Master of Jack Tar's commands

19th December 2003 at 00:00
The film Master and Commander: the far side of the world has caused an old question to resurface once more - whether the order to fire a gun on a sailing warship was "shoot" or, indeed, "fire" (TES, December 5).

The order to "shoot" has rung out across fighting ships of the Royal Navy throughout the 20th century as the word "fire", if given out over a ship's broadcast system, would create confusion with damage control.

But was the order to "shoot" used in Nelson's navy? Master and Commander's director and producer, Peter Weir, commissioned a considerable amount of research to ensure the film's accuracy. In it, HMS Surprise's captain, Jack Aubrey, uses the order "fire" when the enemy's vessel comes within range.

This is certainly consistent with published orders for the period. Standard gunnery instructions were introduced into the Royal Navy during the Seven Years War, and were subsequently published in 1769 in Falconer's Marine Directory. The latest reference I can find for the word "fire" still being used by the Royal Navy is in a training manual for naval cadets, dated 1871. The manual was standard issue for young recruits at the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich, and included tips on the correct stowage of sails, rope-making and naval cutlass exercise.

Happily the National Maritime Museum today has a broader remit. Our education team provide national curriculum-based activities and resources for almost 100,000 school and other groups. These aim to show the importance of ships, stars and the sea to the story of Britain. Indeed, with 2005 and the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar on the horizon, the museum and its partners are working hard to explain to young people, in a relevant and accessible way, the importance of Nelson and his times. For more information, click on

John Graves Curator National Maritime Museum Greenwich London SE10

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