Was the main armament allowed to recoil on firing?  It has been suggested that certainly at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588 that the guns were fixed to the side of the ship and then withdrawn for loading.  The change took place in around 1625.  Any advice on the matter gratefully accepted.
Jonathan Davies


  • Shipboard guns have to be restrained to some degree in any case. From a very early point, gun carriages were rigged with breechings, heavy ropes which fixed the gun to the hull structure and limited the recoil, and gun tackles, which allowed the gun to be hauled up to the gunport or back away from it, or slid side to side for aiming. The amount of recoil is limited by the length of the breechings, which can be fixed or adjustable.   It has been suggested that early in the use of ordnance on ships, recoil was prevented entirely, although the evidence for this is secondary. The idea is that early carriages were not set up to roll backwards, as they did not have four wheels but were two-wheeled, with a trail like a land carriage or a vertical post for adjusting elevation, and that allowing either of these designs to recoil would damage the deck or the carriage. Once four-truck naval carriages were introduced (the earliest archaeological examples are from the first half of the 16th century), guns could roll backwards without damage, and the recoil could be used to move them back from the gunport for reloading. It is hard to say what the earliest definitive evidence for this development is. Some ships continued to limit recoil due to limited deck space well into the 17th century, and it was necessary to climb outside the ship to sponge and reload (there are images of this practice).

    On Vasa, we can see that there was space on the gundecks to allow the main armament to recoil sufficiently for reloading, and preserved fragments of the breechings show that there was enough slack in them to allow movement during recoil. At the same time, the breechings were of fixed length, which would not work if the idea was to hold the gun tight to the side of the ship (it would not allow aiming). Tests of a full-scale copy of the main armament, a lightweight 24-pounder, showed that on level ground, with a service charge, the gun rolls backwards about 7.5 meters under recoil if not restrained. If limited to about 1.5 meters, enough to allow reloading, it does not slow down significantly in that space, so the shock load on the ship structure is about the same as if it were tightly bound.

    On the other hand, the upper deck is too narrow to allow some of the longer light guns mounted on that deck to recoil far enough to bring their muzzles inboard, so some guns would have to be loaded from outside, standing on the chainwales. Another Swedish warship, Solen, which sank the year before Vasa, had among its guns mounted on normal four-wheeled carriages two captured Russian guns still mounted on low, two-wheeled carriages with trails. These could still have recoiled across the deck, as the majority of the total weight is on the wheels rather than the trail, and the trail is rounded on the underside.

    All of this suggests to me that the development from fixed to recoiling guns was not a strictly chronological process, but that there were a number of factors affecting whether guns were held tight to the side or allowed to roll backwards.
    Fred Research Director, Ship Unit, Ph.D.

Add your comment or create a new post

Your name and post can be seen by everyone.Your e-mail will never be shown publicly.