A Brief History
On September 23, 1338, the English ship, Christofer (variously spelled Christopher or Christophe) went into battle at Arnemuiden armed with three cannon and one hand gun. This battle would be the first known time in history when a ship saw combat using artillery. This battle was also significant as the first naval battle of the Hundred Years War.
The English had only 5 ships (“great carracks”) for the battle, but having cannon was a decided advantage. The French brought a large fleet of 48 galleys, and the overwhelming numbers proved decisive. Despite a furious battle, the French prevailed and cannon were on the losing side of the historic battle.
The English had lost their great ships, along with their cargo and suffered 1000 men dead, while the French had 900 killed and wounded. The English dead were not all killed in battle, as the French had massacred all those taken prisoner.
The Hundred Years War was a series of wars over the control of the throne of France, contested between the House of Plantagenet (England) and the House of Valois (France). Fought between 1337 and 1453, the war spanned the Age of Chivalry with armored knights to the supremacy of gunpowder and the firearms it made possible. The war resulted in a victory for France.
Naval artillery has come a long way from bows and arrows, slings and rocks, and muzzle loading black powder cannons to modern automatic, rapid firing guns launching a wide variety of projectiles. World War II saw the ultimate in big naval guns, with the US 16 inch /50 caliber (meaning the barrel length is 50 times the bore) probably the most devastating naval gun ever fielded. The Japanese 18.1 inch guns were the largest ever to arm a warship, closely followed by the British 18 inch gun of World War I (only 3 built) that fired an enormous 3320 pound shell, the heaviest ever. As good as the modern guns are, our warships today rarely have more than 1 main gun, relying instead on missiles and the like.
After the Battle of Arnemuiden, European warships quickly adapted to being armed with cannon, and the naval gun ruled the waves (later heavily supplemented by the self propelled torpedo) for the next nearly 600 years. World War II proved the airplane could master any ship, and the day of the big guns had turned to dusk. No active warships sport large caliber guns, with the 5 inch gun being the largest in the US Navy (active duty). The heaviest gunned ship in the world today is the BAP Almirante Grau of the Peruvian navy, boasting 4 twin turrets of 152mm (6 inch) guns.
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For more information, please see…
Grant, R.G. Battle at Sea. DK Publishing, 2010.
The featured image in this article, a depiction by Jean de Froissart of The Battle of Arnemuiden (September 1338), is from the collections of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, part of which is available on Wikimedia Commons. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.