A Full Guide On Swivel Guns

Key Point: Swivel guns were small cannons on ships that were mounted on a swiveling stand and were primarily used to fend off attacking enemy boarding parties.

Today we are taking a look at swivel guns. You will see how these mini cannons were used and what made them effective. Obviously, we will take a look at their disadvantages as well. So, now before we begin … What were swivel guns?

Swivel guns are small cannons that were commonly used on ships from the 16th to 18th centuries. They are mounted on a swiveling stand, allowing them to rotate and fire in any direction. Swivel guns were primarily used for defensive purposes, such as repelling enemy boarding parties or small vessels. They were relatively lightweight and easy to maneuver, but not very effective against larger ships or fortifications.

That was the key summary of the entire article. Now, let’s go into a little more detail. starting with the origin of swivel guns.

Origin Of Swivel Guns

Swivel guns have a long and storied history, dating back to the 14th century. The earliest known examples of swivel guns were used in the Chinese navy during the Ming Dynasty. These guns were small and lightweight and were used primarily for signaling and saluting.

The concept of swivel guns was later introduced to Europe by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to make use of swivel guns on their ships, and their use quickly spread to other maritime powers.

These little guns were initially used primarily for defensive purposes, such as repelling enemy boarding parties or small vessels. But, as their design improved, they became more effective in offensive roles as well. So by the 16th century, swivel guns were a standard feature on most European warships.

Over time, swivel guns evolved into larger and more powerful weapons, such as the demi-cannon and the carronade. These weapons played a significant role in naval warfare during the Age of Sail and were used in many famous battles and engagements.

The Specifications

They were generally quite small. The most common size of swivel gun had a bore diameter of around 1 inch and a length of approximately 3 feet.

Despite their small size, swivel guns had a respectable range for their time, with an effective range of around 200 yards. This made them useful for defensive purposes, as they could be used to repel enemy boarders or small vessels.

Their Weight

Swivel guns varied in weight but a typical small swivel gun could weigh anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds. The weight was an important consideration for ship captains. Since they needed to balance the weight of their armament against the ship’s overall stability and maneuverability.

The cannons themselves were quite small as you can see but what added to their weight was the swiveling stand the gun was mounted on.


Swivel guns fired a variety of projectiles, including shot, grapeshot, and canister shot. The Shot was simply a solid iron ball, while grapeshot was a cluster of smaller iron balls that spread out after leaving the gun (think shotgun, the same principle). A canister shot was a tin or iron container filled with small iron balls or musket balls, which would scatter upon firing.

How And What They Were Used For?

You can see how the swivel gun was fired in the video below:

Video On Swivel Guns

Swivel guns were typically used as a defensive anti-boarding weapon during the Age of Sail. They could also be used to target specific parts of an enemy ship, such as the rigging or the helm.

They were particularly effective when used in conjunction with other weapons, such as small arms fire or larger cannons. Together, these weapons could create a devastating crossfire that would make it difficult for the enemy to approach or board the ship.

But as with any weapon, there must exist some drawbacks, right? Well, yeah.

Drawbacks Of Swivel Guns

There were 4 key drawbacks to the Swivel gun and here they are:

  1. Range: Swivel guns had a limited range compared to larger cannons. This meant that they were less effective against larger ships or fortified positions.

2. Piercing power: Swivel guns were generally less powerful than larger cannons, which limited their ability to penetrate armor or heavily reinforced structures.

3. Not always reliable: Swivel guns were not always reliable in combat. They were often mounted on swiveling stands, which could make them unstable or difficult to aim during heavy seas or rough conditions.

And as the naval tactics changed in the 19th century and long-range battles became more commonplace. The use of Swivel guns declined. There was no point in having them onboard since naval battles were fought at a distance, and gone were the days when you tried to board an enemy ship with your soldiers.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. And if you wish to continue learning about naval weapons from history I suggest taking a look at this article where I discuss the Sloop of War warship.

Take care!

Source: Konstam, Angus. Renaissance War Galley, 1470-1590