Facts About San Salvador Cannons

Everything You Wanted to Know About the San Salvador Cannons, and Were Afraid to Ask

Robert W. Munson, Historian JM, Cabrillo N.M.

Spanish 16th Century Ordnance: Specifically, the number and types of cannon to be used on ships such as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s San Salvador.

The Reglamento of 1522 was established to ensure that properly equipped ships went to Nueva España. Although updated in 1536, ordnance remained unchanged through the time of Cabrillo’s expedition in 1542. It was updated again in 1545.

My Ship, King’s Rules: Many have commented on what seems a strange ordnance outfit recommended for San Salvador. Specifically that four “Greate Gonnes”, as stipulated by the Reglamento of 1522, were to be carried by a ship of San Salvador’s “tonnage” (toneladas). A Greate Gonne (Canon in Spanish) was anything firing a cannon ball over 12 pounds. In addition, the Reglamento stipulated 16 swivel guns (Versos, or as the British call them “rail guns” because they were mounted on railings on top of the gunwhals).

The author studied reports on 11 pre-1550 shipwrecks. They all reveal the presence of from one to four “great gonnes”. It also appears that 75 percent of these guns were carried as ballast in the bilges, one with a fully loaded powder chamber alongside! These guns, which the Spanish called a Bombardeta, were not what the Spanish would have called a Canon (greate gonne), although they were the biggest guns in the New World. They were all about 7 feet long; iron breechloaders firing about a 5-pound ball from an average bore of 3½ inches. Thus, the Spanish Bombardeta effectively compares with the gun the English called a Saker, which was not considered a true “greate gonne”. The swivels could be either banded or sleeved iron breechloaders, or bronze muzzleloaders, each type with it’s own balance of advantages and disadvantages. Bronze guns were highly reliable, but muzzle loading was time consuming. Iron guns were fast on loading, but prone to develop flaws. Also you had to be very careful about the charge and sealing the breech. Carelessness on any of these elements could cause an iron swivel to blow up and/or drive the powder chamber through the gunner’s head.

Thus, it appears that the ordnance outfit stipulated by the Reglamento is surprisingly short on heavy firepower. This is especially interesting when one considers that many merchant captains met the letter of the law by loading the required guns at the imperial capitol Seville, 30 miles inland up the Guadalquivir River, then, at Palos on the coast, off-loaded these 1500-pound guns before putting to sea. Leaving behind three tons of guns and creating more cargo storage must have appealed to merchant skippers and their bosses. However, carrying the guns in the bilges still met the letter of the law, and improved stability of the ship. What it boiled down to is that virtually all ships sailing to Nueva España were merchant ships that didn’t intend to fight a classic naval battle, but were prepared to defend themselves as needed. This, despite the fact that French pirates began taking Spanish treasure ships in 1523; only two years after the fall of the Aztecs opened the floodgates of gold coming across the Atlantic. Even with the establishment of the Carrera de Indies, the annual round trip convoys, in 1524, the convoys were still made up of nothing but defensively armed merchant vessels. Purpose-built, blue water warships were still in an embryonic state, and as of 1542 no power in Europe had more than three or four. This was too few to use on the colonies. In addition, the European powers were in an arms race of “anything you can build, I can build larger”. The resulting warships were really of no use against small, nimble pirate vessels, which could out-sail and outmaneuver them and didn’t need a lot of firepower. Even the galleons of JRC’s time were still “proto-galleons”, evolving from Carracks and galleys; some were even built with backup oar power.

It is at this point we become victims of our own mythology, especially Hollywood. From Errol Flynn and The Sea Hawk (1939), to the latest Johnny Depp pirate flick, the movies are great fun, but shaky on accuracy. I like to swash my buckle as much as any movie aficionado, but we are trying to take ship types, weapons, tactics, even clothing, from the mid 17th to mid 18th centuries and ascribe them to the 16th century and that just doesn’t work. Between 1494 and 1590 ship design and associated equipment changed and advanced at such a breakneck speed, it’s like believing a canoe has all the features of a yacht.

In particular the reality we are going to deal with in this article is the use of cannons aboard Spanish ships in the time of Cabrillo.

The Spanish Reality: One thing we forget is that the Spanish regarded the Pacific as a Spanish lake, virtually uninhabited, as opposed to the Atlantic, which was swarming with French pirates. This could easily lead to a skewing of how many of the required artillery pieces were actually on board. The average Bombardeta is seven feet long and weighs about 1500 pounds. This is an ungainly, heavy item mounted on a sledge, or possibly two small wheels. The cannons with four wheels used in pirate movies is still something of a novelty largely used only by the English. As bronze cannons became more reliable, the muzzleloader became state of the art. A muzzleloader did not have to be firmly tied to the ship as breechloaders did. A bronze gun on a four-wheel carriage could use the recoil to bring the gun back into the ship for loading and aiming. To get a Bombardeta, much less four of them, onto the waist of the ship (a space 26 feet long and 21 feet wide, and already encumbered by the mainmast, main hatch, capstan, windlass, deck cargo, ship’s boat and livestock) appears ludicrous. To try to fire just one of them would make a golden opportunity to conduct a practical, in-situ, test. A modern reader could easily believe that it would be far more productive to leave these monsters at Iztapa and get additional cargo space. However, the fact remains that many ships, in the Atlantic at least, have been found to have the requisite number, even if they are stowed below.

In 1542 using artillery aboard ships was still a fairly new concept1, and it was believed that a Bombardeta could not be a ship killer. The Bombardeta was about the heaviest gun a ship could accommodate on the main deck waist. A Bombardeta was equivalent to the English Saker, which was not considered able to penetrate a stout hull at anything beyond a range of 100 yards. Thus, this class of gun could not penetrate a ship’s hull at even moderate range. The main component of defensive/offensive firepower was the Verso swivel gun.

Anything big enough to punch holes in a ship’s hull was prohibitively heavy. The only way you could mount such heavy guns was to remove them from the main deck and put them on the lower deck, amidst all the cargo and supplies, and there goes the profit margin. In addition, being below decks, the guns will need a little thing called a gun port to shoot through. This is a novel idea even for true warships, apparently invented about 1507, and no merchant ship owner was going to allow holes to be sawn in the hull of his ship. So why carry the monsters at all?

Keep in mind that the concept of purpose-built warships was still largely confined to galleys and modified Carracks. There were less than a dozen purpose-built, Carrack style warships in all of Europe at this time. Naval battles were fought almost entirely by merchant ships, which used the preferred naval weapon of the time: infantry. In 1545 the most heavily armed ship in the English Royal Navy carried only eight greate gonnes, but 66 swivels! Remember, Spain had been fighting a civil war for 600 years; mentally it was geared for land battles. However, in 1494, sea battle tactics had not advanced beyond those of the Vikings five centuries earlier. Lacking a ship-killing, long-range projectile weapon, a warship was not a weapons platform, but rather a landing craft designed to put your soldiers on the enemy ship. You went alongside the enemy ship, peppered it with arrows until it was a soft enough target to board, and did what the Spanish did best, slugged it out sword to sword. Soldiers aboard ships at this time were not Marines in the modern sense; they were infantry fighting a land battle on floating land. Victory at sea was not measured in terms of ships sunk or destroyed, but rather by the number of ships captured. Every ship captured enlarged your own fleet by one, simultaneously reducing the enemy fleet by one. What made the Bombardeta/Saker useful was its ability to destroy rigging, rudder, masts and/or personnel, at ranges greater than bowshot.

Artillery At Sea, The Theory: The Spanish and French theory of artillery was to be able to hit accurately at long range, sacrificing weight-of-metal and rate-of-fire to achieve this. So bores tended to be small, but with very little “windage” (bouncing around in the barrel as the ball went down the tube). This made for a slower rate of fire but greater accuracy. The Spanish theory was to be sure to do enough damage at long range with one or two shots to slow the enemy down so they could close and board his ship with their vastly superior infantry. This class of gun was referred to as a Cerbatana, which is supposedly derived from Cerberus, the mythological dog of Hades. Size of bore and weight of shot in Cerbatanas differ widely, but a Bombardeta would qualify. It’s interesting to note that in modern Spanish “cerbatana” translates as “peashooter” (if you call a 5-pound shot a “pea”).

The British preferred big bore guns designed to smash a target at close range, taking out opposing personnel so they did not have to face a mass of well trained, well equipped professional infantry. This process was enhanced by having bores with a lot of “windage” which cut down on accuracy but increased rapidity of fire. It did mean that after about eight shots they had to clear the extensive carbon fouling in the tube. This was one of the factors that made the battle of HMS Revenge (August 30, 1591) so brutal. By the time of the Armada, the British were beginning to see the value of long-range fire and went on to develop what was called “the long twelve pounder”. Even so, in the Battle of the Armada (1588), the British actually took out only two Spanish ships, and one of them was by the old tried and true tactic of boarding.

The English didn’t even dent the Spanish fleet’s formation or prevent it from reaching its rendezvous with the Army in the Netherlands. What won the battle for the English was the imagination and daring to send fire ships among the anchored Spanish ships, which cut their anchor cables and fled into a storm that ground them into bone meal.

Thus, a pirate using a cheap, small, but very fast vessel such as a Lugger or Brig, with just one or two guns, could hang off a merchantman’s stern quarter and begin to shoot it to pieces while the merchant could not defend itself, even if it had a respectable broadside and lots of soldiers. Once the merchantman had surrendered the pirates could come aboard to loot the ship without having had to slug it out in a bloody boarding action. We all have had the fantasy of swinging on a rope from our ship onto the ship alongside with a knife in our teeth. What we don’t fantasize about is the fact that about halfway through the swing you are going to develop a sudden case of lead poisoning followed by being skewered on something very sharp and pointy. Likewise the mercantile skipper is under no obligation to sacrifice his life, his crew, or his boss’s ship for the sake of the cargo owners. In turn the pirate rarely wants to waste the time killing people, and he certainly doesn’t want the ship, it’s too big, sluggish and slow to be of any use and he sure can’t sell it. The merchant ship merely transfers its cargo to the pirate vessel and the two ships proceed, each on their own merry way. No pirate is interested in going toe to toe with the Spanish gunners or infantry, who have consistently demonstrated over the last four decades they are the best. Despite Hollywood’s bias to the contrary, you don’t build the first truly worldwide empire in history with a bunch of untrained, incompetent soldiers and gunners.

My Gun, My Rules: An early artillery expert, Joe Brem (an NPS Ranger at Castillo de San Marcos, N.M., in a long telephone call), noted he has his own 100 cal. Lantaka rail gun and can hit a small car with it at 600 yards (!!!) using 500 grains powder (equivalent to five or six Arquebus charges)2. The Lantakas were apparently first made in India in the early 1400s and immediately became a favorite of both Portuguese and Spanish seamen. Both countries created these guns by the tens of thousands for their own use and as trade goods. Magellan’s fleet, as early as 1519, had 17 Lantakas as part of its assigned ordnance. Using quarter pound cannon balls, a Lantaka could easily sink a piratical canoe or rowboat, while gravel and scrap bits of metal made the gun a very lethal shotgun against boarders. New Lantakas, virtually unchanged since the 15th century, were still being sold in the Indian Ocean/Malay archipelago as recently as the 1930s. The Lantaka served as both a status symbol and as a simple self-defense weapon on trading junks, dowhs, and fishing boats operating in those waters. This trade was still quite viable until World War II glutted the market with newer and deadlier weapons. Remember, a pirate stripped of all his Hollywood romance is really a vicious street thug. He just wants you to fork over your valuables without any trouble. A coward at heart, the last thing he wants is to risk being injured or killed in a stand-up fight. For this purpose the Lantaka worked quite well.

Where all this is leading is to why the Reglamento of 1522 stipulated four iron Bombardetas and 16 Versos, or rail (swivel) guns, for a ship like the San Salvador. She was not expecting to meet enemy warships or even enemy armed merchantmen. She really didn’t need all four big guns readily available, better to improve the ballast and keep down the deck clutter in the waist by storing three of the guns in the bilge, keeping one gun available topside for impressing people when necessary.

Bottom line, the San Salvador’s firepower was designed to meet the needs of a ship’s company deeply rooted in the world-famous, ever-popular tactic: boarding! Your Bombardeta slowed them down, so you could do what you did best; infantry assault. As with modern infantry, which use crew-served machine guns to pin the enemy down and weaken him, you had lots of lovely little swivel guns with which to trouble the opposition.

Although stone shot is found in most shipwrecks of our time, there is no evidence of Pedreros (stoneshooters), which the English called a pot gonne. Stone shot was not expected to punch holes in ships. The stone ball was intended to shatter into a high concentration of intense shrapnel, i.e. an “anti-personnel gun”.


1 Sovereign of the of the Sea; the Quest to Build the Perfect Renaissance Battleship by Angus Konstam, John Wiley and Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-0-470-11667-8, pp.52-54. The battle of St. Mathieu, off Brest, France, August 10, 1512, was the first naval battle in European waters to involve cannons. As the two fleets closed, an English great gonne in HMS Mary Rose struck the base of the mainmast of the French flagship Amiral Louise with a 60-pound shot. The mainmast collapsed and the Amiral Louise retreated from the battle. HMS Mary James and the French carrack Marie de la Cordeliere, exchanged broadsides at close range to no great effect. HMS Regent did not bother to fire a broadside at the Cordeliere but immediately came alongside, and the battle was fought strictly as a classic infantry action; all guns, even the greate gonnes, were being used for anti-personnel purposes. Regent’s captain, Sir Thomas Knyvet, was cut in half by a ball from a French swivel. A fire begun on the Cordeliere quickly spread to the Regent and both ships were burned to destruction. Out of the English fleet of 25 ships, 20 were armed merchant vessels that took no part in the battle except to watch from a distance. Out of the French fleet of 22 ships, only six were purpose-built warships and three of these were considered to be too small to be of much use. When the mainmast of Amiral Louise was brought down, the entire French fleet followed her lead and retreated. Cordeliere was already in a death grip with Regent and neither would disengage. Except for one incredibly lucky hit, the greate gonnes had not truly contributed to the battle, nor had the armed merchant ships, so there was essentially nothing to inspire reliance on naval artillery. However, the effects of that one lucky hit would reverberate throughout Europe. The greate gonne had proved itself. It just needed tactics and a ship designed for it, and the carrack wasn’t it.

The Battle of Bornholm on July 7, 1565 appears to have been the first naval battle in history fought exclusively with long-range artillery and no boarding.

2 Personal communication with NPS Ranger Joe Brem, Castillo San Marcos, artillery expert, Sept. 16, 2010, (904)-829-6506 Ext.233.

Selected Bibliography:

www.shipsofdiscovery.org has reports of the Molasses Reef shipwreck, the Bahia Mujeres wreck, the Highborn Cay wreck and the Bahia Isabela wreck.

J.Barto, Arnold III, and Robert W. Weddle, The Nautical Archaeology of Padre Island, The Academic Press, New York, New York, 1978. (Arnold also authored “The Padre Island Crossbows”, Historical Archaeology 29.2:4-19. (1995)).

D.H. Keith, et al., “Analysis of Hull Remains, Ballast, and Artifact Distribution of a 16th Century Ship Wreck, Molasses Reef Wreck, Turks and Caicos Islands, B.W.I.” Journal of Field Archaeology (1985).

D.H. Keith, et al., “The Molasses Reef Wreck, Turks and Caicos Islands, B.W.I.: A Preliminary Report”, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (1984).

D.H. Keith and Roger C. Smith “An Archaeological Survey of an Early Sixteenth-Century Shipwreck Site in Bahia Mujeres, Quintana Roo.” Institute of Nautical Archaeology Exploration and Discover Research Team, College Station, Texas (1987).

Abraham Cruz Lopez, “The Ines de Soto Cay Reef Wreck: A Preliminary Report: A Preliminary Report on the Investigation of the Remains of a 16th Century Shipwreck in Cuba”. Paper presented at the 1995 SHA/CUA Washington, DC.

Corey Malcolm, Director of Archaeology, Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, Inc., “St. John’s Bahamas Shipwreck Project, Interim Report I: The Excavation and Artifacts 1991-95” Key West, Florida (1986).

J.J. Simmons, III, “Wrought-Iron Ordnance: Revealing Discoveries from the New World.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology (1988).

Roger C. Smith, Donald H. Keith, and Denise Lakey, “The Highborn Cay wreck: Further Exploration of a 16th Century Bahamian Shipwreck.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 14.1:63-72 (1985).

Roger C. Smith, James Spirek, John Bratton, and Della Scott-Ireton, “The Emanuel Point Ship: Archaeological Investigations, 1992-95, Preliminary Report”. Bureau of Archaeological Research, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State, Tallahassee, Florida (1995).

Samuel P. Turner, “Saona Artillery: Implications for Inter-Island Trade and Shipboard Armaments in the First Half of the Sixteenth-Century.” Masters Thesis Department of Anthropology, Texas A & M University, College Station, (1994).

Gordon P. Watts Jr., “The Western Ledge Reef Wreck: A Preliminary Report On The Investigation Of The Remains Of A 16th Century Shipwreck In Bermuda”, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, 22.2: 103-124 (1993).

The Eleven Shipwrecks (ordnance actually encountered):

Highborn Cay Bahamas, early 16th century: Two Bombardetas, 13 Versos

Bahia Mujeres, Mexico, early 16th century: One Falconete, one Bombardeta, one Verso

Turner’s Pre-site One, early 16th century: One Bombardeta, four Versos

Turner’s Pre-site Two, early 16th century: One Bombardeta, eight Versos

Turner’s “Caballo Blanco”, early 16th century: Two Bombardetas, four Versos

Molasses Reef, Turks & Caicos, ca.1513: Three Bombardetas, 16 Versos

Padre Island, Texas, Sites One & Two, 1554: Six Bombardetas, seven Versos

Ines de Soto Reef, Cuba, 1555: One Bombardeta, five Versos

Second Molasses Reef, Turks & Caicos, ca.1555-75: One Bombardeta, seven Versos

Transition 1550-70 from banded breechloader to cast guns

Western Ledge Reef, Bermuda, post-1577: Two Cast Iron Cannons

Malcolm also references the “Villefranche wreck of ca.1516 (Gerout, Reith, Gassend and Liou, 1989)” which apparently mentions Bombardeta style guns, however, the author has not had access to the reference noted. What I have been able to gather is that on September 15, 1516, a Genoese “nave” (round ship, i.e. a merchant ship) capsized and sank in 18 meters during a storm 400 meters off Villefranche-sur-mer with a cargo of artillery. The cargo not only included actual forged iron tubes (cannon barrels) but a wealth of well-preserved support equipment such as carriages, wheels, breech blocks, projectiles, rammers, spoons, powder kegs, etc. The ship has been positively identified as La Lomallina

Last revised 25-Aug-14