Have you ever wondered, when did ships first use cannons? We see cannons on ships all the time in movies and TV shows, but are these depictions realistic? How early was the earliest cannon on a ship?
It is thought that the first cannons on ships were used around the 14th century, when sailing ships started to build small cannons on their railings. These were designed to kill opposing sailors, rather than damage the other ship. It wasn’t until the 1500s that larger cannons started to appear on ships.
In this article, we’re going to explore when ships started using cannons and how this use developed and changed over time. We’ll find out which ship was the first to carry medium-sized cannons, and cover what other weapons have been used at sea.
When Did Ships First Use Cannons?
Although records are not brilliantly precise, most people believe that cannons were first used at sea around the 14th century. Some historians suggest that they may have appeared as early as the 13th century. These cannons were intended for the protection of the vessel carrying them, and were initially designed to target the people on other boats.
Before the introduction of the cannon, ships were likely armed in other ways. Guns were probably common, but cannons are considerably more powerful and have far more capacity to defend the ship. As the guns grew in size to increase their range and power, it became necessary to fix them to the ships – which essentially turned them into cannons.
Naval battles were common in the past, and soon drove different countries to look for better and better ways to arm their ships. A lot of early fighting at sea involved boarding the enemy vessel and trying to kill the crew, but long-range weapons were also popular. Some of the civilizations that used cannons on their ships in the early days include:
- The French
- The Portuguese
- The Spanish
- The English
Of these, the English were among the most famous. King Henry VII is thought to have established the first real naval battle fleet, with his ships being heavily stocked with guns and breechloaders. This was followed by his successor, Henry VIII, who began utilizing gunports. These overcame the issues associated with putting heavy guns on the decks and revolutionized the use of cannons at sea.
How Did Henry VIII Change Things?
Firstly, it should be noted that although Henry VIII is credited with the improvement of oceanic warfare, the idea for gunports came from a Frenchman called Descharges, in 1501. Henry VIII may have made the idea popular and used it to make his fleets immensely powerful, but Descharges should be acknowledged.
Before Henry VIII popularized the use of the gunport in ship designs, cannons were generally fastened on the decks of ships. This caused both structural problems and stability issues, which limited the size and power of the guns, and made it difficult to have truly weaponized ships. Small cannons could be used, but large ones were problematic.
By moving the cannons lower on the ships, Henry VIII allowed ships to carry much larger cannons. The gunport meant that the cannons could fire from within the belly of the ship itself, and this resulted in massively longer and stronger guns, capable of firing powerful shots across the ocean. This changed the face of naval fighting.
Henry VIII’s most famous warship was known as the Henry Grâce à Dieu, and it had a full 186 guns on board. These were not all cannons of the size and style that we generally picture today, but this ship was still formidable. By arming ships to this degree, Henry VIII helped the English to hold their own in naval battles, and fight against French invaders.
Which Ship Is Famous For Its Cannons?
If you spend any time researching the development of cannons, you’ll come across the Mary Rose, which was one of the first English warships that ever carried a medium-sized siege cannon on board. The ship carried both bronze and iron guns.
It had a gun deck built beneath the main deck, specifically for the placement of cannons. Again, the Mary Rose was built by Henry VIII, in 1509. She may not have been as heavily armed as the Henry Grâce à Dieu, but she was an immensely powerful and dangerous ship.
The Mary Rose was rebuilt in 1536, and at this point in time, carried a full quota of 91 guns. Many of these were light, but the ship was still extremely well-armed. Unfortunately, the ship sank during a battle against the French in 1545. The exact reason is disputed, but it seems that some of the ship’s gunports were left open, allowing water into the boat.
What Other Weapons Were Used At Sea?
This is very dependent on the era that you examine, but a wide variety of weapons have been used at sea throughout history. For example, knives, daggers, boarding pikes, pistols, and swords have all been popular at times. Until cannons became powerful, the focus was on killing the opposing sailors, and not on damaging the ship.
Once cannons were commonplace, many different kinds of ammunition were invented. These included things like the bundle shot, which involved connecting pieces of metal together with a rope. If the rope twisted around something, the metal pieces would do a lot of damage.
Alternatively, cannons might be loaded with a chain and bar shot, which was ammunition that involved attaching two halves of a ball together with a length of chain. This could potentially tear down a mast, and could certainly damage rigging and sails. Other types of ammo included the standard cannonball, and smaller iron balls.
Hopefully, you now know the answer to the question, when did ships first use cannons? It is thought that some form of cannons have been in use since the 14th century, but they became popular during Henry VIII’s reign, partly because more powerful cannons could be utilized after the invention of the gunport.