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Ships and Tactics


Raking Fire
Attacking bow or stern of enemy
raking Raking fire was particularly devastating. Ships of this era were weakest at the bow and the stern, if an attacking ship could manoeuvre to cross the enemy in front or behind then they could fire directly down the length of the ship as the guns came to bear.
The round shot bursting through the timbers resulted in a storm of splinters through the deck, in many ways similar to the effect of modern shellfire.
Follow this link to see USS Constitution raking HMS Guerriere (opens in a new window).

In order to rake the enemy it was necessary to sail through the enemies line. This tactic exposed the lead ship of a column to the broadside fire of the enemy, so this position was usually taken by a 1st rate or three decker. The Victory performed this role at Trafalgar, taking the lead in the Weather column . The Royal Sovereign was at the head of the Lee column. This was an unorthodox tactic and only the boldest and most confident commanders utillised it .
The orthodox method of attack was in line ahead (hence the term line of battle), both fleets running parallel to each other, and firing broadsides at their opposing number. A few battles were fought like this, but they seldom resulted in a decisive victory for either side, although the casualties could be high.

With the introduction of longer range guns and a change in ship construction later in the 19th century the tactic was reversed and the commander aimed to ' cross the T ', maximising his firepower at the expense of his opponent.
For the ultimate conclusion to the tactic of crossing the T, and the development of the line of battleship, read about the Battle of Jutland

French Tactics

Firing on the up roll
uproll As a general rule the French felt that the best way to disable an enemy ship was to destroy his means of manoeuvering. They therefore concentrated their fire on the masts and rigging, launching their broadsides on the upward roll of their ships. This fire policy often crippled the British ships, preventing them from pressing home their attack, but was less deadly to the crew.
The British used the opposite tactic firing on the down roll into the enemy hulls, causing a storm of flying splinters that killed and maimed the enemy gun crews. These tactics were accentuated by the fact that the British tended to chose the weather gauge and the French the lee, so the tendancy was for the French guns to be pointing high and the British low as their ships heeled in the wind.

Although only a very general rule this contrast in tactics goes some way to explaining the difference in casualty figures between the British and enemy sailors. The British percentage of killed to total casualties was just over 25%, i.e. three wounded for every one killed. But for the enemy the percentage was 55%, i.e. for every four wounded five were killed.
The speed with which the guns were loaded and fired by the Royal Navy gun crews was also higher than the French and Spanish, also a factor in the higher casualty figures for the enemy fleets.

The destruction of the enemy ship by gunfire was one of three elements that could lead to death in battle; the other two were fire, and the sea. No British ship was sunk or burnt in any of the great battles, in fact only 8 ships of the line were burnt or blown up throughout the whole war, 17 were wrecked and 3 foundered. The French suffered some major tragedies, such as the Orient at the Battle of The Nile and the Indomitable at Trafalgar, which lost 1250 men from a crew and troops numbering 1400.

To put the French losses in perspective we can look at the casualty figures suffered by the British Navy in the American War of 1812. Here the British ships came up against well trained and perhaps better motivated seaman than any of the other navies they were engaged against. The Americans trained with live ammunition more often than their British counterparts, the British, spending long periods at sea, tended to reserve their supplies of powder and shot for actual engagements. They also signed on for a set number of years, as opposed to the British who were signed on indefinitely, and they were paid as well or better than a skilled workman could earn ashore. They aimed their guns directly into the enemy ships like the British, as well as at the masts.

When the USS Constitution with a crew of 456 defeated HMS Guerrierre, crew 302, The Constitution suffered 14 casualties to the Guerrierre's 78. The American Frigates fired faster and more accurately than the British thanks to training, the use of a new powder charge encased in lead not cloth, (no need to swab out the gun), and gunsights, an innovation not utilised by the British. Till this point the British captains had relied on getting their ships close to the enemies, a tactic that meant rate of fire was more important than accuracy at longer ranges.
The odds were in favour of the larger Amercan ships in the ship to ship engagements that happened during the War of 1812, but the British were used to taking on larger opponents and it must have been a shock to the Admiralty to start losing such engagements so comprehensively.

For a first hand account of an encounter between an American frigate and a British frigate read Samuel Leech's story.


Warships of this period were rated according to the number of cannon they carried. A first rate ship carried over 100 long guns and had three decks, 32 pounder guns on the lowest deck, 18 pounders on the next deck and then 12 pounders on the weather deck. The ships carronades were not originally counted in the rating of a ship, so it was possible for a 38 gun frigate to in fact be carrying 44 powerful guns. For an explanation of the difference between cannons and carronades go to Armament. The most important rates of ship were the first, second and third rate ships, ships that were able to sail in the line of battle. The fifth and sixth rate ships were also important, these were the frigates, the eyes of the main battle fleet and useful as commerce raiders.

Sail layout on a typical ship rigged vessel.
A Fore royal H Mizen royal
B Fore topgallant I Mizen topgallant
C Fore topsail J Mizen topsail
D Fore mainsail K Driver or Spanker
E Main royal M Flying jib
F Main topgallant N Outer jib
G Main topsail O Inner jib
All the rated ships were ship rigged, that is they were square rigged vessels with three masts. Ship rigged vessels were unable to sail much closer than 67 degrees to the direction of the wind. Fore and aft rigs were used on some smaller vessels, and they could sail much closer to the wind. The sail area of a first rate could be in excess of two acres and the sails would weigh close to 10 tons.


Click on the link to see "hms" Rose, a modern recreation of a Royal Navy frigate.

Ships Boats

All the ships were equiped with smaller boats to transport officers, crew and supplies to and from the ship. These boats could also be used for cutting out operations, and for landing troops and marines. Nelson lost his right arm leading an attack on Santa Cruz in Teneriffe with the boats of his squadron.
The captains barge was usually manned by a hand picked crew, often dressed in a uniform supplied by the captain.

There were 6 boats carried on HMS Victory, 1 launch; 1 barge; 1 pinnace; and 3 cutters.

The Launch, at 34 feet this was the largest boat on board. It was the main working boat for the ship, carrying stores and landing parties. It could be sailed or rowed.
The Barge, 32 feet long, this boat was mainly used to convey the Admiral ashore or to other ships.
The Pinnace, 28 feet long, this boat was mainly used to convey the Captain and the officers ashore or to other ships. It could also be sailed or rowed.
The Cutters ,there were 3 cutters, two of 25 foot in length, the third 18 foot long. The two 25 foot cutters were kept ready for action, slung out on davits, they could be swiftly lowered, perhaps to retrieve a man who fell overboard, or to turn the ship round if the wind was light and it got stuck in irons as it tacked. The two larger cutters had two masts and the smaller one, they were rowed by six and four men respectively.

Carronade. Click to open a larger image in a new window
ships cutter
A small carronade, of the sort
that might be used on a ships
A ships cutter.
Photo reproduced by kind permission
of the Historical Maritime Society

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