was quite slow—one shot every two to three minutes—and because there was a considerable supply of ready-service round shot on both decks, the need for priority delivery of more iron was much less than for gunpowder. In the Constitution, whips were rigged in the main hatches at the spar and gun deck levels, and small nets with shot could be raised from the forward end of the orlop deck adjacent to the shot lockers. To facilitate the process, toggles were spliced into the whips to stop the hoisting at just the right level for unloading. Unloaded shot was placed in the shot garlands, replacing expended rounds.
Only fragmentary records about ammunition loadouts and expenditure remain from that era. An estimate of the Constitution’s 1812 ammunition suggests she carried 3,900 24-pounder shot and 2,160 32s, along with about 25,000 pounds of gunpowder in the main magazine and an additional 5,600 forward. In her August 1812 fight with HMS Guerriere, the Constitution expended about 940 shot of both calibers and roughly 2,275 pounds of powder during the two-hour engagement. That equates to about 16 percent of her shot and 7 percent of powder. The disproportion reflects the fact that Captain Isaac Hull (and Commodore William Bainbridge, who would command the Constitution in her fight with HMS Java four months later) mostly fired double-shotted guns—earning quite economical victories.
And the powder monkeys? Some were quite young, but most were teenagers and young adults. Whatever their ages, their activity in battle was largely confined to running back and forth across a fairly small part of a single deck.