Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail

by Peter Kirsch

“The fireship was the guided missile of the sailing era. Packed with incendiary (and sometimes explosive) material, it was aimed at its highly inflammable wooden target by volunteers who bailed out into a boat at the last moment. It often missed, but the panic it invariably caused among crews who generally could not swim and had no method of safely abandoning ship did the job for it.”


“Water, water, every where” is the refrain in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (published in 1798). Your wooden boat—slathered with flammable pitch and oakum to make it watertight, topped with combustible sails, and probably loaded with munitions in the hold—may well be surrounded by water, water, everywhere but fire will take it down anyway. As the Introduction says, “For centuries, on board any warship in the days of sail, the cry ‘Fireship!’ provoked horror and fear.” A mere glance at the many illustrations in this oversize book makes that abundantly clear, and would even more so if a larger number were in color.

If this is not a subject you normally think about, this book will enlighten you plenty. First published in German it was written by an avid modelmaker in the course of gathering materials that would allow him to build better models. That he is a dentist by trade only enhances his motor skills. Quite a few most excellent books have their origin in this initially private quest that then mushrooms into enough substantive material for enough other people to start badgering the researcher to write a proper book. The literature on this subject is quite sparse so it is a fine thing indeed that Kirsch moves it forward it by a whole order of magnitude. This is only his second book (after The Galleon, 1998).

The book discusses “Hellburners” from ancient times through the early nineteenth century, what they are, what they do, how they work—and how they can be defeated. Naturally it examines the historic record with regards to technology and strategy, and finds examples both for success and failure of the fireship (spoiler alert: more of the latter). The focus is on Western engagements, mainly Dutch, British, Spanish, French, but passing reference is made to East Asian warfare. Even the moral and psychological aspects of fire and water are pondered.

While this is a quite specialized subject, the writing is such that even the reader who has never even considered such fundamental realities as sailing ships being basically passive devices—subject, absent any other motive power, to where the wind blows them—will find it easy to appreciate that “Just get out of the way!!” is not really an option. In terms of objective effectiveness, firehips were a sideshow in naval warfare but they should not be a footnote, and now they are no longer. This is a fine book catering to many interests; serious students of the sailing era will surely find it essential.

Profusely illustrated with ship exteriors and interiors, explosive and incendiary devices, maps, battle scenes etc. (also some models, but not Kirsch’s). You’ll never watch another pirate or “Armada” movie the same way!

The book ends with an Afterword about a 1942 operation in which a ship was used as a battering ram. The Chapter Notes consist of literature references and are tied to the extensive Bibliography. The English translation reads very, very well and was clearly done by someone with command of nautical matters.


Copyright 2013, Sabu Advani (

Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail
by Peter Kirsch
Seaforth Publishing, 2009
224 pages, 256 b/w & color illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $74.95/£40
ISBN-13: 978-1848320253

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