Originally rated as a 44-gun frigate, USS Constitution typically carried around 54 guns. During the War of 1812, she mounted twenty-four 32-pound carronades on the spar deck, as well as a long 18-pound “chase” gun forward, and thirty 24-pound long guns on the gun deck.
Today, Constitution’s guns are replicas, not originals. When the ship returned to Boston in 1897 for her 100th birthday, she no longer carried any guns. In 1883 she had been turned into barracks and a “receiving ship” for sailors, so guns were no longer necessary. Her first 20th century restoration in 1906-1907 saw fifty-five replica guns made for the ship. All of the present guns were cast for the 1927-1931 restoration with the exception of two 1812-era replica carronades on the after quarter deck. Cast in 1981, these carronades are closer to Constitution‘s 1812 spar deck armament. The gun deck guns were cast in the Charlestown Navy Yard in 1929. The pattern of these guns was based on a British siege gun that was abandoned in Boston during the American Revolution and is currently displayed near Harvard University. The decision to cast “British” guns was made by Lieutenant John A. Lord, Supervisor of the 1927-1931 restoration. He based his decision upon inaccurate research that led the Navy to mistakenly believe that Constitution was outfitted with British guns in 1812.
Eighteen of the thirty replica 24-pounders are marked with a board arrow and cipher making them appear British in origin. The incised “broad arrow” is a mark signifying that the gun was originally “Property of the (British) Crown.” The “royal cipher” GR refers to Georgius Rex (King George II who reigned 1727-1760). The other twelve replica 24-pounders were cast from an American gun.
The replica carronades for the spar deck and long guns for the gun deck were first installed in 1930 near the end of the 1927-1931 restoration.
Though decades separate Constitution‘s restorations, the methods remain the same. In 1930, photographer Leslie Jones captured a Navy Yard worker guiding a long gun as it is lowered toward the main hatch by a crane.
Ship restorers still use cranes to hoist the guns on to and off of the ship. These same guns have been removed and refurbished during all subsequent 20th and 21st century restorations.
In preparation for the 2015-2017 restoration, all of Constitution‘s guns were removed and stored temporarily in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
The carronades and long guns are crated and will be sent to a United States Coast Guard facility in Maryland to be stripped of their paint surface and recoated with a new protective coating. They will be reinstalled on the ship at the end of the 2015-2017 restoration.
Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command
Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.
Manager of Curatorial Affairs, USS Constitution Museum
Kate Monea is the Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the USS Constitution Museum.