The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 2: February 2006
Constitution's Full Load of Ammuniton, 1812
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
In the mass of material available dealing with Constitution, one item that has not come to light is a listing of powder and shot loaded by her at any one time in her career. At best, partial listings have been found for July 1798, June 1812, and May 1844. The 26 June 1812 entry in her log, while incomplete, is particularly valuable as it provides some detail as to the weights of powder charges prepared and an indication of the relative quantity of each weight.1
A book published in Philadelphia in 1809, entitled The American Artillerist's Companion, contains statements that the U. S. Navy of that day loaded 60 round shot, 10 double or chain shot, 10 stands of grape or canister, 60 "fighting" powder charges, and 12 saluting charges per gun. Additionally, "one‑fortieth percentage" overage in powder (assumed to mean 2.5%) was included for contingencies.
In a 28 August 1813 letter to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, Captain Thomas Tingey, Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard, recommended that ships load out, for each long gun aboard, 100‑120 rounds of solid shot, 50‑60 stands of grape, and 20‑25 rounds of canister; for carronades, 80‑90 solid shot, 30‑40 grape, and 10‑15 canister.
The tables below were calculated based upon a 130-round-per-gun norm because that number equates to the known number of 18‑pounder rounds carried by the ship in June 1812 per the log for its sole gun of that caliber, and apportioned by type per Tingey's recommendations. The powder loadout is based on the powder charge ratios also noted in the log. The result is an approximation of the frigate's full war load when she sailed out of Chesapeake Bay on 12 July 1812.
Total Weight of Shot 165,060 lbs (82.53T)
32‑pounder powder charges
24‑pounder powder charges
18‑pounder powder charges
Total Weight of Powder 32,507 lbs (16.25T)
In addition, the ship carried at least 4020 prepared powder cartridges for muskets and another 3264 for pistols; balls must have been in like numbers, as well as additional powder and cartridge papers for preparation as needed.
The powder for the 32‑pounders is known to have been stowed in the forward magazine; that for the 24s, in the after, or main, magazine. Presumably, that for the lone 18‑pounder chase gun was forward.
Was it an adequate allowance?
When Constitution spotted HMS Guerriere downwind off her larboard bow at around 2 that 19 August 1812 afternoon about seven weeks after the log entry above, it was though likely that the contact was an enemy. By 3, there was no doubt it was a British frigate. At 3:45, the Briton laid her maintopsail to the mast, a clear invitation to fight. In response, Hull took in or furled most of his sails, took double reefs in his topsails, and began careful preparations for the certain engagement, cautiously closing the range as he did so. British Captain James Dacres waited impatiently for his foe, advantaged by having the weather gauge, to close on him. At extreme range, he fired a broadside, wore, fired another, and did so yet again. Hull responded with single rounds from his 18-pounder chase gun and continued his slow advance. At around 4 o’clock, Dacres lost patience with his apparently reluctant enemy and turned downwind, setting his fighting sails – a clear invitation, in those days, to “mix it up.” It would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Hull set his maintopgallant sail, above his already set fighting sails, and proceeded to close the distance. Given his own inexperience with ship duels, and that of his new crew, he seems to have decided he would get close enough that gun aiming would not be a factor. He also ordered that all guns were to be double-shotted with round shot and grape or canister. It would be the street fighter – no science and all brute force – against the boxer, hoping his flailing storm would offset technical expertise.
As the range closed, Yankee gunners repeatedly requested permission to open fire, which Hull refused. Finally, at about 5 o’clock, after nearly two hours of maneuvering, Constitution was overlapping Guerriere’s starboard quarter at no more than pistol shot distance when Hull finally let them loose. In about twenty minutes, the Briton’s mizzenmast went by the board and she was out of control. Two collisions followed, and then the remaining British masts fell, and, by 7 P.M., it was all over. Aside from the loss of her tophamper, Guerriere’s hull had been pierced about thirty times between wind and water.
In slightly less than two hours, for there had been at least two lulls in the action, Hull’s people had expended 943 rounds of 32- and 24-pounder shot of four types. They represented twenty percent of his 32-pounder inventory and thirteen of his 24-pounder stock. Because mostly double-shotted cannon were used, they had burned up only seven percent of the powder. Yes, the allowance was more than adequate.
On 1 September 1813, after two more frigate victories and one defeat, the Department directed that henceforth the war allowance would be 100 round, 40 grape, and 5 double-headed (dismantling) shot per long gun of whatever weight, and 60 round, 40 grape, and 20 canister per carronade.3
Commander Martin captained “Old Ironsides” from 1974 to 1978. Since then, he has authored or edited six books about the ship. For more information about her, see www3.telelpex.net/Timonier.
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