Sunday, 15 November 2009


We often associate this phrase with Napoleonic naval warfare. It refers to shooting cannon down the length of an enemy ship and thereby sending an iron ball plowing through a ship and its crew with the greatest chance of doing damage.
In the case of the Napoleonic ship under canon fire the results were truly horrendous but if one considers the density of men on an oared galley if it were subject to a similar missile attack the carnage could be on the same scale. In the cross-section of a Napoleonic ship are timbers of great thickness and only a limited chance of coming into contact with flesh for any missile traversing the length of the ship. When one looks at a trireme, for example, the chance of hitting a body is much greater and the chance of hitting heavy timber is less.
The development of torsion artillery is a Greek invention and was accelerated greatly by Demetrius 'City-Taker'. He had palintonoi which could shoot 80kilo balls 200m. To send bolts or stone balls flying from such engines into a wooden warship with only rawhide screen for protection must have caused chaos. If the oars are manned by single men each hit will disable several oars withthe knock -on effect of the loose oar on those around it. If the oars are manned by several rowers the chaos could perhaps be less but still considerable.

Once palintonoi are mounted on ships they would be able to outshoot any ship without them. Bolts could be sent 400 yards maximum and certainly 200 with an accuracy and speed which would out-perform archers. Quick-firers - the polybolos -with a magazine were soon developed.
Imagine you are on the deck crew of a trireme. There is not much cover because you are not meant to be in close contact with the enemy for long and marines were to prevent enemy coming aboard from the ship you just rammed. As your ship turns to ram a target which is 300 metres away the target trains a quick firing oxybeles on you. It takes a trireme 5-10 seconds to cover 30m. For up to two minutes bolts start flying the length of your deck every few seconds. You cannot reply. If you are an oarsman towards the prow you will be gritting your teeth as you start a ramming run because you expect a bolt or stone ball to crash into you any second. This kind of scenario changes the picture considerably from one where triremes circle and then dash in to sink their prey.
Steam cannon would have been more deadly, with ranges up to 1km but there is no evidence they were ever mounted on ships.

Larger palintonoi weighed in at 3 tonnes or so and threw 80kg balls. See one being built and shot here .They could not have been carried on any but the largest ship such as barges Demetrius City-taker used against Rhodes. However machines which could throw a 20kg stone 300 metres were much lighter and a bolt shooter could come down to 45kg in weight. Just accounting for one man's weight on a ship.
It should be remarked that these machines are not the single-armed type like the later Roman onager but two-armed horizontal-motion machines.

The embolon or 'spur' which we now call a ram became less significant in naval warfare. The use of an above-water spur -the proembolion - was adopted and this was meant to hold a target rather than sink it so a boarding action could be fought.
If the days of the ramming action were over was it a result of the effectiveness of deck-mounted artillery ? At least in part. Heavier ships that were anyway less susceptible to ram attacks could mount artillery and make any opponents without heavy protection suffer badly when in range. The safest areas to attack from would be from directly ahead or from astern where only a single machine or none could be brought to bear.

I am in the process of compiling figures for the power of the palintonoi and the strength of ship timbers.

It seems apparent that engines could have changed the nature of sea battles dramatically or at least that advances in ship design which allowed their use did.

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