The Complete Guide To Chain Shot

Key Point: Chain shot was a type of artillery ammunition used to take down masts on an enemy ship. It consisted of two cannon balls connected with a chain.

This article will cover chain shot and how it was used during the “Age of Sail”. You will see what chain shot is, and how it was used. And of course, what ultimately led to chain shots being removed from naval battles. Now, let’s begin with first things first.

What is a chain shot?

Chain shot was a type of ammunition used in naval warfare during the Age of Sail. It consisted of two cannonballs or iron balls that were connected by a length of chain. When fired from a cannon, the chain allowed the shot to spin through the air and wrap around the rigging or hull of an enemy ship. This caused significant damage. Chain shot was particularly effective against ships with multiple masts.

Sounds cool, doesn’t it? Now, let’s go into a little more detail. Starting of course with the history and origin of chain-shot.

Origin Of Chain Shot

Chain shot

Who first developed the chain shot is not entirely clear. Its first use is reported in the 16th century. But when it comes to who developed it is speculated to have been used first by either the Ottomans in their battles with the Venetians in the Mediterranean. Or the Dutch during the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century.

In my opinion, it is more likely that it originated with the Ottomans. Given how dominant they were during the 16th century and how advanced their cannon technology was.

How Chain Shot Was Used

Chain shot was primarily used as a naval weapon to damage an enemy ship’s rigging. In order to make it difficult for the ship to maneuver. When fired from a cannon, the two balls connected by a chain would spin through the air, wrapping around the mast’s spars, and ropes of an enemy ship.

This would cause significant damage to the rigging. Which made it harder for the crew to control the ship’s sails and steer it effectively. As you can see it was mostly used to damage the structures on the enemy deck.

Also, chain-shot could be used to damage a ship’s hull by tearing through multiple decks and causing widespread destruction. This type of projectile was particularly effective against ships with multiple masts. That is because it could take down entire masts or disable the rigging.

The Dimensions of Chain Shot Were …

Dimensions of chain shots generally varied. They could range from 4 to 32 pounds. And obviously the heavier the shot the more damage it did to the ship’s structure. The cannon balls were often designed with a flat spot where the chain, up to a meter long, was attached.

So, given how powerfully effective this naval weapon was, why did it fall from use? Did it have any drawbacks that made it obsolete? Well, let’s find out.

Drawbacks Of Chain Shot And Why It Fell From Use

There are 3 main disadvantages to the chain shot that ultimately lead to its demise. They are:
1) Inaccuracy
2) It could damage the ship from which it was fired
3) It was expensive and difficult to make

So now let’s go through each disadvantage one by one.


As you well know, the accuracy of a projectile is partly influenced by its aerodynamics. And as you can imagine, two round balls connected by a chain don’t really flow through the air in an aerodynamic way, which meant that a lot of the shots did not really get to the desired destination. A problem that got worse as the distance increased.

It Could Damage The Ship From Which It Was Fired

One of the main disadvantages was its tendency to damage the ship that fired it. The chain could whip back towards the gun and damage it. Or become tangled and cause a misfire.

It Was Expensive And Difficult To Make

It was also more expensive and time-consuming to produce than other types of projectiles. The process of forging the chain and attaching it to the cannonballs required skilled labor. Which meant it had that handmade element and the projectile-making process could not be automatized. Which added to the complexity and cost of production.

Those were the three reasons why chain shots stopped being used. As the technology evolved better guns and projectiles were made. And on top of that, the use of steamships and ironclad warships made chain shots useless pretty much. Even though the technology was sound for a couple of centuries it became useless as soon as naval cannons got more accurate and ships stopped relying on sails as propulsion.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. If you wish to continue learning about naval weapons used in the “Age of Sails”, click here to read an article on how carronades were used in naval battles. Or go here to see what role grappling hooks played in naval battles.

Take care!

Source: “Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: The Evolution of Fighting Tactics, 1650-1815” by Brian Tunstall