Constructing, Equipping and Armouring HMS Victory

decks HMS victory


In December 1758, Pitt the Elder, in his role as head of the British government, placed an order for the building of 12 ships, including a first-rate ship that would become HMS Victory. During the 18th century, Victory was one of ten first-rate ships to be constructed. The outline plans were based on HMS Royal George which had been launched at Woolwich Dockyard in 1756, and the naval architect chosen to design the ship was Sir Thomas Slade who, at the time, was the Surveyor of the Navy. She was designed to carry at least 100 guns. The commissioner of Chatham Dockyard was instructed to prepare a dry dock for the construction.

The keel was laid on 23 July 1759 in the Old Single Dock (since renamed No. 2 Dock and now Victory Dock), and a name, Victory, was chosen in October 1760. In 1759, the Seven Years' War was going well for Britain; land victories had been won at Quebec and Minden and naval battles had been won at Lagos and Quiberon Bay. It was the Annus Mirabilis, or Year of Miracles (or Wonders), and the ship's name may have been chosen to commemorate the victories or it may have been chosen simply because out of the seven names shortlisted, Victory was the only one not in use. There were some doubts whether this was a suitable name since the previous first-rate Victory had been lost with all on board in 1744.

A team of 150 workmen were assigned to the construction of Victory's frame. Around 6,000 trees were used in her construction, of which 90% were oak and the remainder elm, pine and fir, together with a small quantity of lignum vitae. The wood of the hull was held in place by six-foot copper bolts, supported by treenails for the smaller fittings. Once the ship's frame had been built, it was normal to cover it up and leave it for several months to allow the wood to dry out or "season". The end of the Seven Years' War meant that Victory remained in this condition for nearly three years, which helped her subsequent longevity. Work restarted in autumn 1763 and she was floated on 7 May 1765, having cost £63,176 and 3 shillings, the equivalent of £7.92 million today.

On the day of the launch, shipwright Hartly Larkin, designated "foreman afloat" for the event, suddenly realised that the ship might not fit through the dock gates. Measurements at first light confirmed his fears: the gates were at least ​9 1⁄2 inches too narrow. He told the dreadful news to his superior, master shipwright John Allin, who considered abandoning the launch. Larkin asked for the assistance of every available shipwright, and they hewed away enough wood from the gates with their adzes for the ship to pass safely through. However the launch itself revealed significant challenges in the ship's design, including a distinct list to starboard and a tendency to sit heavily in the water such that her lower deck gun ports were only 4 ft 6 in (1.4 m) above the waterline. The first of these problems was rectified after launch by increasing the ship's ballast to settle her upright on the keel. The second problem, regarding the siting of the lower gun ports, could not be addressed. Instead it was noted in Victory's sailing instructions that these gun ports would have to remain closed and unusable in rough weather. This had potential to limit Victory's firepower, though in practice none of her subsequent actions would be fought in rough seas.

Because there was no immediate use for her, she was placed in ordinary and moored in the River Medway. Internal fitting out continued in a somewhat desultory manner over the next four years, and sea trials were completed in 1769, after which she was returned to her Medway berth. She remained there until France joined the American War of Independence in 1778. Victory was now placed in active service as part of a general mobilisation against the French threat. This included arming her with a full complement of smooth bore, cast iron cannon. Her weaponry was intended to be thirty 42-pounders (19 kg) on her lower deck, twenty-eight 24-pounder long guns (11 kg) on her middle deck, and thirty 12-pounders (5 kg) on her upper deck, together with twelve 6-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle. In May 1778, the 42-pounders were replaced by 32-pounders (15 kg), but the 42-pounders were reinstated in April 1779; however there were insufficient 42-pounders available and these were replaced with 32-pounder cannons instead.

Boats Belonging to HMS Victory

The 6 boats that were carried aboard HMS Victory comprised of a Launch; Barge; Pinnace and 3 Cutters were an essential part of the ship's equipment. These boats were used for many purposes including conveying stores, personnel, mooring and anchoring the ship. They were also employed as 'tugs' for towing when the loss of wind becalmed the ship.

The Launch was the largest of the boats on board being 34 feet (10.3m) long and as well as carrying men and stores, she was used for such tasks as the anchor work. It was therefore equipped with a windlass which assisted raising the anchors and a small wooden crane (davit) for retrieving the anchor buoy. The boat although usually rowed by 16 oarsmen seating 8 either side, could also be sailed using two masts and a cutter rig.

During wartime these ship's boats were also often used to attack and seize ships from enemy harbours known as 'cutting out' the enemy ship. Troops were also frequently ferried to enemy shores by the boats and often used with prize crews to take surrender of a defeated ship. These ship's boats were however not considered to be 'lifeboats' during the period when the Victory was operational. This because lowering a boat would take far too much time to be very helpful when trying to save someone who may unfortunately have fallen overboard.

During battle the boats were often towed astern of the ship to keep them out of the way. It happened also to reduce the potential collateral damage of additional splintered wood flying across the deck if the boats were hit by enemy cannon shot. As much removable wooden objects as possible was sent below, mess tables, benches, the officers' furniture and sea chests. Clearing the decks for action was called to reduce one of these main dangers during naval engagements. A well drilled crew could clear a ship the size of the Victory in about ten minutes. 

Anchor hms victory


Due to the complex design and construction of a first-rate warship like the Victory, today it would be a massive industrial undertaking to attempt to build a ship of this size entirely from timber, even with all the modern facilities and equipment. The original 18th century workforce were not only having to use rather basic equipment and tools but also had all the logistical problems of moving massive timbers from where they were felled to the dockyard. 

Timber for constructing a first rate warship like the Victory was placed in store to season for some 14 years before construction began. It is very probable that this long seasoning time greatly contributed to the ship's eventual longevity, although it was not until the American War of Independence in 1776 when HMS Victory was finally completed and fitted out. In 1778 the Victory was eventually commissioned, however this further extended period of weathering meant that the hull timbers were particularly well seasoned, although ships during this period were just often built to fight the war that was on at the particular moment. The ships were not expected to last for centuries.

The normal list of supplies required to build a ship of the line would consist of almost a hundred acres of oak forest, well over 5000 carefully selected mature oak trees which were mostly obtained from the weald forest of Kent and Sussex. The remainder of the timber required was elm, pine and fir which once stored would have been left seasoning for several years. Many of these massive oak timbers particular for the outboard planks were bent to the correct shape by being placed over a pit with fire underneath. Water was then poured over the timber and heavy weights placed along the sections of the timber until it reached the correct curvature. The thickness of the hull at the waterline on the Victory is approximately 2 feet (0.6m) thick.

Certain sections of a ship framework this size had to be made from a single piece of oak. Therefore oak trees with massive dimensions were very much sort after. The oak tree required for the 30 feet high 'stern post' which took some of the greatest stresses of the ship were just one such tree, as stern posts made from joined up timbers would soon fail. Other prized oak trees were those with 'compass timbers' which had grown over the years with stout curved branches which enabled the knees and clamps to also be made from one piece. One of the most difficult of these trees to find was the timber to be used for the wing transom; this had to be made from an uncommonly widely forked stem mature oak tree. 

Seven large elm trunks were used for the keel and around 3000 feet of fir and spruce were required for the decks, masts & yard arms as this type of timber was light and very supple. The bottom sections (lower masts) were made from 5 to 7 trees which were bound together with iron hoops. The masts used 27 miles of rigging and carried four acres of canvas for the sails and 2 tons of iron and copper nails and bolts. These bolts, which were passed right through the carefully shaped beams and sophisticated joints, had the ends clenched over washers. All this basically held the whole ship together.

Below the water line the ships oak hull was covered with 3923 pieces of 4ft by 1ft copper sheeting weighing 17 tons. This sheeting was added in 1780 as a protection against the teredo worm. Because of all the time, expense and difficulties involved with trying to build a ship the size of the Victory, it made more sense to try and take the enemies ships with boarding parties and keep them as prizes, rather than sinking them.

Despite her size HMS Victory was very efficient. Although first-rate warships like her were made entirely from wood they rarely burned and even if they were holed they were virtually unsinkable as wood being naturally very buoyant. These ships carried amongst their crew carpenters, ship wrights and sail makers and could therefore be repaired at sea by their own crew. The wind gave them unlimited propulsion and therefore essentially an unlimited range. The Victory's size also made her essentially a good load carrier of food, ammunition and water, which enabled them to stay at sea for many months at a time. 


The Victory carried 7 anchors of various sizes for different uses. The 'Best Bower' anchor served as one of the two main anchors used for holding the ship in deep water. Being the heaviest and strongest, it was always rigged on the starboard (right hand) side of the ship because of the prevailing winds often found within the northern hemisphere.  Weight 4 tons. 9 cwt. 1 qtr. 14 lbs. (4.54 tonnes).

It was a major undertaking raising the anchor on board HMS Victory and as there was no mechanical means of doing so this had to be done manually. At the centre of the ship were two capstans which were connected together vertically. Each capstan could take 12 capstan bars and each bar had space for six men, so a total of 144 men would walk around the capstan pushing against the bars to raise the anchor.  

Gun HMS Victory

Mast, Sails and Rigging 

The Victory having 3 masts and a bow sprit is known as a 'ship rigged' vessel. Each of these masts supports yards (horizontal spars) which are named after their respective masts, the lower yard, topsail yard and the topgallant yards. These masts and yards were made from either fir or pine as this timber is very supple and light in weight. As the masts were so large, it took up to 7 trees to make each mast, all of which were shaped and fitted together with iron hoops and then bound tightly with ropes.

Over 26 miles (42 km) of flax and hemp rope was required to rig the Victory, with the largest rope being 19 inches (47 cm) in circumference. A set of canvas sails for the Victory comprised of 37 sails which providing a total sail area of 6,500 square yards (5, 428 square metres) around four acres of sails An additional 23 sails were carried on board as spares. 

When in full sail HMS Victory carried thirty seven different sails. These canvas sails were mostly hung from horizontal ' yards' mounted on the her four masts, the bowsprit, the foremast, the mainmast  and the mizenmast, various combinations of these sails were used according to the strength and direction of the wind.  HMS Victory's excellent design, speed (around 8 knots - 10 mph ) and the ships manoeuvrability despite her size meant she was in constant demand during her main period of active service between 1778 and 1805 and became the most successful First Rate warship ever built.

The largest single artefact that still remains from the Battle of Trafalgar is HMS Victory's Fore Topsail, which measures 54 feet high by 54 feet wide at the top and 80 feet wide at its base. This sail covers an area of around 3,620 square feet and weighs around 370 kilograms. The sail was initially made in the Sail Loft at Chatham when HMS Victory was completing her repair in 1803. It was made by Dundee weavers who used to manufacture the bolts of cloth for the Navy during this period and would have spent around 1,200 hours to stitch the top sail together. They remained on board the ship until it was returned to the sail loft after the battle in 1806 for repairs. 

This surviving topsail is pot marked by over 80 holes and tears in the canvas sustained both in the battle and afterwards by 19th century souvenir hunters. The sail was again removed from the ship during 1934/35 and was later discovered in the gymnasium of the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth. In 1967 it was returned to the ship and displayed in the Larboard Cable Tier on the Orlop Deck. This unique and historic Topsail, which is the only sail in existence from the battle in 1805, was exhibited in No 4 Boathouse in the Royal Naval Dockyard during the International Festival of the Sea in 1998, before being removed for further restoration. This was the first time the sail has been hoisted since the Battle of Trafalgar. HMS Victory's fore top sail is a unique artefact from the battle and the period. The fact it remains intact today is a testament to the skill of the Georgian sail makers who manufactured the sail over two centuries ago. To preserve the sail for the future it is now being stored in environmentally controlled conditions in Store 10, in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.


The Middle Deck had twenty eight - 24 pounders ; the Lower Deck thirty - 32 pounders ; the Upper Deck thirty, 12 pounders; the Quarter Deck twelve -12 pounders ; the Forecastle had two - 68 pounders ( Carronades ) and two - 12 pounders  ( Bow- chasers).    

All the guns on the Victory were smooth bore muzzle loaders which fired a single shot. That made them short ranged. Three main types of shot were used in the guns: 'round shot', used to batter the hull of an enemy ship; 'dismantling shot', to tear down the masts and rigging; anti-personnel shot ''grape shot', which was used to kill or maim members of the opposing crew.  A 'broadside' from the ships main armament came from 32 pounders which were often discharged from all the guns at one side of the ship. More usually the guns were fired one by one from bow to stern in a ripple effect and had a maximum range of one and a half miles. 

The shock of such a broadside caused such great a strain on all the ship's timbers that the guns were very rarely fired all at once. A shot from a 32 pounder guns could penetrate 2 feet thick oak from around 1 mile away. Nelson perfected a way of skimming the gun shot off the water like one might do with a pebble, which added to the force of the shot into the hulls of the enemy ships, with devastating effect. The combined weight of the carriage and gun was three and three quarters tons. HMS Victory's firepower alone was superior to all of Wellingtons cannons used at the Battle of Waterloo.

The wooden construction of these types of ships gave good protection against solid shot. The wood absorbed much of the shock, although ricochets and splintered pieces of wood were a major problem, especially if the ship was to suffer a direct hit perhaps through one of the open gun hatches. The cannon shot would often cause devastating damage to both the interior of the ship and the opposing gun crew themselves. Guns could often be torn loose from their ropes and with the constant motion of the ship in open sea, a 'loose cannon' weighing over a ton moving back and forth on its own, would often compound horrific injuries to the crew.

When the enemy was sighted, the Royal Marine drummer would sound a special drum roll: 'Beat to Quarters!' which is the modern day 'Action Stations!' Immediately the crew would clear the decks for action and 'man there guns'. Each cannon had its own crew which was typically twelve men and a boy, known as the 'powder monkey', who collected the gunpowder filled cartridges from the magazines deep down in the bowels of the ship, below the waterline and therefore safe from enemy shot. The Royal Naval gun crew would go through a complicated drill to prepare their guns for firing. They constantly practiced this drill, and by the time of Trafalgar, most British warships could fire a broadside every ninety seconds which was often twice as fast as their French and Spanish opponents. These fast and deadly hailstorms of concentrated fire gave the British an all-important advantage in any battle.

Although most great naval battles would often begin with great lines of opposing warships sailing past each other firing broadsides, these gunnery duels often reached no real conclusion. The battles frequently ended up with close-quarter hand-to-hand fighting between the crews of individual ships which often ended up tightly wedged alongside each other. In these often murderous contests boarding pikes, cutlasses and pistols were used; with covering musket fire from the Royal Marines who could be found firing with great accuracy, sometimes from high up in the rigging.