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Naval ships.

Capt. Alfred Taylor Mahan

(q. v.), author of The influence of sea power upon history; Life of Admiral Farragut; The interest of the United Slates in sea power, etc., writes as follows:

In the conditions of naval warfare the nineteenth century has seen a revolution unparalleled in the rapidity of the transition and equalled in degree only by the changes which followed the general introduction of cannon and the abandonment of oars in favor of sails for the propulsion of ships-of-war. The latter step was consequent, ultimately, upon the discovery of the New World and of the sea-passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope. The voyage to those distant regions was too long and the remoteness from ports of refuge too great for rowing galleys, a class of vessels whose construction unfitted them for developing great size and for contending with heavy weather. The change of motive power made possible and entailed a different disposition of the fighting power, the main battery weight of ships being transferred from the bows and sterns—end-on fire—to the broadsides. The combination of these two new factors caused ships and fleets necessarily to be fought in a different manner from formerly— entailed, to use the technical word, new tactics.

When the nineteenth century began, the ships that contended for the control of the sea were, and for two centuries had been, sailing-ships with broadside batteries: the guns, that is, were distributed along both sides from the bow to the stern on one, two, three, or four decks. From the largest down, all were of this type until the very smallest class was reached. In the latter, which could scarcely be considered fighting-ships, the gun-power was at times concentrated into a single piece, which swept from side to side round the horizon, thus anticipating partially the modern turreted iron-clad with its concentrated revolving battery.

The arrangement of guns in broadside involved anomalies and inconveniences which seem most singular when first noted. A ship in chase of another, for instance, had no guns which threw straight ahead. If it were wished to fire, in order to cripple the fleeing enemy, it was necessary to deflect from the course; and in order to bring most of the guns on one side into play the vessel had to swing round nearly at right angles to the direction of pursuit. This, of course, lost both time and ground. Broadside fire—the distribution of guns in broadside—rests, however, upon an unchangeable condition, which controls now as it did a century ago. Ships then were from three to four times as long as they were broad; the proportion now is, length from four to six times the breadth—or beam, as it is technically called. Therefore, except in small vessels, where the concentration of the whole weight that can be carried in battery gave but one piece effective against a probable target, a full development of fire required the utilization of the long side of the ship rather than of its short cross-section. This is precisely analogous to the necessity that an army has of deploying into line, from any order of march, in order to develop its full musketry fire. The mechanical attainment of the nineteenth century did not permit the construction of single guns that would contain the weight of the whole battery of a big ship: but even had it, guns are not wanted bigger than will penetrate their target most effectively. When an ounce of lead will kill a man it is useless to fire a pound. The limit of penetration once reached, it is numbers, not size, that tell; and numbers could be had only by utilizing the broadside. This condition remains operative now; but as modern battle-ships present two or more kinds of target—the heavy armored and that which is light armored, or unprotected—the application of the principle in [332] practice becomes more complicated. Batteries now are necessarily less homogeneous than they once were, because targets vary more. The adoption of broadside batteries followed, therefore, necessarily upon increase of size and consequent length, but not upon that only. It is instructive to observe that the sailing fighting-ship was derived, in part, at least, from the galley, and its resemblance in form to the latter is traceable for at least a century after the general disuse of the oar. As the galley, however, was small, it could concentrate its fire advantageously in one or two pieces, for which small number the cross-section offered a sufficient line of emplacement: and as, when it could move at all, it could move in any direction, there was a further advantage in being able to fire in the direction of its motion. Hence, bow fire prevailed in galleys to the end, although the great galeasses of Lepanto and the Armada had accepted broadside batteries in great part, and whenever the galley type has recurred, as on Lake Champlain during our Revolutionary War, bow fire has predominated. The sailing-ship, on the contrary, was limited as to the direction in which she could move. Taking her as the centre of a circle, she could not steer directly for much more than half the points on the circumference. Bow fire consequently was much less beneficial to her, and, further, it was found that, for reasons not necessary to particularize, her sailing, steering, and manoeuvring were greatly benefited by the leverage of sails carried on the bowsprit and its booms, projecting forward of the bow, where they interfered decisively with right-ahead fire.

For all these reasons, bow fire disappeared and broadside fire prevailed: but the fundamental one to be remembered is the greater development of fire conferred by greater length. All ships—except the very small ones known as schooners, cutters, and gunboats—were broadside vessels, moved by canvas which was carried commonly on two or three masts; but into the particulars of the sails it is presumed readers will not care to enter. Being thus homogeneous in general characteristics, the ships of this era were divided commonly into three principal classes, each of which had subdivisions; but it was recognized then, as it is now in theory though too little in practice, that such multiplication of species is harmful, and our forerunners, by a process of gradual elimination, had settled down upon certain clearly defined medium types.

The smallest of the three principal classes of fighting-ships were called sloopsof-war, or corvettes. These had sometimes two masts, sometimes three; but the particular feature that differentiated them was that they had but one row of guns in broadside, on an uncovered deck. The offices discharged by this class of vessels were various, but in the apprehension of the writer they may be considered rightly as being above all the protectors or destroyers of commerce in transit.

The frigate stood next in order of power above the corvette, with which it might also be said to have blended; for although in the frigate class there were two, or at the most three, rates that predominated vastly in numbers over all the rest, yet the name covered many differing degrees of force. The distinguishing feature of the frigate was that it carried one complete row of guns upon a covered deck —upon a deck, that is, which had another deck over it. On this upper or spar deck there were also guns—more or fewer— but lighter in weight than those on the covered deck, usually styled the maindeck. The two principal classes of frigates at the beginning of this century were the 32-gun and the 38-gun. That is, they carried nominally sixteen or nineteen guns on each side; but the enumeration is misleading, except as a matter of comparison, for guns of some classes were not counted. Ships generally had a few more cannon than their rate implied. The United States 32-gun frigate Essex, for example, carried at first twenty-six long twelves on the main-deck, with sixteen carronades and two chase guns on the spar-deck. Above these two classes came the 44-gun frigate, a very powerful rate, which was favored by the United States navy and received a development of strength then unprecedented.

Being such as here described, the frigate was essentially, though not exclusively, the appendage of a fleet of line-of-battle ships. Wars are decided not by [333] commerce destroying nor by raids, however vexatious, but by fleets and armies, by great organized masses—that is, by crushing, not by harassment. But ships-of-theline, to perform their function, must keep together, both when cruising and when on the field of battle, in order to put forth their strength in combination. The innumerable detached services that must be discharged for every great organized force need for a fleet to be done by vessels of inferior strength, yet so strong that they cannot be intercepted or driven off lightly by every whipper-snapper of an armed ship that comes along. Frigates and sloops have disappeared in name and form, in motive power and in armament. Their essential functions remain, and will remain while war lasts.

In the fleet-ship, likewise the ship-of-theline, as the opening of the nineteenth century styled the class of vessel known in the closing days as the battle-ship, our predecessors had reached a mean conclusion. The line-of-battle ship, or the ship-of-the-line, as more usually called, differed from the frigate generically, in that it had two or more covered decks. There were one of two cases of ships with four decks, but, as a rule, three were the extreme; and ships-of-the-line were roughly classed as two or three deckers. Under these heads two-deckers carried in their two centuries of history from fifty to eighty-four guns; three-deckers from ninety to 120. The increase in number of guns, resulting, as it did, from increase of size, was not the sole gain of ships-ofthe-line. The bigger ships got, the heavier were their timbers, the thicker their planking, the more impenetrable, therefore, their sides. There was a gain, in short, of defensive as well as offensive strength, analogous to the protection giver by armor. “As the enemy's ships were big,” wrote a renowned British admiral, “they took a great deal of drubbing.”

Between the great extremes of strength indicated by fifty and 120 guns—whose existence at one and the same time was the evidence of blind historical development, rather than of intelligent relative processes—the navy of a century ago had settled upon a mean, to appreciate which the main idea and purport of the ship-ofthe-line must be grasped. The essential function of the ship “of the line” was, as the name implies, to act in combination with other ships in a line of battle. To do this was needed not only fighting power but manoeuvring ability—speed and handiness — and in order that these qualities might approach homogeneousness throughout the fleet, and so promote action in concert, the acceptance of a mean type was essential. To carry three decks of guns, a ship had to expose above water a side disproportionately high relatively to her length, her depth, and her hold upon the water. She consequently drifted rapidly when her side was turned to the wind; while, if her length was increased, and so her hold on the water, she needed more time and room to tack and to wear—that is, to turn around. Ships of this class also were generally—though not necessarily— slow.

A hundred years ago batteries of ships were composed of two principal classes of guns: the long gun and the short gun, or carronade. The difference between these lay in the way the weight of metal allowed for each was utilized. The long gun, as its name implies, was comparatively long and thick, and threw a small ball with a heavy charge of powder. The ball, therefore, flew swiftly, and had a long range. A carronade of the same weight was short and comparatively thin, could use only a small charge of powder, lest it burst, and threw a large ball. Its shot, therefore, moved slowly and had short range. Fired at a target—a ship's side —within range of both guns, the shot from the long gun penetrated quickly, the wood had not time to splinter badly, and a clean hole was the result. The carronade's shot, on the contrary, being both larger and slower, penetrated with difficulty, all the surrounding wood felt the strain and broke up into splinters, leaving a large jagged hole, if the shot got through. These effects were called respectively piercing and smashing, and are reproduced, in measure, upon targets representing the side of a modern iron-clad. They have been likened familiarly to the effect of a pistol-ball and of a stone upon a window-pane: the one goes through clean, the other crashes.

The smashing of the carronades, when fully realized, was worse than penetration, [334] and was greatly dreaded; but, on the other hand, a ship which feared them in an opponent might keep out of their range. This expedient was so effective that carronades, which did great damage until their tactics were understood, gradually fell into disfavor. Nevertheless, they remained in use till after the peace of 1815. In 1814 the battery of the United States steamship Essex was chiefly carronades, and their inadequate range was a large factor in her defeat.

At the period in question guns of all sorts fired only non-explosive projectiles, solid or hollow shot. The destructive shell of the present day was used only by pieces called mortars, in vertical firing, which will be spoken of further on. Such were not mounted on the ships of the fleet generally, nor used against shipping, except when packed in a small harbor. They did not enter into naval warfare proper. The ram and the torpedo of present warfare were unknown. On the other hand, there was practised a form of fighting which is thought now to have disappeared forever — namely, boarding and fighting hand-to-hand on the deck. Even then, however, boarding did not decide the main issue of a sea-fight, except occasionally in very small vessels. The deck of a large and fresh ship was not to be reached easily. Boarding was like the cavalry charge that routs a wavering line; the ship had been beaten at the guns before it occurred.

The real fighting was done by the long guns and carronades disposed in the broadsides. Besides rapidity and precision of fire, always invaluable, the two opponents sought advantage of position by manoeuvring. They closed, or they kept apart, according to their understanding of the other's weight and kind of battery. Each tried, when possible, to lie across the bow or the stern of the enemy, for then his guns ranged from end to end of the hostile ship, while the latter's broadside could not reply. Failing this extreme advantage of position, the effort was made so to place one's self that the opponent's guns could not bear—for they swept only a few degrees before and abaft the broadside —while your own could. If this also was impossible, the contestants lay side to side at a greater or less distance, and the affair became an artillery duel.

Contest of armor and projectile.

The modern contest began with the introduction of horizontal shell fire in the third decade of the century. This term must be explained. It has been said that all ships' guns up to 1815 threw non-explosive projectiles. In practice this is true; although Nelson alludes to certain shell supplied to him for trial, which he was unwilling to use because he wished not to burn his prizes, but to take them alive. A shell is a hollow projectile filled with powder, the idea of which is that upon reaching the enemy it will burst into several pieces, each capable of killing a man, and the flame not impossibly setting woodwork on fire.

The destructiveness of shell from ordinary guns was so obvious, especially for forts to use against wooden ships, that the difficulties were gradually overcome, and horizontal shell fire was introduced soon after the cessation of wars allowed men time for thought and change. But although the idea was accepted and the fact realized, practice changed slowly, as it tends to do in the absence of emergency. In the attack on Vera Cruz, in 1848, Farragut was present, and was greatly impressed, as with a novelty, by the effect of what he called the “shell shot,” a hybrid term which aptly expresses the transition state of men's minds at the time.

The Crimean War followed, and in 1854 the wooden steamships-of-the-line of the allies, vessels identical in fighting characteristics with those of Trafalgar, attempted to silence masonry works at Sebastopol. Though the disaster was not so great, the lesson of Sinope was reaffirmed. Louis Napoleon, a thoughtful man though scarcely a man of action, had foreseen the difficulty, and had already directed the construction of five floating batteries which were to carry armor. Before the war ended these vessels attacked the forts at Kinburn, which they compelled to surrender, losing, themselves, no men except by shells that entered the gun ports. Their armor was not pierced.

Horizontal shell fire had called for iron armor, and the two, as opposing factors, were now established in the recognition of men. The contest between the two sums up the progression and the fluctuations [335] of military ideas which have resulted in the battle-ship of to-day, which, as the fleet-ship, remains the dominant factor in naval warfare, not only in actual fact but in present probability. From the first feeble beginnings at Kinburn to the present time, although the strife has waxed greatly in degree, it remains unchanged in principle and in kind. To exclude the shell, because, starting as one projectile, it became many after penetration, in what does it differ from excluding the rapid-fire gun, whose projectiles are many from the first, and penetrate singly?

There occurred, however, one singular development, an aberration from the normal line of advance, the chief manifestation of which, from local and temporary conditions, was in our own country. This was the transient predominance of the monitor type and idea; the iron-clad vessel, with very few very heavy guns, mounted in one or two circular revolving turrets, protected by very heavy armor. The monitor type embodied two ideas. The first was the extreme of defensive power, owing to the smallness of the target and the thickness of its armor—the hull of the vessel rising but little above the water —the turret was substantially the only target. The second was an extreme compression of offensive power, the turret containing two of the heaviest guns of the day, consequently guns of the heaviest penetration, which could fire, not in one direction, nor in several, but in all directions as the turret revolved, and which were practically the sole armament of the ship. The defensive power of the monitor was absolute up to the extreme resisting endurance of its armor. Its offensive power must be considered relatively to the target to which its guns were to be opposed. If much in excess of that target's resistance, there was waste of power. Actually in our Civil War monitors were opposed to fortifications except in one or two instances when they had to contend with the imperfect structures which the Confederates could put afloat. The target, therefore, was not in excess of their gun power. Moreover, being for coast warfare, the monitor then was necessarily of small draught and small tonnage. Her battery weight, therefore, must be small, and consequently lent itself to concentration into two guns, just as the battery weight of a schooner a century since found its best disposition in one long traversing gun.

This was the infancy period of the ironclad ship. The race between guns and armor was barely begun, and manufacturing processes still were crude. As these improved, with astounding rapidity, the successful production of rifled cannon of ever-increasing dimensions and penetrative force imposed an increased armor protection, which at the first was obtained chiefly by an increase of thickness—i. e., of weight. As guns and armor got heavier, ships had to be bigger to carry them, and, if bigger, of course longer. But the monitor idea, admirably suited to small ships, had now fast hold of men's minds —in England especially, for the United States lapsed into naval somnolence after the war—and it was carried irreflectively into vessels of huge dimensions whose hulls rose much above the water. Weight for weight, the power of the gun outstripped the resistance of armor, and it soon became evident that even in a large ship perfect protection could be given only to a part of the structure. Passing over intermediate steps, the extreme and final development of the monitor idea was reached in the Inflexible, planned in 1876 by the British admiralty, built in the following years, and still in service. This vessel was of 11,880 tons displacement. She was 320 feet long, and of that length only the central 110 feet had protection, but that was by armor 2 feet thick, while armored partitions extended from each end of this side belt across the vessel, forming a box 110 feet long by 74 broad. Within this box were two turrets, each with 16 inches of armor, and carrying two guns which threw a shell of a ton weight. The first monitor has been called an epochmaking ship, for she began an era. the Inflexible was also epoch-making, for she closed the era of the monitor pure and simple.

While the Inflexible was building there was born the idea whose present maturity enforces the abandonment of the pure monitor, except for vessels comparatively small and for special purposes. Machine guns, the Gatling, and the mitrailleuse were already known, and the principle was being applied to throw projectiles of [336] a pound weight and over, which were automatically loaded and fired, requiring only to be aimed. Upon these followed the rapid-fire gun, of weight greatly exceeding theirs, the principle of which may be said to be that it is loaded by hand, but with ammunition so prepared and mechanism for loading so simple and expeditious as to permit a rate of firing heretofore unparalleled. The highest extension of this principle is reached in the 5-inch gun, up to which size the cartridge and the projectile make a single package called fixed ammunition, which is placed by one motion. Together they weigh 95 lbs., about as much as an average man can handle in a seaway, the projectile itself weighing 50 lbs. There are, it is true, 6-inch rapid-fire guns, but in them the cartridge and shell are placed separately, and it is questionable whether such increase of effect, through greater weight, as they give is not gained at a loss of due rapidity.

In the strife of guns with armor, increase of power in guns, outstripping continually the increase of resistance in armor, called for bigger ships to bear the increased armor weight, till the latter could not possibly be placed all over the ship's body. Hence the exposed target, upon which plays the smaller battery of rapid-fire guns.

To comprehend fundamentally the subsequent development, we must recur to the rudimentary idea that a ship-of-war possesses two chief factors, motive force and fighting force, the latter being composed of guns mainly and of men. Corresponding to these two chief powers there were of old, and there are still, two vulnerable elements, two targets, upon one or the other of which hostile effort logically and practically must be directed. A century ago the French, aiming at sails and spars, sought the destruction of the motive force; the British directed their fire upon the guns and men. In strict analogy now, the heavy guns seek the motive power, over which the heaviest armor is concentrated; the rapid-fire guns, searching the other portions of the ship, aim at the guns and men there stationed. The logical outcome of these leading ideas is realized in the present battle-ships as follows: There are two turrets, protected by armor, the thickest that can be given them, considering the other weights the ship has to carry, and of the highest resisting quality that processes of manufacture can develop. Armor of similar character and weight protects the sides about the engines. In each turret are guns whose power corresponds to the armor which protects them. Their proper aim—not, of course, always reached—is the heavy armored part of the enemy, chiefly the engines, the motive power. When they strike outside of this target, as often must happen, there is excess of blow, and consequent waste. The turrets are separated, fore and aft, by a distance as great as possible, to minimize the danger of a single shot or any other local incident disabling both. The fact that the ends of ships, being comparatively sharp, are less waterborne and cannot support extreme weights, chiefly limits this severance of the turrets. Between the two, and occasionally before or abaft them, is distributed the broadside rapid fire of the ship, which in its development is in contradistinction to the compressed fire of the monitor. This fire is rapid because the guns are many and because individually they can fire fast. Thus, the turret gun, 12 or 13 inches in bore, fires once in five minutes; the 5-inch rapid-fire gun thrice in one minute. The rapid-fire battery aims outside of the heaviest armor. When it strikes that, unless it chance to enter a gun port, its effect is lost; but as much the greater part of the ship is penetrable by it, the chance of wasting power is less than in the case of the heavier guns. As most of a ship's company are outside the protection of the heaviest armor, the rapid-fire gun aims, as did the British in the old line-of-battle ship, at the personnel of the enemy.

The one experience of war which ships really contemporary have had was in the battle of the Yalu. Its teachings lose some value from the fact that the welldrilled Japanese used their weapons to advantage, while the Chinese were illtrained; still, some fair inferences can be made. The Japanese had a great many rapid-fire guns, with few very heavy ones, and their vessels were not battle-ships properly so-called. The Chinese, besides other vessels, had two battle-ships with [337] heavy armor and heavy guns. Victory remained with the Japanese. In the opinion of the writer two probable conclusions can be reached: That rapid-fire guns in due proportion to the entire battery will beat down a ship dependent mainly upon turret guns; that is, between two ships whose batteries are alike the issue of the contest will depend upon the one or the other gaining first a predominance of rapid fire. That done, the turret guns of the predominant ship will give the final blows to the engines and turrets of the other, whose own turret guns cannot be used with the necessary deliberation under the preponderant storm of projectiles now turned upon them. The other conclusion, even more certain than the first, is that rapid-fire guns alone, while they may determine an action, cannot make it decisive. Despite the well-established superiority of the Japanese rapid fire in that action, the Chinese battle-ships, though overborne, were not taken. Their heaviest armor being unpierced, the engines and turret guns remained effective, and they withdrew unmolested.

The battle-ship constituted as described remains for the present the fighting-ship upon which the issues of war will depend. The type is accepted by all the leading naval states, though with considerable variations in size. As regards the latter feature, the writer believes that the enormous tonnage recently given is excessive, and that the reasons which support it, too numerous and various to be enumerated at length, have the following fundamental fault: they look too much to the development of the individual ship and too little to the fact that the prime requisite of the battle-ship is facility for cooperating with other ships of its own type —facility in manoeuvring together, facility in massing, facility also in subdividing when occasion demands. It may be remarked, too, that the increase of size has gone much more to increase of defensive power than of offensive—a result so contrary to the universal teachings of war as of itself to suggest pausing.

Does the present hold out any probabilities of important changes in the near future, of revolutionary changes? No. For twenty-five or thirty years now we have been expecting from the ram and from the torpedo results which would displace the gun from its supremacy of centuries. Those results, however, are not yet visible. No one disputes the tremendous effects of the ram and of the torpedo when successfully used; but I believe I am correct in saying that the great preponderance of professional opinion does not attribute to them a certainty, or an approach to certainty, impairing the predominance of the gun.

Neither the torpedo nor the ram is likely to overtake the gun. The torpedo relies mainly upon stealth, the ram mainly upon a happy chance for effective use. Both stealth and chance have their place in war: stratagem and readiness, each in place, may contribute much. But the decisive issues of war depend upon the handling of masses with celerity and precision, according to certain general principles of recognized universality. Afloat, such massed force, to be wielded accurately and rapidly, must consist of units not too numerous because of their smallness— as torpedo craft would be—nor too unwieldy because of their size. We may not be able to determine yet, in advance of prolonged experience of war, just what the happy mean may be corresponding in principle to the old seventy-four, but we may be reasonably sure that it will be somewhere in the ranks of the present battleships; and that in the range, accuracy, and rapidity of their gun-fire—especially when acting in fleets—will be found a protection which the small vessels that rely upon the torpedo or ram alone will not be able to overcome, though they may in rare instances elude.

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