The Limit in Battle Ships

THERE are several definite periods in the history of nations when their navies have undergone sudden and complete revolution. Each of these periods has been followed by a multitude of experiments in naval construction to meet the new conditions, and such experiments have gradually narrowed down until the battle ships of all countries have been built after a generally approved type. Thus, the sailing ship succeeded the galley, and, in the struggle which followed to utilize the wind and properly to mount that new weapon the gun, vessels were built with masts at any point from the poop to the end of the bowsprit; with sails varying in shape, number, and size ; with quarter decks, half decks, and flush decks, and with two decks, three decks, and four decks; until out of this chaos came the magnificent line-of-battle ship, the graceful frigate, and the trim and handy sloop-of-war. At the beginning of the present century, such vessels as the Victory and the Constitution were not experiments. They were built after universally recognized and perfected types, and, with but little change, formed the navies of the world for half a century. Then came their end. Another revolution was at hand, and the agent was steam. Again all was chaotic experiment, but, through the enlightenment of the times, human ingenuity worked more quickly, till a type was reached which is not yet entirely extinct; and our stately and beautiful Wabash might have remained for many years the pattern for nations to follow, had not the hothed of war ripened into realities ideas which would otherwise have been laid aside as chimeras. Causes for a new revolution then crowded forward for recognition. The rifled cannon, armor, the revolving turret, and the ram strove for acknowledgment by the ship constructor. The complexity was great, especially as steam was still a new factor. Was it any wonder that the diversity of experiments in battleship building became greater than ever before ; that for years scarcely any ship was patterned after a preceding one, but each was adapted to some new condition of the complex elements ? Moreover, before order could come out of this chaos, new elements of perplexity were introduced. The auto-mobile torpedo and the high explosive shell found their places in the problem.

Such appears to be the situation at present. Nevertheless, there are many indications that a general type of battle ship is again being attained, after which all nations may pattern, and feel at least that there will be none better in the near future. The rifled gun for naval use has reached its highest calibre, and has reacted to lesser ones. One-hundred-andten-ton guns, after the strain of but a few discharges, have frequently become only a loosened bundle of hoops ; leaving the decks upon which they stand crushed and weakened. Twelve and thirteen inch guns, of about half that weight, have replaced them, as the present limit of successful effort in size; while in muzzle energy these and smaller calibres are steadily increasing. The struggle for supremacy between guns and armor afloat is at an end. The latter has reached its limit in amount, and can be varied only in distribution. Tn this it has undergone every possible variation. From thin broadside plating it narrowed to a thick water-line belt; then it contracted, with increased thickness, to a sort of coffer-dam around vital parts ; then for a time it gave up its unequal contest with the gun for the protection of buoyancy, and, leaving for that purpose only a thin protective deck, confined itself solely to the protection of the battery. In this it has gone through every conceivable form : turrets and barbettes, round, oval, and pear-shaped, in fore and aft line, line abreast, and echelon, in lozenges, triangles, squares, and T’s; redoubts, rectangular, triangular, polygenic, and elliptical, and with sides vertical, sloping, or curved. The ram has been straight, sloping, pointed, rounded, and swan-shaped. Sail has been retained in varying but ever diminishing quantity, until finally and forever abandoned. The variations in the application of steam as a motive power would fill a volume.

Out of all this a combination has come, just as it came in previous types, which seems to represent the best distribution of battery, protection, and propelling agents. England, whose experiments in battle-ship building have been the most complete and methodical, was the first to approximate to this combination in the Camperdown and Benbow. These were quickly followed by the Nile and Trafalgar, in which we see the type nearing completion. So fully convinced are the British admiralty that they are in these reaching the best adapted type that ten more ships are now laid down, differing in combinations from the Trafalgar only in one modification of armor distribution.

France has designed no battle ships since England built the Trafalgar, but in the four so-called first-class side-protected cruisers now commenced by her there is a distinct indication of the convergence of French ideas toward the Trafalgar type.

The example set his people by Peter the Great, to learn the best methods of naval construction from the greatest maritime nations, has always been closely followed by them. It is, therefore, not surprising to find Russia almost the first nation to believe that the best adapted type of battle ship had been reached in England. The Navarin and a sister ship now building in Russia are reported by European naval writers to be close imitations of the Trafalgar type.

The most remarkable illustration, however, of the concentration of ideas in naval construction upon this best adapted type is in the Re Umberto, now building in Italy. This battle ship was laid down when the Italia model was dominant in the Italian naval mind ; yet in building she has been continually modified, until, on the verge of completion, she is, so far as modification could make her, another exponent of the new type. She has two sister ships building; and three new ships have been designed which are a step nearer to the new type.

Thus we see that, of the four foremost naval powers, three, England, Italy, and Russia, are fashioning their new battle ships after one general type; while the fourth, France, having begun no battle ship since this type was developed, is conforming closely to it in building her protected cruisers. This building, by three powerful European nations widely differing in interests and policies, of an aggregate of twenty battle ships after the same general pattern is certainly significant.

In our own country, the board appointed by Secretary Tracy to report upon the number and character of the ships yet needed to give us an efficient navy considered thoroughly all new battle ships built and building by other countries, and all the new conditions of naval warfare. Out of this study they devised plans of battle ships suited to the needs of the country, and their report (published in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute) recommends types which, in their principal features, agree closely with the improved Trafalgar type. The main differences are more marked at first sight than upon closer examination.

What, then, is this best adapted type of modern battle ship ?

Her general features, stated briefly, are as follows: a high central freeboard ship of about thirteen thousand tons displacement, with lower freeboard at bow and stern, ram bow, twin screws, balanced rudder, and one or two large military masts with armored tops and with conning towers at their bases. A trial speed of seventeen knots per hour.

Protection. A thick armor belt at the water line, extending about two thirds the length of the ship along the vital parts, and terminated at either end by a thick athwartship bulkhead. A protective deck, covering the unarmored extremities of the ship below the water line, and also covering the armor structure just described. A redoubt of thick armor above either end of the belted inclosure, just within its limits and on the fore and aft centre line of the ship. Turrets or barbettes surmounting the redoubts. A central citadel of thin armor, with elliptical or V-shaped extremities, rising above the belt between the redoubts. Double-bottomed hulls, subdivided as much as possible into water-tight compartments.

Battery. Two twelve to fourteen inch guns in each turret or barbette. Four to ten four-and-a-half-inch to six-inch rapid-fire guns in the citadel, in broadside sponsons. Four to six torpedo tubes. Small rapid-fire and machine guns in convenient places.

The differences in the latest battle ships from this general type are slight. They are nearly all matters of dimensions ; scarcely any of arrangement. These differences must exist. They are due to the varying limits of draught, and consequently of displacement and weights, suited to the harbors of different nations. In the case of the largest battle ships suggested by the Policy Board for the United States, there is a marked difference in the plans offered for the citadel. Instead of a large structure of thin armor between the redoubts, and containing the broadside battery, it is proposed to mount each one of the guns of this battery in a small turret, having a funnel-shaped support and ammunition tube from its base to the protective deck ; and to zigzag these turrets, as it were, along a fore and aft line near each side. These little structures, although the object of their adoption and arrangement is apparent, have a curiously top-heavy appearance, as if they might be bowled over like tenpins by a high explosive shell bursting among them, as it certainly would do in warfare, — there being nothing to keep it out.

It is pretty evident, then, that there is now a type of battle ship very generally accepted as the best adapted to the present conditions. The important question is, How long will it be before these conditions change ? Coming events cast their shadows before. Yet a careful study of possible developments in naval warfare shows none which could seriously modify this new type of battle ship. The high explosive shell is probably now at the zenith of its popularity. That it can stand the test of age is doubtful. In the excitement and consequent careless handling of actual warfare, it will probably prove more disastrous before firing than after. The present protection against it seems to be amply sufficient. Although the submarine boat has not advanced much beyond the diving-bell, it is very likely that the increased accuracy and range of the auto-mobile torpedo will demand some improvement in under-water protection; but the indications are that this will be some attachment to the hulls of battle ships, as applicable to those already built as to those not yet laid down. Although new methods of propulsion are continually being experimented with, there is not the slightest indication that any one of them will supplant the screw propeller driven by the steam engine. The use of water-obturating materials, such as cellulose and woodite, seems to threaten no changes, for its possibilities were recognized before the present type was evolved. The use of aluminum in ship construction means, when it comes, another complete revolution ; but the methods of obtaining that metal are extremely crude and expensive, while the possibility of manufacturing it for such purposes has not even been contemplated.

Can we not, therefore, in the United States, accept this generally approved type, and, modifying it only to suit our own conditions of harbor depths, necessary steaming radius, etc., go on building our battle ships, without fear that they will be obsolete before they are launched ? If we can, ought we not to set about it at once ? Let any one who doubts examine the following table before answering in the negative.


Ship. Keel Laid. Completed. Time Building.
Edinburgh . . . 1879 1887 8 yrs.
Collingwood 1880 1887 7 yrs.
Rodney 1882 1888 6 yrs.
Benbow 1882 1888 6 yrs.
Camperdown 1882 1889 7 yrs.
Howe 1882 1888 6 yrs.
Anson 1883 1889 6 yrs.
Hero 1884 1888 4 yrs.
Victoria 1885 1890 5 yrs.
Average 6 yrs.


Ship. Keel Laid. Completed. Time Building.
Amiral Duperre 1877 1887 10 yrs.
Terrible 1877 1887 10 yrs.
Caiman 1877 1888 11 yrs.
Amiral Baudin 1878 1888 10 yrs.
Formidable 1878 18S9 11 yrs.
Requin 1878 1889 11 yrs.
Marceau 1880 1890 10 yrs.
Hoche 1880 1889 9 yrs.
Average 10 yrs.


Ship. Keel Luid. Completed. Time Building.
Lepanto 1877 1888 11 yrs.
Lauria 1881 1889 8 yrs.
Doria 1883 1889 6 yrs.
Average 8 yrs.


Ship. Keel Laid. Completed. Time Building.
Admiral Nakimoff 1883 1887 4 yrs.
Tchesma 1883 1888 5 yrs.
Sinope 1883 1889 6 yrs.
Catherine II 1883 1888 5 yrs.
Imperator Nicolai I 1886 1889 3 yrs.
Average 5 yrs.

It takes six years to complete a battle ship in England, eight years in Italy, five years in Russia, and ten years in France. Could we, just beginning, expect to build a battle ship in less time than France ? Surely not, for we have even yet to educate the ship - builders. Can we reasonably expect to remain at peace for more than ten years to come ? We have never remained at peace for thirty years at a time in our national existence ; and it is now nearly that length of time since our last war. Moreover, we have twice been on the verge of war with a foreign power since then : once with Spain over the Virginius affair, and once with Germany about Samoa. This last occasion was but two years ago; so the millennium is evidently not yet at hand. Even to-day we have just escaped a rupture with a little South American republic, which we ought to be able to crush with a single blow.

We are menaced more and more every year. We are menaced in our claim to Bering Sea, and in our rights in the Newfoundland fisheries. Our transcontinental railroads and trans-Pacific steamer lines are flanked, and their traffic threatened with annihilation, by the enormously subsidized Canadian Pacific railroad and its steamer connections. A new ocean tollgate will be established near us within ten years, and we should be in a position to prevent its improper control by foreign powers. The possibility of friction with European powers is thus rapidly increasing. The recent Italian trouble is startling proof of the suddenness with which war-clouds may gather. Should we not, therefore, begin our battle ships at once, with confidence in their ultimate utility ? — for a battle ship, well built, will last half a century. Nay, should we not begin them at once, convinced of their absolute necessity, and with a fear that we have already delayed too long ?

John M. Ellicott.