How To Properly Fire A Cannonball

MrRING

Android Futureman
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Aug 7, 2002
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Well, maybe not fire so much as practice aiming. I'm watching an old episode of Escape To The Country, and they were touring the water around Dartmoth. The expert talking to the prospective home buyers pointed out the intimidation factor of the castle cannon armaments to old-style sailing vessels, and it struck me: how did they practice aiming cannons against objects in motion coming up the waterway? It would seem to be a very different kind of aiming than you would have from firing cannon on land.

It seems like either military at the time would have to create a floating target to give cannon gunners something to aim at, or they didn't practice unless something came up the river planning an attack. Or maybe there are other options I'm not thinking of.

Any ideas out there? Maybe my theorized weird floating target was thought to be an escaped Nessie from time to time in the past!
 

Salmonellus

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That's a really interesting question, MrRing.

My guess - and I don't know this for a fact - is that the gunners in the castle might have been naval gunners who were old enough to retire from sea life and take up a cushier position on land. They would have learned how to adjust for winds and a moving target while they were on active service. And that would have been all hands-on in combat, with limited opportunities for target practice at other times.
 

maximus otter

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Well, maybe not fire so much as practice aiming. I'm watching an old episode of Escape To The Country, and they were touring the water around Dartmoth. The expert talking to the prospective home buyers pointed out the intimidation factor of the castle cannon armaments to old-style sailing vessels, and it struck me: how did they practice aiming cannons against objects in motion coming up the waterway? It would seem to be a very different kind of aiming than you would have from firing cannon on land.

It seems like either military at the time would have to create a floating target to give cannon gunners something to aim at, or they didn't practice unless something came up the river planning an attack. Or maybe there are other options I'm not thinking of.

Any ideas out there? Maybe my theorized weird floating target was thought to be an escaped Nessie from time to time in the past!

Cannon back in those times were pretty crude, and the powder and balls were of very inconsistent quality.

That having been said, basic ballistics was well understood, and elevation and (limited) traverse of the cannon would have been employed to engage targets at different ranges and azimuths.

l suspect that the basic tactic would have been similar to that employed by anti-aircraft batteries in WW2: Mass as many guns as you can, ignore aiming at any particular target, and just “get as much lead in the air” as possible.

Floating targets were commonly used in the Napoleonic era to train ships’ gunners. An old meat cask would be set adrift, and the naval vessel would pass and repass it while gun crews fired from different ranges and directions.

Fun fact: A country’s territorial waters used to extend to three miles beyond its coast. That’s because three miles was the maximum range of land-based artillery. You controlled as far as you could kill.

maximus otter
 
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MrRING

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I'll just bet those Napoleonic discarded meat cask targets were employed in the training of the castle gunners. Top marks, all!
 

Sillyhuron

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"You controlled as far as you could kill."
They still do, except now guns are on boats. Hence countries claiming 200 mile limits and the "Cod Wars" between Britain & Iceland, Canada & Russia, etc. Arguing over just how far you can claim.

Favourite Bad Cannon shots story - the "Negro Fort" in Florida during War of 1812. British leave escaped slaves a whole fort with muskets and cannon. Don't tell them how to use them. Americans show up. Ex -=slaves get off one shot, totally inaccurate. Americans fire one shot - hits the gunpowder magazine. Whole fort blows up.
 
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Tunn11

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Sailing ships are quite tall as well and hits to the rigging would impede motion. I think they may have had facilities on shore for heating shot which was more likely to cause fires, ignite powder etc.

Not sure how far variations like chain, cannister and shot travelled in relation to cannon balls.
 

maximus otter

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a) Sailing ships are quite tall as well and hits to the rigging would impede motion. b) I think they may have had facilities on shore for heating shot which was more likely to cause fires, ignite powder etc.

c) Not sure how far variations like chain, cannister and shot travelled in relation to cannon balls.

a) Yes. Hence the use of chain shot to cut rigging and sails.

b) Yes. Both on land and in Napoleonic ships there were furnaces for heating shot.

c) Chain and canister were of very limited range:

“At 2 degs elevation, with single shot to first graze – 1200 yards
- at 4 degs elevation, – 1,600 yards
- at 7 degs elevation – 2,150 yards
- with mix of one round shot and grapeshot – at 2 degs out to 600 yards
- with double-headed or bar-shot – will range to first graze at 800 yards”

https://snr.org.uk/snr-forum/topic/range-of-12-pounder-carronade/
 

Carse

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Jan 31, 2016
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Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant Aubrey Maturin book series has some excellent (meticulously researched) scenes of naval cannon firing. It seems to have all relied on wooden wedges and good judgement. Target practice on floating rafts features a lot.
 
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