Heated shot is the practice of heating round shot before firing from muzzle-loading cannons, for the purpose of setting fire to enemy warships, buildings, or equipment. The use of hot shot dates back centuries and only ceased when vessels armored with iron replaced wooden warships in the world's navies. It was a powerful weapon against wooden warships, where fire was always a hazard. Its use was mainly confined to shore batteries and forts, due to the need for a special furnace to heat the shot, and their use from a ship was in fact against Royal Navy regulations because they were so dangerous, although the American ship USS Constitution had a shot furnace installed, for hot shot to be fired from her carronades. The French Romaine-class frigates originally also featured the device, but they proved impractical, dangerous to the ships themselves, and were later discarded.
The idea of setting fire to enemy warships can be traced back to the ancient world, where fire arrows and early incendiary materials such as Greek Fire were used. In 54 BC heated clay balls were used by the Britons to attack Roman encampments, while in medieval siege warfare, catapults were used to hurl fire balls and other incendiaries into besieged castles and settlements.
- The first successful use of heated shot fired from cannon was by King Stephen Bathory of Poland in 1579 against the Russians at Polotsk. From that time on the use of heated projectiles became increasingly important, especially against the wooden warships of the period.
- During the American Revolutionary War, American and French artillerymen destroyed the 44-gun British warship HMS Charon using heated shot during the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.
- In 1782 during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, French and Spanish forces attempted to use large floating batteries to bombard the British defenders. The batteries were of extremely heavy construction and were considered to be invincible. However, British artillery in Gibraltar used heated shot to destroy 3 of the 10 batteries, inflicting a loss of 719 crewmen. The remaining 7 were scuttled by the Spanish due to heavy damage.
- In 1792 the Austrian forces besieging Lille used heated shot against the city, which was described as a war crime by the French Republican press.
- In 1801, several days after the Battle of Algeciras Bay, took place an incident during which two Spanish ships of the line exploded killing near 1700 sailors. According to various sources, the fire that caused the explosions of both ships was originated by heated shots fired from HMS Superb.
- One of the last significant uses of heated shot in naval warfare occurred in 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads, when the CSS Virginia used heated shot to great effect against USS Congress, setting her on fire.
Hot shot furnaces
The original method of heating round shot was to cover them in the coals of a large wood fire, or heat them on metal grates placed over a fire pit. These time-consuming methods were improved on by the French, who used specially constructed furnaces to heat shot in their artillery batteries at the mouth of the Rhône River in 1794. The United States incorporated hot-shot furnaces into the design of coastal fortifications during the construction of the Second System of seacoast defenses just prior to the War of 1812. Colonel Jonathan Williams left his post as Commandant at the US Military Academy to build hot-shot furnace fortifications such as Castle Clinton and Castle Williams in New York Harbor during this period. When French engineer General Simon Bernard came to the US in 1816 to head the Board of Fortifications, for the construction of permanent forts to defend the US coastline, he introduced the idea of hot shot furnaces of the French pattern. The chain of US seacoast forts built between 1817 and the American Civil War, such as Fort Macon, subsequently had one or more hot shot furnaces included as part of their standard defenses.
A hot shot furnace was typically a free-standing brick structure with special iron racks and grates, varying in size according to the number of round shot they were to heat and the number of cannon they served. They were commonly 6 - 8 ft (2.4 m) wide, and anything from 8 to over 30 ft (9.1 m) in length. A brick chimney was situated at one end with a firebox located in the front or side of the opposite end. The interior of the furnace was lined with fire brick and had sloping iron rails sized to hold round shot. Cold round shots were placed in the furnace and allowed to roll down the inclined rails in rows. The first shots halted over the firebox at the low end and were heated "cherry red". When they were removed, the next shots rolled down to take their place and be similarly heated. A large furnace might hold 60 or more round shot.
Three men were required to manage a furnace. One maintained the fire and added cold shot, a second man removed heated shot from the furnace, and the third man cleaned them. Special tools were required to handle heated shot: an iron fork was used to remove heated shot from the furnace, then the shot was placed on a stand and cleaned by rubbing off any loose surface scales with a rasp. A pair of tongs with circular jaws were used to pick up and handle the shot at the furnace. To carry the shot to the cannons, hot shot ladles were used. The ladles had an iron cup for the shot with one or three handles. Round shot less than 24 lb (11 kg) weight size could be carried by one man with a single-handle ladle, while larger shot needed a three-handle ladle, carried between two men like a stretcher.
Great care had to be taken loading heated shot into a cannon to ensure that the red-hot shot did not prematurely ignite the cannon's charge of gunpowder.
A cartridge bag of gunpowder was loaded first. A double bag was used with heated shot to prevent leakage of grains of gunpowder as the bag was rammed down the cannon. Once the bag was in place, a wad of moistened clay or cloth was rammed down against the bag to shield it from the heated shot, which was loaded next. If the cannon was to be fired at a downward angle, another wet wad was rammed down against the ball to secure it against rolling out.
A common practice with heated shot was to fire it with a reduced charge of gunpowder; this would cause the shot to lodge in the wood of the target ship rather than penetrating it, and also cause greater splitting and splintering of the wood.
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