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Home arrow Historical arrow Technology arrow Weapons arrow Gun Boats

Gun Boats
Written by Administrator   
Monday, 17 August 2009

At the eastern end of the Lines, at Alhandra on the Tagus, Royal Navy gunboats formed an important part of the defensive line, contributing considerably to enemy disquiet ...1


two kinds of gun boat
As a dominant open-water force, the Royal Navy did not traditionally expend much effort on such an inherently defensive type as the gunboat, but there were times and situations in which they were the only answer. The defence of Gibraltar was one. Early gunboats were very boat-like, with a single gun, usually forward and on a slide and averaged about 40 tons, but from 1794 a new type of far larger gunboat, of around 150 tons began to be constructed.
Initially rated as 'gunboats', then 'gun vessels' and carrying two long 24pdrs firing forward and twelve 18pdr carronades, they were soon re-rigged as brigs each under the command of a lieutenant, but were not popular assignments in their largely defensive role. As the type developed, the evolution of the gunbrig into a cruiser — albeit more suited to coastal waters — left a gap to be filled by a more modest gunboat, and large numbers of the traditional launch-like oared craft were built. Best known of the specific designs is 'Commissioner Hamilton's gunboat', designed by Captain Thomas Hamilton, a Commissioner of the Transport Board, and a man with many ideas on naval architecture. His gunboat had one long gun forward on a slide that seems to have allowed limited traverse, and a carronade aft on a turntable .
Commissioner Hamilton's gunboat 
The gunboats were clinker built, with a sharp section that suggests they probably sailed well; the single mast was fitted in a tabernacle (a strong deck housing for a pivot or hinge), so it could be lowered aft when the craft was rowed. The first six were shipped to Gibraltar in 1805 and proved so successful that, with some modifications, eighty-five more were ordered in 1808. They were widely used on the coasts of Spain, in support of the Peninsular campaigns, but some saw action in the North Sea as well. These vessels were commanded by Midshipmen or Master's Mates and unlike the early gunbrigs, they were never named, although their crews seem to have given them unofficial soubriquets.
slide mounted carronade
 "Long gun" on a pivot and slide

The carronade which formed a major part of a gun boat's armament was now becoming accepted as a useful weapon, even at the longer distances over which the gun boats were often required to fire - a carronade's range was  typically a third to a half of that of the equivalent long gun because they used a much smaller propellant charge and had higher 'windage". Nevertheless, because the  carronade was much shorter and a third to a quarter of the weight of an equivalent long gun and needed only a small gun crew, they were ideally suited to providing the "extra hitting power" of this kind of craft. Commissioner Hamilton's gunboat would usually carry a long gun and a carronade.
 It should also be remembered that virtually all warships were, in effect, equipped with a 'gun boat' in the form of the ship's launch, which by this time regularly carried a carronade, though on a simpler mount.
 simple carronade breeching
A simple carronade breeching for a launch. 
 Notes and References
1.  12th October 1810: General Sainte-Croix, with his dragoon division, was searching for abandoned boats along the banks of the Tagus north of Vila Franca when he was struck and killed by a shot fired from one of the gunboats patrolling the river. (Oman, History, vol III, pp. 439-40. Marbot (p. 434), says he was "cut in two by chain shot")
2. for more on gun boats, see "The Campaign of Trafalgar" (pp. 105 - 107) edited  by Robert Gardiner, Caxton, London, 1997. ISBN 1 84067 3583 
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 02 September 2009 )

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