Cartridge Size at the Battle of the Nile, 1798

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    Sam Willis

    Hello Everyone,

    I’m trying to get a handle on the relative size of cartridges for cannon in the 1790s. I assume it varied according to the size of cannon. Can anyone give me an idea of how much powder was used to fire a 32-pounder? Some sort of description of size of the cartridge and of explosive force would be excellent.

    I am also wondering about the flames coming out of the barrel. Do we have any idea how far out they came? 2 feet? More?

    All gratefully appreciated

    Aldo Antonicelli

    At the end of the eighteen century and the first decades of the nineteenth, the weight of the ordinary powder charge for naval guns was approximately 1/3 of the weight of the ball. When the guns were double-shotted the weight was reduced. For carronades the ratio was reduced to compensate their reduced thikness.
    More exactly, according to Robert Simmons’ The Sea-gunner’s Vade-mecum of 1812, the cartridge’s weights for the guns and carronades of the Royal navy ships were as in the attached table.
    I do not know the dimensions of the cartridges used by the Royal Navy, but according to Texier de Norbec’s Recherches sur l’artillerie en general, printed in 1792, those of the cartridge used by the French Navy were (weight of ball/length mm/diameter mm/weight of powder kg): 36/650/264/5,9; 24/622/226/3,9; 18/595/205/2,9; 12/568/180/2,2. I think that the british cartridges had dimensions not very different.
    Hoping to have been of some help to you
    Best regards,

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    Gareth Cole

    Hi Sam,

    Can’t really add much more to Aldo’s comments but the following may be useful. Before 1801 there was no fixed amount for the weight of powder vs shot due to the varying quality of the powder. However, in April 1801 it was standardised at 1/3 weight of shot (for a single shot). Before that I would imagine that 1/3 is a good approximation for the heavier cannon.

    In terms of muzzle flash, some of the experiments carried out on Vasa replica cannon are on YouTube which may give you an idea. See and for examples. The second video perhaps shows it best from various angles. Note this is a 24pdr.

    In terms of recoil etc. in tests in November 1813 with a service charge (i.e. 1/3 weight of shot) a 32pdr recoiled 12′ 6″ at point blank firing on its first round and 17′ 7″ by its 11th round. In contrast, the 10th round fired at an 8 degree elevation had a recoil of 11′ 11″. (ADM 1/4021)

    To get an idea of the size of the cartridge a standard powder barrel held 90lbs of powder so each barrel held ~8.4 firings worth of powder for a 32pdr. I haven’t been down there for a while but I imagine Portsmouth have some on show on Victory? The calibre of a 32pdr was said to be 6.41″ so the cartridge couldn’t have been wider than that in diameter.


    Nicholas Blake

    Captain Keats includes in his letter book (ADM 80/136 at Kew) an order received from Lord Howe 19.09.93 detailing the charges of powder (attached). There are different values but service is the relevant one. A note in his out-letters dated 04.04.01 (ADM 80/141) shows that a 32lbr had a ‘first proportion’ of 11lb and a ‘second proportion’ of 9lb 8oz, so his order of 1793 is probably correct for the Nile.

    Mark Adkin’s “Trafalgar Companion” has an illustration on p237 of a 32lbr with equipment; it shows a cartridge resting against a cartridge box, and helpfully there is a photo of a cartridge box recovered from HMS Invincible on p154 of Marl McGuane’s “Heart of Oak”, which says it is 48cm tall and carried two or three bags of powder plus the wads. There is no source for the Adkin picture but I have found his book reliable.

    Lavery’s “Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War” notes on p136 that cartridges could be made of paper, flannel, or parchment, and in 1793 cartridges for grapeshot and caseshot should have bottoms of flannel and tops of paper, and after this flannel cartridges were more popular “because they do not retain the fire”. He also says that there is no trace of parchment in the later eighteenth century but the 1790 R&I state (p.102 art. VII) that the gunner is to keep only three rounds in parchment cartridges at a time, because they only lasted three weeks.

    On p138 he has a diagram of a gun of unspecified calibre of 1796 in which the cartridge has almost the same diameter as the calibre of the gun and is in the diagram 32mm long compared to the ball’s 12mm and the wad’s 12mm.

    So the short answer is diameter – to fit the gun closely; length – about one and a third times the ball plus wad, or about 20cm.

    N. Blake

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    Sam Willis

    Thankyou all very much for your help.

    David Manthey

    I’ve collected a number of references which can show the ranges produced with different gunpowders and shot. One, which is based on data compiled at Woolwich, is Adye, Ralph Willet, “The Bombardier, and Pocket Gunner.” Boston: E. Larkin, 1804. He gives “Ranges with Sea Service Iron Guns. 1796”, which includes a table where the charges are typically either 1/3 or 1/4 of the weight of the ball. For 32 pounders, elevate at 2 degrees and use 1/3 the ball weight as the charge to get an expected range of 1200 yards (single shot, range to first graze). Using 1/4 the weight, you get a range of 1000 yards. He goes on with different elevations and expected ranges.

    Robertson, John, “A Treatise of Mathematical Instruments.” London: printed for J. Nourse, 1775, gives some artificial textbook examples where he uses changes that are 2/3 the weight of the ball (16lb of powder with a 24lb ball), but his ranges are clearly maths exercises and not based on reality.

    Smith, George. “An Universal Military Dictionary,” London: J. Millan, 1779, gives a “Table of fittest charges for various guns” where the charges are either 1/2 or 1/3 the weight of the ball, with 1/3 being the more common. For a 32 lb ball, 10 lb 12 oz of powder yields a measured range of 2103 yards at 5 degrees and 2118 yards at 5 degrees 30 minutes.

    d’Antoni, Alessandro Vittorio Papacino and Captain Thompson, trans. “A Treatise on Gun-powder; a Treatise on Firearms; and a Treatise on the Service of
    Artillery in Time of War,” London: T. and J. Egerton, 1789, gives examples with 32lb (Piedmont, about 26lb English) with charges ranging from 11 lb 8oz to 18 lb (English — the translation converts the charges, but not the ball). Some of d’Antoni’s earlier works use 8 to 12 lb Piedmont for charges for a 32 lb ball.

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