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Gunnery Innovations of the War of 1812

Wars provide huge incentives for combatants to develop new weapons, new tactics, and new strategies.a person sitting on a bench

During the 18th century a new type of cannon had been developed — the carronade. A six-pound carronade would look resemble a traditional six-pound cannon on a carriage, except that the cannon barrel had been dramatically shortened, and the carriage often had a “slide” to absorb the recoil rather than wheels.

By shortening the barrel, the cannon became lighter and easier to load while still firing the same size ball. However, without the long barrel, accuracy suffered. Carronades were strictly short-range weapons, but they allowed even small warships to fire devastating broadsides if they could get close enough to their target.

The practice of firing broadsides from carriage-mounted cannon was also being challenged by the development of pivoting guns: heavy cannon mounted on the centerline of the vessel, on a carriage that could be turned to fire in any direction. Referred to as “pivots, “circles” or “rings” these devices eventually evolved into the modern gun turret.

Pivoting guns were an immediate hit with privateers, who didn’t want to be slowed down by lots of heavy cannon but wished to have long-range striking power in case they were chasing, or being chased. As the war went on, many smaller privateers and even some naval vessels began mountings several smaller cannon or carronades on carriages, and complementing these with a “Long Tom” — one much larger gun amidships on a pivot.

Until this point, warships and privateers had almost always mounted an even number of cannon, since the cannon were symmetrically arrayed on each side of the vessel. The USS Constitution, for example, is alwaysa close up of a gun referred to as a “44-gun frigate” — she had 22 guns mounted on her port battery and 22 guns mounted in her starboard battery. When you read of a 19th-century privateer mounting an odd number of cannon (usually one, three or five) it’s likely because they have added a centrally-mounted “Long Tom”.

PS — USS Constitution actually carried more than 44 cannon, but she was classed as a 44-gun frigate regardless. This was common practice in most navies.