Anatomy of the ship of the line
Spanish ships of the line
Evolution of the ship of the line
The art of transom
The Sovereign of the Seas
The HMS Victory was built as a 104-gun first-rate ship of the line for the Royal Navy; she was laid down in 1759 and launched in 1765, but her
service life did not start until 1778. She is particularly famous for being Nelson's flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and the
only ship of the line surviving to this day. In that time she was already an aged ship and had suffered two remodelings on which, for instance,
the stern balconies were removed.
Her service life ended in 1812, when she was moored at Portsmouth harbour to be used as a depot ship. Over time the ship got in very poor
condition and in 1922 she was placed on a dry dock at Portsmouth where the ship, which could barely remain afloat, was extensively restored
during long years, not without suffering some scratches caused by the bombers of the Luftwaffe. Today she remains in that same place,
preserved as a museum ship.
The armament comprised thirty 32-pound cannons in the lower gun deck, twenty-eight 24-pound cannons in the middle gun deck, thirty 12-pound
cannons in the upper gun deck, twelve 12-pound cannons in the quarterdeck and another two shooting forward in the forecastle. A special addition
were the two 68-pound carronades placed in the forecastle, able to fire such heavy projectiles at short ranges only. The carronades were mounted on
partially rotating carriages which allowed to aim them either sidewards or frontally. The ship carried 35 tonnes of gunpowder and 120 tonnes of
ammunition to serve her large artillery battery.
Note: an attentive observer will notice that the number of sidewards guns carried by the HMS Victory (100) does not match the
number of gun ports. It seems that for some reason some of them were unused.
On a full burst on either side the artillery aboard the HMS Victory could deliver almost half a tonne of projectiles to a distance of about 2
kilometers, impulsed by 200 kilograms of gunpowder. Even at far range, a 32-pound cannon ball was able to pass through 60 centimeters of solid oak.
Several types of projectiles were available, being the most common the well known solid cannon ball whose purpose was to break through the enemy hulls,
causing a "spray" of flying wooden splinters which were the prime cause of casualties.
Another way of maximizing casualties were the sachets filled
with numerous small balls - in similarity with a shotgun cartridge -, which were intended to sweep away the enemy personnel standing on the weather
decks. To destroy the enemy masts, spars, sails and riggings and force enemy ships to immobility, were used smaller projectiles linked together with
chains or bars. Some models could be folded to occupy less space and after being fired they would deploy while in flight, to be more effective.
The ensemble formed by a 32-pound cannon and its carriage reached a weight of about 3.5 tonnes. After igniting a gunpowder charge of 5 kilograms,
a projectile weighing about 14.7 kilograms would leave the muzzle with a speed close to 500 meters per second. To retain the recoil the
artillery piece was strongly attached to the board by a thick rope, which passed through two rings on the sides of the carriage and one ring on
the rear end of the cannon. The gunners used a twin rigging to reallocate forward the artillery piece after every shot, and they could suffer an instant
death because of the brutal effort that this operation involved. Six highly trained gunners could reload this cannon in about 90 seconds.
In the image below we have the contraption in question. Note the wads interleaved with the projectile and gunpowder charge, whose purpose was to secure
these elements inside the barrel and to reduce the filtration to the exterior of the expanding gases, avoiding so a loss of power in the shot.
Apart from the relatively wide cabins occupied by Captain Hardy and Admiral Nelson, the rest of the complement, roughly 850 men encompasing sailors,
soldiers, the diverse specialists and officers, had to cope with more or less severe straits and discomforts on their life onboard. The sailors and
soldiers rested on the gun decks, on hammocks hanging from the beams, placed side to side in small groups in the spaces between the artillery pieces.
Officers had their own spaces reserved, enclosed withing bulkheads, in the officers' dining room. The midshipmen, about 20, thronged in a room of 6 x 3
meters in the orlop deck and in another small space located in the lower gun deck.
As toilets the sailors only had two boxes with two holes each, placed in the beak, and exposed at the sight of others. The hygiene was entrusted to
the waves that should be hitting this place regularly. Above the toilets there was a gangway used to access the bowsprit and as a watchpost for the
guards while the ship was docked, who had orders to shoot at anyone who tried to abandon the ship. The very important people astern had similar toilets,
but enclosed within the quarter galleries.
Since the complement was so large the alimentation onboard had to be austere. Cookies were the most usual aliment and the oven fed by coal on the kitchen
could prepare 40 kilograms of them in a single baked, or alternatively roast a whole pig in its spit of two meters in length. A copper distiller incorporated
to the oven produced about six quarters of distilled water for the medic onboard. Even if with austerity, the crew onboard should be adequately feed,
for many onerous tasks awaited them.
The anchors weighed five tonnes each and the cables to weigh them had around 20 centimeters in thickness. Around the main capstan, which was available in
two decks, up to 260 men cooperated to weigh the anchors and, perched on top of the very capstan, a violinist would perform a chantey to help to coordinate
the effort, in similarity with the times on which drums were used to coordinate the slave rowers onboard galleys. And in some way, a part of the sailors on
the times of the HMS Victory were slaves, because during war time many sailors and idle people in general were recruited per force by teams of armed grunts,
which went seeking "candidates" on the docks, beating them with clubs if they resisted to embrace a glorious life onboard the mouldy atmosphere of a wooden
Despite of caulking, wooden hulls were far from watertight, and the numerous gun ports found in these ships made this problem much bigger. In rough
sea conditions, up to 150 men were in charge of operating the bilge pumps located next to the main mast on the lower gun deck, in different turns during
the 24 hours of the day, to exhaust each hour up to 120 tonnes of water accumulated on the cesspit. With good or bad weather, the HMS Victory was a mobile
fortress which could remain during several consecutive months on the sea.
As in any ship of the line of the late 18th century, the quarterdeck and the forecastle were linked by two side gangways and between these three or four boats
were stowed over beams. On the weather decks (forecastle, gangways, quarterdeck and poop deck) there were, in place of bulwarks, rows of U-shaped iron candlesticks
supporting a mesh. Every day the crewmen had to roll their hammocks tightly and place them vertically inside the mesh; this kept clear the gun decks while adding
some protection against shrapnel on the weather decks.
Order of battle
At the imminence of a combat the whole complement, following a simple order such as "All the crew!", went to their respective combat positions. A multitude of
sailors quickly climbed to the masts to hoist the lower sails, to prevent the risk of fire in the masts and rigging. Parallely, the musketeers onboard
took positions along the mesh bulwarks and the best shooters went to the tops of the masts, from where they could spot more easily the enemy officers
(he was precisely one of these sharpshooters who killed Admiral Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar). Also small cannons loaded with shrapnel were
fired from the tops. On the stern the carpenters removed any wooden bulwark, because these were a hindrance on the gun decks and a source of deadly wooden chips.
Whistles and megaphons were used to transmit orders amidst the roar of the battle. The boats were lowered to the sea to send messengers between the fleet units
and to get some valuable goods out of the ship during the battles. On the weather decks groups of sailors deployed meshes to prevent an enemy boarding. At the same time the "powder monkeys"
would carry gunpowder cartridges from the magazine to the many artillery pieces. These boys of quick feet were as young as twelve years and their short
stature made more difficult to enemy musketeers to take them as targets. They received the cartridges through wet "safety" curtains from operators who wore felt
shoes and were illuminated by a lantern placed behind a thick glass panel.
Beneath the lower gun deck, the infirmary was ready to receive the many wounded that would come. The operating table is the same table that the midshipmen use for dining
in better times. As anesthesia was inexistent in that time, there were only two options: a high-grade alcoholic drink or a bleeding on the patient prior to the
intervention. The wounded were quickly transfered to the infirmary, not so much because of humanitary reasons, but to prevent their cries from shattering the
combative spirit of the fighting sailors. Meanwhile, a soldier would make guard on the orlop deck to prevent anyone from hidding there during the battle.
In the gun decks and weather decks the smoke and noise created an infernal atmosphere. After the initial burst, the cannons were fired as soon as they were ready.
The sailors were barefooted to have better grip on the deck, which would be covered with sand to absorb the blood, for this one could cause the gunners to
slip off. These had their torso naked to avoid pieces of cloth in injuries caused by flying wooden chips. The effort of managing the artillery pieces as faster as
possible was brutal, but these men were fighting for their lives and for a quick end of the nightmare. The combats could last for half a day and they were atrocious.
The solid cannon balls opened holes in the hull, creating sprays of wooden chips which caused horrible wounds. The crewmen could be smashed by an artillery piece,
whose mooring had failed to retain it, or be killed by a cannon which exploded because of a defect or an insufficient cooling. They could be directly hit by a solid
cannon ball, a cloud of shrapnel or a dismasting contraption. One of these, fired from the Santísima Trinidad during the Battle of Trafalgar, killed nine persons onboard the HMS Victory.
And if all of that were not enough, pieces of masts, spars and other elements from the rigging could fall on the crowded decks, sometimes being able to break them and kill
people on lower decks. Finally, in the event of a boarding, the many axes, sabres and other blade weapons would produce terrible wounds and mutilations. The aftermath of the
battle in a ship of the line was a dantesque scene.
The war fleet in the times of Trafalgar
"The great arsenal of Belzebu" was how a chronicler described the warships of the 18th century, and it was easy to imagine that those
terrible weapons were creation of the very devil. Such was their destructive power that the largest ones could fire 30 tonnes of shrapnel
on an hour, and such was their capacity to resist the punishment that battles frequently lasted for several hours. In the Royal Navy, the
importance of vessels was evaluated according to a scale of six levels based on their firepower. Only the ships of first, second and
third rate, which had at least 64 guns, were designed as "ships of the line". Their only function was to navigate in the combat line of the
Navy to engage in large confrontations.
The smaller ships, of fourth, fifth and sixth rate, were used for a wide diversity of purposes: as guard ships in the colonies, convoy escorts,
convoy hunters, troop transports, hospital ships and supply ships. Included in this group were the frigates, which in important actions were
the fast and long-range explorers which were sent to localize and pursue the enemy. They did not take part in combat and remained ready for
transmitting messages, rescue survivors or tow any ship of the line damaged.
First rate: with a complement of 875 crewmen and a length of up to 206 feet in the lower gun deck, this flagship of the fleet
carried 100 or more cannons, which comprised from the 12-pounder to the huge 32-pounder. Because each one could cost 100,000 sterling pounds, less than
a dozen were in service at the same time.
Second rate: barely a bit less imposing than that of first rate, this 195-feet vessel carried from 90 to 98 cannons in her
three gun decks. One of her defects, which generally shared with the other ships of the line, was that the lower gun ports could not be opened during
bad weather conditions.
Third rate: this vessel was built in diverse sizes, from those of 80 guns and three decks to those of 64 guns and two decks, with
complements from 720 to 490 crewmen. Of the 175 important ships of the Royal Navy in 1805, 147 were of third rate.
Fourth rate: this two-deck ship, which carried between 50 and 56 guns, had a length of 150 feet and was cheap to build (26,000
sterling pounds) and to maintain (350 crewmen). Her role was to serve as flagship for a cruiser squadron overseas.
Fifth rate: supreme hunter of merchant ships, this frigate which had from 130 to 150 feet in length generally carried a complement
of 250 enthusiast volunteers... due to the promise of the bounties.
Sixth rate: this agile "post ship" of 125 feet was the favourite of the Royal Navy as messenger and escort. She could be built
for only 10,000 sterling pounds and manned by a "few" 195 crewmen.