Reply To: HMS Victory – exercising the Great Guns

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Nicholas Blake

    The Admiralty were not entirely consistent in their approach to gunnery training.

    On the one hand they emphasized the duty of captains to train their men in great and small arms, and working the ship at the same time, 25 Nov 1812: Keith papers, III, 323

    My Lords trust that all the officers of H.M. ships must be convinced that upon the good discipline and proper training of their ship’s companies to the expert management of the guns the preservation of the high character of the British Navy must essentially depend, and that other works on which it is not unusual to employ the men are of very trifling importance when compared with a due preparation for the effective services of the day of battle.
    Their Lordships furthermore command me to say that they are strongly impressed with the advantage to be derived both to the officers and [the] men from the general exercise of the great guns and small arms taking place when you shall be manoeuvring your squadron in close order in the various evolutions of naval tactics, as both officers and men will thus [be] accustomed to the duties of working and fighting the ship at the same time. On such suitable occasions the respective officers should earnestly endeavour to impress upon the minds of the men that the successful issue of the battle will greatly depend on the cool steady and regular manner in which the guns shall be loosed, pointed and fired, and that nothing but the most perfect discipline and practice in these particulars can insure proper effect from their fire upon the enemy, and prevent accidents to themselves.

    On the other the supply of shot and powder for training was very limited.
    R&I, 1790, six charges per man for small arms, once a week for the first two months and once a month thereafter, and 4lb of musket shot ‘for them all once a Fortnight’; and five charges of powder and five of shot per month, for exercising the upper-deck guns.
    R&I, 1808, ‘He is to supply, at such times as the Captain shall direct, ammunition for the guns and musketry, not exceeding in each month, for six months after the guns are first received on board, one charge of powder and one round shot for one third of the number of the upper deck guns, in Ships of two or three decks; or one fourth for Ships of one deck; and twelve charges of musket cartridges with ball, and twenty-four without ball, for each man of one third part of the Seamen of the Ship’s company, and for all the Marines; not exceeding, after the first six months, one half that quantity for the guns, or muskets.

    The navy used the term “exercise of the great guns” to cover the training you describe – handling the guns on a cramped deck, running them in and out, loading and reloading, bringing up shot and powder. These examples are not untypical:

    Order to Sir Peter Parker, Bt, Admiral of the White, Portsmouth; Sir Richard King, Vice Admiral of the Red, Plymouth; Joseph Peyton, Esq, Vice Admiral of the Red, Downes [sic]; Charles Bucker, Esq, Vice Admiral of the Blue, Nore

    ‘It being of the utmost importance to the Public Service that such landmen as may be sent on board His Majesty’s Ships should be brought forward as expeditiously as possible in the use of Great Guns, Small Arms, and such parts of Sea Duty as can be acquired in the harbour; you are hereby required and directed to order the Captain of the Ship in which your Flag is hoisted to cause the Landmen and Ordinary Seamen to be exercised daily in the use of Great Guns, Small Arms and going aloft; in loosing and furling Sails, rowing in Boats, and such other exercises as may best conduce to the purposes abovementioned.
    And you are to cause to be entered in the Ships Log Book, the Times when the Men are so Exercised, and the number of men exercised on each day.’ 12 March 1795

    ADM 2/127, Orders and Instructions, 15 October 1794 to 3 March 1795, ff475-6

    Similar order for landsmen [sic] to be ‘initiated & instructed . . . in the several Duties of Seamen’, viz. ‘going aloft; reefing, handing, and furling the sails; Serving in Boats; Steering & Heaving the Lead; exercising; loading; unloading & securing the great Guns; using of Fire Arms’, referring to the 8th article of the additional printed regulations, to the ships of the Channel Fleet, 29 May 1795, ADM 80/136, in-letters of the Galatea

    Captain Pasley in the Sybil (28) in 1780 exercised great guns and small arms every Tuesday and Friday.

    When it came to a fleet action it was speed and efficiency in handling rather than accuracy that won the day.