Yesterday’s Tech Revolutions: Galleasses

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Rick Robinson usually looks to the future and imagines what space combat might look like, but sometimes he looks back at yesterday’s tech revolutions — like the galleass, which made medieval navies obsolete:

Medieval naval warfare followed a combined arms doctrine, a mix of slow but sturdy and high-built round ships, similar to large transports and functioning as mobile castles, and faster, low-built rowing ships, galleys and smaller barges, that served roughly as seagoing cavalry. The rowing ships had offensive punch (including putting troops ashore), while the big round ships provided defensive strength and logistic support.
[The English galleass Hart's] mission was to serve as an anti-galley escort. Though slower than the French galleys she was intended to fight she could at least force them back with her heavy bow guns. And if the galleys swarmed in, even though she lacked the high fighting castles of conventional big ships her powerful secondary armament could give them a very hot reception.
Though effective against galleys, [galleasses] were pigs under oar-power — but swans under sail. And their broadside secondary armament, intended for defense against swarming galleys, turned out to be highly effective in offense.

So larger versions abandoned the lower-deck oars, replacing them with more broadside guns, until the secondary armament became the main armament. This variant type got a variant name, galleon, and ended up as the ancestor of the classic broadside-armed sailing man-of-war. (Some smaller models retained oars well into the 18th century — in an unusual Hollywood concession to accuracy the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean is fitted for sweeps, as was Captain Kidd’s rather similar ship, Adventure Galley.)

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