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The selection of ordnance was a critical decision for a commander during a battle at sea. Ships of war typically carried different types of ammunition, each designed for a specific purpose.

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During the Age of Sail, the cannonball was the most common ammunition used in large naval guns, particularly among the British. Early round shot were made of stone, but by the beginning of the 17th century, stone shot had been largely replaced by iron cannonballs, which were cheaper and easier to manufacture. The penetrating power of round shot made it the best means of smashing ship hulls and fort walls.

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Spinning end-over-end upon discharge from a cannon, bar shot was used to destroy sails and rigging. Crippling an enemy ship allowed pirates to board and capture it, and it was the unlucky pirate indeed who sank a ship before being able to plunder it.

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Chain shot was also used to destroy sails, spars, and lines. The chain gave the twin balls a greater spread, making it even more effective against rigging than bar shot.

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Prior to boarding an enemy ship, a master gunner might order several rounds of grape aimed at the upper decks. Grape shot consisted of a canvas bag stuffed with small shot, then corded together to form a canister shape. The bag shredded when the gun was fired, sending a deadly spray of shot in a wide swath.

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Canister shot (also known as case shot, burrel, and bace and burr) was an earlier form of grape using a tin case that shattered upon impact.

Canisters and canvas bags were also packed with langrage (or langrel), scraps of all kinds--nails, broken glass, old chain, pottery shards, etc. Although economical and useful for shredding sails and injuring men, langrage was rarely used by Royal ships, as it was considered barbaric because of its propensity for causing tetanus. It was commonly employed, however, by pirates, privateers, and merchantmen.

Brian Lavery (1987).

The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815. Great Britain: Conway Maritime Press

Hand-colored illustrations: 2002 by D. Thomas Treadwell.

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