Book Review: Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail


by Peter Kirsch

Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009. Pp. 256 . Illus., maps, diagr., notes, biblio., index. $74.95. ISBN: 1591142709

Author of the excellent Galleon: The Great Ships of the Armada Era  (Annapolis: 1990), Kirsch opens Fireship with a very good overview of the use of such vessels in Western warfare from ancient times through the sixteenth century, with a bonus discussion on the nature of "Greek Fire."  He then proceeds to his principal focus, the fireship in Western naval warfare from the late sixteenth century through the early nineteenth. 

By interweaving chapters on technology, organization, manning, tactics, and more, with ones on operations, Kirsch covers the use of fireships and similar "special weapons" from the Armada of 1588, through the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, and on to the Anglo-French wars that stretched from the late seventeenth century into the early nineteenth, pausing along the way to include a short look at such weapons in East Asian warfare.  Although the emphasis is perhaps naturally upon wars involving the Royal Navy, other services are not neglected.  Unusual in such a work, Kirsch takes time out to include contemporary concerns about the moral implications of the use of such weapons, fire being, after the sea itself, traditionally the common enemy of all seafarers, even when engaged in war against each other.

Profusely illustrated, and making excellent use of contemporary descriptions of notable operations, Fireship will be of interest to students of war at sea.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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