Wikipedia states that the first ricochet firing was performed in 1688. This other website says it may have existed in 1587. All those historical events are for cannonballs fired from the ground towards a ground target.

This article says that ricochet fire was performed by "naval gunners" in the 18th century. Thus, this technique was used by both ground and naval artillery.

I'm curious about how fast those usages were transferred and adapted from ground military to naval military in that time.

Let's consider a ricochet fire:

  • that is fired from a ship
  • that bounces on water
  • whose bounce is intentional
  • whose target is on water

When was such a fire fired for the first time?

  • 3
    As with skipping stones, conditions would have to be relatively calm to allow this. Also, I would venture that only the lower deck of a Ship of the Line could obtain a sufficiently low angle to start the skipping. The speculation that circumstances required near dead calm and a fleet action at short distances might help narrow the search for someone. Range is lost this way of course - but overshooting the target is wasted ammo as well. I suggest removing your final condition, as there is no reason to think that this might not first have been used to skip fire up onto a beach. Aug 3, 2020 at 11:19

1 Answer 1


Trafalgar seems to be the event at which specific ricochets are described:

Lieutenant des Touches, on board the Intrépide, later summed up the differences between the British gunners and those in the French and Spanish ships:

At that time our principle was to aim at the masts, and in order to produce any real damage, we wasted a mass of missiles that, fired into the hull of the enemy vessel, would have brought down part of the crew. ... the English, who fired horizontally and reached us through our wooden sides... [The English] used ... a horizontal fire, thanks to which, if they did not score a direct hit, they at least obtained a very effective ricochet.
—Adkins, 'Trafalgar'

The first specific mention of trials for ricochet are mentioned as in the early 19th century:

Ricochet was used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a technique for attacking ships with cannon balls ... The advantages of firing a cannon at small elevations above the horizontal as a technique in the naval warfare of the early 19th century have been described in detail by Sir Howard Douglas. ...

Within a range of about 600 yards, ricochet could be used to considerable effect and even at greater ranges the chances of producing some sort of damage to the target were greatly improved because slight errors in range did not necessarily imply that an enemy ship would be missed completely. Instead of falling short or passing over the top of the ship, the low trajectory and high horizontal component of velocity ensured that some part of the ship (usually the rigging) would be hit and damaged provided that the direction was good and the range sufficiently long. The reduced velocity of the projectile at the target after multiple impact meant that it was unable to penetrate the specially protected sides of a ship, but in carrying away rigging and thus immobilizing a ship it was a sound aggressive tacti. Such was the interest in this tactic that extensive tests were performed with various types of shot from on board H.M.S. ‘Excellent’ in 1838.

The same Sir Howard Douglas is cited in the USN 'Elementary Instruction in Naval Ordnance and Gunnery' from 1862, which writes extensively on ricochet, suggesting most naval officers would have known about the tactic by then:

When balls in ricocheting rebound with a less angle than 7 degrees, their penetrating power is lost. At the end of their flight, they do not rise at any angle, but literally roll on the water, and are then of service only against boats and small craft.

If then the water be smooth, and mere range be the object as in the case of acting against troops or craft, ricochet firing will be perhaps the most effective. But if penetration at the greatest distance be the ob­ject, it is best accomplished by resorting to all the elevation of the piece that circumstances will permit; which, as before remarked, in a ship's ports when on an even keel is usually not more than 10 or 12 degrees.

Douglas's 'Naval Gunnery' was first published in 1820.

  • Was the use of ricochet at Trafalgar an intentional use? The description seems to imply that it was an accidental side effect of the horizontal fire. Certainly, the descriptions of the battle seem to describe most engagements as being at very short ranges, where the stated disadvantage of ricochet fire (i.e. it was unable to penetrate the specially protected sides of a ship) would seem to dissuade it's intentional use.
    – Steve Bird
    Aug 3, 2020 at 12:58
  • @SteveBird: It's my reading that the horizontal fire was purposeful (though a ricochet would have been a side-effect of this purposeful decision). I don't think that this was the first time, though, but it was the first time I could find out about.
    – gktscrk
    Aug 3, 2020 at 13:10
  • The different firing techniques of the Royal Navy vs., e.g., the French are well-attested: the RN aimed more at the hull, the French more at the rigging. This agreed well with the RN's emphasis on attacking with the wind (ships being pushed to leeward by the wind meant that their guns were aimed rather downward than upward), and on firing in the wave troughs. If at all, I believe that in shooting low, the hope was rather to hole the enemy below the waterline than to profit from a ricochet. ... Aug 3, 2020 at 21:16
  • 1
    ... I have read a lot of, e.g., Rodger and similar authors, and I cannot recall a single mention of the ricochet. I would say that the ricochet may have occurred to enterprising gunners and captains as an additional advantage of the emphasis on shooting low - but it was probably really an afterthought, not something consciously aimed for (apologies for the pun). I readily believe that the RN experimented with it - they did experiment with many, many different things, e.g. HMS Dart. Aug 3, 2020 at 21:20

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