The Battle of Lepanto

The roar of the cannon from the four Venetian galleasses lumbering ahead of the Christian line unleashed a storm of firepower hitherto unseen in the history of seapower. The large cannon balls smashed into the galleys destroying structure and body alike as the shot from massed harquebuses tore through the heavy robes, turbans, and leather and scale armor of the Turkish troops. With no broadside cannon, few harquebuses of their own, bows could not pierce the Christian soldiers’ armor at greater than 100 yards, and to get that close invited grape and chain shot, there was little the Ottomans could do. The galleasses’ own poor maneuverability had to be used against themselves, so the Ottomans flew past. But the damage was done: sixty Ottoman galleys and galliots were sunk even before the main battle joined, and the Turkish battleline was in disarray.

The drummers increased the beat from cruising speed, then as they approached the galleasses to battle speed, and finally as they approached the Christian line to ramming speed. The critical moment in contemporary 16th century galley warfare was reached: when to fire the bow guns, which were the most destructive weapons in a galley’s arsenal, as evidenced by the withering fire from the galleasses. There was no reloading a galley’s bow guns because the effective range was too short and closing speeds were too great. The one shot had to count. Because the guns had to be fired over the ram, if they were fired too soon, the cannonballs would sail harmlessly over the target. And because the guns couldn’t depress (or fire into the ram), if they were fired too late they would do damage to the target deck which would be terrible for the soldiers but real damage by cannon is done with splinters to the rowers which left the target unmaneuverable and at the mercy of the attacker. At ramming speed, on the rolling deck, with immobile cannon, and firing over the ram, there was but a brief moment to fire the cannon’s single shot accurately.

Don Juan was betting the Ottoman gunners were not experienced enough to do much damage with their guns, and he was right. The Turkish cannon were largely inaccurate, and the Christians easily weathered their fire. But what was more disconcerting to the Turks, the Christians did not respond in kind with their heavier and more numerous cannon.

At least not yet.

At the behest of Andrea Doria, Don Juan ordered the Christian captains to do the unthinkable: saw off the ram. For thousands of years the ram was the most potent weapon on the galley, but in the late 16th century, it was a nuisance. With the rams gone, the bow guns could be depressed and fired at the very last second before collision. The shot then hulled the targets, much worse than the ram could ever do, and showered the rowers inside with deadly splinters. The Muslim archers on the deck were forced to engage in melee, and storm the Christian galley to get off their own immobile, and most likely, sinking ship.

This initial thunderous clash played out dozens of times all along the battle line. The Turks were at a further disadvantage because of another simple innovation: boarding nets. Like the barbed wire extending at an angle atop a chain link fence, the nets prevented the Turks from easily climbing on to the enemy decks. And while they were chopping through the nets, the Turks were easy targets for the pikes and harquebuses of the Christians. Nevertheless, the Turks had the numbers to make a serious fight at Lepanto

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