How Did HMS Victory Become the World’s Most Effective Fighting Machine?

Alice Roberts

5 mins

18 Oct 2019

Cutting through the French and Spanish line at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory led the way in Nelson’s most daring naval strategy.

Here are five reasons for her success:

1. HMS Victory was decked out with the most powerful weaponry

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Victory carried 104 guns of different calibres. The most effective were the 68-pounder carronades, which were short, smoothbore cannons, and state-of-the-art in the early 19th century.

With poor aim and range but a capacity to unleash huge power, their function was to fire at close distances and trigger devastation right through the heart of a ship’s hull.

One of the gun decks on HMS Victory.

Each gun would have an operational team of 12 men. Young boys, called powder monkeys, would run to the magazines on the lower decks to restock gunpowder filled cartridges.

Unlike those in the Franco-Spanish fleets, Nelson’s cannons were triggered by gunlocks, a safety mechanism to make it much quicker and safer to reload and fire.

Nelson’s strategy at Trafalgar allowed these carronades to be used to their full ability, releasing a shattering treble-shotted broadside into Bucentaure, the French ship.

One infamous shot from a carronade on HMS Victory saw a keg of 500 musket balls blasted straight into the gunport of a French ship, effectively wiping out the entire crew manning the cannon.

HMS Victory’s starboard flank.

Victory used three types of shot: the round solid shot used to pummel a ship’s hull, the dismantling shots aimed to tear down masts and rigging, and the anti-personnel or grape shots aimed to maim crew members with a showering of smalls iron balls.

2. Everything on Victory was the biggest and best 

The four masts held 27 miles of rigging and 37 sails made from four acres of canvas. Dundee weavers would have spent around 1,200 hours just to stitch the top sail together. An additional 23 sails were on board as spares, making it the fastest and most manoeuvrable ship of its day – effective in any situation.

Unsurprisingly, this required enormous amounts of labour-intensive manpower. To put all 37 sails up, after hearing the order, 120 men would leave their stations to climb the rigging ladders and heave on lines, taking just six minutes. It was not uncommon for sailors to fall to their deaths from wet ropes and gusts of wind.

On 21 October 1805 the British Royal Navy defeated the combined battle fleets of the French and Spanish empires 20 miles northwest of a promontory of rock and sand in southern Spain. This is the story of the Battle of Trafalgar.Watch Now

Victory carried seven anchors. The largest and heaviest weighed 4 tons and was used for holding the ship in deep water. It was always rigged on the starboard due to prevailing winds of the northern hemisphere. Around 144 men were needed to raise this anchor, the cable of which was made of hemp and became tremendously heavy in water.

3. The Royal Navy were the most experienced sailors in the world

The Royal Navy crew of captains, officers, marines and seamen were some of the best in the world, hardened by years at sea and drilled to perfection.

Such a slick operation was a product of blockading ports of Europe, fighting battles all across the world, maintaining order across the growing empire, regulating trade routes and withstanding every form of tide and weather. In contrast, many enemy ships had spent time cooped up in harbour and relied on crews of inexperienced landsmen.

The Battle of Waterloo was be a watershed moment in European history, finally ending Napoleon's military career and ushering in a new era of relative peace. This is the story of Napoleon's final battle.Watch Now

Victory’s 20-year-old 2nd Marine Lieutenant, Lewis Roatley, wrote about operating the guns:

‘A man should witness a battle in a three-decker from the middle deck, for it beggars all description: it bewilders the senses of sight and hearing.’

In light of this chaos, it seems unsurprising that experienced British sailors would have the upper hand against unseasoned landsmen.

4. Victory was built with the strongest wood in England

When HMS Victory was built, she was a state-of-the-art beacon of British technology – the modern-day fighter jet or spacecraft. When she was commissioned in 1763, Britain fought in the final stages of the Seven Years War, and huge swathes of money were pumped into the Royal Navy to make it the most effective in the world.

Designed by the Surveyor of the Navy, Sir Thomas Slade, her keel was to be 259 ft long and carry a crew of about 850.

The Stern of HMS Victory. Image source: Ballista / CC BY-SA 3.0

About 6,000 trees were used in construction. These were mainly oaks from Kent, with some from the New Forest and Germany.

Certain parts of the ship needed to be made from a single piece of oak to take great pressure, such as the 30-foot-high ‘stern post’. For this, enormous mature oak trees were acquired. Parts of the decks, keel and yard arms were made of fir, spruce and elm.

After the keel and frame were constructed, shipwrights would usually cover the ship in canvas for several months to allow more seasoning of the wood, thereby strengthening it.

Soon after work on HMS Victory started, the Seven Years War ended and her construction stalled. This allowed her wooden frame to remained covered for three years and gain immense strength and sturdiness.

5. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing

When the shipbuilders sought to launch the new vessel, it became apparent that the gates out of the yard were 9 inches too narrow. The master shipwright, John Allin, ordered every available shipwright to hew away enough of the gate to allow the ship to pass.

After this first hurdle, other embarrassments emerged. She had a distinct lean to the starboard, which was rectified by increasing the ballast to settle her upright, and she sat so low in the water that her gun ports were just 1.4m below the waterline.

This second problem could not be rectified, and her sailing instructions were changed to note the lower gun ports were unusable in rough weather, potentially limiting her firepower immensely. As it turned out, she never fought a battle in rough seas, so these limitations never materialised.

On 21 October 1805 the British Royal Navy defeated the combined battle fleets of the French and Spanish empires 20 miles northwest of a promontory of rock and sand in southern Spain. This is the story of the Battle of Trafalgar.Watch Now

By the turn of the 19th century, after leading fleets in the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary Wars, it seemed Victory had served her term.

She was considered too old for service, and left anchored off Chatham Dockyard in Kent. In December 1796, her fate was to house French and Spanish prisoners of war as a hospital ship.

However, after HMS Impregnable ran aground off Chichester, the Admiralty were short of a three-decked ship of the line. Victory was destined to be reconditioned and modernised at the cost of £70,933.

Extra gun ports were added, magazines lined with copper and she was painted black and yellow, giving rise to the pattern of ‘Nelson Chequer’. In 1803, as sharp and speedy as any new ship, the most glorious period of Victory’s history began, as Nelson sailed her to command the Mediterranean fleet.

Denis Dighton’s imagining of Nelson being shot on the quarterdeck.