Cannon balls on ships (& other ammo "sayings")


#1

A friend sent the following to me, and I, knowing little about cannon balls, wonder if it is true.

CANNON BALLS!!! DID YOU KNOW THIS?
It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the cannon on old war ships. But how to prevent them from rolling about the deck was the problem. The storage method devised was to stack them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, which rested on sixteen.
Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem – how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others.
The solution was a metal plate with 16 round indentations, called, for reasons unknown, a Monkey. But if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make them of brass - hence,Brass Monkeys.

Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled.

Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey.
Thus, it was quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. And all this time, folks thought that was just a vulgar expression?
You must send this fabulous bit of historical knowledge to at least a few intellectual friends.


#2

That is one of the coolest ammunition trivia I have learned! Thanks, Sksvlad.

Jason


#3

Vlad my son, what can I say? It makes a great sea story but, unfortunately, nothing more than that. Read Melville’s books and you’ll find the expression “cold enough to freeze the tail off a monkey” which is about as close as you’ll get to its origin. Your “friend” didn’t try to sell you any bridges along with that story, did he?

Ray


#4

This is a good story so I had to check it out. This is from the “Truth or Fiction” web site:

Summary of the eRumor
This piece of alleged history explains that in the olden days of sailing ships, cannon balls were stacked on the decks on brass plates called “monkeys.” The plates had indentions in them that held the balls on the bottoms of the stacks. Brass, however, expands and contracts with the temperature and if it got cold enough, the cannon balls could fall…giving real foundation to the phrase "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey!"
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The Truth
According to the United States Navy Historical Center, this is a legend of the sea without historical justification. The center has researched this because of the questions it gets and says the term “brass monkey” and a vulgar reference to the effect of cold on the monkey’s extremities, appears to have originated in the book “Before the Mast” by C.A. Abbey. It was said that it was so cold that it would “freeze the tail off a brass monkey.” The Navy says there is no evidence that the phrase had anything to do with ships or ships with cannon balls.


#5

Well,Y’all just had to make me look it up. Though a GREAT story, Oxford English Dictionary had this to say, and it’s a pretty convincing synopsis:

  1. The OED does not record the term “monkey” or “brass monkey” being used in this way.
  2. The purported method of storage of cannonballs (“round shot”) is simply false. Shot was not stored on deck continuously on the off-chance that the ship might go into battle. Indeed, decks were kept as clear as possible.
  3. Furthermore, such a method of storage would result in shot rolling around on deck and causing a hazard in high seas. Shot was stored on the gun or spar decks, in shot racks—longitudinal wooden planks with holes bored into them, known as shot garlands in the Royal Navy, into which round shot were inserted for ready use by the gun crew.
  4. Shot was not left exposed to the elements where it could rust. Such rust could lead to the ball not flying true or jamming in the barrel and exploding the gun. Indeed, gunners would attempt to remove as many imperfections as possible from the surfaces of balls.
  5. The physics does not stand up to scrutiny. The contraction of both balls and plate over the range of temperatures involved would not be particularly large. The effect claimed possibly could be reproduced under laboratory conditions with objects engineered to a high precision for this purpose, but it is unlikely it would ever have occurred in real life aboard a warship.

Vlad, Again, great story, though.


#6

So sad to debunk such an legendary ammo story.

I can’t help but think how many times I have thought the derivation of the “whole nine yards” was attributed to the emptying of a vintage fighter plane’s ammo belts (said to be 27’ in length)…and thus “you gave them the whole nine yards!”

Running that thru the obligatory “Google” search debunks that one as well.

I may not sleep tonight !!!


#7

[quote=“Pepper”]So sad to debunk such an legendary ammo story.

I can’t help but think how many times I have thought the derivation of the “whole nine yards” was attributed to the emptying of a vintage fighter plane’s ammo belts (said to be 27’ in length)…and thus “you gave them the whole nine yards!”

Running that thru the obligatory “Google” search debunks that one as well.

I may not sleep tonight !!![/quote]
I don’t think it is debunked, the generic name for the young boys on a ship was a monkey and their job in battle was to transport the powder to the guns from the magazine. Powder monkeys.
The reference to the cold was more to do with icing when a build up of ice under the cannon ball racks (usually wood but sometimes brass) on the gun decks would lift the cannon balls and cause them to roll dangerously around the deck as the ship pitched and rolled.

I was certainly under the impression that the belts on the Vickers MG on British aircraft of WW1 era was nine yards long and was more a reference to inexperienced flyers keeping their fingers jammed on the button.

In both instances I can think of no better explaination for the sayings


#8

Vince

A good sea story needs a wee bit of truth in it in order to be accepted as the whole truth. Then, simply tell it enough times until it becomes legend.

Ray


#9

[quote=“sksvlad”]A friend sent the following to me, and I, knowing little about cannon balls, wonder if it is true.

CANNON BALLS!!! DID YOU KNOW THIS?
It was necessary to keep a good supply of cannon balls near the cannon on old war ships. But how to prevent them from rolling about the deck was the problem. The storage method devised was to stack them as a square based pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on nine, which rested on sixteen.
Thus, a supply of 30 cannon balls could be stacked in a small area right next to the cannon. There was only one problem – how to prevent the bottom layer from sliding/rolling from under the others.
The solution was a metal plate with 16 round indentations, called, for reasons unknown, a Monkey. But if this plate were made of iron, the iron balls would quickly rust to it. The solution to the rusting problem was to make them of brass - hence,Brass Monkeys.

Few landlubbers realize that brass contracts much more and much faster than iron when chilled.

Consequently, when the temperature dropped too far, the brass indentations would shrink so much that the iron cannon balls would come right off the monkey.
Thus, it was quite literally, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. And all this time, folks thought that was just a vulgar expression?
You must send this fabulous bit of historical knowledge to at least a few intellectual friends.[/quote]

No wonder they are trying to drive you off of the forum. You are just TOO MUCH FUN !

THE NAVY ALSO SAID THAT THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE THAT OUR FLEET WAS NOT SAFE AT PEARL HARBOR !

Who wants to debunk the saying about your ammo going off half cocked ?