Research Collections Team

Naval Gunnery

Before 1850 the naval gun in use was the cannon. It was a muzzle-loading smooth bore, which fired a solid ball by using a charge of gunpowder. The solid shot could be fired at a distance of one mile, although the most effective and preferred distance was 100 yards, known as the half pistol. Guns were fired from the broadside of the ship in battle, as the most amount of canons could be fired simultaneously, and so inflict the most damage to an enemy ship. There were minor improvements made prior to 1850, but the technical advances from 1850-1900 revolutionized the art of naval gunnery. Changes included:

  • explosive shell replacing solid shot;
  • the rifle bore replacing smooth bore;
  • improved rate of fire with breech-loading replacing muzzle-loading;
  • improved propellants with gunpowder being replaced by cordite.

Despite these technological advances, there was a lack of incentive in the Royal Navy to improve gunnery techniques. This was due to the belief that ‘what was good enough for Nelson, is good enough for us’, and the feeling of security engendered by the long period of peace during the nineteenth century.

At the turn of the twentieth century, people such as Admiral Fisher, Captain Coles and Captain Scott caused a dramatic change to this situation, due to their insistence on adequate gunnery training. Practice shoots were conducted at long range and human error was minimised by the introduction of range-finding instruments. The introduction of the director in 1912 was a means of directing and controlling the gunfire of warships. This meant that ships did not aim at their target through smoke and could target its enemy more accurately, since it was placed on the ship’s fore-top, above the funnel and gun smoke. Within a decade, the range of accurate naval gunnery had increased from 2000 to 10,000 yards, and the speed of firing increased from one round in three minutes to two rounds in one minute using the heaviest guns. The launch of the ‘all big gun’ battleship HMS Dreadnought in 1906, with her reliance on gunnery as the supreme naval weapon of destruction, helped to quicken the pace of improvement.

During the 1930s, radar superseded the director, with its ability to detect ranges far more accurately than any range-finder, during day and night, and through fog. From these developments, the automatic gun which loads, trains, lays and fires itself with supreme accuracy, and the target seeking weapons such as guided missiles and anti-missiles have been developed for today’s warfare.

© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000
The information contained in this fact sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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Created on the 19 March 2003
Last modified on the 17 December 2003