The Guns of Constitution
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
There never was a time when the guns of “Old Ironsides” failed to achieve victory. They were not special guns, or different in any way from hundreds to be found aboard warships of the early 19th Century. The difference was the fact that very few frigates — the cruisers of that day — carried cannon of such large caliber in such quantity.
Constitution’s gun batteries began with the letting of a contract on 8 August 1794 with the Furnace Hope in Rhode Island. Optimistically, it called for thirty 24-pounder long guns to be delivered by 1 May 1795 for a price of $106.66 per ton, or about $225 a gun.
A “24-pounder” long gun was a muzzle-loading long-barreled cannon capable of firing a solid iron shot weighing 24 pounds. Mounted on a four-wheel carriage, it had a maximum effective range of about 1200 yards and could be fired about once every three minutes by a trained crew of twelve men and a boy (the “powder monkey”). The Furnace Hope model was 8’ feet long and had a bore diameter of about 5 5/6″. Each unit was cast solid and bored out. On its carriage, a 24-pounder weighed about 6000 pounds. Because cannon of such size never had been produced before in the United States, the manufacturer was unable to meet the contract schedule. The full battery of thirty guns was delivered to Boston in August 1797, however, ready for the ship which had yet to be launched.
Because some of the casting and boring problems became apparent early on at Furnace Hope and the only other contractor, the Cecil Iron Works in Maryland, and because no other foundry was interested in this type of work, contracts for the smaller caliber long guns intended for the frigates’ upper decks were not let in a timely fashion. Contracts had been let, however, for twenty 8″ brass howitzers, split equally between Paul Revere in Boston and James Byers in Springfield, Massachusetts. It appears that four of these 1700-pound weapons were to go to each of the four authorized large frigates and two each to the two smaller frigates. When the builders attempted to install the howitzers in Constitution, it was found that they were incompatible with the bulwark around the after half of the ship’s spar (upper) deck. They were sent ashore, never to return.
In late May 1798, less than two months before she first put to sea, Constitution had only the thirty 24s on her gun deck. In desperation, the Federal government persuaded the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to loan the Navy sixteen of the 18-pounder long guns known to be languishing in Fort Independence in Boston harbor. And then, in the following three weeks, the ship also received fourteen 12-pounder long guns from an unreported source. No details have come down to us on these particular weapons but, in general terms, each 18 weighed on the order of 4700 pounds and was 8’ long; each 12 was about the same length but weighed about 4100 pounds. Both were muzzle-loaders. Their crews were proportionately smaller that those for the 24s, but the firing rate was the same.
To sum up, USS Constitution, rated as a 44-gun frigate, carried thirty 24-pounders, sixteen 18-pounders, and fourteen 12-pounders — sixty long guns, in all — when she entered service. She carried this huge armament through the Quasi-War with France, and until she was laid up in reserve in June 1802.
Returning to active duty the following summer, she sailed to the Mediterranean to face the Barbary pirates without the 18-pounders, which had been returned to their owners. After six months on station, Commodore Edward Preble, her commander, decided he wanted more heavy fire with which to batter the Bashaw of Tripoli. He borrowed six more 24s from the King of Two Sicilies at Naples, who was only too glad to have someone else work on the “pirate problem.” After bashing the Bashaw through the summer of 1804, Preble was replaced as squadron commander and shortly thereafter returned the borrowed cannon.
Captain John Rodgers took over command early in November, just as Constitution received eight 32-pounder carronades from the United States. A “carronade” was a shortbarreled, large bore, relatively lightweight muzzleloading weapon of murderous short-range (400 yards maximum effective) smashing power. Only 4’ long and weighing just about 2000 pounds, it used a smaller gun crew and, because of its lightness, could be mounted in larger numbers higher in the ship than long guns. Unlike the long gun, it was mounted on a slide bed that was pivoted under the muzzle so it could be aimed. A weapon new to American manufacture, these eight almost certainly were cast by Henry Foxall at his Columbia Iron works in Georgetown, Maryland, a suburb of the Federal capitol. Constitution’s initial allotment was mounted in the waist (amidships), four on each side, forward of the long 12s. Her armament, then, from November 1804 until December 1807, when she again went inactive, was thirty long 24s, fourteen long 12s, and eight 32-pounder carronades.
Constitution was still overseas in September 1807 when an order was placed with the Cecil Iron Works, now skilled in cannon casting, for a new battery of 24s for her. The Furnace Hope pieces had proven to be too short for efficient use, and her imminent homecoming would be the first opportunity for an upgrade. At about 6400 pounds and 9’ 6″ long, the new pieces were longer and heavier than their predecessors.
Upon her return from the Mediterranean, then-skipper Captain Hugh Campbell, in his concluding report to the Secretary of the Navy, strongly recommended that the ship’s 12-pounders be landed and replaced with carronades. In the winter of 1808, the Secretary of the Navy acted on Captain Campbell’s recommendation, directing Henry Foxall to manufacture two dozen for the ship. They were delivered later in the year as the ship lay in ordinary.
Constitution returned to active duty in March 1809 carrying the thirty new Cecil Iron Works long 24s on her gun deck and the twenty-four Foxall carronades above on the spar deck. At some time between then and the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year, a single 18-pounder long gun had been added as a chase gun. It was with these fifty-five guns thatConstitution defeated HMS Guerriere on 19 August 1812 and earned her nickname of “Old Ironsides.”
Following his succession to command of the ship on 15 September 1812, Commodore William Bainbridge eliminated the 18-pounder, simplifying his ammunition loading and handling problem by dropping one caliber. The gun had been virtually useless, anyway, since the ship’s bow structure was not well suited to the accommodation of a chase gun. The remaining fifty-four long guns and carronades were sufficient to end the service of HMS Java on 29 December 1812.
Constitution had one more major battle during the war. By that time, 20 February 1815, Captain Charles Stewart had been in command for a year-and-a-half and had had her to sea on one unremarkable war cruise. Be that as it may, it had given him the basis for a further change in the ship’s armament. He reduced the number of carronades to twenty and added two 24-pounder “shifting gunades” recently captured from the British by an American privateer. Designed by Sir William Congreve in 1814, each was 8’ 6″ long, but being of thinner barrel construction weighed only about 5000 pounds on carriage. The design was an attempt to combine the range of a long gun with the lighter weight of a carronade. The pair sat on carriages like the long guns, and it was expected that, since they were lighter, they could readily be shifted from side to side as combat required. To overcome the ship’s weakness in firing straight ahead, he removed the officers’ telephone booth-like “spice boxes” (johns) from their places forward on the gun deck so that 24-pounders could be fired dead ahead through the bridle ports. Both these changes contributed to his success in simultaneously defeating HMS Cyane, a frigate, and HMS Levant, a corvette, on the above date.
By the time Constitution returned to active service in 1821, some of her 1807 24s had been transferred to the new ship of the line Independence. To make up her usual gun deck battery of thirty, they were replaced by 1816 24s from the same foundry. There was little difference between the two designs. On the spar deck, it was decided to ship only sixteen 32-pounder carronades and the two shifting gunades.
Following seven years on duty in the Mediterranean, and another seven in reserve, Constitution went back into service in 1835 with twenty of her original twenty-four carronades on the spar deck. The shifting gunades were moved below to the gun deck, where that battery had been reduced to twenty-five of the long 24s. Because they were expected to shift easily, the gunades would permit either side to have essentially its normal full battery in any one-to-one ship duel where only one side was engaged at a time.
Technology caused the next change in the ship’s armament, in 1842. That summer, she received four 68-pounder (8″) shell-firing Paixhans guns on her gun deck. These muzzle-loaders of French design, for the first time, gave the ship the capability of firing exploding projectiles. They were 8’ 10″ long and weighed about 7700 pounds on carriage. With them on the gun deck were twenty-six of the 1807/1816 24-pounders. Above, on the spar deck, were twenty of her 1808 32-pounder carronades and the two shifting gunades. But for the landing of the gunades, this was the battery she later carried on her ’round the world cruise, 1844-46.
While the ship was on her extended voyage, the Navy Department conducted a study of ship armament and decided upon a new system which involved arming its ships mainly with guns of varying length and weight, but all of the same caliber: that of a 32-pounder (about 6″). Under this plan, Constitution spent her final seven years of active duty (1848-55) carrying a spar deck battery of twenty 32-pounder long guns 7’ 4″ long and weighing some 4100 pounds each, and a gun deck battery of the four Paixhans guns and twenty-six 32-pounder long guns 8’ long and weighing about 5200 pounds apiece.
During her years at the Naval Academy (1860-71) and as an apprentice training ship (1876-81), she generally carried fewer than twenty 32-pounders of both weights. These were used primarily for the exercise of her trainees, and only rarely were they fired at all.
Howard, Dr. Frank. Sailing Ships Of War, 1400-1860. New York: Mayflower Books, 1979.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
Tucker, Spencer C. Arming The Fleet. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM