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In the autumn of 1778, Charles Gascoigne, a partner in the Carron Company of Scotland, contracted with Captain William Elphinstone to transport Carron products to London. In return, the company agreed to arm his ships with a new type of gun, subsequently known as the carronade. The carronade has been described as a "very short, light, carriage gun of relatively large bore, made to take a standard size of long-gun shot and project it, by means of a small charge of powder, against an enemy at close range.” This gun, the first real innovation in naval ordnance since the introduction of brass guns in the 16th century, was used extensively over the next half-century and was an important transitional piece between the old long gun and the new shell gun introduced in the mid-1800s.
The birth of the new weapon was nearly abortive on several occasions, and it was given up as hopeless more than once. In 1761, the Carron ironworks, named for the Carron river near Falkirk, cast its first gun, an experimental 6-pounder. Labor difficulties resulted in inferior worksmanship, and, when the Board of Ordnance rejected a number of its guns, the company decided to cast no more cannon.
In 1764, however, the firm made another attempt to produce dependable cannon, at the same time lowering its price to £l4 a ton to undersell competing firms. The Board, tempted by the attractive price, placed a large number of orders with Carron despite the fact that a higher proportion of its guns were rejected at proof than those of other companies.
When a number of Carron guns burst on board ship and tests of their metal showed them to be of inferior quality, the Board of Ordnance in 1773 informed the firm that it wanted no more of its guns; Carron cannon were ordered removed from Royal Navy vessels. This should have marked the end of the firm’s venture into the manufacture of ordnance, but, instead of accepting defeat, the partners resolved to continue making guns of improved quality. Carron began boring its cannon from solid metal instead of casting around a core, thereby producing stronger guns, and attempted to sell some of these to the Board. The improved cannon passed proof tests, but the Board was not impressed. Qualified or not, it wanted no more guns from a company which had such a poor record.
Carron continued to cast ordnance in increasing quantities, however, and by 1776, orders were flowing in from foreign and private customers, principally Spaniards and British merchants who had to arm their own vessels. But, despite repeated requests from the company, the Board of Ordnance still refused to consider Carron cannon.
In 1776, the company introduced guns of lighter weight. The 6-pounder, for example, was reduced from
13% to 16% hundred weights (cwt) to from 8 to 8'/2 cwts. This new gun was the prototype of the future carronade. The Board of Ordnance, which insisted that guns be made according to the proportions of the Establishment of 1743, was not interested in the new weapons. But private sources were, and orders increased. It was in this period that the carronade made its appearance, through Gascoigne’s bargain with Elphinstone. Word of the carronade (also known as the "gasconade” in this early period) soon spread, and Glasgow merchants were ordering the new cannon as early as November 1778. The first sale occurred that month when agents in Liverpool purchased 16 carronades to arm the Spitfire, a 200-ton vessel fitting out there. The Spitfire was soon in action and did well against heavy odds, for the carronade proved effective. By early 1779, there was a considerable demand for the new gun.
A number of small vessels were soon armed writh carronades, including privateers sailing against the American colonies. The captain of the Sharp, out of Glasgow, attributed his victory in an engagement neat Cape Clear to the new gun, saying that "he never intended to arm with anything else in the future.” When the Hawke, also of Glasgow, fought off two privateers in the Bay of Biscay in July 1779, her success was also attributed to the carronade. It was clear that, for merchant vessels at least, a light, short gun throwing a large ball and worked by a small number of men, was a considerable asset.
Actions such as these helped to spread the fame of the carronade. By May 1779, the Earl of Dunmorc persuaded George III to order the new weapon tested at the Royal Arsenal of Woolwich. Although the Board of Ordnance remained skeptical and preferred the old long gun, chiefly because of greater range (perhaps a feeling of dissatisfaction with Carron also lingered), the Navy Board pointed out the advantages for a smaller vessel which could, with the carronade, throw a greater weight of broadside. The example of the frigate Flora was cited. The boatswain of the vessel, assisted only by a boy, was able to fire a number of rounds from a forecastle 18-poundcr carronade against the French frigate Nymph, ultimately the prize of the English ship. In July 1779, the carronade was accepted, and the Admiralty demanded large numbers of them.
The lightness of the carronade allowed it to be mounted where a heavier long gun could not be supported—as on the poop and forecastle. The savings in weight and space made the carronade especially popular in the smaller classes of frigates, brigs, and sloops. The carronade, in fact, became the principal armament of British brigs.
The Navy Board drew up a scale for arming different rates of vessels with the carronades. An Admiralty
The Carronade 67
Order of 13 July 1779, assigned some carronades to ach class of ship. On 1st rates of 100 guns, a pair °f carronades were added on the forecastle and eight *ore on the poop; 2nd, 3rd and 4th rates had two Counted on the poop and six on the forecastle; 5th and 6th rates had carronades only on the forecastle. The poop deck, which was simply the roof of the captain’s cabin, was reinforced to serve as a platform for carronades. For the smaller ships, ports were cut ■n the forecastles and quarterdecks, and in some cases from 4 to 12 carronades were mounted on the poop decks. Captains, upon application, were permitted to "ary the proportion of long guns to carronades. Generally speaking, the carronade replaced the small long gun °f 4- to 12-pound shot on board navy vessels; in the smaller ships there was a shift to carronades, while in the bigger vessels long guns remained in favor.
The carronade continued to be a controversial "'capon throughout its existence. One effect of this was the anomaly that the carronade, while officially sanctioned, was not recognized in the Royal Navy as part of orthodox ship armament. Despite its shortcomings wd controversy about its effectiveness, however, the carronade increased in popularity until, by January 1781, there were 429 ships in the Royal Navy mounting a total of 604 carronades (286 12-pounders; 306 18-pounders; four 24-pounders; and, making their first appearance on the list, eight 32-pounders).
We do not know with any certainty who invented 'he carronade. Most sources—including John Dahlgren and the British naval historian William James—have given credit to General Robert Melville. There are, however, three principal claimants: Melville, Patrick Miller, and Charles Gascoigne. Melville, an infantry officer interested in gunnery, carried on a wide correspondence, including exchanges with Gascoigne. He was at the very least consulted about the development of the new weapon and very likely made valuable suggestions. He was present at some of the early trials and demonstrations, but his claim to have invented the carronade is weakened by the fact that he did not assert it until late in life. He appears to have suggested the heavier, 68-pound carronades, and he claims to have given them the title of "smashers.” But Roy H. Camp- hell, author of Carrun Company, asserts that the smaller carronades were developed first. The strongest point in Melville’s favor is that he suggested chambering the guns, which may have been the idea Gascoigne lacked.
Patrick Miller was a banker and merchant of Edinburgh who made a strong bid to be acknowledged as the inventor of the carronade, inspired by the famous leathern guns of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. He claims to have ordered the guns for the Spitfire cast at Carron according to his directions, but this has not
been substantiated. Miller, like Melville, was interested in the development of a heavy carronade, and records of the firm indicate an order for a 132-pounder.
The third claimant was Charles Gascoigne. His main claim is in the company records which list letters to several founders sent in 1779 warning them not to imitate "our C. G. Esqrs. invention.” The letters may help substantiate his claim, but they served no other purpose—the carronade was being copied as early as 1780.
All three men—Melville, Miller, and Gascoigne— were certainly involved with the carronade. Probably Melville and Gascoigne have the strongest claims as its inventor, with Miller’s role largely that of promoting and publicizing the work. It should also be pointed out, however, that the inventor or inventors of the carronade owed much to the work and theories of a number of others. One such individual worthy of mention was Benjamin Robbins, who in 1747 had advocated an increase in the caliber of guns at the expense of range. Robbins’ point was that most ship actions occurred at close range and the destruction caused depended on the size of the ball.
The carronade was cast in all calibers, but most commonly as 12-, 18-, 24-, and 32-pounders. Some guns resembling carronades in all other respects were cast with trunnions; the carronade had no trunnions, but was mounted on a bed by means of a bolt through a lug cast underneath the piece. The bed recoiled along a slide, held in place by means of another bolt in a slot in the slide. The slide was pivoted by a bolt to the ship’s side and it traversed on small rollers at the rear end of the slide. The gun was elevated by means of a wooden wedge (quoin) or a screw device through the cascabel (button) at the end of the gun. When fired, the carronade would recoil, pushing the bed back along the slide and against the breeching ropes. When reloaded, by means of a tackle of ropes and pulleys the gun crew would return the carronade to firing position. In addition to the absence of trunnions, all carronades had chambers and much less windage (the difference between the diameters of the shot and the bore) than contemporary long guns. There was no muzzle swell on the carronade but rather an enlargement of the bore at the muzzle to facilitate loading. All carronades were short, only about seven calibers in length. They weighed about 50 to 60 pounds of metal for every pound of shot, in contrast to a proportion far in excess of 100-to-one in long guns.
The advantages of such a weapon, particularly to a merchant vessel, are quite obvious. The gun, being short, was easily maneuvered and loaded, and required half as many gunners as long guns (William Falconer states in 1815 that a 42-pounder carronade was worked
Comparison of iron long guns and carronades c. 1810
42-pounder long gun
32-pounder long gun
24-pounder long gun
18-pounder long gun
12-pounder long gun
9-pounder long gun
6-pounder long gun
4-pounder long gun
3-pounder long gun
* Approximate. There arc some discrepancies in different source works.
0 a h a a I
by a crew of four, "without any exertion or difficulty.”) As Campbell sums up, "a smaller gun was now able to fire a heavier shot.” A 42-pounder carronade, while shorter than a 3-pounder long gun, actually weighed less than a 12-pounder. Carronades were not necessarily small guns, however; perhaps the most famous were the two 68-pounders mounted on the forecastle of HMS Victory, which acquitted themselves well at Trafalgar. Interestingly, the largest long guns in common use at the end of the 18th century were 32- and 42-pounders.
The ball fired from a carronade moved toward its target at a relatively slow velocity because of the small powder charge, but it produced a large irregular hole and considerable splintering. The splintering was important in producing casualties aboard the opposing vessel, and a ragged hole was also more difficult for ships’ carpenters to mend. The carronade used approximately one-third the service powder charge of its counterpart long gun (the powder charge for the carronade varied from one-eighth to one-twelfth the weight of shot). Owing to the low muzzle velocity, the windage on the carronade was sharply reduced. Further, since the carronade used the same size shot as other guns on board (diameter of shot was the datum on which windage and caliber of gun was based), it did not require special ammunition. Since the windage was so slight for the carronade, however, extreme caution had to be exercised in sizing the shot and protecting it from rust. A final advantage was that owing to the low powder charge, carronades burst only infrequently.
Figure 1 shows the differences between long guns and carronades at the beginning of the 19th century:
The carronade seemed ideally suited to close-in, "yard-arm” actions, the tactics most popular in the Royal Navy. There were, of course, disadvantages as well. In theory, the carronade, using less powder, would have less recoil. But Robert Simmons, writing in 1812, said that the recoil was "almost ungovernable.” The weapon was known to be particularly bothersome when double-shotted, something which could easily occur by error in the heat of battle. A double-shotted carronade was likely to be dismounted when fired. Furthermore, when the breeching stretched, the bolt in the slide struck the end of the slide and could break off, putting the gun out of action. The shortness of the carronade was a problem as well as advantage, for the burning of the charge often damaged the ship’s side and rigging. The chief weakness of the new weapon, however, which in the end would prove fatal, was its lack of range. Carronades were employed at "point-blank,” which meant approximately 450 yards for a 68-pounder and 230 for a 12-pounder.
Despite the controversy that accompanies most innovations, the carronade grew steadily in popularity. For some time, the new weapon remained exclusively British, for the French were slow to adopt it. In 1780, the French captured an English brig, the Finkastre, which was armed with carronades. The guns taken were used to arm the French frigate, La Precieuse, but the results do not seem to have been satisfactory. It was
The Carronade 69
not until 1787 that the first French carronades were adopted under the designation "Obusiers de Vais- seaux.” In contrast to their English counterparts, the French carronades were of bronze. It was not until 1804 that iron carronades, similar to the English models, replaced those of bronze.
Napoleon was particularly impressed with the value of the carronade. "In this war,” he wrote in March 1805, "the English have been the first to use carronades and everywhere they have done us great harm. We must hasten to perfect their system. . . He favored the abolition of light guns on shipboard and a standardization of caliber at 36-pounder long guns and 36- pounder carronades.
The date the Americans adopted the carronade is obscure, although it can be safely said to antedate the Revolutionary War. Carronades were certainly being produced in Jaunary 1799, by Henry Foxall of the Eagle Foundry of Philadelphia. As far as is known, he was the first American founder to bore cannon from the solid stock, using machinery he had himself constructed for this operation, as well as being the first to cast the carronade. The frigates Constellation, Philadelphia, United States, and Constitution all mounted carronades. There is mention in naval correspondence of July 1803 of the need to procure carronades for the Constitution and the brig Argus. Captain Edward Preble was instructed to obtain carronades in Boston if possible, but if not available he was to "take out any of the returning vessels, all that they have of a suitable kind.” There cannot have been many available at that time, at least of the larger sizes. Preble was advised that, while his project for installing 42-pounder carronades on the Constitution's upper deck was an excellent one, the guns could not be procured and he was authorized to purchase them in the Mediterranean. Other powers, such as the Spanish and Dutch, appear to have been late in adopting the carronade for their naval vessels.
The first major action involving the carronade occurred on 12 April 1782, between the fleets of Rodney and De Grasse. Carronades mounted on the Formidable, Duke, and other English vessels contributed to the heavy weight of metal which forced the French Admiral to surrender.
Perhaps the most dramatic victory ever won by the carronade occurred late that same year. The Navy Board had ordered an old 44, the Rainbow, to be experimentally armed with the largest carronades, a number of which were 68-pounders. The weight of metal the Rainbow could now deliver was nearly quadrupled from 318 pounds (44 long guns: two 6-pounders, 22 12 pounders and 20 18-pounders) to 1,238 pounds (48 carronades: six 32-pounders, 22 42-pounders and 20 68-pounders). Thus armed, in September 1782, the
Rainbow fell in with a large new French frigate, the Hebe, 38 guns (of which 28 were 18-pounder long guns). The French vessel, with a crew twice that of the English ship, was lured into action at close quarters. Owing to the bearing of the French vessel, one of the Rainbow's 32-pounder forecastle carronades was the first gun discharged. Several of its shot fell on the French vessel, whose captain concluded that if so much metal came from the forecastle he would not stand a chance against the enemy’s main battery. The Hebe fired a broadside pour I’honneur de pavilion and then surrendered, to become a valuable model for future British frigates. The French seem not to have appreciated the circumstances; the commander of the Hebe was cashiered and condemned to 15 years in prison.
2 18-pounder carronade, English. From Sir William Congreve, An Elementary Treatise on the Mounting of Naval Ordnance. London: J. Egerton, 1811.
S 32-pounder carronade, English. U. S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. Said to have been on board the Cyane during the War of 1812.
4 42-pounder carronade, American. U. S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. Cast in 1822; possibly a "gradual increase" design, named after the plan of 1816 to gradually increase the strength of the Naty.
3 24-pounder Congreve gun, English. Taken from a National Archives drawing of one of seventeen such guns taken from the English merchant brig Stranger by the USS Peacock in 181).
70 U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1973
The carronade continued to gain in popularity; captains of 36- and 38-gun frigates applied for and received permission to arm their vessels with 24-pounder car- ronades in lieu of the established armament of 18- pounder long guns. The conclusion of the War of the American Revolution in January 1783, ended experiments with the carronade, but it was already an established favorite in the Royal Navy, where there was a marked preference for close engagement.
The peak of the carronade’s popularity appears to have come during the French Revolution and the Napoleon wars when they saw extensive service on land as well as at sea; Nelson used them, as did Wellington. Captain Henry Trollope, who had commanded the Rainbow during the engagement with the Hebe, won another battle with the carronade during those wars. In 1795, he was in command of the Glutton, one of a few East Indiamen bought by the Admiralty and fitted out as a ship of war. She was armed exclusively with carronades—68-pounders in the broadside. On her way to join a squadron in the North Sea, she fell in with six French frigates, a brig-corvette and a cutter off the coast of Flanders. Believing her an easy prey, the French vessels engaged at close quarters but, one by one, were forced to haul off badly damaged.
The fatal weakness of the carronade was revealed during the War of 1812. The Americans, who preferred the long gun, had been more reluctant to employ the carronade than the British. American frigates were faster, stouter, and more heavily armed than their British counterparts. They carried carronades, but not in such heavy proportion as the British. The Americans also relied on the Columbiad, a weapon in length between the carronade and long gun. The British soon found themselves at a disadvantage when confronted by an enemy who could shoot with reasonable accuracy from long range. This spelled doom for the carronade- armed British ships on Lakes Erie and Ontario. The English commodore reported, "I found it impossible to bring them [the Americans] to close action. We remained in this mortifying situation five hours, having only six guns in all the squadron that would reach the enemy, not a carronade being fired.” The carronade, while formidable at close range, was no match at longer ranges for long guns, even of smaller caliber.
The tables were turned on the Americans later in the war. The American frigate Essex was armed almost exclusively with carronades. She was engaged by British warships, the Phoebe and the Cherub, both armed with long guns. The American vessel possessed superior speed—the essential factor for carronade armament; but the Essex was damaged early and her speed could not be used. The British ships were able to stand off at long-gun range and pound the American vessel. Dis
abled and on fire, the Essex was forced to surrender. It was now recognized that vessels should not be armed exclusively with carronades, and this engagement considerably tarnished the carronade’s reputation.
The carronade continued in use for some years longer. The French Commission visiting Great Britain in 1835 reported that "although still accounted part of the regular armament of older ships, the carronade was being replaced to a great extent by light guns in newer construction.” By 1849, The Times of London was observing that carronades were fit only for use by pirates; the last gun cast at Carron was in 1852.
What was the importance of the carronade in naval gunnery? Its introduction raised the whole question of windage and led to its reduction in all types of gun. It also demonstrated the tremendous advantages of quick-firing, and its adoption in ships-of-the line helped to bring about uniformity of caliber. With its introduction, the old swivels and howitzers were relegated to boats or Revenue Service cutters. The relatively smooth lines of the carronade were also an influence on the Congreve gun, particularly its muzzle, as well as subsequent gun types.
The carronade did not, unfortunately, lead directly to the shell gun, as might have been the case. Its large bore would have made it ideal for the projection of shells (hollow shot filled with powder). This was evidently not considered, probably because shells were inferior in range, accuracy, penetrating power, and the ability to stand over-charging or double-shotting. The explosive power of shells was not yet realized. It was not until the experiments of Colonel (later General) Paixhans of France at Brest in 1822 that the potential of shells was generally recognized. As Dahlgren noted in 1856: "The idea of General Melville included inci- dently all the elements of a naval shell system.” This, if properly developed, "might have anticipated the Paixhans system by half a century. . . . The use of shells was, at best, little more than a vague conception; its formidable powers unrealized, unnoticed, were doomed to lie dormant for nearly half a century after the carronade was invented, despite the evidence of actual trial and service.” In spite of this delay, the carronade was an important transitional weapon in naval gunnery.
A graduate of Virginia Military Institute in 1959, Professor Tucker was a Fulbright scholar in France during 1959-1960 He has M.A. and Ph D. degrees in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill During 1965-1967, he was on active duty w ith the Army as a captain and intelligence analyst in the Pentagon. Since 1967, he has been a member of the History Department of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth During the academic year 1969-1970, he was a Visiting Research Associate in naval history at the Smithsonian Institution.