Posted by: Rob Viens | June 26, 2012

Defending the Beagle with Nine-Pounders

On June 26th, everyone was preparing for the departure of the Beagle. Darwin wrote:

“Rode to the city & went on board in order to make final arrangements for living in the ship after my long absence.— I dread this process nearly as much as I did at Devonport.— There have been several alterations in the ship.— amongst others we have 2 long nine-pounders; this will make us much more independent: several cases occurred during the last war where very small vessels terribly injured large ones, from having one great gun & keeping out of range of the other.— I am sorry to see so many new faces on the deck.— in the whale boat which took me ashore there was not one old-hand.” (June 26)

The “nine-pounders” where new brass cannons that FitzRoy had added to the ship for increased protection. After all, they were heading south into poorly charted terrain, and into parts of South America that were experiencing some political unrest.  A little show of force could sometimes go a long way. (Read all about FitzRoy’s modifications to the Beagle at HMS Beagle – The Right Ship for the Job.) Brass was preferred because FitzRoy did not want the guns to interfere with the compasses and surveying equipment. Brass was not cheap (and a little extravagant for the Admiralty) so FitzRoy purchased these out of his own pocket.

Brass cannons (from

brass cannons

This all got me thinking about cannons, so a few words about 18th and 19th century Royal Naval cannons might be in order…

Cannons (and their close relations) were the stock defense for Royal Navy ships of Darwin’s time.  If you recall, the basic tactic used in naval battles was to line the ships up side-by-side and just fire away at each other until one of them sank or surrendered.  Hence, the more cannons a ship had, and the larger they were, the more likely it was to be victorious. The large ships of the line (First Rate Warships) carried over a hundred cannons spread out over three decks. The Beagle was originally designed to carry 10.

Your basic cannon was defined by the weight of the cannonball that it fired (i.e., a “nine pounder” fired a nine pound cast iron cannonball). Common sizes ranged from 6 to 42 pounds. There were also other types of “cannons” including the carronade (designed by the Carron Company).  The carronade was a short cannon that could fire a heavier projectile over a short distance.  These guns packed a punch, but they were not terribly accurate beyond a very short range. In it’s original design the Beagle carried eight 16-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder cannons.

68-pounder carronade on the HMS Victory (from Wikipedia Commons)


In the retrofits that turned the Beagle into a survey ship, many of the cannons were removed – shedding weight in the interests of space and maneuverability.  From what I can tell, when the Beagle left England it carried one 6-pounder carronade on the forecastle (front of the ship) and four 6-pounder cannons on the sides.  So, the addition of the two 9-pounders was a fairly significant improvement in the Beagle‘s armament. (Reports also indicated there was a 4-pounder howitzer on board, too, which was soon to be lost in a storm.  Howitzer is gun that falls between a cannon and a mortar.)

Lastly, a brief outline about how cannons were fired:

  • First they were cleaned out with a wet rag on a long pole (this practice was important during combat when hot embers might still be in the cannon)
  • Next, they were loaded with gunpowder – ships (including the Beagle) kept gunpowder stored in a special room on the lower deck.  It was important to keep it away from fire (duh) and water
  • Then a wad of cloth was loaded in the cannon followed by the cannonball (both of them rammed into the barrel of the cannon with a “ramrod”
  • Lastly the “touchhole” – a narrow hole through the barrel of the cannon – was filled with gunpowder. This was essentially the “fuse” (and was often loaded with a hollow porcupine quill or feather)
  • A linstock – a long stick with a flame at the end was then used to light the touchhole OR in Darwin’s time most cannons were outfitted with “gunlocks” (Like the hammer on an old revolver) that could be operated by a long pull cord used to ignite the fuse
  • In either case, ignition was followed by a large “boom” – the force of which would cause the cannon to recoil (which is way you never see the guy with the linstock standing directly behind the cannon)
  • The recoiling cannon was caught be a heavy rope and the process started over.  The whole thing, depending on the skill of the crew haven taken anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes.

Firing an 18 pounder on a French Warship by Louis-Philippe Crépin. Note the linstock, ramrod, pole with wet rags, and the heavy ropes for catching the recoiling cannon.

firing a cannon

At this point in the voyage I am unaware of the cannons being used on the Beagle.  The crew may have considered using them to “fend off” a waterspout back in March, but there is no indication that they fired them at that time (see Waterspout to Starboard!).  However, the cannons would soon be prepped for action when the Beagle had a need to show force near Buenos Aires. More on that bit of excitement later in July. (RJV)


  1. […] The Royal Marines were the light infantry of the Royal Navy and it was not uncommon to have several on board (according to the watch list from a couple of days ago, the Beagle had 8 aboard). Marines role on the ship was to both protect the officers (sometimes from the crew) and to fight any naval battles. The marines typically wore a red uniform, leading to the name “redcoats”.  The “blue-jackets” referred to by Darwin are a little more ambiguous for me.  It is possible this refers to members of the Royal Marine Artillery (established in 1804) who wore blue coats.  If anyone knows the answer, please feel free to comment. (For a little more info on “carronades”, see Defending the Beagle with Nine-Pounders.) […]

    • “Bluejacket” was a general term for a sailor, derived from a waist-length coat, the “Round Jacket” or “Monkey Jacket”, customarily worn in cold weather, or on liberty ashore. Sailors were required to have basic knowledge of operating guns aboard, in addition to their normal seaman’s skills. A Gunner’s Mate was a petty officer (specialist) whose specific skill was the maintenence, operation, and training other to assist with the guns. Also, in the description above a step was omitted. Before sponging the gun, an iron corkscrew on a pole (the “worm”) was used to gouge out remnants of the powder bag that might not have burned up from the previous shot.
      Up Spirits!

      • Thanks! – Naval history is not my expertise, so I appreciate the additional info. (I actually ran into this very question on an earlier post when writing about he red jackets of the Royal Marines. I wasn’t sure what the bluejackets were referring to.)

  2. […] howitzer was one of the defensive guns on the Beagle – it was a “four pounder”. See Defending the Beagle with Nine-Pounders for details on the Beagle‘s […]

  3. […] Black Joke was fitted with one 18 pound cannon (for more on cannon ratings see Defending the Beagle with Nine-Pounders) and crewed with 35 men – including royal marines and Liberian Kroomen (said to be experienced […]

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