If you visit the USS Constitution in Boston these days, the cannons you’ll see on her gun deck aren’t the originals launched with the ship. The guns aboard the ship are replicas, and only two of them are capable of firing salute charges. Even when the sailors aboard Constitution fire salutes, it’s a far cry from the way cannons were loaded and fired when Old Ironsides was first laid.
In fact, they’re inaccurate replicas, with 18 of them even bearing the Royal Cipher of King George II.
USS Constitution was first launched in 1797 and saw action against the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. She took down five British warships, victories that stunned not only the Royal Navy, but the rest of the world. Her most famous victory was against the HMS Guerriere, the victory that earned her the nickname “Old Ironsides” when the Guerriere’s 526-pound broadsides bounced off Constitution’s hull as if it were made of iron. But the 30 24-pounder long guns and 20 32-pounder carronades it launched with weren’t captured from the British during the Revolution.
The guns aboard Constitution were never designed to stay solely aboard the ship, as weapons at that time were moved as needed. Shortly before the Civil War, she took an illegal American slaver as a prize off the coast of Angola and was decommissioned. The ship was turned into a training ship for Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. Eventually, she was turned into housing for sailors until the turn of the 20th Century.
It was around 1906 that Congress decided to restore Constitution to her former glory. After public outcry against the ship being used for target practice by the Navy halted its planned sinking, $100,000 was appropriated to restore the ship as a museum. This included new casts of cannon for her decks. Some 54 guns were going to be cast for the restoration. But the Naval Constructor in charge of the armaments, believing there was no documentation about the original guns, used a French design instead. So rather than long guns and carronades, the designer saved money by using the same gun on every deck.
In 1925, the Navy rectified this and went all-out in restoring Constitution. The new restoration scrapped all of the 1906 guns for being historically inaccurate. After four years in drydock, the guns the Navy used to replace the 1906 guns were also inaccurate. These were the aforementioned British-style weapons – but at least they represent the kinds of weapons found on the gun decks and spar decks. Two of them even fire salutes.
The two saluting guns aboard Constitution were retrofitted to fire 40mm shells of black powder just in time for the United States Centennial in 1976. On Nov. 11, 1976, the commanding officer of the ship decided to fire the salute guns in the morning and in the evening from the ship’s mooring in Boston Harbor – a tradition it has carried on ever since.