When did cannons fall from use on merchant ships?

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,829
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#11
Thinking to the "East Indiamen", probably the better armed merchant ships we can consider, with their cannons, we could reason about some points:

if we compare a big East indiaman with a warship we could realize that the real firepower wasn't that comparable [estimates say that a warship had more than two times the firepower of a EI and for sure the pounders of a warship were bigger ...].

This means that where the control of the commercial routes by the Navies wasn't exceptional the businessmen invested money to arm their vessels. But the final result wasn't exceptional [at the end a merchant ship has to carry goods, not to fight a war!] and overall suitable to face pirates. In any case, the biggest and well armed East Indiamen were considered 4th class units by the Royal Navy [despite their limitations].

My impression is that Air Force has improved a lot the capability to control commercial routes and in XX century it has become almost impossible for some armed ships [not motorboats or little vessels] to attack a mercantile convoy [if not during a war, obviously ...]. An Air Force would intervene in hours, not in days or weeks [and radio has made it possible for a merchant ship in troubles to ask immediately for help ...].

So, radio has made it less pivotal for merchant ships to be equipped to resist to an attack by an armed vessel [just to be able to communicate immediately to ask for help reduced the "operative room" for piracy], but sure Air Forces have made this not economically efficient. Why to invest a lot of money to arm your cargo ship if a couple of fighters can arrive in a little time to defend it?

This is related to heavy weaponry, obviously.

As said above, piracy still exists, but they use no more great armed vessels [they would be destroyed by fighters ...] and they tend to take over the cargo ships [keeing the members of the crew as human shields, we could say]. So that light weaponry and mercenaries can be on board.
 
Likes: hyuzu
May 2019
96
Earth
#12
Some decent points, @AlpinLuke .

Maybe I wasn't clear enough in my op, I am definitely well aware that merchant marine security in this day and age does not rely on fixed artillery as it did in centuries past. My question was more about at what point did the 18th century practice of arming merchant vessels with cannons fall from use?

For example, @AlpinLuke mentioned the "East Indiamen" type vessels. As far as I know, powerful trading companies like the British EIC existed into the 19th century, and the EIC maintained a private army up to the 1850s. Were they also still arming their merchant ships with artillery at that point? Or had the Royal Navy fully taken over protection of the shipping lanes by that stage? Or what about the "China Clippers" in the South China Sea during the period of the First Opium War? Were they arming themselves with artillery, given the threats of piracy in that region? Or did they prefer to keep weight down to maintain speed?
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
26,829
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#13
About when ... if we focus our attention on East Indiamen, the last one to stop to act as an armed vessel was the Java in 1859. This gives us an indication that there were no more economical reasons to equip a cargo ship with heavy weaponry [at least in the British domains in Eastern Asia].

About the Opium War ... being a war it was obvious that this happened [it happened also to British ships during WW II ...]. But I would keep wars aside [they are exceptional contexts where the military Navies are too busy to protect with total efficiency the commercial convoys ... they do that, but if merchant ship can give a hand ... it's better].
 
Likes: hyuzu
May 2019
96
Earth
#14
About the Opium War ... being a war it was obvious that this happened [it happened also to British ships during WW II ...]. But I would keep wars aside
Sorry for the confusion, I didn't mean during the actual war. I meant "during the period" of the Opium War, e.g. during the era of the Old China Trade in the early 19th century, and the British drug running into China. As you say, wars are different situations, and in this thread I'm trying to focus on ships running mercantile voyages, rather than military ones.
 
Mar 2014
1,974
Lithuania
#15
Widespread arming of merchant ships. Insurance companies are offering cheaper premiums to ships that carry security contractors.
Merchant Ships Starting to Carry Armed Guards against Somali Pirates (11/22)

Armed Guards Now Deployed on 80% of Container Ships and Tankers

Private contractors serving aboard merchant ships with M16s and belt-fed machine guns. Describes one incident near Mombasa in which they repell a pirate assault after a 30 minute firefight.
Have hired guns finally scuppered Somali pirates? - Reuters

"The yachts trawl at a deliberately slow speed, hoping to attract pirates. If attacked, the cruise passengers are ready to respond with heavy machinery: machine guns and grenade and rocket launchers."
Paying money to murder: Russian luxury yachts offer pirate hunting cruises

Russians shooting machine gun and RPG at pirates
As far as I know there are a lot of problems of bringing any kind of weapons in ports of different countries. In most of the cases those security contractors live on base ships near dangerous regions. Cargo ship comes, these guys grab their guns get onboard and guard ship across dangerous stretch. On another side they disenbark and get on their own ship. So, armed contractors never actually enter ports, they stay only in international waters or regions without law. There should be some international legislation that made it impossible to carry weapons on cargo and passenger weasels. Probably passed in 20th century.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,669
Australia
#16
As far as I know there are a lot of problems of bringing any kind of weapons in ports of different countries. In most of the cases those security contractors live on base ships near dangerous regions. Cargo ship comes, these guys grab their guns get onboard and guard ship across dangerous stretch. On another side they disenbark and get on their own ship. So, armed contractors never actually enter ports, they stay only in international waters or regions without law. There should be some international legislation that made it impossible to carry weapons on cargo and passenger weasels. Probably passed in 20th century.
If you read the articles I cited, you'll see that those regulations get watered down in many countries in response to the increased pirate activity.
 
Oct 2016
1,137
Merryland
#17
A couple of things happened in the mid-19th century: naval weapons were becoming more expensive and more difficult to operate effectively unless the gun crew was extensively trained.
this was a big part of it. instead of the old-style powder-and-shot cannon navies were transitioning to rifled guns with special ammo. major financial issue.
and piracy was dwindling, especially traditional hotspots in Caribbean and Med.
yes, there are spots, esp Horn of Africa, where piracy continues. (where's the Royal Navy when we need it?)
 
Likes: hyuzu
Sep 2014
1,206
Queens, NYC
#18
Today at 12:56 AM
#9

Aug 2014 4,642 Australia

Today at 12:56 AM
New #9


MJuingong said:
I do not think it "murder" to shoot down pirates.
Click to expand...
They aren't pirates until the evidence is tested in a court and it IS murder if your response was not proportional. E.g. you can't kill someone just because they came alongside and said that they wanted to come aboard.

Correct. ButI am assuming that the attack is a little more informative than someone just asking to come aboard.
 

specul8

Ad Honorem
Oct 2016
3,351
Australia
#19
They aren't pirates until the evidence is tested in a court and it IS murder if your response was not proportional. E.g. you can't kill someone just because they came alongside and said that they wanted to come aboard.
I saw a film where 'stewards' where sooting at a boat, they made it alongside and then forced some barefoot poor bastard up the ladder, on board he dropped his gun and surrendered . He looked starving and weak . They gently took him into custody .

We need to remember things like this . I had a friend who was abducted from his village by military in Portugal as a kid , next thing, he is a gunner on a helicopter in Angola . He said his training was ' We are are all lined up inside and fly over a village, we where just kids . First kid, show him how gun works, and then told to shoot at the people down there, see how many he could get. He asked them why , what did those people do . They threw him out the helicopter and gunned his body on the ground and said 'We call that an air court marshal - not following orders . I was next . Yeah, I shot them . Eventually they where never resupplied and just left there. After years of many trials and horrors, he became an accepted refugee in Australian .
 
Mar 2014
1,974
Lithuania
#20
Today at 12:56 AM
#9

Aug 2014 4,642 Australia

Today at 12:56 AM
New #9


MJuingong said:
I do not think it "murder" to shoot down pirates.
Click to expand...
They aren't pirates until the evidence is tested in a court and it IS murder if your response was not proportional. E.g. you can't kill someone just because they came alongside and said that they wanted to come aboard.

Correct. ButI am assuming that the attack is a little more informative than someone just asking to come aboard.
Captain makes decision if he wants anyone to come aboard. Usually there are warning shots, if they still "want to come aboard in region famous for piracy" they deserve to be shot.