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Sea Legends: combat


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Hi everybody,

As SL will simulate combat at the deck level from the captain’s point of view, it is interesting to try to understand what type of decisions did the captain take before, during and after a battle at sea in the age of sail.  

Again, my point is only to give here a rough picture of the combat sequence in the period according to (some) historical sources, from the (quarter-)deck point of view. I won’t discuss here tactics and technical aspects of gunnery (types of gun, carronades, gunshot velocity, penetration, etc.), as Admin already has an enormous experience and technical data base from NA as regard age of sail combat simulation (and an enormous amount of contributions in the forum !). But developers could inspire from other historical elements (not represented in NA) to recreate the combat experience at the deck level, quite a frightful one...   

Some very interesting sources (among so many) used here are:

-          - the unbeaten Sam Willis, Fighting at Sea in the Eighteen Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare (2008)(imho the most exciting book on technical and tactical aspects of warfare in the age of sail);

-          - the exhaustive M. Adkin, The Trafalgar Companion (2005), a kind of ‘bible’ on the Trafalgar campaign (and other Nelson’s battles) and all combat aspects, with nice figures and anecdotes;

-          - the classical Bryan Lavery, Nelson’s Navy (1993); his Battle of the Nile (2005) is also an excellent source to understand warfare in the age of sail

-          - the excellent Roy Adkins’ Trafalgar, The biography of a battle, Abacus (2005) and Jack Tar, The extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s Navy,

-          - the essential and must-have J Harland, Seamanship in the age of sail (1985);

-          -the Kydd’s series, by Julian Stockwin (very well documented novels with detailed and fascinating descriptions of combats) (without mentioning of course the Aubreyad…)

I divided this discussion in several posts as it is quite long.

Aye, one of th' bits seldom mentioned in broadside battles be how think the  smoke gets. Before he know it th' ships… | Sea battle, Master and  commander, Pirate life     Discovery HD Master And Commander -The True Story on Make a GIF

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1.       1. Intelligence


Intelligence was, historically, a sine qua non condition for success (see for instance the difficulty for Nelson to find the French fleet during the Nile campaign in 1798). Thus, collecting intelligence on the enemy position and intentions was of critical importance. The whole success of a mission could be dependant on aleatory sources of information and… luck of course, unlike today. Captains received intelligence reports from different sources (see infra, Communication).

But there were also means for the captain to actively collect himself intelligence of course. In this regard, the captain could take decisions to:

-          - Carry out a reconnaissance mission (eg near an enemy port)

-          - Intercept a friend, neutral or fishing boat to ask for information

-          - Collect information in friendly or neutral ports

-          - Collect information in the papers seized in a captured enemy ship (logbook, signal book, orders, letters,…) – when they were not destroyed by the captain before the capture – or from prisoners

-          - etc.

 In the smuggler career, intelligence on the Revenue movements and intentions would come from informed people ashore and communicated by signal or lights.

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1.       2. Contact with enemy, identification of strange ships as friend or foe and assessment of the level of threat


Identifying strange ships as friend, neutral or foes was one of the main challenges for a captain, especially when his ship had been for long at sea without news from ashore on the development of war (this could have importance in prize courts). When an enemy ship was identified, the captain had also to assess, with the help or not of his first lieutenant/watch officer, the level of threat in order to decide to attack or flee.

Identification as friend or foe and assessment of the level of threat would be based on:

  •           the type and the aspect of the ship, but taking into account that

o    an enemy ship could have been recently captured and integrated into the Navy or commissioned as a privateer

o   a merchantship could have been converted into an armed privateer

o   a merchantship could be heavily armed (for self-defense) or, at the contrary, lightly or not armed but painted in a deceptive scheme (to make it look like a warship)

  •           the flag, taking into account that, in many instances, a false flag was used to deceive or to close the enemy
  •           the attitude of the strange ship (aggressive or not, for instance when ports were open or not, etc.)
  •           the time of year and place (especially when searching prizes in commercial routes).
  • Visual identification was, however, heavily dependant on:
  •           the weather and visibility
  •           the distance and the size of the strange sail ; in clear weather, at the horizon, the hull was ‘sunk’ due to the curvature of the Earth;
  •           the wind direction and its strength, as a strange sail directly in a windward or leeward position would make signalling difficult as the flags would be on the same line as the wind and thus less or barely visible (idem in light wind condition)
  •           the quality of the spy glass used for identification (especially in low light conditions)
  •           etc.

When the ship was unidentified, the captain would use private signals specific to his fleet (flags, night lanterns and signal gunshot) to verify the nationality of the ship. The signal book had to be of course the last version published !

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1.       3. Communication between ships (signalling and other means of communication)

Communication between ships of the age of sail was unbelievably difficult with regard to current technologies. Without going into detail, the main means to communicate were:

  •           Signalling by hoisting flags in various locations on the ship rigging; this was difficult to read in dead calm or when the ships were on the same line as the wind direction; the Popham system (numbers or phrases referenced by flags corresponding to a digit code) was introduced in 1799 and improved after

  •           Hailing at close distance while hovering

  •           Going by boat to and meeting in the senior captain’s ship or in the fleet flagship

  •           Getting dispatches, letters and orders from a liaison vessel (cutter, brig,…) or in port.

     In SL, AI signalling could be introduced with an automatic translator (as it was the case in reality via the signal lieutenant or the officer of the watch reading his signal book) to communicate some simple messages (like ‘enemy sail east-north-east’). Signals could be given from a signal book. Compressing the time of captains’ meetings (as boat transfers and meetings took time !) would also be possible.


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1.       4. Clearing the ship for action

The first order given by the captain before any possibility of a battle was to ‘clear for action’. It involved all hands and every man knew what to do, when and where. Clearing for action was completed, by a well trained crew, in 15 minutes almost in silence (M. Adkin, p 239).

Preparing a ship to battle implied a sequence of actions which were automatically carried out by the officers and the crew. This whole sequence described here under is of course difficult or even impossible to simulate/represent in detail in SL. It is neither necessary for the game as it required no further orders by the captain who could prepare himself for combat while the ship was cleared for action. It would be nice however for better immersion to show the ship once cleared for action with a different aspect – safety/boarding nettings, open ports, cannons run out, unobstructed view from bow to stern, boats towed astern and… rather silent –  from her aspect she had before clearing for action.

The sequence included, in most instances, the following actions (M. Adkins, p. 239-240; Julian’s Stockwin’s Tenacious, detailed description of (fictional) Tenacious 64-gun ship cleared for action at the Nile, p. 122-123) (in bold characters the most visually striking ones) :

  •           Hammocks/beddings were rolled and brought up on deck to be stowed in net racks, covered with canvas, on the bulwarks and in tops for protection against musket balls
  •           Bulkheads/canvas or wooden screens/partitions of captain’s and officers’ cabins and furniture (including the wardroom table) and sometimes the stern windows were taken down and stowed below in the hold, in order to give an unobstructed view of the gundeck from bow to stern; sometimes, if speed was critical, loose gear could be thrown overboard;
  •          A netting (“sauve tête”) was rigged 12 ft above the deck for protection from damaged rigging falling from aloft (see illustration); sometimes, anti-boarding nettings were also rigged above the bulwarks or the chains
  •           The galley stove fire was extinguished and smoking strictly forbidden, to prevent risks of fir as powder was circulating on deck
  •           Ports were open from inside with tackles hung on the beams (if the weather/heel allowed it) and guns were cast loose,  rolled out, tampions taken off, loaded with the ammunition decided by the captain and (if there was a flintlock mechanism) the lead apron was removed from the vent;
  •           The magazines, guarded by a Marine sentry, were unlocked by the gunner(s) with many precautions to prevent fire/explosion (felt slippers, firescreens along the companionways and hatches, leather buckets with sand, lanthorns put in sealed sconces); cartridges (2 in a salt box or in a leather container) were brought by a chain of ‘powder monkeys’ from the magazine, as well as shots (stored in the garlands) and wads (stored in nets hung from the beam) were prepared
  •           Gun captains were provided with spare flints, a powder horn, a pouch with quill firing tubes, cartridge prickers, reamers and a slow match (if flintlocks were used, in case of misfire); shots rust was scaled when necessary
  •           Spare gun tackles were laid around the hatchways; a spare tiller and relieving tackles were made ready in case the tiller was damaged
  •           Battle lanthorns were hung on the beams aft of the guns
  •           Lateral ladders to the quarterdeck were, sometimes, dismantled and replaced by scrambling nets, or moved amidships
  •           Arms chests were put in the middle of the deck, ready for boarders with small arms (muskets, pistols, cutlasses, pikes, tomahawks/axes) and grapnels were prepared for boarding; edged weapons were sharpened
  •           Leather fire buckets filled with sand were prepared by each gun in case of fire and casks of fresh water to drink were placed and lashed at regular intervals amidships
  •           The lower sails were wetted and  wet screens were hung around hatchways and passageways to the magazines
  •           The sick berth was dismantled from under the forecastle on the upper deck;
  •           The cockpit on the orlop deck, which was the midshipmens’ berth, was converted into surgeon’s operating room, the table being made of midshipmens’ mess table or trunks and well lit by hanging lanthorns; fresh bandages, vinegar mixed with oil of turpentine (for sealing stumps) and buckets (for limbs…) were prepared  
  •           Boats were lowered and towed astern to avoid their destruction as far as possible; they also could be left stowed on the skid beams across the waist (being at risk of being shot)
  •           Small livestock (pigs, sheep, goats), cage with chickens were either slaughtered, thrown overboard or installed in the boats towed astern
  •           The boatswain and his mates were laying out damage control gear (rigging stoppers (topsail sheets,…), preventer shrouds, duplication of main, fore and mizzen stays, lengths of line in order to restore the function of a severed ropes, preventers and pendants on yards to handle it if shot);
  •           Canvas and twine were made ready to repair important sails at hand;
  •           Chain slings were rigged to support lower yards (if the tye blocks at the mast were shot through)
  •           Sand (or ashes from the galley) was spread on deck and the deck wetted to avoid slipping.

When all was ready, the (first) lieutenant made report to the captain, who would go on a tour of inspection. 

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1.        5. 'Beat to quarters !’


The next order issued by the captain when the distance to the enemy closed was the order to “beat to quarters”, mustering all hands at their battle stations. All men knew their stations and rushed up for it while Marine drummer(s) were repeatedly tapping out the tune ‘Heart of Oak’. The boatswain’s mates were shrilling their pipe and yelled the order “All hands to quarters ! Rouse out !”. Most men were sent on fighting stations (guns, tops, musketry,…), while only a few would remain in charge of sailing. Sails were often reduced to topsails (‘battle sail’) in close range. 

Each seamen was assigned to a quarter (battle station) in a “quarter bill”, prepared by the first lieutenant and approved by the captain, when the crew was mustered. So, every seaman knew in advance his battle station. 

To recreate a ship in order of battle, it is interesting to know how the stations were allocated. For a detailed account and diagrams of the repartition of the battle stations in the Victory at Trafalgar, see M. Adkin, Trafalgar Companion, p. 241 s.

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1.       6. Firing


Firing was the result of ‘decisional chain’ from the captain to his gun captains and a small delay could occur between the order to fire and the moment the gun was shot. The choice of ammunition of the (first) broadside(s) was decided by the captain when the ship was cleared for action. During action, most often it was decided by the lieutenant responsible for the gun section or, if absent, by the gun captain himself. The sequence was this:

  •           The captain would give the order to be silent and, when he judges it the right moment, to open fire on the target
  •           A midshipman would shout the order above the hatch
  •           Lieutenant(s) responsible for a gun section would repeat the order if necessary

-          The gun captain, posted behind the gun, would aim and judge when to ignite the powder in the vent with a match or pull the rope of the gunlock, taking into account the heel and roll of the ship and the relative movement of the target, as well as the small time lag between the moment the gun captain decides either to pull the lanyard of the flintlock mechanism or to touch the vent with his match and the moment the cartridge explodes (see the first post in the thread ‘SL suggestions’). The more experienced the gun captain, the more accurate the shot. At close distance, aiming was not necessary and fire was almost immediate after the fire order.

       The lieutenant(s) responsible for a gun section would give the sequence of orders to reload the gun for the next broadside.

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EDIT: More to follow...

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11 hours ago, Bonden said:

It would be nice however for better immersion to show the ship once cleared for action with a different aspect – safety/boarding nettings, open ports, cannons run out, unobstructed view from bow to stern, boats towed astern and… rather silent –  from her aspect she had before clearing for action.

Imo it would also be nice If players could clear for action without opening the ports and running out the guns.

This would make sense e.g. if players had the possibility to pretend beeing friendly or unprepared, when in fact they were not.

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... and it would be great to have a very detailed damage model, where every line and spar is simulated and their fixpoints like the fiferails.

Disabling a certain sail (because the spar or some important line has parted) would imbalance the sails until corrected by the captain (setting addotional sails or striking some)or repaired by he crew.

This would especially be a nice feature when playing as a smuggler and trying to run from a revenue cutter. It would give a sternchase as described in the books.

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  • 2 months later...

(continued) 7.       Damage

(most of the following informations are from S. Willis, Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century. The Art of Sailing Warfare, Boydell Press, 2008)

Damage was, unsurprisingly, a key factor in the evolution of performance and tactical choice during a battle. According to Sam Willis, “one the one hand, the period was characterized by an ability to retain manoeuvrability and a high quality of performance in the face of heavy damage. In this respect, battle became attritional, and placed an increased emphasis on the value of high initial morale, staying power and tenacity of purpose. (…) On the other hand, it was perfectly possible for one lucky shot to alter the whole tactical nature of an engagement. Once in battle, sailing warship performance was in constant state of fragile equilibrium. Any advantage that might be gained from superior sailing performance in terms of speed, windward performance or manoeuvrability could be lost at a stroke by fortunate shooting.” (Fighting at sea…, p. 162).

This capacity for a ship to sustain heavy damage while continuing to be able to fight and, altogether, the possibility to be totally disabled by a (un)lucky shot is thus a characteristic of age of sail battles. It was intimately linked also to the repair capacity of the ship by her crew, as some types of damage could be repaired even during battle (see further post).

Such characteristic of naval battles can only be modeled in a game like SL through a fine-tuned damage model. It is already amazingly modeled in Naval Action, as far as I can judge, so it should not be a problem for developers to use their experience for creating a even finer damage model for SL. As in this game, fewer ships will be involved in battles and as sailing physics will be simulated more accurately, some details could be added, especially the impact of damage on the rigging, if it is functional. The visual representation of damage could also be improved, as here we will be at the deck level. From the inside of the ship, the impact of shots (splinters, disabled guns,…) could also be represented, for better immersion.

To decide how to react to damage, a crucial aspect for a captain was his capacity to assess the damage caused to the enemy and the damage inflicted to his own ship. As regards the first hypothesis, only visual assessment was possible, through direct observation or via reports by officers. Smoke and/or night could make such assessment difficult or totally impossible. As regards the second hypothesis, the captain had to rely on the reports from his officers, midshipmen and petty officers (boatswain, gunner, carpenter,…). Some like the carpenter, for instance, were assigned to patrol in the hold to identify and report (privately) any damage caused to the hull below the waterline. In NA, we get immediate information on the damage level of both ships from user interface, with details on the types of damage (armor, inner structure, crew, sails, etc.). In SL, it could be nice to simulate the difficulty to assess the damage and the way it was reported to the captain.

Two types of damage could be distinguished: to the rig and to the hull. Each had its direct and indirect implications on performance and, thus, tactical choice for the captains involved, distinguishing obvioulsy according to whether the damage was inflicted to their own ship or to the enemy’s ship.


Nicholas Pocock, Captain Jeremiah Coghlan's ship the 'Renard' engaging the French privateer the 'General Ernouf' off Haiti, 1805; The destruction of the 'General Ernouf' by the 'Renard'Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821): Captain Jeremiah Coghlan's ship the 'Renard' engaging the French privateer the 'General Ernouf' off Haiti, 1805; The destruction of the 'General Ernouf' by the 'Renard 



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a.       Damage to the rigging


Firing at the rigging targeted in priority the maneuverability of the ship and, beyond, her overall performance in battle. The windward performance and the ability to sail close-hauled or to keep alongside the enemy ship, of crucial importance to the outcome of the battle, could be severely lowered by a damaged rigging. This had tactical consequences, as it could expose the ship to raking fire or force her to abandon the advantage of a windward position. In a line of battle, the ship unable to keep station could expose the neighbor ships to superior forces. However, the ship could still fire her guns. Beyond those considerations, damage to the rigging could also increase the tendency to roll, pitch and heel, affecting sailing performance, gunnery (accuracy of guns decreased because of excessive roll ; the number of guns could be lower if lower ports had to be closed or if fallen masts and rigging on the deck made them unusable), stability (when a topmast or a mast was lost, roll increased dramatically with risk of water flooding through lower ports) and safety on deck and aloft (because of excessive roll).  

-          Direct damage


o   Sails, with consequences on sail performance (speed, turn, maneuverability)

o   Masts, yards, with consequences on maneuverability, stability (excessive roll)

o   Bowsprit, with consequences on the stability of the masts and the rigging

o   Standing rigging (stays, shrouds, chains), with consequences on the masts’ and rigging’s stability and resistance (a mast could not carry the yards and sails when standing rigging was destroyed; conversely, damaged masts could remain standing with their stays remaining undamaged)

o   Running rigging, with consequences on sail and yards management and performance

Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821): HMS Brunswick after the battle of the First of June: https://imgur.com/a/pfZEaLs


-          Indirect implications


o   Impact on the crew of falling rigging and masts on deck

o   Impact on ship stability, especially roll, with indirect consequences on gunnery accuracy, security on deck and aloft, etc.

o   Excessive heeling when a fallen mast is entangled to the rigging on one side of the ship, increasing the risk of capsizing if lower ports are open

Nicholas Pocock: The Vanquished Frigate : https://imgur.com/a/h9xNPWW


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b.       Damage to the hull


Firing at the hull targeted the crew, thus the manpower of the enemy ship. It also had consequences on ship’s stability, i.e. the equilibrium between the buoyancy of the hull and the force of gravity, when water poured in the hull through shots under the waterline. If the men at the pumps could not maintain the water level below a certain limit, the risk was of course to sink; at the very least, the men were immobilized and thus prevented from taking part in the combat or the maneuver. If the rudder and the steering mechanism was hit, manoeuvrability could be completely affected. Targeting the hull was also a way to dismount guns, thus reducing fire power, and to destabilize and weaken the masts and the rigging, through the dismantling of backstays and shrouds secured to the quite exposed channels and deadeyes. The effects of damage to the hull depended on various factors (range, hull construction, shot size and velocity, angle of fire, …). Some parts of the ship’s hull were much more vulnerable (bows and stern), especially to raking fire.

-          Direct damage


o   Crew from direct hits, guns dismounted or splinters flying from the inner side of the hull (see infra for illustrations)

o   Guns and, with luck, magazine

o   Steering mechanism (rudder, wheel, tiller, ropes)

o   Channels (secured to the hull by chainplates) and shrouds and backstays secured to it, with consequences on the masts and rigging resistance/stability

o   Masts (inside the hull)

o   Leaks under the waterline ; some were inaccessible and thus could lead the ship to sink if the capacity of the pumps was insufficient

o   Overall inner structure of the ship

o   Ladders between decks, forbidding the flow of powder monkeys, midshipmen (for communication) and crew mobility (for repair, etc.) between decks

o   Raking fire had severe impact on crew and guns; one rake could disable a ship for the entire battle (eg raking broadside by the British 74 Goliath at the Nile on a French frigate which was sunk consequently)



-          Indirect implications of hull damage


o   Impact on crew’s morale of the fear of fire or flood; one implication of this was that reports of dangerous shot or start of fire had to be reported in private to the captain and never to crew (S. Willis, p. 154)

o   The crew had to be affected to pumps, fire fighting and repairs and was thus diverted from the fight, reducing fire rate, sometimes completely stopping it

o   Loose cannons could cause much damage to the crew and the hull (by smashing through the side), due to the roll of the ship; they also affected the stability of the ship, due to their influence on the ship’s center of gravity (one 32-pounder weighed over 3 tons with its carriage and shot)

o   When water was coming in through leaks or through open ports in the hold, the stability of the ship was increasingly affected (according to the shape of the hull, the heel and the level of water and other factors like the position of the center of gravity); more water would come in through the lee ports and increase the change in stability; increase in roll due to the loss of the masts could then be fatal.

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c.    Splinters

Splinters had a terrible impact on the crew inside the decks. Here are some impressive videos to understand how a single shot could wound or kill several seamen. 

A very interesting article on the impact of 24pd shots fired by a XVIIth century gun from the Vasa (Sweden) (https://kurage.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/hocker-isbsa-14-proof.pdf), with impressive photographs is available and a video here Under (below the Niagara vid):


Live fire demonstration of carronades from USS Niagara (impressive):



Live fire of a 24pd shot from a gun of the swedish Vasa ship and impact of a typical men-of-war wooden wall (XVIIth century)

EDIT: have a look also to the (rather slow) recoil of the 24pnd gun and the smoke produced by a single shot


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