I've run across a few references to a ship's magazine detonating during combat, and by all accounts the explosions were massive. I'm trying to put them into context a bit by figuring out how much gunpowder these ships had. The explosion of l'Orient in the battle of the Nile would be a fantastic example.

The only reference I could find was a story in a book called Astoria by Peter Stark, describing the Tonquin incident where, after a battle with the Tla-o-qui-aht tribe, five men were left alive aboard the ship. Four elected to abandon the ship aboard the longboat, while one remained aboard. He waited for the tribe to attempt to board the ship, then detonated the ship's magazine of 9,000 pounds of gunpowder.

This was a fairly small ship, though, with only ten cannon. How much could a ship-of-the-line such as l'Orient or the Victory carry in comparison?

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    I wouldn't call either l'Orient nor the Victory "average" ships of the line during the Napoleonic period. They were both 1st rates (100+ guns), whereas the average fleet vessel was a 74-gun ship.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 5:32

1 Answer 1


A quick search on the HMS Victory leads us to militarynavalhistory.net, where they have this to say concerning the armaments of the Victory:

The armament comprised thirty 32-pound cannons in the lower gun deck, twenty-eight 24-pound cannons on the middle gun deck, thirty 12-pound cannons on the upper gun deck, twelve 12-pound cannons on the quarterdeck and another two shooting forward on the forecastle. A special addition was the two 68-pound carronades placed on the forecastle, able to fire such huge projectiles at short range only. The carronades were mounted on partially rotating carriages which allowed to aim them either sidewards or frontally. The ship carried 35 tonnes of gunpowder and 120 tonnes of ammunition to serve her large artillery battery.

A Tonne is about 2,204.6 pounds, so 77,161 pounds of gunpowder on the Victory. (or 35,000 kg)

A similar figure can also be found in the publication:HMS Victory Pocket Manual 1805: Admiral Nelson's Flagship At Trafalgar By Peter Goodwin

The Victory had three powder magazines: the grand magazine and two ready hanging magazines. The former, approximately 32 square feet in area and 10 feet high, consisted of three main compartments creating an industrial assembly line. First was the pallating flat, containing 35 tons of gunpowder in 784 barrels, each containing 100lb (45kg) of powder. If ignited, this amount of gunpowder had the explosive equivalent of 47 tons of TNT.

For comparison, another ship of the line, the French ship César (1768), which was a 74-gun ship, (so a little more average then the Victory), had the following armaments:

César carried twenty-eight 36-pounder guns on her lower deck, and thirty 18-pounder guns on her upper deck. In addition, sixteen 8-pounder guns were distributed on the fore and aftcastle. In total César's armament weighed around 215 tons. 6,000 cannonballs, weighing some 67 tons, were carried. There was also around 8 tons of bar, chain and grape shot. 20 tons of gunpowder was embarked, stored in the form of cartridges or in bulk in the depths of the ship. On average, each gun had 50 to 60 cannonballs.

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    That makes it 31,751.46 kg for non-imperialists like me.
    – Jos
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 3:08
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    What kind of ton is that? Not today's 1000 kg? Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 6:50
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    Well that's a great example of massive rounding errors. 35 tonnes a 1000kg (it even says so in the Wikipedia article) are 35000kg which roughly translate to “more than 70000 pounds“ which should then translate to “more than 31,751.46 kg“ when calculating 70000/2204.6, (which doesn't make sense at all). Or you don't go that way around and it's just 35 tonnes, which is already metric.
    – DonQuiKong
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 6:59
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    1 tonne is 0.984 imperial tons so to a first approximation a metric tonne is the same as an old fashioned imperial ton.
    – uɐɪ
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 7:24
  • 9
    Some of the confusion may come from the fact that there are at least 3 different types of ton. Long tons, short tons, and metric tons. Unless we are certain which ton is used in the original source, converting is confusing: and that's assuming the source here isn't itself confusing units from an earlier source When the Victory was in service, the ton as used by the Royal Navy was 2240 lb or 1016 kg. Now, a ton can mean 2240 lb (1016 kg), 2000 lb (907 kg), or 1000kg (2204 lb) depending on context. Does anyone know which "ton" Peter Goodwin used in his book? I'd assume either long or metric
    – Jon Story
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 15:19

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