HMS Victory – exercising the Great Guns

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    Malcolm Lewis

      With a ship’s company of over 800 men and only some 150 required to actually sail the ship in normal circumstances it was important to keep those aboard to man the great guns regularly occupied especially when moored in an anchorage for many days, even weeks.
      The gunnery operations were complex with not only men handling each three-ton cannon but with men in the magazines and supplying the gun decks with powder and shot. Doing the “U-tube walking tour” of the ship online and noting some cannon in the officer’s living spaces such as the Great Cabin and the wardroom I am interested as to how exercising the guns was organised. It is difficult to believe in what often was a daily routine, the living quarters of the officers, including the captain and admiral, were disrupted by the removal of partitions and furniture, much of which was sent down to the hold in actual battle situations with great rapidity.
      British ships were noted for their efficient gunnery honed by regular practice. It is difficult to find reference to the routine involved in exercising the guns. Perhaps on only infrequent occasions was the whole ship made ready for action and the daily exercises involved only small sections of the ship’s armament. Any suggestions would be welcome – many thanks.
      By the bye the interior of the great ship looks excellent after part completion of the restoration programme once you get used to seeing the Great Cabin painted in all white. Quite a contrast from the Victorian dark varnish.

      David Hepper

        Shipboard Life and Organisation (ed: Brian Lavery, NRS vol.138 1998) reproduced several documents which detailed the daily life during the 18th/19th century, and included some relevant material, particularly from Captain’s Orders.
        Those of HMS Amazon 1799 by Captain Edward Riou are very detailed and includes the following =
        “For the attainment of a perfect knowledge and expertness in the management of great guns, the gunner is every afternoon (Sunday excepted) if nothing extraordinary intervenes, to exercise a part of the watch upon deck by one gun at a time, taking the men by turns from the quarter bill. And as there are belonging to each 18 pounder ten men (besides a boy) five of them should be of the starboard watch and five of the larboard watch. By which means ten men of the watch on deck belonging to two guns nearest together will exercise at one gun …. etc etc”
        And from St Vincent’s Orders for the Mediterranean Fleet 1795 =
        “…it is my direction that every ship, whether at sea or in harbour, exercise at least five guns every day under the direction of the officer who has the morning watch and that they practice with locks, the lanyards not to reach the decks in order to prevent any accidents by the guns running in; and that it may be noted in the log book every day signed by the officer who performed that service”

        The same volume reproduced the Gunners Accounts of the Victory in 1793 which shows some expenditure of powder in practice, but little shot, and then noted as being for ‘shooting at a mark’, which implies that exercise was regular, but involved a limited number of guns each time, and would be to practice the motions of loading and running out the guns and firing the priming, but not expending valuable shot.

        Writing in the first half of the 19th century, Captain William Glascock in The Naval Officer’s Manual (London 2nd edition 1848) claimed that “It has long been the custom of the service to exercise a certain portion of the ship’s company at quarters. This is a most proper and desirable system to pursue, so long as the men composing the division to be exercised pertain not to the watch below. After the fatigue of the morning watch, and particularly the labour cleaning the lower deck, to be called away from their little leisure to exercise the great guns, is to the foremast men a source of annoyance….” and further that “The officer superintending the exercise at guns complains that the moment he commences a movement with his men, they are called away by the lieutenant in charge of the deck to ‘brail up the driver’, or ‘brace up the main-yard’, and during that time the seamen of the watch below grumble, that they have to ‘work double tides’ at the side-tackles etc, pending the absence of the people called away to trim sails”
        Glascock said that “A clear sighted officer, not wedded to antiquated notions” could better order things, ensuring that one part of the watch could exercise at the guns, leaving the second part to tend to the sails, and not disturb the watch below.

        Malcolm Lewis

          I am grateful for David Hepper’s references. It is interesting that, apart from frigates of the time such as the Amazon which only had guns on one deck, those ships of the line with two or three-gun decks appear to have only exercised guns on their upper or weather decks and then only a few at a time. This seems to have been done so as not to disturb officers whose quarters housed cannon and seamen living on the lower decks. In the 100-gun Victory there were twenty-two guns located in the officers’ quarters and the sick bay.
          If this was the case it is remarkable that a fighting machine such as Victory functioned so efficiently in battle. Somehow seamen had to be trained to bring up heavy 42 pdr shot from the hold and load it in the shot garlands and then the guns standing on a rolling deck. The guns were very tightly spaced and only about five feet apart so working in such cramped conditions would have been difficult.
          Possibly training for these situations was done separately. Engagements with the enemy occurred at slow speeds and combatants saw one another at great distances so clearing decks and preparing the guns was allowed good amount of time.

          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.

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