… the variety and number of projectiles so far recovered, indicate that the guns of the Alderney ship were supplied with an above-average choice and number of rounds, and this is perhaps as we might expect for a vessel on a mission of national importance.
In broad terms, the purpose of a naval ship is to act as a mobile gun platform that has the capability to defend itself against aggression or to deter, intimidate, damage or destroy a hostile, or potentially hostile force. To succeed it depends upon its artillery, the purpose of which is to be able, when necessary, to dismantle, batter, sink or burn an enemy construct, and to incapacitate or kill its fighting personnel through direct hit or the creation of splinters or conflagration. The shotting of the Alderney guns is therefore of fundamental importance, both in understanding the tactical management of the vessel (a theme which will be addressed in the next section) and in determining the ability of the ship to achieve its objectives.
The gun recovered from the Alderney wreck was found loaded. Some commentators have seen this as evidence that the ship was lost in battle. It was, however, usual during this period for ships to leave port with their cannon charged and shotted, but also it was found, on the removal of the corrosion products which caked the gun’s exterior, that the tampion (a wooden, cylindrical block inserted into the muzzle to prevent rain and sea-water penetration) was still in place, and that the touch-hole had been sealed with a wooden plug. Furthermore, the remains of cordage about the forward end of the barrel demonstrated that the weapon had been lashed for passage. Clearly the ship was not expecting action.
The gun was loaded with an inert shot; more specifically, a solid iron sphere (rather than an incendiary or explosive device) that had been cast in two halves and was wadded front and back with picked-hemp oakum. The purpose of its spherical form was to present a symmetrical front to the propulsive forces released by the ignition of the propellant, and have a body surface that was free from any irregularities that might obstruct the passage of the projectile down the barrel. Also, once in flight, the projectile had to be well balanced so that it did not wobble or behave in a manner that would cause it to deviate from its intended trajectory. The weight of the shot was close to 4 lbs which most sources agree was the usual weight-of-shot for a minion (although it must be said that shot weights for every category of gun could vary significantly).
Cognate gun and shot from any archaeological context are extremely rare, but because the Alderney cannon are likely to be new and appear to be similar, if not identical, it is equally likely that the shot with which they were found, not only came with the guns, but were also cast specifically for this pattern of gun. To a compelling extent this is confirmed by a remarkable level of similarity between the rounds. Venturing a personal note, in over twenty-five consecutive years of wreck excavation, the writer has never seen such a uniform collection of round-shot. Usually, when there has been time to ‘mix-and-match’, each shot, both in character and dimension, is slightly different to the next. The fact that the shot was very likely made specifically for the guns with which they were found, is of particular significance when we consider the matter of ‘windage’.
Windage is the difference between the diameter of the shot and the diameter of the bore. It is a delicate balance; too much and there will be a loss of range and power, too little and the projectile might jam with fatal consequences to the crew. For the Alderney guns that it has been possible to study in detail, windage was a mere 9 mm (a shade under ? of an inch) which ensured a minimum escape of gases and, therefore, a minimum loss of muzzle velocity. Just as the writer has never seen so much consanguine, duplicate shot, so too has he never known so little windage. A more typical reflection of the writer’s experience came from two bronze guns of Spanish make, which were recently recovered in loaded condition from a troopship that was lost in the River Plate in 1812. These had a shot/bore differential which was over three times that of the Alderney cannon. The difference, of course, was that the Spanish cannonballs were most likely generic rounds which, like the guns, had been around for a great many years and thus were likely to have had a mixed history. Parenthetically, it is worth mentioning that, whereas the precision-loaded Alderney gun was only lightly wadded, the writer found the River Plate guns to have been heavily wadded with a mixture of oakum and cloth. In both cases the wadding served to prevent the movement of the shot, but, in the case of the Spanish guns, it is likely that it also served to build pressure.
The close-fitting shot that was found with the Alderney guns attests not only to a high level of standardized, facsimile production within the foundries, but also to the ability of the Navy to organize and service its new guns with whatever was needed to guarantee full efficiency in battle. It would seem that a lesson had been learned from the Armada encounters in which the English ships again and again ran out of shot and powder and had to make do with whatever could be scrounged from local sources ashore. In such circumstances the quality of the powder and fit-of-shot can be imagined. The problems of matching shot and windage at this time were well expressed by Professor Mattingly in his classic study The Defeat of the Spanish Armada:
… not only were no two cannons ever quite alike but the cannonballs supplied with any given piece were unlikely to be all the same size, so that the windage … usually considerable, was also variable. As a result, it was only in the text books that a piece of given bore and length loaded in a given fashion would hurl a ball of a given size a given distance. In fact, even the most experienced gunner might hesitate to predict whether, when he next fired, if his gun would send its shot directly to the target, drop it with a discouraged burp a few hundred feet ahead, or blow up at the breech, probably killing him and his crew. At long ranges the chances of effective execution were slight.
In short, the Alderney guns would seem to confirm what many have thought, that the Armada experience and the continued Spanish threat, led to a higher level of professionalism within the Navy.
It is also of significance that the shot was of iron rather than of stone. It is believed that in England the first iron shot was manufactured in the Wield in 1509, but the change to iron was slow and the guns of the 1546 ordnance survey were mostly stone-throwers and, as excavation revealed, stone projectiles were common on the Mary Rose. Even into the 1560s stone shot was very much part of the nation’s arsenal. The Alderney ship is the first vessel to be found that was on Crown business and which (according to the current archaeological evidence), was entirely without stone projectiles.
Of particular interest is how the Alderney guns were charged. What quantity of powder was used and had it been ladled down the barrel, or had it been inserted in pre-prepared, sealed bags known as cartridges? It might be thought that a sealed bag would inhibit the inflammation of the propellant, but once ignited gunpowder does not require oxygen to burn, it being the reaction of the chemicals within the powder that produces the heat and gases. Because it was sealed with wooden inserts at both the mouth and vent, the barrel of the recovered gun was found to be empty of water. On exposure to air the propellant began to heat then smoulder causing smoke to issue from the muzzle. The resulting loss of powder made it impossible to establish the quantity of charge and whether or not it had been contained within a combustible cartridge. The likelihood, however, is that canvas cartridges were used, as they are referred to in the Anthony Anthony Rolls of 1546 and in documents held at Oxford which date to 1579 and which specify ‘canvas to make cartridges for Her Highness’ Ships’.
The only way to evaluate the striking capability of the Alderney ship is through its fire-power, or the weight of shot it could deliver in a single discharge of all its guns. Our current thinking is that the Alderney ship carried eight or ten guns; assuming (as the current archaeological evidence indicates) that they are all the same, then the ship had a maximum shot weight of 40 lbs. Compared with the Tiger of 1595 (whose all-iron artillery was listed above) which had a shot weight of 132 lbs, this is fairly modest but probably what we might expect for a fast dispatch carrier that was too small to support culverins which had a weight of about 4000 lbs, a length of about 8½ feet and a recoil of perhaps as much as 10 feet.
A key question in determining a vessel’s fighting (rather than striking) capability is how much ammunition it carried per gun. In 1591 Sir Richard Grenville’s Revenge carried about 80 rounds per gun; this might seem considerable, but then the Revenge had set off on its famous voyage (from which it did not return) in search of trouble. More typical Queen’s ships appear to have carried significantly less. Based on powder supplies issued by the Board of Ordnance, Caruana has worked out some illuminating figures on the number of rounds per gun for certain ships. For instance, in 1580, a major man-of-war such as Martin Frobisher’s flagship Lion had enough powder for fourteen rounds per gun, as did the Vanguard of ten years later. Smaller ships had less. The Adventure in 1589 had sufficient powder for only seven rounds, while the Swiftsure, the following year, had enough for ten. Thus it would seem that capital ships had an average of 15 rounds per gun, while small vessels averaged ten.
We do not know how much powder the Alderney ship carried but, for a vessel on a mission such as hers, it seems safe to assume that the shot on board was adequately powdered. If she carried a maximum of ten guns then we might reasonably expect to find about 100 rounds on the wreck. So far there are 68 recorded pieces of regular shot; at least two more are believed to have crumbled during their extraction from concretion; about five are believed to have not made it into the museum collection, and there are likely to be another nine in the cannon that are still on the sea-bed. This gives a total of 84. In addition to the round-shot, ten pieces of cross-bar (or ‘star’) shot were recovered as well as eight intact, or semi-intact, pieces of expanding shot (see Recent Discoveries). This brings the total to 102. No doubt more will be found. In summary, the variety and number of projectiles so far recovered indicate that the guns of the Alderney ship were supplied with an above-average choice and number of rounds and this is perhaps as we might expect for a vessel on a mission of national importance.