An excerpt from Patrick O'Brian's
novel Master and Commander
In the scene they are aboard the brig Sophie
, testing the speed of the gunners: how fast can they prepare the cannon and fire, prepare again and fire again. They start with gun number one. The men in the gun-team are described as:
"A captain to each gun, do you see; and a sponger and boarder next to him -- the man with the belt and cutlass; they join the boarding party; and a sail-trimmer, who leaves the gun if we have to brace the yards round, for example, in action; and a fireman, the one with the bucket -- his task is to dash out any fire that may start."
'Cast loose your gun.'
They cast loose the tackles that held the gun hard against the breeching to hold it firmer still. With a gentle squeal of trucks the gun showed that it was free: a man held each side-tackle, or the Sophie's
heel (which made the rear-tackle unnecessary) would have brought the gun inboard before the next word of command.
'Level your gun.'
The sponger pushed his handspike under the thick breech of the gun and with a quick heave levered it up, while number one's captain thrust the wooden wedge more than half-way under, bringing the barrel to the horizontal point-blank position.
They let the gun run in fast: the breeching checked its inward course when the muzzle was a foot or so inboard: the sail-trimmer whipped out the carved and painted tompion that plugged it.
'Run out your gun.'
Claping on to the side-tackles they heaved her up hand over hand, running the carriage hard against the side and coiling the falls, coiling them in wonderfully neat little fakes.
The captain took his priming-iron, thrust it down the touch hole and pierced the flannel cartridge lying within the gun, poured fine powder from his horn into the open vent and on to the pan, bruising it industriously with the nozzle. The sponger put the flat of his hand over the powder to prevent its blowing away, and the fireman slung the horn behind his back.
'Point your gun.' And to this order Jack added. 'As she lies,' since he wished to add no complications of traversing or elevating range at this stage. Two of the gun's crew were now holding the side-tackles: the sponger knelt on one side with his head away from the gun, blowing gently on the smoldering slow-match he had taken from his little tub (for the Sophie
did not run flintlocks): the powder-boy stood with the next cartridge in its leather box over on the starboard side directly behind the gun: the captain, holding his vent-bit and sheltering and priming, bent over the gun, staring along its barrel.
The slow-match whipped across. The captain stubbed it hard down on to the priming. For an infinitesimal spark of time there was a hissing, a flash, and then the gun went off with the round, satisfying bang of a pound and more of hard-rammed powder exploding in a confined space. A stab of crimson flame in the smoke, flying morsels of wad, the gun shooting eight feet backwards under the arched body of its captain and between the members of its crew, the deep twang of breeching as it brought up the recoil -- all these were virtually inseparable in time; and before they were over the next order came.
'Stop your vent,' cried Jack, watching for the flight of the ball as the white smoke raced streaming down to leeward. The captain stabbed his vent-piece into the touch-hole; and the ball sent up a fleeting plume in the choppy sea four hundred yards to windward, then another and another, ducks and drakes for fifty yards before it sank. The crew clapped on to the rear-tackle to hold the gun firmly inboard against the roll.
'Sponge your gun.'
The sponger darted his sheepskin swab into the fireman's bucket, and pushing his face into the narrow space between the muzzle and the side he shot the handle out of the port and thrust the swab down the bore of the gun: he twirled it conscientiously and brought it out, blackened, with a little smoking rag on it.
'Load with cartridge.'
The powder-boy had a tight cloth bag there ready: the sponger entered it and rammed it hard down. The captain, with his priming-iron in the vent to feel for its arrival, cried, 'Home!'
'Shot your gun.'
The ball was there to hand in its garland, and the wad in its cheese; but an unlucky slip sent the ball trundling across the deck towards the fore-hatch, with the anxious captain, spornger and powder-boy following its erratic course. Eventually it joined the cartridge, with the wad rammed down over it, and Jack cried, 'Run out your gun. -- Prime. -- Point your gun. -- Fire.'
Back to pirates.