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.