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Pirates & galleons

Firing a cannon

A gun crew prepares to fire a cannon.A gun crew prepares to fire a cannon. Several men were needed to fire a cannon on a 16th century ship. First, a loader packed gunpowder into the barrel, followed by the ball. A “sponger” used a long stick called a rammer to push both powder and ball down the barrel. The gun crew hauled on ropes to pull the cannon to the gunport. The gunner held a burning taper to a hole at the end of the gun, lighting the gunpowder.

Opening the gunports

The ship’s cannon were mounted on carriages with wheels. A rope called a breech rope was run through the carriage and secured to ringbolts fixed to the hull on either side of the gunport. Before engaging an enemy ship, the lids covering the gunports (the openings in the ship’s hull) had to be removed.

Placing the cartridge in the muzzlePlacing the cartridge in the muzzle

Readying the cannon

Each gun crew consisted of a gunner (artillero on a Spanish galleon) supervising three or four sailors and a ship’s boy, whose job was to fetch gunpowder and shot from the store. The first job was to remove the tompion, the stopper that closed off the muzzle, and to unseal the vent or touch hole. Next, the loader took a cartridge (a case of gunpowder) and placed it in the muzzle (1).

Ramming the cartridgeRamming the cartridgeThe rammer shoved the cartridge down as far as it will go (2). He used a pole which had a sponge—for cleaning out the gun after a previous firing—at its opposite end. Then the shot was inserted, followed by a wad, usually made of oakum, fibres unravelled from old rope. The cannon was now ready for firing.

With both ship and target rolling up and down in the waves, the timing of firing was crucial to accuracy. In high seas, the gunner fired just as the target ship was rising on a swell.

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