Named for its inventor, Frenchman Hans-Joseph Paixhans, the Paixhans gun was a heavy-duty, extended-range artillery piece that was originally intended exclusively for armies fighting on dry land. Unlike traditional smoothbore, bronze cannons, Paixhans guns fired shells with ignitable, delayed fuses. This unique innovation proved to be even more fearsome upon the high seas.
Rather than exploding on impact, the Paixhans shells would remain intact as they struck the sides of the wooden sailing ships of the day, penetrating and lodging themselves deep within the timbers of their vulnerable wooden hulls. When the fuses burned down the shells exploded, causing massive structural damage as they sent sheets of flame and burning chunks of metal whizzing through the air, shredding anything in their path.
Adapting this new technology for naval warfare was a Russian innovation. It was such a recent development that the Russian Navy had not yet deployed its newest gun in a sea battle.
At about 12:30 PM, November 30, 1853, the impetuous Nakhimov could no longer contain himself. From the quarterdeck of the Imperatritsa Maria, he stared at his quarry and directed his gunners to prime her 84 guns. A moment later, signal pennants relayed his single, brusque command throughout the squadron: prepare attack.
With that, Nakhimov’s squadron maneuvered swiftly into position. Assuming a textbook triangular formation, they went forward, coming in hard from the northwest, sailing straight into the harbor with Nakhimov’s flagship in the van. As the Turks looked on in astonishment and horror, Nakhimovs’ six enormous Russian ships of the line moved in for the kill.
Forming into two long columns, they fanned out trimly across the harbor from left to right, facing off opposite Osman’s flotilla while simultaneously blocking their avenues of escape. By this bold if simple maneuver, Nakhimov also managed to deftly see to it that the Turkish ships were now anchored between his squadron and their own shore batteries, essentially neutralizing their offen- sive capabilities by making it impossible for them to open fire without hitting their own ships.
Dropping anchor, Nakhimov stood unperturbed on his quarterdeck as the Auni Allah loosed a single cannonball toward the Imperatritsa Maria, which, on Nakhimov’s command, gave the Auni Allah immediate reply and commenced firing, emptying a broadside into her.
Dropping anchor almost simultaneously, the Russian gun crews aboard the other ships of the line, the 84-gun Chesma and her sister ship, the Rotislav, and the 120 guns each aboard the Parizh, Tri Sviatitelia, and Veliky knyaz Konstantin, opened up on the doomed Turkish flotilla.
In one horrendous half hour, the harbor at Sinop began to resemble a butcher’s yard as the brutally efficient Paixhans guns found their mark time and again. Singled out for destruction, the Auni Allah was run aground, shot to pieces, and set on fire as she tried to cut the cables and run for it. Attempts to put out the flames came to naught. Incendiary shells continued to rain down upon her terrified, nearly helpless crew, bursting into flames amid hailstones of shrapnel that killed and maimed sailors and officers alike, including Pasha, whose left leg was completely shattered.
Having reduced her opposite number to a burning hulk, Nakhimov’s flagship then set its sights on the Fazli Allah, like nearly all of the Pasha’s ships a lowly frigate whose 44 guns were among those returning fire but were no match for the Russian Goliaths. Her fate was identical to that of the luckless Auni Allah.
At this point, the two Russian frigates, Kagul and Kulevtcha with 98 guns between them, began pounding away at the flotilla while the six ships of the line let their guns cool. The frigates blasted the hull out of the Damiat, which sank up to her gunwales, and the Nizamieh, which was run aground on purpose after having two masts shot away as she desperately tried to maneuver out of the kill zone and reach the open sea. Even the Russian steamers Khersones, Odessa, and Krym, which were there to support the attack, got into the fray.
The Paixhans guns found their mark yet again, blazing away at another Turkish frigate, the Navek Bahri, which was lifted clear out of the water in a spectacular series of explosions before sinking into the silt bed of the harbor. The smaller corvette Guli Sephid met an identical fate. The Turkish frigate Nessin Zafer ran aground after she broke her own anchor chain and was nearly pulverized. Yet another frigate, the Kaid Zafer, met a similar fate, as did the corvettes Nejm Fishan and Feyz Mabud and the steamer Erkelye. When they were done shooting at the ships, the Russians gleefully trained their guns on the shore batteries.
Alone among Osman Pasha’s decimated command, the humble steamer Taif was miracu- lously able to escape the carnage, slipping her anchor and clearing the harbor while the Russians were otherwise occupied. She limped through the Dardanelles and reached Constantinople two days later, living to tell the tale of what had happened at Sinop, where the Russians, with minor damage to three ships and a minimal cost of 37 killed and little more than 200 wounded, sent more than 3,000 Turkish sailors to a watery grave and bagged more than 300 prisoners, including the severely wounded commander of the Turkish squadron.
For the once unassailable Turkish Empire, the Battle of Sinop, occurring in the Black Sea, a body of water once so thoroughly dominated by Turkish sea power that successive dynasties in Constantinople had long since grown accustomed to thinking of it as a virtual Ottoman lake, altered the course of history. This black day on the water brought with it the sickening realization that the continuing, centuries-long decline of Turkey’s once mighty empire had just entered a new deadly phase.
This article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.