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The Rise and Fall of the Carronade

‘In this war’ – Napoleon wrote to his minister of marine in 1805, 'the English have been the first to use carronades, and everywhere they have done us great harm. We must hasten to perfect their system, for the argument is all on one side for sea service in favour of the system of large calibres.' An expert artilleryman but never at home in naval matters, the emperor may have allowed himself to be too impressed. Introduced into the Royal Navy during the War of the American Revolution, the carronade provoked argument on all sides. Some questioned its merits, others doubted its usefulness, still others disagreed over its purposes. Debate over the carronade's contribution to Britain's wars at sea continues to this day.

The carronade was a, bulldog of a naval gun: short, squat, ugly, and extremely effective at close range. Much shorter and lighter than the artillery piece – the long cannon – generally in use in the navy, it used less powder, owing to a better fit between ball and bore, to fire a bigger and heavier shot. Instead of the small-wheeled carriage that cradled the long cannon, the carronade nestled in a low, slotted platform called a slide.

Credit for inventing the carronade usually goes to the Scottish soldier and polymath, Robert Melville, who in the 1750s turned his attention to the improvement of ordnance. Putting Melville's invention into production, however, awaited other inventions, especially John Wilkinson's cylinder- boring machine. Prior to this invention, cannon had been cast in a mould surrounding a core – the bore of the gun – that molten iron invariably distorted and displaced; no two of them were quite alike. Wilkinson's machine bored out barrels cast as solid pieces of iron. The new technique enabled guns to be made with the thin casing and true(r) bore essential to the carronade.

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