Modern Times

The Effect Of The Naval Flintlock.

A flintlock fixed to a cannon, allowing it to be fired from a distance by pulling the lanyard attached to the lock.
Naval flintlock (gun-lock) with lanyard.

Modern Times, As Seen Through Ship Design, Part 6.

From looking out of the ship to the stars by which the crew would navigate, we now turn to look inside. Whilst this may seem an obscure element to include in this series, the impact of the flintlock was far beyond any other change in warship design save the introduction of the ship-board cannon itself.

“To All Admirals of King George’s Navy, 21 October 1755:

Having considered the experiment lately made in our presence at Woolwich by firing a cannon with locks, and the placing the priming into a thin tube, will answer much better at sea than the present method of firing only with a match and ought to be introduced on board. The locks will be fitted to all quarterdeck guns, and will be introduced gradually to other ordinance as befits.”

The current method of firing a cannon at that time involved the touching of a slow match to the touch-hole (powder hole) of a cannon. Usually this was wound around the end of a stick, this being called a linstock.

One can imagine that in the crowded environment of a gun-deck, anything that burned would be a serious hazard. Indeed, in the centuries previously, only a boswain’s lantern was allowed below decks, what with the fire hazard being so great. The training of a gun crew was therefore extremely important.

A gun captain fires his cannon using a slow match, it is made difficult because he has to stand at the side of the cannon.
Firing a cannon with a lintstock.
It is not possible to see out of the gun port.

The flintlock solved several problems in one leap. Firstly the need for the use of a slow match was obviated, although in practice, one would be kept to hand. The second element, which is not so obvious is that the gun-captain could activate the gun from a distance. After all, with the recoil of a gun weighing as much as a ton in weight, standing behind would be very dangerious indeed. The linstock with the slow match tied to the end, the gun-captain had to stand to one side; with a cord attached to the flintlock, it allowed the gun-captain to stand at a safe distance behind his cannon and still be able to fire it at will.

In the our modern times, the necessity for immediacy is absolute. In this instance, the accuracy is in timing. In any case, the more accurate the timing, the better the effect.

The problem of any warship armed with fixed cannon, is of its rolling. Even in a modest sea, the view the gun-captain has through his gun port will be constantly changing. With the flintlock and a lengthy lanyard, the gun-captain could stand behind the cannon, yet at a safe distance. That he could look down the length of the barrel and directly through the gun-port meant that he was able to see the exact moment when it should be fired – pulling the cord a split second early to allow for the shot to reach its target. Naturally a gun-captain would have years of experience in this matter. The point is that being able to see the target along the barrel -– which was simply not possible when firing from the side – accuracy was improved immensely.

Now, in those days, it wasn’t possible to fit an existing cannon with a lock, thus locks were only fitted to vessels that had been armed with new weaponry. In previous times it was common for a newly built ship to be given cannons from vessels that had been condemned due to their age. Of necessity, this was a long-term strategy, and long term strategies always require an element of foresight and diligence.

Foresight, that is to say, thinking ahead with determination is one element of the our modern times that stands out against ages past.

The Effect Of The Flintlock

By the time of the Napoleonic Wars which began in the late 18th century, almost all cannon in the Royal Navy were fitted with gun-locks, flintlocks. The effect was devastating. Not because there was any more shot being fired, but for the simple fact that the shot went home.

The French and Spanish fleets had to make do with a gun-captain who had to gauge the line of sight when standing by the side of his weapon, the very design of his ship obscuring his view. All of which made the chances of the shot falling into the water in front of the enemy vessel – or shooting through the air above to minimal effect.

Through the introduction of such superior weaponry, the Royal Navy asserted itself as the premier naval fighting force on the planet. But the very notion of force acts in direct contradiction to the needs of the consciousness soul. Britain was doing herself no favours in having such a force, for the very nature of the Anglo-Saxon mind is to be the David amongst Goliaths. In becoming a Goliath itself, Britain turned its cultural abilities against its own destiny.

In adopting the flintlock, the British had turned a corner. Behind them lay the skills of the hand alone; in front of them a race for accuracy. It is a race that will become more urgent as the years turn. A hundred years from the time we are studying here, 1805, warships will have changed out of all recognition. The pace of change will mean that many of them were obsolete before they were even launched. It will take a few posts before we get there, but we will see how the commoditization of the warship made ‘bigger’ the only option.


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