September 18, 2023
The utilization of cannons at sea marked a gradual yet transformative shift in both naval tactics and warship construction, commencing in the 14th century. The earliest marine cannons, likely handheld weapons, made their debut in Mediterranean galleys during the 13th or early 14th century, albeit in a minor capacity.
By the mid-14th century, navies including the English, French, and Spanish began incorporating cannons. Initially, these consisted primarily of smaller swivel guns or breech-loading deck cannons situated in fore and aft castles, with more formidable guns introduced later.
In the Mediterranean, galleys from Venice, Turkey, and Spain initially affixed heavy guns rigidly on timber beds, firing forward over the bow. However, by the late 15th century, sliding mounts for the main centerline bow gun, known as "pieces," gained prevalence. Despite some sizable pieces, the galley's lightweight structure limited them to a single large gun per vessel.
European cannons were initially fabricated from welded wrought-iron bars forming a tube, reinforced with an iron hoop. Early models were breechloaders with an open trough for loading, along with a cylindrical chamber filled with powder, wedged tightly. After 1500, brass muzzle-loaders, cast as one piece, replaced these designs.
Some muzzle-loaders of the era attained remarkable size, with mid-16th century ships boasting 60-pounders, firing 60-pound solid shots. During this period, advances in iron metallurgy led to the production of cast-iron cannons, gradually replacing brass cannons in ships, although brass remained prevalent for lighter calibers well into the 19th century.
Portuguese, Spanish, and subsequently French naval forces emerged as pioneers in crossing oceans with cannon-armed warships. Vasco da Gama's 1498 voyage to Calicut, India with a squadron of cannon-armed carracks marked a milestone. The Portuguese secured notable victories in the early 16th century using standoff artillery tactics against their Muslim adversaries in the East. Spanish ships patrolled the Caribbean with wrought-iron breech-loading cannons by the 1520s or '30s, with heavily armed French raiders not far behind.
In England, Henry VII established the first genuine oceangoing battle fleet, predominantly equipped with small breechloading guns. Henry VIII introduced gunports in English warships, a revolutionary development that greatly influenced ship design, enabling the incorporation of heavy-gun warships.
An early 16th-century English man-of-war typically carried four or five short-barreled cannon (curtals), a similar number of demicannon, and culverins. These cannons varied in range and firepower, with culverins being longer and more powerful, suitable for longer-range engagements. Complementing these formidable pieces were smaller weapons like demiculverins, sakers, falcons, falconets, and robinets.
A prominent 16th-century warship carried a total of large and small cannons, akin to those mounted on World War II battleships. The Henry Grace a Dieu, Henry VIII's renowned warship from 1514, boasted 186 guns in its original complement, including several iron "great guns" among predominantly smaller cannons.
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