Saturday 30 June 2018

Fire As You Bear

It is a funny thing, but the more I read about something the less I know, except that what I thought I knew I did not, or at least, what I thought I knew needs nuancing, if not discarding and starting again. A recent example would be Tyrone’s Rebellion, as I have commented. However, these things come thick and fast at times.

Those of you who have read about my ‘The Armada Lands’ campaign will have noticed that a naval battle is in the offing. I have already complained about my lack of suitable rules for such a battle. Nothing I have on my shelf seems to do the job. As with the ‘renaissance’ period generally, rules tend to be either modified ancient rules or modified horse and musket (Napoleonic) rules. As with land warfare, so with naval warfare, except that every ship is assumed to be a late eighteenth-century ship of the line. Recent reading suggests that this is massively untrue.

I have, as I mentioned a while ago, read:

Rodger, N. A. M., The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649 (London: Penguin, 2004).

Being of a vaguely academic (or masochistic) turn of mind, I read some of the footnotes (endnote, actually; publishers are annoying about that), particularly when Rodger was discussing the development of English naval vessels before 1588. There was, he agrees, a naval military revolution in ship design, but it was not quite as decisive, nor of the nature that, as I as a wargamer might have thought

For further detail, Rodger refers to one of his papers:

Rodger, N. A. M., 'The Development of Broadside Gunnery, 1450–1650', The Mariner's Mirror 82, no. 3 (1996), 301-324.

Of course, self-referencing is no recommendation, but as I could, I read the paper and have pondered its implications for my non-existent rule set for naval wargames of the counter-reformation.

The first thing, a myth which apparently arose from a mistranslation from the Spanish, is that the English ships fired broadsides. This is untrue. The reasons for this are a bit complex, and I am not wholly sure I understand them, but I will try to summarise here.

Shipboard guns were first developed on Mediterranean galleys, where they started off as one big gun mounted on the bow. Galleys had long since stopped ramming, but closed to board (I presume; I’m not sure Rodger spells out what they did) and a heavy gun shooting just before contact would have been considered a good thing, particularly as mounted on the bow was the least strain on the hull possible, and also aided aiming. You just point the boat in the direction you wish to shoot in.

This, however, caused a problem in northern waters, as sailing ships had initially no response to shipborne heavy cannon. Where previously sailing ships, with high freeboards and fore and stern castles, were fairly impervious to boarding attacks from low lying galleys, now the galleys could just stand off and knock the sailing ships to bits. A response was necessary and developed over a few decades in the early sixteenth century.

The first response was to mount cannon in the stern. This was the easiest thing to do, it seems (although it is unclear – ships had to have a flat transom (I think that is the technical term for the bit at the back) – and this emerged at about the same time). Thus, when attacked by a galley, a sailing ship could turn away and engage with its own heavy cannon. A draw, at least, could be obtained and, in fact, this was the tactic for merchant ships for decades; you can both shoot back and sail away, after all.

Next up, of course, came cannons in the bow. This needed a bit more tinkering with ship design, but did not take that long, and soon warships had bow chasers as well, enabling engagement from both fore and aft. Thus, to a greater or lesser extent, the threat from galleys was met. There were other issues, such as the difficulty of operating galleys in the rougher northern waters, but even as late as 1601 a Spanish squadron operating in the Channel caused ructions and a flurry of oared vessels being built.

The presumed tactics seem to have been to engage with bow chasers and then lay alongside. However, this still required the use of missile weapons and, of course, smaller cannon mounted in the ship's waist. It did not take long for these cannot to be made bigger and placed on the lower decks. This was more or less the case by the time the Mary Rose sank, of course.

The English ship design changed somewhere around 1570, with the race built Queen’s ships, starting with Dreadnought. These had more broadside cannon but, Rodger points out, the guns could be traversed over a wide angle. The cannon were on truckle carriages, and these were short enough to permit traversing. Spanish ships of the Armada, as is well known, had cannon but they were mounted on normal artillery carriages, thus being longer and hence were unable to traverse as much as English guns.

The tactics of English ships during the Armada campaign seems, then, to have been like this. The leader (with the advantage of the wind, of course) approached, fired their heavy bow chasers and then a broadside. They then either tacked or weared, bringing the stern chasers (again, heavier cannon) or the other broadside into action, and then retired to a safe distance to reload while the next English ship did the same thing. Rodger points out that this was not a line of battle as understood by the later seventeenth century.

The numbers of shot consumed by English ships suggests that they fired one to two rounds per gun per hour. Rodger observes that they had far smaller gun crews than later centuries, and so internally the ships approached with all guns loaded and the crews moved from forecastle to broadside as each gun came to bear. They did not stand in line of battle shooting and reloading like Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar.

There is more to come, but I have never seen a set of rules that permits this manoeuvring. Maybe you can inform me differently…


  1. I know of no rules to do what you wish. I knew nothing about this evolution of naval battles either so a very fascinating summary it was to read.

    1. Sadly, I too know very little about it and less about sailing. But I think I'll have to write some rules....