Black powder storage on old British ships


This is a 1960 Canadian-built enlarged replica of HMS Bounty commissioned by MGM for “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962) at a cost of $750,000. It was also used in the last 2 of “The Pirates of the Caribbean”. Where and how was the black powder stored in the original ship (or 1800’s ships in general) to prevent moisture from rendering it useless?



Here’s how they did it on the HMS Victory. Copper wall sheeting to prevent rats from chewing thru.

And this was on the HMS something-or-other, the first all steel hull ship.


And here’s what you see when boarding the HMS Victory.


And then this link 'splains in better detail about powder storage: … Itemid=103


I would think in the original kegs that it came on board in. Think kegs were pretty watertight as made in those days & unless the bung was removed would be safe from humidity for quite some time.


On these–and later ships, for that matter–was not the magazine below the water line? I seem to recall that even as late as the battle of Jutland ships were saved from magazine explosions by some quick-thinking junior officer ordering the magazines flooded. Jack


This is how we stored powder in the real navy.




Powder magazines were located virtually in the Center (Plan) of the ship, above the Bilge Level, and equidistant from either side of the ship, to give maximum Hull protection from the waterline cannon shot ( or if the ship heeled over and took a shot below the “waterline”, as well)
The Copper lining was not only to protect from rats, but also from sparks…fire was the sailor’s greatest fear…in the rigging ( tarred rope and sails, ) and in the lower decks ( stores and the magazine.)

The Master gunner or his mates prepared the felt charge bags before a battle, and had a small quantity pre-filled, and resealed in kegs. On sounding General Quarters (US term) or Action Stations (British) (“Beat to action” Drum roll by the Royal Marines–only later with iron and steel ships was the signal given by Bugle call) the Gunner’s Mate opened the keg with the pre-filled charge bags and dispatched them to the Gun deck/s by the “Powder Monkeys” ( young 10-16y.o. lads)
and started filling some more charge bags, by opening one keg at a time, on a coconut coir mat, using Brass tools.

Lighting was by a shielded Lantern with a candle, and after the introduction of the Davey Miner’s Safety Lamp ( 1803 or so)
These lamps were then used…they also prevented ignition of any "marsh gas’ (Methane ) arising from the Bilges, which could have accumulated in the magazine.

All the safety precautions Possible were used to ensure that the stray flash or spark did not ignite Powder either in the magazine or on its way to the Gundeck, nor when it was there. A Minimum quantity of Powder charges were kept at the gun, just sufficient for the Monkey to run back down (they had a “clear Run” down several sets of stairs) to the magazine to refurnish with charges for their own Gun crews. Usually one Monkey serviced several Guns together.

Some Cannon balls ( solid shot) were already held in reserve by each gun, but special shot such as Chain, canister, or grape, had to be specially called for from the Shot Locker ( some above deck, some below, for Trimming purposes.) as was the majority of the Solid shot.

Selected Gunners, with the OK of the Master Gunner or even the Captain of the Vessel, could and did “prepare” their own special Loads (Long range, double shot, etc) to be used as and when the battle required it.

Usually the first shots being fired on encountering an enemy ship, was at the longest possible range and “on the uproll” ( when the ship was heeling over, raisng the Elevation of the shooting side to maximum, thus giving the guns an advantage of extra elevation which the internal mechanism ( Wedges called “quoins”) could not give. This lengthened the fall of shot and also caught the rigging and masts rather than the Body of the opposing ship. The other technique was raking a ship from stern to stem ( “crossing her stern”) with a progressive broadside of grape and solid shot…to rip through the effectively open space (fore to aft) of the Gundeck. It all depended whether one wished to wreck a ship completely, or capture it by immobilising it first by shooting away its rigging, then as it lay dead in the water, coming up alongside and boarding it, hopefully not getting pounded to pieces in the meantime.

As to the intimate details of a Man-of-war, read the excellent Napoleonic Sea war novels by O’Brien ( “Master and Commander” and the rest of the series); Alexander Kent (The Bolitho series, over 20 volumes); Hornblower series (by CS Forester), and several other individual Novels and books by other writers.

Doc AV
AV Ballistics.

Voracious reader of Naval Novels, Ancient and Modern.


I think that “HMS Something or other” mentioned above is HMS Warrior. She is berthed in Portsmouth close to Victory.




YES! That’s it! The HMS Warrior. Another bit of trivia for that ship was it was the first with washing machines onboard.
It was a near overwhelming day in Portsmouth, what with all the things to see there. I highly recommend one plans more than a day to see it all. A week would be best.


Great thread Vlad started here. Super pics from Slick Rick as well. DocAV’s very informative post motivated me to select for family movie night (it was my turn to pick) “Master and Commander - The Far Side Of The World”.

While I looked for them, (and may have missed it) I didn’t see any scenes that specifically showed how the powder was stored but the overall representation of the loading and use of cannon on a ship of that day made for some great action flick material! Soooo much better than most of the crap being spit out by the industry. Would love to hear DocAV’s thoughts on the authenticity of the “shootin’” part of that film.



Most “Guns” on modern Films about 18th and 19th century windjammers are made of Fibreglass with a steel inner tube, for weight considerations as original Bronze and Cast-iron Guns ( 12 pounders and 24 pounders) weighed a ton or more…and required a gun crew of 5-7 men to move them into position with the aid of Blocks and tackle, even windlasses at times.

You would not get untrained extras to do any meaningful gun work with the real thing, even the "Movie "Guns require several weeks of training ( and these extras are usually serving or ex- naval personnel, used to taking orders, etc.
A Napoleonic Era “Gun crew” was well trained…from “Beat to action” to "Guns ready ( signified by the gun-captain ( usually a Gunner’s mate or a Midshipman) by raising of the Arm, to one of the Senior Officers, would only take a few minutes, and training on HMShips was regular and thorough. Crews competed ( individually, and Starboard watch against Port watch.) for a small prize to see who could be ready for action in the quickest time.

And a recoiling gun could crush a sailor either bodily or cut off his feet if the unfortunate was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I have been involved (from afar) with the firing (Blanks) of real Naval guns and Fortress “Armstrong” Guns, here in Brisbane, during Historical Weekends.

The “Disappearing Guns” were 6-inch RML jobs, using a lead skirted projectile, to cover the approaches of Brisbane Port ( across the same named River)…a protection during the “Russian Scares” of the 1860s-1890s.

I have seen “Master & Commander” (With the Hindsight of previously having read ALL the series of Books…so I was “pre-alerted”…The script was a combination of TWO successive Books, and pretty well reflected the main story as written.

Naval Gunwork was superbly shown,( in M&C), some of the best I have seen so far. ( the 1950s “Hornblower” Film ( also an amalgamation and variation the two or three Books) had , for the time, quite good Gun effects, but some of the crews were very Poor in their actions ( some were simply Bumbling along, “making Believe” they were doing something, but it was evident.) The later TV series “Young Hornblower” was much better screen presented, and they actually used real 12 Pounders in some scenes.

With Blank firing Guns, “Recoil” is very hard to recreate, but with sufficient “nouse”, a good effect can be had by various means…the Blocks and tackle had two functions, to Roll the guns up to battery when loaded, and to absorb the recoil on firing ( the men on the ends of the ropes acted as “Recoil dampeners”, as they played out the rope through the usually 3- sheave Blocks and back to the rear Rings on the Gun carriange. There was usually a Long piece of Cable ( about two inches thick, linked to Eyebolts in the Hull, and around the Cascabel ( that roung Knob at the end of the Barrel breech end). The Cascabel could be simple, or fitted with an “EYE” thru which the cable passed. THis was a set length, so the gun could only recoil a certain amount ( usually sufficient to have the Muzzle inboard to be able to Reload without exposing the Loaders to the outside of the Gun Port.
Once the Gun was “Run-Out”, Wedges were placed under the iron wheels of the Gun carriage, to prevent movement at the instant of firing…on recoil, the Guns rolled up and over the wedges ( slowing the recoil) and engaged the tension in the Block and tackle, which ropes were played out by the Gun crew as the gun rolled backwards, to its maximum possible travel ( stopped by the Large cable.)

A Good “Light” Gun Crew ( 6 and 12 pounders) could get shots away at 5 minute intervals, or even less; the heavier guns (18s, 24s and 32s ) required More men, and took proprotionately more time to Load and “Run Out”.

Usual progression…“Unleash Guns” ( loosen the tackle which secured the guns during seaway)
" Out Tompions “( the wooden Plug which protected the Bore)
” Load xxxx ( whatever load was required such as Solid Ball, Grape, Bar /chain shot, Langridge --a
murderous mix of old glass, potsherds, nails, blacksmiths sweepings,Musket balls, etc)

Where-on the Powder Monkey passed a felt charge bag of Powder to the Loader, who place it in his shovel shaped Loading spoon, and placed it at the bottom of the Bore, Followed by a Wad of wood or Coir matting; the Ball or other Payload was then inserted and rammed down, and successively covered with an “Over shot wad” (again wood or Coir) to prevent the charge falling out if the Guns muzzle dipped below Level ( if the ship heeled over in tacking).

Then the Gunner would take a spiked pice of wire, and “prick the charge”, to pierce the felt bag, and then Place a paper quill of fine meal Powder into the firing vent; This protruded upwards to where either a Linstock ( a stick with a slowmatch attached) or an actual Flint Lock mechanism and Pan, could ignite the Priming Charge. Finltlocks were added in the 1790s, and increased the reliability of firing Guns enorously. The Cock was released by a long Lanyard, held the the Gun Captain.

Before the Moment of firing, all crew cleared the Path of the recoiling Gun, and stood to the ropes on either sides. The Gun captain either applied the Linstock ( usually twirling it several times to get a good Glow in the Burning taper) or Pulled the lanyard; whereupon the gun discharges and recoils in the controlled manner described above. Once the Gun has recoiled to full length, the Gunner ( or the Gun captain) ordered “Stop your Vents” and the Gunner placed a Palm leather Pad over the Flash Hole; the Swabber ran a Mop which was in a Bucket of seawater in front of the Gun, down the barrel, to drown any burning embers of felt etc, and to swab out the Powder Fouling. The stopping of the Vent was to prevent the rush of air which might enhance any latent sparks, and ignite the Subsequent Charge bag. Then the reloading continued as before, the Gunner ppricked the vent (to clear any debris) and put in a new Quill; and the order “Run out” all hands pulled on the Ropes to run the guns back out to firing Position, ready for the next “round” of shots.

To protect their ears ( they were “tween decks”) the Gunnery crew usually wrapped a long scarf or rag around their ears and head. They were barefoot, and before an action, the “boys” spead dry sand on the gun deck to aid traction for the Gunners’ bare Feet ( only the Officers,Midshipmen and the Warrant officers and Marines wore shoes or Boots). The sand was also to absorb the vast amounts of Blood on the deck from wounded and dead seamen during a battle. ( From woodsplinters, mostly…Ship’s oak timbers made jagged long spears when shattered by a solid cannon ball, causing deep penetrating lacerations.)

Such was the Life of a Jack Tar during a battle at sea …Literally, “in the midst of hell”.

Doc AV

Read the Books.