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I have seen models fitted with gun port lids on decks, or portions thereof, open to the weather (spar decks, gun decks on open wasted frigate type vessels, quarter decks, etc.). Acknowledging that there may not be a hard and fast rule regarding gun port lids on gun ports open to the weather, I contend that these lids would generally be unnecessary and were probably not fitted on real ships. Of course, lids would be required on guns located below decks or in cabins for obvious reasons.  If the guns were fitted with tampions, they were pretty much water resistant so lids would seem to serve no important purpose. This is how I see it, but if someone has a different take on it I am willing to listen.



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On all flushed deck American corvettes like the Wasp, Peacock, Frolick, Argus, Hornet, etc., all the guns were, by definition, open to the elements. Yet in the US Navy, at least, all spar-deck gun-ports were fitted with "Half Lids and Bucklers", so called. These were split ports that fit around the gun barrel, or in this case, the carronade barrels. The lower halves dropped down on hinges, while the upper halves were completely removed inboard and held in place with two pair of sliding bolts on either side. On American frigates of 1812, the gun-deck ports were fitted with them too. Only after the war, did the upper halves of the gun-deck ports get hinged upwards (as is currently shown on the Constitution.) At no time did American frigates, or sloops of war, ever have full, one-piece upward hinged gun-ports like the Victory has. Even during the Revolution, the Continental frigate Confederacy was noted as having been fitted with half lids and bucklers. The was the French naval practice at the time.

Edited by uss frolick
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A ship at sea in foul weather can take in a great deal over water over the side - best to keep it out if you can!

The sea has this strange habit of not staying where the waterline is !

Its a balance between how much water comes on board  - less with lids and how fast it flows out - faster without !


But the practice varied over time and countries

Edited by SpyGlass
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Is it true that the inside of gun port lids are usually depicted as red because gun deck walls were painted red so that sailors wouldn't be demoralised by bloodstains on the walls?  So I've heard.

I believe the inside bulkheads were white to reflect any available light, and the inside gunport lids red as a danger signal to being seen from a distance

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No, I don't think so – I believe it's an OSWT! (Old Sailors Wives Tale) If you look around the Victory, none of the ship's sides on the gun decks are painted red (as Kevin has said, they were white to reflect light) and that probably went for most ships. I think the only place where there is red 'paint' is on the orlop, where the cables are stowed, and I read that it was used there as it had certain waterproofing properties. 


I would imagine it wouldn't have made much of a difference to the men anyway. The gun crews on a warship which saw a lot of action were, I am sure, quite used to the sight of blood and other horrors – and it wouldn't have been limited to the ship's sides. I have an idea the ship's sides may have been red in earlier centuries, but I am not sure about that. If so, the later red around the gunports and inside of the lids, may perhaps be the remnants of it.

Edited by Stockholm tar
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Red paint was also used for the same reason that old wooden American barns were also painted red. Red was the cheapest and easiest paint pigment to obtain, although many an OFWT (old farmers' wives tale) will say that it was to help the cows find their way home in a snow storm!


Anyway, a man who is struck by a cannon ball is going to splatter on the deck and on all things behind the bulwarks of which he was fighting. Given the direction of the shot and the ghastly physics involved, they should have painted the deck red, which of course, they did not. It was French practice to first nail cork board over the interior gun-deck frame planking, and then tack thick mesh netting over the cork, to help catch the splinters. (La Forte vs. HMS Sybille.)

Edited by uss frolick
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I'm with wq regarding the absence of gun port lids - at least on frigates.


We've had a healthy discussion of this topic in my Constitution build log.


I have a copy of The Sailing Frigate - A history in ship models by Robert Gardiner. Page 59 includes a study of the beautiful and highly detailed model of the frigate Lowestoffe of 1760:


Gardiner notes: "With around 7ft of freeboard, gunport lids are unnecessary except where the ports open into cabins or other enclosed spaces..."

It seems to be the case that Frigates had generally higher freeboard than other rates AND did not use the "gun deck" as living space. Frigates had the advantage of dedicated berth decks below for the crew. I put gun deck in quotes because until the early 19th century, the deck with armament was referred to as the "upper deck" in the Royal navy - which acknowledges the exposure to the elements - and the berth deck still retained the old "gun deck" label dating back to the days when these rates had lower deck gun ports. I personally believe that this goes to the heart of why the gun port lids were usually not there (with the understanding that there were some exceptions) - in the late 18th century and into the 19th the 5th and 6th rates generally had higher freeboard than other classes and had dry berth decks for the crew. 


In the case of USS Constitution, however, we have several sources to illuminate the use of half port lids to keep out heavy seas.  Margherita Desy is the official historian of the USS Constitution attached to the Naval History &Heritage command and she studied the issue in preparation for the next refit.  


Definition of half port used by Ms. Desy from John Fincham, An Introductory Outline of the Practice of Ship-Building... (Portsea, UK: William Woodard, 1825), 200.:


HALF-PORT..., shifting shutters fixed in the stops of those ports, which have no hanging lids. Those to the quarter-deck and forecastle ports are in general in one, and made of two thicknesses of slit deals, and to the ports for the long guns have holes in them for the gun to run out; and those to the upper deck, In two parts called buckler half-ports; for long guns, the lower part is to the center of the gun, when run out and levelled, as they have a hole in them that fits close round the guns ; and to carronades, to the under side of the gun, if not too low, that they may be fixed over them. The lower piece of these half-ports is of fir, and in one piece, to fill up the stops; with a rabbet taken out of its upper edge, to receive the upper part, and with two strengthening bolts driven up and down through it. This piece is in general hung with hinges at the lower part, and kept in its place by sliding bolts. The upper part is made commonly of whole and slit deal, the whole deal up and down, and the slit deal, to cross it, fore and aft.” 2

This indicates that the permanent full lids seen in so many contemporary models up forward and along the quarterdeck is likely accurate. The rest of the ports would either not have any lids fitted or would have the removable half-lid "stoppers" - at least as commonly practiced by American captains. Ms. Desy seems to confirm that the ports as represented by the Hull model are accurate. Here are some quotes from her study:



The oldest recorded model of USS Constitution is the one built in 1812 by the ship’s crew for Capt. Isaac Hull. He, in turn, donated the model to the East India Marine Society (now part of the present-day Peabody Essex Museum/PEM) not long after the model was constructed. Hull claimed that it was quite an accurate depiction of the ship as she looked around the period of her battle with HMS Guerriere. There are no port lids on the gun deck, with the exception of the two single-door lids on the two forwardmost gun ports 



The PEM model depicts single doors on the two forward ports on both sides of the ship. It is very likely that Constitution had single doors on these two ports because of their vulnerability to being stove in during storms or when sailing in heavy seas.




Confirming this supposition that the two forward-most ports carried single doors is the well-known Boston image of USS Constitution from the War of 1812 period, engraved by Abel Bowen.



...The aftermost gun ports may have had slightly different gun port covers for captains’ cabins ports. We’ll begin with another definition of “port-lids”:

PORT-LIDS, a sort of hanging doors, to shut the ports at sea. They are fastened by hinges to the edges of the upper sill, so as to let them down when the cannon are drawn into the ship, whereby the water is prevented entering the lower decks.

Upon the main deck, and particularly in ships carrying only one tier of cannon, half ports are used: they are a kind of shutters with a circular hole in the centre, large enough to go over the muzzle of the gun, and furnished with a piece of canvas, which is nailed round its edge to tie upon the gun, whereby the water is prevented entering at the port, although the gun remains run out.” 


There are [several contemporary paintings that show] canvas covers in the gun ports farthest aft on the vessels – the location of the captain’s great or forward cabin. The canvas covers in the captain’s great/forward cabin gun ports would have kept out some water when sailing in general or light weather, but more important, would have allowed diffused light to enter the cabin during all daylight hours, no matter the weather. If the weather was really inclement, likely half ports could have been fitted into the ports to secure them from heavy seas.


Conclusion of findings and recommendations for restoration:

In conclusion, in compliance with the mission of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston which includes in part, “ensur[ing] material compliance and documentation with the historic requirements of [Constitution], maintaining [the ship] as close to its 1812 configuration as possible,” 19 [emphasis added by author] the gun port lids of USS Constitution should be as follows:

1. Adapt the half ports presently found on Constitution: A. Retrofit the upper half port so that the lid is completely removable, but so

that it can be secured in the port with bolts.B. Retrofit the lower half port lid so that the lid drops to 90° and projects outward from the hull of the ship

2. Substitute two single gun port doors on each of the two forward-most ports in the bows of Constitution

3. Retrofit the two aftermost ports, at the captain’s great/forward cabin with canvas, as per the sail plans and artwork depicting such configurations on Constitution, Congress, and President



There does not seem to be any indication of hinged lower half lids in place during the Guerriere fight. The receipts presented in Ms. Desy's essay suggest that those were installed afterwards. It may well be, however, that Captain Hull followed what appears to be the common American practice of having removable half lid stoppers on board. They would've (obviously) been removed for the battle with Guerriere. It may be that the lower half ids were not hinged and permanently mounted until later in the war - or at least not until sometime after the Guerriere battle. The research around the canvas covers along the captain cabin ports is extremely interesting. 


Fun stuff.



Edited by Force9
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This may be a REAL STRETCH but, any chance the bulwarks were painted red to cut down on night blindness? On modern day boats, the gauges are backlit in red light because a typical white light is a little more difficult for the eyes to accommodate when going back to the darkness of night. Any reflected light from the bulwarks would reflect in red, being easier to then peer into the night. Kinda out there, but, who knows?

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  • 2 years later...

Just saw this thread about the gun port lids. Now I just picked up on the use of illuminators (and scuttles, but that's another issue). Carr Laughton talks about them being fitted in 1809 and describes them as glass bull's-eyes. Can anybody shed some light (pardon my pun) on these devices ?

Would be interested to see some actual images rather than an artistic drawing.



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Hi Pete, again you touch on something I have found in researching HMCSS Victoria.  Take a look at page 61 of Rudiments of Naval Architecture.... by James Peake (1851).  It is a Google Book free to download as a PDF.


Unfortunately, only a line drawing of it, with a supporting text description, but may be of interest?


Victoria was fitted with Lang's Scuttles (mentioned on the same page) which removed the need for the Illuminator.  The description of the illuminator reads:  "Illuminator for light when the port lids are down".  So basically just a round glass filled opening :)  Lang's scuttles were conical shaped lumps of glass fitted on the end of a threaded rod, which could be wound in and out of a similarly shaped hole in the hull that would allow light in when open or closed.  When open, air could come in around the cone (smallest part outboard).  In the Victoria, the size was 5" diameter.



As to the opening question - on the same page of this reference (valid in 1851) Peake states: "On the upper deck of line-of-battle ships, and main deck of frigates, the ports are in two parts; the lower one hung with hinges on the lower part of it, called a bucklar, and the upper part a half port to put in by hand".  This would imply even in the 1850s, gun port lids were being fitted to the open decks of vessels?





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