Just how much does that Spanish Cannon cost ….anyway? …and American Privateers!

Spanish Cannon in the age of Conquistadors
Spanish Cannon

So anyway, back in 2007 I was looking for the price of Spanish cannon in the age of the Conquistadors. Really, was looking at all kinds of things, …Muskets, Cannons, Caronnades (which weren’t invented until 1789, by the way). I was really interested in how much it cost to outfit the Spanish Conquistadors. Because I wanted to run a game set back during the spanish conquests, and of course wanted authentic price lists, and thought the prices in the game book were not accurate at all. I was using Pirates and Broadsides, some d20 nautical rules for an age-of-sail game called Twin Crowns.

In Twin Crowns, they listed the prices of a medium cannon like a twelve pounder, a 12 lb gun,  as 1,200 Gp and a Heavy Cannon like a twenty-four pounder (24 lb) heavy cannon as 2,500 Gp, and a musket was listed as 500 Gp with a Frigate being 50,000 Gp, and your average Merchantman being 35,000 Gp.  In game, the average wage of a sailor is equivalent to about 3 Gp a month, with some of the older records that I could reference indicated cannons were often much more expensive than the ships they were fitted to, so I determined to find out the real prices in order to compare.

A pair of flintlock pistols in 1759 costed 3 £ (Silver Sterling) or about 18 Gp in D&D terms. Muskets were sold for about $25-40 Dollars or about 5 £ sterling, so a really good .65 Brown Bess would go for about 12 £ Sterling, or about 72 Gp. Now on to the Cannons…  According to The History of Metals in America, Early in 1776 the Hope Furnace submitted an offer to cast cannons for 35 £ a ton, Springfield Arsenal in Virginia was also commissioned by the Congressional war board to provide Iron cannons for 35 £ per ton (Virginia Currency) and Iron muskets for 4 £ and 5 Shillings each.

To give you some idea what that would mean, a 6 pounder cannon weighed about 880 pounds or about 1/2 a ton, a 12 pound cannon weighed about 1,300 pounds or about 2/3 of a ton, a 12 pound naval cannon weighed about a ton , and 18 pound cannon weighed about two tons, and a 24 pound cannon weighed about two and a half tons. The big cannons used on Ships of the Line fired 32 pound cannonballs and weighed 5,600 pounds (Brass Cannons were slightly lighter, and better forged, having fewer catastrophic failures). All cannons were tested before delivery to the continental Army by being fired a half-dozen times or so, and there were some two dozen major Iron foundries in operation during the American War of Independence. many of them went broke or closed because Congress never paid them after they delivered cannons, cannonballs, and iron tools.

By the way, The Springfield Arsenal still exists, and yes, they are still selling Cannons even today. This evidently is completely legal in the State of Virginia, however they stated that you should also check Federal Regulations, since they believe there are some restrictions. 

6 Pounder ~1/2 ton so 18 £or 108 Gp
12 Pounder (land) ~ 2/3 of a ton so… 25 £ or 150 Gp
12 pounder (the long naval gun) 35 £ or 215 Gp
18 pounder ~ 2 Tons so 70 £ or about 420 Gp
24 pounder ~ 2 1/2 Tons so 85 £ or about 480 Gp
32 pounder  ~3 tons so 105 £ or about 600 Gp

Springfield Arsenal

Brass Cannons were much more expensive, but also more reliable. The Spanish Conquistadors paid a lot more for their Muskets and Cannons, but they were very dear to them, and the firearms gave them a great advantage over the native populations that they conquered. Then of course, I started looking at Naval Guns…

Privateers, The United States Navy, and the early Universities and Colleges.

Which brought me to this… The average American sailor in the 17th century earned from 25-45 shillings a month which worked out to about $4.25-$8.50 a month. Being a part of a privateer crew meant getting a share of the booty from any captured ship. In 1775 the Rattlesnake went out and came back, then sold the captured ships, and booty, worth over one million dollars. Half of this  went to the shipowner, and the other half of the booty was divided by the captain and the crew. Now you can see why privateering was very popular. Generally Privateers avoided the British Navy and went after English merchant ships. The whole point of settling the colonies in America was the rich trade opportunities colonization provided. Raw materials were shipped from the New World, and expensive civilized finished goods were shipped back to the Colonies with profits being made both coming and going. The colonists were not allowed, for example, to make their own glass, or silver items, or tin items, or jewelry. As English subjects they were being forced to buy from European (Mostly English) trade guilds. This is where the Boston Tea party came from, The English placed hefty taxes and tariffs on both finished goods, as well as consumables, and people who violated paying the Taxes and Tariffs were subject to having their own valuables, goods and properties seized and being thrown into debtors prison.

In January 1776, the brig Nancy sailed from Wickford, Rhode Island, “and by God’s grace bound for the Salt Islands,”  …carried the following crew and payroll:

Brig Nancy, Benjamin Baker, master, 1776
Men’s Names            Quality     Wages Per Month
Benjamin Baker        Captain      10 £  10 S. – $35
John Bissel                Mate            6 £  18 S. – $23
Esekil Mitchell          Saler            3 £  6 S.   – $11
John (x) Jones           Saler            3 £  6 S.   – $11
Gid Jenkins        Raw Hand          2 £ 11 S.  – $8.50
Wm. Homes              Cook           2 £ 2 S.     – $7
Dom Smith                Saler            3 £ 0 S.    – $10
Simon (x) Lavin        Saler            3 £ 0 S.    – $10
Daniel   Jones           Saler            3 £  6 S.   – $11
...from the History of Wages in the United States

Initial Monthly Pay rates of Continental soldiers as compiled by the American Journal of the Revolution

Rank                      Dollars
Colonel                  $50
Lieutenant Col       $40
Major                     $33 1/3
Captain                  $20
Lieutenant             $13 1/3
Ensign                   $10
Sergeant                 $8
Drummer                $7 1/3
Trumpeter              $7 1/3
Corporal                $7 1/2
Private                   $6 2/3

“The history of the United States navy is so intimately connected with that of our privateers that the story of one would be incomplete without a full record of the other. In each of our wars with Great Britain many of the captains in the navy assumed command of privateers, in which they frequently rendered services of national importance, while the privateersmen furnished’ the navy with a large number of officers, many of whom became famous. In our struggle for independence more than sixty American craft armed by private enterprise were commanded by men who had been, or soon became, officers in the regular service; and in more than one instance, notably that of the officers and men of the Ranger, Captain John Paul Jones, then commanded by Captain William Simpson almost the entire ship’s company of a Continental cruiser turned to privateering. Many of our most distinguished naval officers have pointed with pride to their probationary career in privateers. The mere mention of such names as Truxtun, Porter, Biddle, Decatur, Barney, Talbot, Barry, Perry, Murray, Rodgers, Cassin, Little, Robinson, Smith, and Hopkins will show how closely related were the two arms of our maritime service.”

From  The History of American Privateers

The Thirteen Colonies, having declared their Independence, had only 31 ships comprising the Continental Navy. To add to this, they issued Letters of Marque to privately owned, armed merchant ships and Commissions for Privateers, which were outfitted as warships to prey on enemy merchant ships. Merchant seamen who manned these ships contributed to the very birth and founding of our Republic. Most of the Privateers were small or lightly gunned and would not fare well in fights with the English Navy, however once in awhile they managed to take a warship as a prize instead of a Merchantman.

Total Ships

Continental Navy 64 Warships, Privateers, 1,697 English Navy,  212 Warships – 116 seventy-four guns or more Ships of the Line, 44 sixty gun two-deck ships, and 20 Fifty Gun ships, plus 32 Captured Ships-of-the-Line, mostly seventy-four and eighty gun two-deckers, captured from the French (mostly) along with a few Spanish Ships. So the Continental navy was at a serious disadvantage during the War of Independence, The Privateers though, were everywhere, and when the French Navy arrived to help, they effectively blockaded the English Army in the new world from receiving supplies to sustain campaigns against the Continental Army and George Washington. Plus none of the English Merchant were making money, they lost so many loaded ships both coming and going…

“By 1777, the privateers and merchantmen brought in over 2 million pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter. A typical New England privateer carried two or three African-Americans who had long found employment in the fishing industry. The General Putnam from New London, Connecticut, had 4 blacks on board; the Aurora had 3. In Salem, Massachusetts, Titus, a slave owned by Mrs. John Cabot, ran a successful business recruiting blacks as privateers.

Privateer John Manley captured the Nancy, supplying the American army with 2,000 muskets, 31 tons of musket shot, 7,000 round-shot for cannon, and other ammunition. Captain Jonathan Haraden from Salem, Massachusetts, who captured 1,000 British cannon, was considered one of the best sea-fighters, successfully taking on three armed British ships at the same time. Privateers captured countless British reinforcements and over 10,000 seamen, keeping them out of the British Navy.

In 1777 George Washington’s armies totaled about 11,000 men. At the same time there were 11,000 privateers at sea intercepting British shipping in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and even between Ireland and England.

Together, the Continental Navy and privateers captured 16,000 British prisoners, a substantial contribution in comparison with the 15,000 prisoners taken by the entire Continental Army before the surrender at Yorktown. The crew of the privateers were well paid for their hazardous work, earning as much as $1,000 for one voyage, or even more, while average pay at the time for regular sailors was $9 per month.”

From the US Merchant Marine Organization website  USMM.org

Harvard, Georgetown, Columbia, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton Universities all received significant donations from Privateer captains and shipowners in the early days when the Universities were small and still struggling to grow after the War of Independence and War of 1812.

By 1814, Captain John Ordronaux had already made a name for himself by skippering the French privateer Marengo. One day he walked into a New York shipyard and fell in love with a ship he saw there. She was built along the lines of the famed Baltimore clippers, part schooner and part brigantine, with sleek lines that promised to be very fast and maneuverable in the water. But the ship was not in the water. After being built in 1813 it just sat, for unknown reasons, in the shipyard.

He sent word to France. Flory Charretton was a wealthy Parisian who had funded the Marengo. He asked her to fund this new ship. He bought the ship, obtained the letter of marque and reprisal signed by President James Madison, sailed the ship unarmed to Cherbourg, France, and had her fitted for privateering.

Then he immediately got to work. In the spring of 1814 the Prince de Neufchatel wracked up $3 million in prize cargo taken off 14 British merchant ships in both the English Channel and Irish Sea. Seventeen British men-of-war had chased the American privateer, and he outran them all. His exploits made shipping along the Irish Sea all but impossible for the British that spring.

The Prince de Neufchatel was a very fast, small, and light warship weighing some 310 tons, and only carrying 18 cannons with a crew of 129… During the War of 1812 the Privateers damaged the British economy more severely than did the American navy: 23 American navy vessels captured 254 ships; the total Privateer haul was 1,345 ships for a net worth of $45.5 million.

The History of Privateers available at the American Archives


Eighteen gun Brigantine firing aft starboard cannon
Eighteen gun Brigantine firing aft starboard cannon

One thought on “Just how much does that Spanish Cannon cost ….anyway? …and American Privateers!

  1. That was a great post. There’s a ton of research info in there and I’m going to have to read that again a few more times! It’s particular interesting to me to try to convert these real world figures into D&D gold pieces because in a very real sense those late 18th century wargame prices are what led to the economics of D&D through the Blackmoor campaign. Over on my blog I had just written a piece about converting some of Arneson’s Napoleonics campaign price lists to D&D prices so I was interested to see you also had come up with a conversion figure too. One pound to 6 GP right? I had come up with a figure of 1 Pound = 8.2gp, so naturally I’m curious how you guestimated 6gp. Here’s the link to the post I’m talking about http://boggswood.blogspot.com/2017/10/my-kingdom-for-horse-another-look-at.html

    Anyway, great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s