The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 3: June 2006
Constitution’s Wartime Gun Batteries
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
When she entered service fourteen years before war’s commencement, Constitution, rated a 44-gun frigate, was armed with sixty long carriage guns of 24-, 18-, and 12-pounder caliber. These she carried through the Quasi-War with France (1798-1801), and found that the largest of her guns were, in fact, too short for shipboard use: their muzzles did not protrude out far enough to reduce gunsmoke and concussion on the gun deck. During the Barbary War, while she was in the Mediterranean from 1804 to 1807, she dispensed with the 18-pounders, and, for the latter part of the period, also had eight 32-pounder carronades.
As she was returning to the United States in the fall of 1807, the Navy let a contract for longer 24-pounder long carriage guns with Colonel Sam Hughes’ Cecil Iron Works of Havre de Grace, Maryland. The works had been in the cannon business since before the Revolution, and had produced two-thirds of the “Model 1794” guns for the original frigates. The new guns were, on average, nine feet, nine inches long with bores of eight feet, five inches. They weighed 5566 pounds, more or less. Thirty of them were placed on Constitution’s gun deck during 1808, and remained there throughout the war and for decades afterwards.
During the winter of 1808, a contract also was let with Henry Foxall, the ex-patriot British owner of the Columbia Iron Works, Georgetown, D.C., for 32-pounder carronades mounted on slides. These weapons, known as “smashers” because of their destructive power at short ranges.only began to be produced in the United States during the Barbary War. They were three feet, nine inches long and weighed only 2200-odd pounds each. Twenty-four had been placed aboard Constitution on her spar deck before she returned to active service in March 1809.
In 1814, while Constitution lay blockaded in Boston, the privateer Fox captured the British merchantman Stranger, enroute to Jamaica with a cargo of guns for a frigate building at Kingston. The prize was brought in to Salem and the Navy notified of the guns. They were a novel design, being Sir William Congreve’s 24 pounder “gunades,” cast early that year. Each was eight feet, six inches long with a seven foot, four inch chamber, and weighed 41 hundredweight. (a little over 4500 pounds). When he learned of their availability, the frigate’s captain, Charles Stewart, set about getting a pair of them in the ship. He landed the two forwardmost and the two aftermost carronades, and substituted one gunade in each’s stead. Their relative ease in shifting from side to side was put to good use in February 1815, when HMS Cyane and HMS Levant were taken on together and outfought from alternating sides
Some time before his battle with HMS Guerriere in August 1812, Captain Isaac Hull brought aboard a long 18, which he carried on the forecastle. Where it came from and who had manufactured it has not been discovered. In the battle, it fired ten ranging shots during the opening phase, with no known result. The “odd man out,” this gun was returned ashore by Commodore William Bainbridge shortly after he succeeded Hull in command in mid-September 1812.
To recap, then, on 19 August 1812, when she fought Guerriere, Constitution carried thirty 24-pounder long guns, one 18- pounder long gun, and twenty-four 32-pounder carronades. When she went against HMS Java on 29 December that same year, she had the same batteries except for the landed 18. And in her one-on-two fight against HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, 20 February 1815, she still had the thirty 24s, but her carronades had been reduced to twenty and two 24-pounder Congreve shifting gunades substituted. Regardless of which combination she used, victory always was hers.
Editor's Note: Commander Martin, who captained Constitution 1974-78, was the first of her skippers since Charles Stewart (1815) to be decorated for his command tour.
American State Papers, Naval Papers, Vol. I, Paper No. 12.
“Draft of a 24 Pounder, Medium Gun. One of Congreve’s patent…” Record Group 45, BG File, DNA.
E. R. Lewis and Edwin Olmstead, “The Savannah 24-Pouunders: A Mystery Solved?” Military Collector & Historian, Spring 1989.
Letter ,Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith to Colonel Samuel Hughes, Cecil Iron Works, 18 September 1807. Microfilm series M209, Roll 9, DNS.
Letters, Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith to Commodore John Rodgers and to Navy Agent John Bullus, both 21 March 1808. Microfilm series M149, Roll 8, and M209, Roll 9, DNA.
Martin, Tyrone. A Most Fortunate Ship, rev. ed. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
© Copyright 1995-2009, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.