This video shows a simulated gun drill (the process of loading and firing the gun) performed by the crew of the USS Constitution. I believe the video depicts loading of black powder and the use of a match? I've read in the Four Days' Battle the English were specifically keeping their distance from the Dutch to avoid being boarded, owing to the Dutch reputation in boarding. The broadsides went on for hours.

Would there be anything different a gun crew would be doing aboard a ship in the second half of the 17th century, especially on a Dutch ship, compared to the crew on the USS Constitution? I'm not asking if those manning the gun crews had other responsibilities. I want to know if the responsibilities to load and fire the cannon on the Constitution were the same responsibilities as those of a 17th century ship.

Is it generally safe to assume that the responsibilities onboard tall ships of the 17th century from different countries would be essentially the same?

I'm hoping to understand what a gun crew would be doing on a 17th century ship and wondered if what happens on an 18th century ship would be a worthwhile model.

  • 2
    They would not have female gun crew :) On serious note, there were many types of naval artillery on various carriages. In 17th century loading would probably take more time, they would use black powder and linstock. Cannonballs would be less standardized. In the early days it was not uncommon to fire cannons just once and then close in for grappling., but in late 17th century they would attempt to reload few times.
    – rs.29
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 5:35
  • Do you really mean 17th Century (1600s) or did you mean the 18th Century (1700s)? The latter would give a more accurate comparison with the USS Constitution.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 8:27
  • @SteveBird I meant 17th century. I wanted to know if there was a difference in the responsibilities over the course of 100+ years.
    – Bob516
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 13:36
  • @rs.29 Isn't the video is depicting the loading of black powder and the use of a match? I've read in the Four Days' Battle the English were specifically keeping their distance from the Dutch to avoid being boarded, owing to the Dutch reputation in boarding. The broadsides went on for hours.
    – Bob516
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 13:43
  • 1
    @Bob516, I've moved your comments into the question; OP should almost never comment on a question. OP should update the question to address the issues raised in the comments and then flag for deletion. The text of your question should contain everything you know about the subject; if people have to read long comment strings they are less likely to answer the question.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 13:40

4 Answers 4


Yes, they might have to crew a carronade.

A R Leonard points out, most of the time gun crews are not crewing guns. Crewing a gun is their secondary role. Their primary role can be anything. Guns require so many people to crew them, and there's only so much space on a ship, that everyone must have multiple roles. But those roles would be basically the same: keeping watch, working sails, hauling, cooking, cleaning, scrubbing, repairing, eating, sleeping...

enter image description here

(Sailing Ships of War by Dr Frank Howard)

As for the guns themselves, they were basically identical: smoothbore muzzle-loaders on a wooden, wheeled gun truck fired via a burning match applied to a touch hole out the side of the ship.

enter image description here

(Sailing Ships of War by Dr Frank Howard)

The late 18th century would see a few improvements: weight, flintlocks, and most significantly, carronades.


Rather than using a burning match to fire the guns, some guns in the late 18th century would use a flintlock mechanism to make a spark and fire the gun. This had its advantages and disadvantages.

The flintlock could be faster, and you were theoretically ready to fire at any time without keeping a lit match around piles of gunpowder. However, there were reliability concerns and relatively expensive. A slow match is simpler, cheaper, more reliable, and had no moving parts to maintain or break. Either way, the slow match was always available as a backup.

Flintlocks would not significantly change the drill. Rather than firing the gun with a burning match, the lock would be cocked and fired by the gun captain pulling a lanyard.

Gun Weight

Thus a 17th century sailor is unlikely to even encounter a gun of the size carried on USS Constitution.

Naval guns are very, very, very heavy. A ship can only carry so many. Ships of the late 18th century were built much more strongly than ships of the late 17th, particularly the US heavy frigates. USS Constitution can carry more guns and heavier guns than a comparable 17th century ship.

"Frigates" were relatively new in the late 17th century. A heavy "ship of the line" or "line of battle ship" or simply "battle ship" was designed to be heavily armed and blaze away at the enemy in a line of battle. Speed and maneuverability were not paramount concerns. In contrast, frigates were purpose built warships that were fast and handy enough to catch most civilian vessels, and armed well enough to defeat them, but not armed well enough to stand in a line of battle. They were for patrol and escort cruises (thus "cruiser") or as fleet scouts and messengers.

The main cannon of a 17th century frigate would be 6, 8, and 12-pounder long guns ("pound" referring to the weight of the projectile) weighing 400 to 1500 kg plus 200 to 300 kg for the mount. These would be secondary and tertiary guns on a ship-of-the-line. They might carry 20 such guns giving a maximum broadside weight (the weight of shell it could fire in a single broadside, a rough estimate of a ship's firepower) of perhaps 120 pounds.

Fast forward 150 years. The main cannon on USS Constitution consisted of 30 24-pounder long guns, 20 32-pounder carronade (short range "smashers", more on them later), and 2 24-pound bow chasers. This gives a broadside weight of about 700 lbs, almost six times a 17th century frigate and roughly equivalent to the 17th century Dutch first rate flagship De Zeven Provinciën.

A 24-pounder long gun and mount weighed about 3000 kg, double the weight of the largest gun a 17th century frigate crew might be asked to crew. Guns of these size would only be found on ships of the line in the 17th century. While the gun drill did not change, it required more men, more skill, and more care to manipulate the heavier gun, shell, and powder and to avoid damaging the mount, gun, and crew.


Carronades were a significant change to naval warfare between the 17th and 18th centuries and into the 19th. These were short range "smashers". They were shorter and lighter than cannon and threw a heavier ball with less powder.

Their light weight meant a smaller gun crew, and it could be carried on smaller ships with fewer crew and lighter construction. Their reduced powder charge meant reduced recoil, heating and stress on the gun. Their short range required less skill in aiming (somewhat offset by their lower velocity). As such, they could be operated by a lesser trained crew on a smaller ship.

Their original purpose was to arm merchant ships to give them a fighting chance against privateers and small warships, but enterprising frigate captains saw the advantage of having a heavy close range broadside. USS Constitution was armed with 20 32-pounder carronades. 32-pounder guns were normally only found on ships of the line.

From the gun crew's perspective, a carronade could be mounted on a normal carriage and worked like a cannon. But due to its low recoil and short barrel it was found to work better on a specially designed mount.

enter image description here

(Sailing Ships of War by Dr Frank Howard)

The weapon would be on a pivot at its balance point. Rather than a wedge, a screw at the back of the gun would be used to elevate the gun. Because of this, the mount would be at a downward angle. When fired, the gun would recoil "uphill" reducing the recoil. When running out it would be going "downhill" easing the job of the gun crew. The barrel was short enough that often the recoil would bring the muzzle completely clear of the firing port allowing reloading without the gun crew having to haul in the gun.

The rear of the mount rested on a wheel which allowed the whole mount to be rotated left and right giving it a much wider firing arc and simplified aiming.

The innovations in the carronade mount became the basis for all later artillery mounts.

See Also

  • From your answer, "As for the guns themselves, they were basically identical: smoothbore muzzle-loaders on a wooden, wheeled gun truck fired via a burning match applied to a touch hole out the side of the ship," I take it the responsibilities depicted in the video are essentially the same as a 17th century gun crew would perform.
    – Bob516
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 2:11
  • 1
    @Bob516 Yes, my understanding is the basics of muzzle loading gun drill is little changed for centuries.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 2:24

“ . . . Would there be anything different a gun crew would be doing aboard a ship . . .”

Yes, of course, the gun crews did not sit around to their guns all day on the chance the enemy may come over the horizon. Easily 95% of the time at sea was spent under plain sail going from point A to point B or, perhaps, maintaining one’s position in a blockade squadron. This required sailors to man the yards and perform maintenance 24/7. The crew was divided into watches with, presuming no monster blows or other non-combat hazards, responsibility for generally performed ship handling and maintenance duties during ones’ watch. This applied to officers as well.

If not on watch, one could be below relaxing, even sleeping. If divided into two watches that meant 4 hours on and 4 hours off (except for the dog watches which were 2 hours in length and served to ensure a watch was not always serving the same hours).

See https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/what-are-watches-on-board-ship for watches.

Some ships, with sufficient manning were divided into three watches, certainly a bonus in down time, but this was a very unusual practice. In truth, the two watch method predominated. Under smooth sailing conditions the middle watch, 2400 to 0400, was probably the closest to down time on deck. The watch was there and available, but not scampering about the rigging (except to make changes as called, but they might not touch a backstay for an entire watch if conditions are right) or holystoning the deck. In the daylight hours there was always plenty to do. And when going aloft, a sailor did not, except in an extreme emergency, did not just pick a mast and go, he was assigned to a specific mast and worked in a team or teams on that mast, thus there were foretop men, main mast men, and so on.

One might note that lacking a full complement (not at all unusual) gun crews might have to fight both sides of the ship as the situation calls. They would also comprise most of those making up boarding parties when called for boarders away.

Ideally, one would want one’s general crew to be able seamen, who could hand, reef, steer, and handle the ships guns . . . all nice round pegs in round holes.

Just as in modern navies, one does not man the guns except at action stations; the rest of the time is spent on routine maintenance tasks on watch and trying to relax or sleep when off watch. One of the most precious commodities on a ship, sailing or powered is sleep.


Took me a while to put this together, my source not lending itself to cutting and pasting, but, in response to your clarifying comment of 7 June . . .

The answer is “it depends.” Presuming the ship has an optimal number of crewmen, how many are assigned to a gun and what they do depends entirely on the size of the gun, from a, say, 64 pounder, requiring more muscle power, to a swivel gun which needs at most two men and can probably get by with one. Also presume you are addressing the sailors on the Constitution operating what looks to be a long 24 pounder. Both Schwern and Pieter Geerkens correctly point out that the carronade as opposed to a standard gun require smaller crews due to size and weight and the improved recoil dampening and traversing capability . . . or course at the cost of a much shorter ranged weapon.

Major General (yes, a British Army Major General) Sir Howard Douglas, Bart., KSC CB FRS, writing with the authority of the Admiralty produced A Treatise on Naval Gunnery the second edition of which was published in 1828. The treatise is actually an enjoyable little read though if you’re not familiar some of the technical details, I suppose, could be a little daunting. Lots of interest discussion on gunnery schools, weapons, ballistics, and such and then, he gets to the meat of the matter . . . shipboard gunnery.


Douglas specifically mentions a Royal Navy contemporary of the Constitution, HMS Shannon, equipped with long 18’s I believe, of which he has some interesting words. He points out that before 1817 there was no Admiralty established system of gun exercise and his belief that there should have been. Anyway, he writes, first about the problem of calling gun crew members away from their guns for specific purposes if basing such calls on the number of the gun and the number of the individual sailor in his assigned gun position, starting on page 145. This is long, but hopefully you will see where it is going:

“120. It appears to me, that the mode of stationing and distinguishing the crews of ordnance in the French code, is extremely simple, and preferable to the practice of designating the people by numbers throughout. The principle of numbering off the crew of a gun, as practiced very properly in the land service, has of late been a good deal followed in the navy, and it forms the basis of the new system to which I have already alluded. Thoughtfully impressed with the advantages of such an arrangement for land service, I more than doubt the expediency of adopting it generally in the naval service. Artillery soldiers numbered off to a gun, are not liable to be called away suddenly in the heat of action to the performance of other duties assigned them also by numbers. But naval gunners are told off not only to their gun duties, but to other very important callings, some of which must be designated by numbers, as far at least in two or three places. When calls, by numbers, are made upon men station by numbers to their guns, it may fairly be apprehended that some confusion or hesitation my ensue, particularly if that call should be made after having sustained any casualty that may disturb that division of labor, and order of succession to other duties which were originally provided for in the numerical classification. For various manœuvres of tacking and wearing, making and shortening sail, trimming sales, boarding, extinguishing fire, small-arm duties, etc. the men are told off by numbers, as far as two or three places at least. Thus, 1st sail trimmers, or 1st and 2d small-arm men, or 1st and 2d boarders, may be called; but they may have have changed their original gun number more than once, and all this complication of numbering is burthening the men’s memories in a manner that may occasion some hesitation in obeying such calls, and some confusion in the substitute arrangements at the guns. These inconveniences and objections to numerical designation were so strongly felt in the service, that in some of our best men-of-war the practice was abandoned, and the men stationed, as much as possible, by appellations expressive of their duties. This is the principle also of the French Manual, in which the men are called chiefs, chargers, loaders, providers, 1st and 2d right-men, 1st and 2d left-men, etc.

“In the Shannon the men were designated 1st and 2s captains, loaders, loader’s mate, 2d loader – these taken from the ablest and most intelligent men; then tackle-men, powder-men, lantern-men. From the first class were taken boarders, sail trimmers, and firemen, when called. From the second class, or mere assistants, were taken small-arm men, etc.

“For action on both sides, the 2d captain of each gun becoming acting captain of the opposite piece, and the 2d loader, it’s charger, and so on. The crew of the guns were told off to starboard and larboard watch, alternately, so that they might be exercised in complete complements, in their respective watches, and thus know, and have confidence in each other, and be accustomed to act together. Then each gun-crew was subdivided into two classes; and whenever, as at night or otherwise, it became necessary to prepare the guns for action, without however disturbing the watch below, the second division of each gun-crew upon deck cleared and prepared the adjoining piece belonging to the other watch, who were not consequently turned out till called for action. In long anxious chases of large vessels on uncertain appearance, these excellent arrangements must have been of infinite use, in sparing the men from fatigue, without relaxing anything of service efficiency.

“Much might be said upon the importance of stationing men to duties about the guns by appellation, in preference to the arrangement by numbers, and upon the necessity of making this appropriation subservient, not only to the talents and fitness required for duties about the gun, but to the qualities and powers required for other duties to which the men may be called. All this demands intimate knowledge of the several qualities of the whole crew – occasional alterations in proportion as these are discovered, and, consequently, various modifications in the manual system. This view of the subject again shows the indispensable necessity of intrusting the instruction of naval gunners to naval characters only: for the arrangement of duties about the guns is intimately mixed up with that which best provides to duties of seamanship and manœuvring, with the least possible interruption to the service of the ordnance; and these are altogether formed from data more favourable to the arrangement appellation than to the system of numbers.”

In case it is not clear, Douglas is approving the common naval practice of naming each position, however succinctly, over the common land artillery designation of crew positions by simple numbers. We can see clearly that aboard USS Constitution the practice of naming the positions was followed:

enter image description here

This a gun roster, for a 24 pounder in fact, which can be found on the US Naval History and Heritage Command web site https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/c/the-constitution-gun-deck.html

The thing to remember is that in a gun crew everyone has a specific job. Handling a gun does not mean just firing it effectively, it also means safely. No one interested in innovation. What each person does, and in what sequence, was a carefully choreographed dance that included both efficiency and safety. While no doubt in different navies there might be slight variations, everyone pretty much did it the same way. Large guns in the 17th century had slightly different carriages, but not so different as to drastically change the steps of the dance. The same is true today everyone has a specific job to be performed at a specific time(s) in a specific way. Of course, each crewman also needs to know what his counterparts are doing and be ready to step up in the event of a casualty. But never snatch the rammer from the first man on the right, the rammer, and say “let me, I’ll do it !” No, no, not your job and means someone else has to your job, with a domino effect. Plays hob with crew efficiency.

So, what would be a gun crew on a ship in the 18th-19th century? Well, adapted from page 149 of A Treatise on Naval Gunnery 2d Ed., published in 1828:

enter image description here

So, for a 24 pounder, it would appear that the gun crew shown in the film is actually somewhat smaller than optimum, though sufficient for an 18 or 12 pounder. A carronade of any size with taut breechings can be easily operated by a crew of four, including the captain of the gun, with less steps required to service the piece.

So, what do these fellows serving a 24 pounder do? Quoting directly from the above mentioned treatise, starting on page 150:

“The captains of guns command, and point. They are placed behind the breech. The privates, equally divided, are placed on each side, and the in the following exercise are called right-men and left-men. The first man on the right spunges and rams-down cartridge. The first man on the left loads, receiving the cartridge form the powder man, who fetches it during the action, placing himself behind the man who loads, holding the cartridge-box carefully covered.

“The last, or rear-man on the right is provided with a small apron, having a pocket to hold spare flints, and some ole linen for cleaning the lock.

“On board line-of-battle ships, frigates, and sloops-of-war, two gunner’s mates in each battery will be provided with bags, containing a stock and bits, four gimlets, one screw-driver, two spare locks, spar line for trigger pulls, and some old linen for cleaning the locks.

“On board brigs and vessels carrying less than ten guns, one gunner carrying a bag thus provided will be sufficient.

There were thirteen specific commands to be given to serve a gun. Continuing from the treatise:



“122. As the guns ought always to be loaded when ships are out of harbour, the Exercise begins according to this supposition. Upon the general command to repair to quarters being given, the powder-men proceed, in conformity with previous instructions, to the gunner’s store to fetch the powder-horns, tube and cartridge boxed, etc. The two last men on the fight fetch the locks and every article with which the ought to be provided. The other men repair to their respective guns; dispose every implement ready for action; cast loose the guns, and remove every obstacle that might impede their manœuvre. The train tackles are hooked to the cruppers of the carriages, and two the ringbolts in the rear.

“Through the whole of the exercise for instruction, the commanding officer explains, after each word of command, the number of motions in which the manœuvre is to be done. The men listen with attention and do not begin to execute the intended manœuvre until the word action is given.

“Upon the signal being given that the exercise is to commence, the greatest silence must be observed. The captain of each gun faces to the port-holes, the men on the right and left pace their guns dressing by the first two men, and closing to the ship’s side, so as to feel slightly the elbows of each other; heads up, eyes fixed on the captain of the gun, the body upright, arms hanging down, hands open and flat upon the thighs.


“123. Take out your Tampions, cast loose your Guns.

“The first man on the right takes out the tampion and places it behind him, close against the ship’s side. The captain of the gun with the assistance of the men near him casts loose the gun, secures it against the ships side by hitching to the cascable both tackle falls, which he then gives to the 2d men right and left to hold; he then takes off the vent-apron and hands it to the 3d man on the right, who places it against the ship’s side.


“124. Prime you Guns. (In one motion.)

“The captain of the gun lays hold of the priming wire with his right hand, pierces the cartridge, and ascertains, by moving his wrist, and by the length of the wire, whether cartridge be home or not; he then takes a tube out of the tube box (which he shuts quickly), tears off the cap of the tube, and introduces into the vent. He then takes the priming-horn in his right hand, opens the pan of the lock with his left, fills it with powder, shuts it quickly, and replaces the priming-horn behind him.


“125. Point your Guns. (In three Motions.)

“1st Motion. – The captain of the gun places himself to the right of the train tackle, his left foot advanced and flat on the deck, the knee bent, his right leg stretched backwards, his left hand laid on the base-ring of the gun, and his right hand on the handle of the pointing wedge or quoin. The 3d man, assisted by the 4th for heavy guns, takes up the hand-spike and the iron crows, places them upon the steps of the carriage to raise or lower the breech, as the captain of the gun may direct, until the gun have a proper degree of elevation.

“2d Motion – The same men then place the hand-spikes and crows under the cheeks of the carriage, to traverse the gun left or right, loosening the tackle-falls, and handing them to the men placed nearest to them, who, with the assistance of those who are not employed in pointing or traversing, keep the gun hauled taught to the port. The captain of the gun then cocks the lock, takes hold of the trigger line in his hand, and falls back quickly, beyond the recoil of the gun. He points stooping and placing his eye in a line with chace-sight and the breech-ring.

“3d Motion. – The gun being pointed, the captain gives the command – To your posts. Upon which the men withdraw the hand-spikes and crows, and fall-in, holding them upright, resting on the deck, so that the trucks may not run over them when the gun roils.


“126. Make ready the lint-stock. (In one Motion.)

“The rear man on the left lay hold of the lower end of the lint-stock with his right hand, and of the top with his left, places himself on a line with the hind-axletree, facing the port-hole, stoops, in order to blow on the match, then holds it within four inches of the base-ring of the gun, ready to fire the moment the captain of the gun gives the word, if the lock should fail.


“127. Fire (In two Motions.)

“1st Motion. – If the pointing of the gun with respect to line be correct, the captain watches for the favourable time to fire. The moment it offers, he makes it known by a signal; and pulls with a jerk, the trigger line. If the gun should not go off, and he think the direction still good, he will give the command, fire, the moment the roll of the ship allows it. Upon this, the man sets fire to the tube with the lint-stock, holding it so as not to be higher than the vent; he withdraws it quickly, and refixes it in its place the moment the gun has gone off.

“Upon the signal to fire, the men who have hold of the tackle falls let them go, taking care that they are not in the direction of the trucks. The men holding the hand-spikes and crows lay them on the deck. Every man, except the first right and left, move quickly to the train tackle, hook it to the crupper, and haul upon it if the gun should not have run in sufficiently. The first man on the right lays hold of the iron crow by the claw end, to block the trucks, as soon as the gun is clear of the port-hole – the same man, together with the 1st on the left, clears the tackle-falls and breaching; and the last man on the left fastens the train-tackle-fall with a clove-hitch.

“2d motion. – The 3d man right and left, with the assistance of the 4th for heavy guns, lay hold of the hand-spikes and crows, place them under the breech, and heave it according as they are directed by the captain of the gun, who adjusts the bed and quoin so as to replace the gun in a position convenient for being loaded. The other men clear the side and train-tackle-falls. The hand-spike is put back in its place, the crow laid across the truck, and every man falls into his place.


“128. Stop the vent, spunge your Guns. (In two Motions.)

“1st Motion. – The captain of the gun takes the priming wire in his right hand, and enters it into the vent to ascertain if it be clear. He then stops it with the thumb if his left hand until the gun is loaded. The first man on the right places himself by the muzzle, stepping over the tackles and breaching, and the second man hands him the spunge, which he immediately rams down to the bottom of the cylinder.

“2d Motion. – The 1st man on the right having rammed down the spunge to the bottom of the bore, twists it round several times; and, as in using the worm, draws it out still turning it in the same direction; he then lays it on the muzzle, and strikes it three or four times to shake off any remnants of the cartridge or foulness.

“The captain of the gun introduces the priming wire into the vent to ascertain that it is clear, and then stops it; the last man on the right cleans, in the mean time the lock, half cocks it, and falls back to his post.


“129. Prepare to load. (In one Motion.)

“The 1st man returns the spung to the 2d and receives from him the rammer, the head of he rests on the head of the carriage, holding the handle with both hands. With light guns the spunge-stave is turned, as the spunge and rammer are on the same handle.


“130. Load with Cartridge. (In one Motion.)

“The 1st man on the left faces to the left, to receive from the powder-man the cartridge which must be carefully put in with the bottom first and the seam downwards. The 2d man takes a wad, hands it to the 1st, who places it over the cartridge. The 1st man on the right stretches out his right arm at full length, resting his left hand on the muzzle of the gun, his body inclined a little forward, ready to ram down. The moment the provider has delivered his cartridge, he goes for another, holding the cartridge-box under his left arm, and his right hand on the lid.


“131. Ram down Cartridge. (In one Motion.)

The 1st man on the right rams down three times, then lets go the rammer, drawing back his body. The captain of the gun introduces the priming-wire to the vent, to ascertain if the cartridge be home; if it is not, he gives the command to ram down a second time. When he finds all is right, he gave a signal with his hand, upon which the man draws out the rammer and places the head of it on the fore-part of the carriage as before. In the mean time, the 2d man on the left takes up a shot, which he hands to the 1st man, and immediately afterwards a wad.


“132. Shot and Wad your gun. (One Motion.)

“The 1st man on the left puts the shot into the gun, and, to prevent it from falling out, places his right hand upon the muzzle; with his left he takes the wad, which is handed to him by the 2d man, and places it over the shot. The 1st man on the right then thrusts them down with the rammer, and, ascertaining by the length of the handle that they are home, informs the captain of the gun of it; then stretching his right arm at full length, rests his left hand on the muzzle of the gun, and inclines his body forward ready to ram down. The 1st and second men on the left fall back to their posts.


“133. Ram down Shot. (In one Motion.) “The 1st man on the right rams down twice, draws out the rammer, and delivers it to the 2d man, who lays it down on the deck. If it is a light gun, he turns the stave. The 1st and 2d man on the right fall back to their posts.

“TWELFTH COMMAND. “134. Run out your guns. (In two Motions)

“1st Motion. – The 1st man on the right unblocks the trucks by removing the iron crow, and puts it back in its place; then, with the 1st man on the left, lifts the breeching from getting foul during the operation. The rear man on the left loosens the clove hitch on the train-tackle, keeping hold of the fall, to slacken it as the gun is run out. All other men lay hold of the side tackles.

“2d Motion. – The captain of the gun gives the word heave. The men all pull together to run the gun to square to the breast of the port; which being done, the captain takes care to secure it, by taking a turn of the tackle-falls around the neck of the cascable, giving the ends to 1he 2d man on each side to hold on. N.B. If the exercise is to be continued, it will be resumed from the second command, art. 124; if not, it will be concluded by the following command.


“135. Put in your Tompions. Secure your Guns. (In two Motions)

“1st Motion. – The 3d man on he right hands the vent-apron to the captain of the gun who lashes it on the breech, and then loosens the tackle-falls, and gives them to the two rear-men to hold. He then places the slack of the breeching, which is held up by the second man on each side, between the cheeks of the carriage, and orders the men to haul taught the side tackles, which he then fastens with a clove hitch round the neck of the cascable.

“2d Motion. – The 1st man on the right puts the tampion into the muzzle of the gun; the other men coil up the tackle-falls, fasten the coils neatly to the cheeks of the carriage, and put every implement on its proper place. The rear man on the left unhooks the train-tackle and lays it on the gun. The powder man carries back the priming horn, tube, and cartridge boxes, to the gunner’s store. The rear man on the right carries back the bag apron, with spare flints, etc. and the lock, unless special directions be given to leave it fixed.”

Probably far more than anyone wanted to know.

Main armament guns were not so different in design from the 17th century to well into the 19th century. Certainly there were improvements, probably the most important being the firelock mechanism (which, yes, does not appear on either of the two examples shown as both guns predate that feature), but, as noted above in the gun crew instructions, there was always somebody standing by with a lint stock or slow match should the lock fail to ignite the charge. Some of the hardware changed, note the wheels on the gun carriage shown first below versus the wheels on the second. Also note the difference in the train tackle for holding the gun back during the reloading steps (see 1st Motion of 127, above).

Restored gun from the "Alderney Elizabethan Wreck" lost in 1592 (found here http://shadyislepirates.com/?q=tudor_sea_tactics)

enter image description here

And for comparison as restored gun, HMS Endeavor, circa 1768, one of several, mostly found in Australia (see https://www.arc.id.au/Cannon.html)

enter image description here

What is readily obvious is that the general designs are not that far different, form following function/purpose, and operation following form. The conclusion one could draw, as John Dallman notes above "If the 17th-century Dutch ship had muzzle-loaders on 4-wheeled carriages, then the tasks its gun crews needed to perform would be the same as for Constitution." No doubt there were variations based on the gun/carriage design, but the essential point is that there are only so many ways to service a gun of this size and each member of the gun crew, regardless of what they were called, had a specific job . . . gun captain, sponger/rammer, loader, ammunition passer, tackle handlers, powder monkey . . . and had to be in a specific place, at a specific time, to perform a specific duty.

  • 2
    I'm not asking if those manning the gun crews had other responsibilities. I want to know if the responsibilities to load and fire the cannon on the Constitution were the same responsibilities as those of a 17th century ship.
    – Bob516
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 2:06
  • @Bob516 - In my answer above please see all after MUCH MUCH LATER 6-12-21
    – R Leonard
    Commented Jun 16, 2021 at 9:13

My main comment is that, particularly in the second clip, there are too many gun servers. HMS Victory had an establishment of 821 crew, broken down roughly as follows for battle stations:

  • 9 commissioned officers, whose station would be on the quarterdeck except as specifically assigned elsewhere.

  • 146 Marines (@135) and officers (@11) who would all be on deck unless, in extremis, assigned to gun duty.

  • 40 (guesstimate) sail crew who would manage the sails and steering during battle; and

  • 40 (guesstimate) specialists such as purser, surgeon and mate, carpenter and mate who would at any time either be performing their specialist duties or assisting other specialists with theirs.

This leaves just 586 or so available to man the guns. This is in agreement with the peek manpower needs for the heavy guns: 6 each to haul in and out for loading and firing for the 104 or such total guns on HMS Victory. At Trafalgar (in 1805) HMS Victory actually served guns as follows:

  • 32 Lb @ 30 on lower gun deck @ 6 crew each for 180 total gun crew

  • 24 lb @ 28 on middle gun deck @ 6 crew for 174 total gun crew

  • long 12 lb @ 30 on upper gun deck @ 5 crew for 150 total gun crew

  • 68 lb carronade @ 2 in forecastle @ 5 crew for 10 total gun crew

  • medium 12 lb @ 2 in forecastle (chasers) @ 5 crew for 10 total gun crew

This totals 92 guns and 524 gun crew. One gun captain for each pair of guns would make a total of 570 crew assigned to guns, in rough agreement with the estimate above.

Each gun captain would manage a pair of guns on opposite sides of the hull. As battle commenced frequently only one side of the hull would be firing, increasing to both sides as battle heated up. As broadsides to port and starboard would be fired alternately, this doubling up did not effect efficiency on a well runs vessel.

  • The sources I have give a 14-15 man crew for the 32-pdrs (i.e. 7 per gun). The 32-pdrs were 600 lbs heavier than the 24-pdrs, so they needed some extra men to handle them.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 9:17
  • Are you assuming that both broadsides would be fully manned at the same time?
    – o.m.
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 9:49
  • 1
    @o.m. This is covered by the last paragraph. A gun crew covered a pair of guns (one on each side). If fighting on both sides, the guns operated out-of-sync so that members of the crew could swap back and forth between the two guns. See also my answer to this question.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 10:07
  • @SteveBird: Technically I believe it's two gun crews with one gun Captain. However the full complement of gun-runners to haul the guns in and out would only ever be needed for one gun at a time - so battle casualties can be split between the two guns, to keep both operating longer. The gun crew members would all be watchstanders, and so would have a port swabber and starboard swabber, etc. down the line, for each role as part of that. Commented Jun 5, 2021 at 20:29

The tasks to be performed by a gun crew depend on the type of gun, and the mount it's on. If the 17th-century Dutch ship had muzzle-loaders on 4-wheeled carriages, then the tasks its gun crews needed to perform would be the same as for Constitution.

However, the distribution of those tasks between the members of a gun crew might well be different. Those would vary by the size of the gun - small guns (1- to 3-pounders) on swivel mounts were usually operated by a single man, as the extreme case - and might vary between ships in the same navy, if a ship's captain or master gunner had a theory of his own about how to do the work more quickly or safely.

A gun team had to practice together to operate swiftly as a team. Any sensible naval commander would insist on uniform practices for guns of the same size on a ship, so that men could move between crews to replace casualties in action, but such teams wouldn't be as quick as a crew that had practised together.

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