Dec 10

The U.S. Navy's 'Smashers'

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 12:01 AM


One of the 1826-pattern replica carronades on board the USS Constitution. When fired, a carronade and its slide would recoil along the stationary skid and against the breeching, the heavy rope through the carronades’s loop. Side tackles would be used to traverse or run out the gun. (USS Constitution, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Introduced in the U.S. Navy at the beginning of the 19th century, the carronade saw extensive service in American warships during the War of 1812. The Carron Company in Scotland had produced a prototype of the weapon, designed for the protection of merchantmen, in 1776. The success of early carronades resulted in the Royal Navy placing large orders for the guns, and other naval powers soon copied the basic design. Henry Foxall, superintendent of the Eagle Foundry on the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia, cast the first American versions, but probably not until 1799. Certainly he cast the majority of the carronades ordered for the U.S. Navy.

Carronades were designed for close-in action, providing maximum firepower with minimal weight. Relatively light and short, they weighed about 50 to 70 pounds of metal for every 1 pound of shot, in contrast to as much as 150 to 200 pounds of metal per pound of shot for long guns. Their length was about seven calibers, or seven times the diameter of their bores. A 42-pounder carronade was thus shorter than a 3-pounder long gun and weighed less than a 12-pounder long gun.

Easily maneuvered, the weapons required only about half the number of men necessary to work long guns of comparable caliber, so a 42-pounder carronade had a crew of only four men. A conventional long gun had side lugs, called trunnions, that were used to secure it to its wheeled carriage. When the weapon was fired, the entire carriage would recoil backward as much as 10 or 12 feet, and much manpower was required to roll it back into position.

A true carronade had no trunnions. Instead, a bolt through a loop cast on the underside of the piece was secured to a wooden slide. It was connected to a larger skid by means of a “fighting bolt”; the top end of the bolt fit into a recessed hole in the bottom of the slide, and the other end into a long slot in the skid. A pivot pin secured the front of the skid to a gunport sill; that, combined with small rollers, or trucks, at the rear of the skid, allowed the gun to be traversed. Either a screw through its cascabel or a quoin was used to adjust the weapon’s elevation.

When fired, the carronade’s recoil would push it and the slide back about two feet along the skid and against the breeching. After reloading, crewmen would use side tackles to pull the slide forward, thus running out the gun.

As a consequence of its relatively light weight, a carronade used approximately one-third the powder charge of its counterpart long gun. The resultant lower muzzle velocity enabled a sharp reduction in windage, which increased accuracy. Because the shot moved at a relatively low velocity, it tended to produce a large irregular hole and considerable splintering. That led to increased casualties from splinters and the weapons being nicknamed “smashers.” Irregular holes were also more difficult for ships’ carpenters to patch.

The carronades’ light weight made them especially popular for smaller vessels, and they became the principal armament of brigs. When commissioned as a brig in 1805, the USS Hornet mounted 16 9-pounder long guns. But when rebuilt and altered to the ship rig of a sloop-of-war in 1811–12, her armament was changed to 2 12-pounder long guns and 18 32-pounder carronades. Her broadside weight of shot thus went from 72 to 300 pounds! Generally, carronades replaced 4- to 12-pounder long guns.

The largest carronades were 68-pounders carried by Royal Navy ships-of-the-line, but the largest U.S. Navy ones were 42-pounders carried by several frigates, although most frigates mounted 32-pounders, along with their 24-pounder long guns. Thus the frigate USS Constitution in 1812 had a battery of 30 24-pounder long guns, 1 18-pounder long gun, and 24 32-pounder carronades.

This carronade on display in front of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum is reportedly one of the 22 32-pounder “smashers” mounted in the frigate HMS Cyane. After the Constitution’s battle with the Cyane and Levant, a dozen carronade rounds were found embedded in “Old Ironside’s” hull. (Richard G. Latture)

While ideally suited for close actions, the smasher had its disadvantages. One was its excessive recoil; another was that, because of its short length, care had to be taken that burning powder from it did not ignite the ship’s side or rigging. The gun’s chief weakness, however, was its lack of range. Carronades were employed at point-blank distances. A warship armed largely with carronades would have to be fast so that she could close in on her opponent and maintain effective carronade range.

Carronades figured prominently in a number of the single-ship U.S. victories in the War of 1812. On 13 August 1812, the U.S. Navy frigate Essex, commanded by Captain David Porter and armed, over his objection, largely with smashers (40 32-pounder carronades and only 6 12-pounder long guns) was about 230 miles northwest of the Azores under the guise of a British merchant ship with her gun-deck ports concealed. The British sloop Alert, under Commander Thomas L. P. Laugharne and mounting only 6 9-pounder long guns and 16 18-pounder carronades, pursued the apparently fleeing merchantman. When the Essex hoisted American colors, Laugharne elected to engage. Only eight minutes into the action, with his ship badly damaged by two partial American broadsides and seven feet of water in her hold, Laugharne struck. The Alert was the first British warship captured by the Americans in the war.

The War of 1812 also fully revealed the carronade’s chief weakness. While formidable at close range, at longer range the weapon was no match for long guns, even of smaller caliber. The crews of ships that mounted largely carronade armaments thus found themselves at a decided disadvantage in long-range engagements with ships chiefly armed with long guns.

Late in the war, after a highly successful second cruise that devastated the British whaling industry in the South Pacific, the Essex was blockaded at Valparaíso, Chile, by the British frigate Phoebe and sloop Cherub, both armed largely with long guns. Having determined that the Essex was faster than her opponents, Porter was planning an escape attempt when a storm on 28 March 1814 parted his ship’s anchor cable. The U.S. frigate got under way, but a heavy squall caused the loss of her main topmast. Returning to the harbor was not possible, so Porter anchored in a small bay some three miles distant.

Seeing the condition of the Essex, Captain James Hilyar of the Phoebe decided to violate his pledge to respect Chilean neutrality. Because the Essex required speed to close to short range for her carronades to be effective, the Americans had little chance. Hilyar simply kept his two ships at long range, and fierce British fire ultimately forced Porter’s surrender.

This engagement greatly tarnished the reputation of the carronade and reinforced the conclusion that vessels should not be armed exclusively with them. Ships continued to carry carronades, however, and some of the guns saw service during the Civil War.

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