The navy's record of dealing with new weaponry and platform technology is not uniformly bright. There have been periods of hidebound conservatism and willful refusal to understand new developments. But more often the U.S. Navy has sought out technological opportunity and exploited it with vigor, showing itself capable of striking innovations from the early years of American independence to the dawn of the information revolution.
The Fledgling Navy.When the Revolutionary War began, naval armaments had remained essentially unchanged for over a century. Wooden sailing warships mounted inaccurate smoothbore cannon along each side and fought each other at close range. The most decisive battles were between massive “ships of the line” with two or three decks of guns.
The colonies had few advantages in weaponry. Their foundries produced guns of uneven quality, and their ships relied heavily on foreign guns. Their fledgling navy had only a few small vessels, whereas the Royal Navy of 1775 possessed more than 131 ships of the line and 139 other warships. Overwhelming power enabled the Royal Navy to blockade any port not occupied by British troops.
But America had abundant oak and softwood for hulls, tall timber for masts and spars—and resins to make critical naval stores like tar to protect standing rigging. It also had a large merchant fleet with fine ships, skilled sailors, and experienced captains. American privateering scourged British commerce during the Revolution, and some U.S. Navy skippers like John Paul Jones won famous single‐ship victories.
The subsequent War of 1812 played out along similar lines. By then, however, the U.S. Navy had begun its distinguished history of technological innovation. Not all of it turned out well. The decision to arm the frigate Essex exclusively with carronades—a short piece invented in Europe that could deliver as heavy a ball at short range as a much heavier “long gun”—proved disastrous when a British frigate used the greater range of its long guns to batter the helpless American vessel into submission.
But a new class of “big frigates,” among them the famous USS Constitution, proved more than a match for their Royal Navy counterparts and prompted Britain to build similar vessels. The forty‐four‐gun frigates were cleverly designed, with the speed to escape from any ship of the line but more firepower than most other frigates and a much stronger hull. In addition, they carried a particularly effective mix of long guns and carronades, the latter greatly increasing the firepower on their upper deck, where minimizing weight was critical.
The Young Republic.The Industrial Revolution that had originated in Britain spread to the United States, bringing with it the potential for great innovations in ordnance and ships. For several decades, the United States played a leading role in exploiting that potential.
Explosive shells entered service in Europe in the 1830s, and European navies began to experiment with more accurate, rifled guns firing elongated projectiles. In 1844, the U.S. Navy commissioned its first steam warships, the side‐wheel frigates Missouri and Mississippi, which were considered the equal of any European warship then in service. They mounted only two 10‐inch and eight 8‐inch shell guns, a reduced main battery that illustrates the general trend from a large number of relatively small pre‐industrial cannon to a handful of the much larger, longer‐range guns made possible by advances in metallurgy, and other related technologies.
The U.S. frigate Princeton, which followed in 1844, was the world's first warship with a screw propeller. This eliminated paddle wheels and allowed machinery to be located well within the ship and below the waterline, making it less vulnerable and freeing topside space for guns. The Princeton carried twelve 42‐pound carronades and two 12‐inch wrought‐iron guns that fired a 225‐pound shot.
However, during a demonstration on the new wrought‐iron guns, one of them exploded, killing the secretary of the navy and the secretary of state. The resulting scandal prompted the navy to turn away wrought‐iron ordnance. Instead, under the technical leadership of Cmdr. (later Rear Adm.) John Dahlgren, it subsequently chose to concentrate on safer cast‐iron smoothbore guns, in which it became the acknowledged leader.
The Civil War.France and Britain were already pursuing armor and iron hulls for seagoing warships when the Civil War began. The Confederacy, unable to match the Union fleet, also turned to armor, rebuilding the damaged U.S. steam frigate Merrimac as the ironclad ram Virginia. Other rams followed, often armed with rifled guns that could fire elongated, steel‐cored iron “bolts” for piercing Union ship armor.
The Union countered armor with ever more powerful smoothbores, eventually up to 15 inches in bore diameter, firing solid shot. Many were mounted in revolving turrets in low‐freeboard armored coastal ships called Monitors, after the original Monitor that confronted the Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862. The only seagoing armored ship of the war, the Union's New Ironsides, mounted its guns on the broadside. The Confederacy ordered several seagoing armored rams from European shipyards, but the war ended before any reached the South.
Both sides experimented with the predecessors of today's fast attack craft: steam‐powered boats with a “spar torpedo,” an explosive charge on a pole, protruding from the bow. Private Confederate citizens built the Hunley, a primitive submarine powered by a hand crank. Taken over by the Confederate army at Charleston, South Carolina, and armed with a spar torpedo, it became the first submarine to sink a warship, the Union sloop Housatonic. However, the Hunley also sank, drowning its crew.
Both sides used naval mines, the “torpedoes” famously damned by Adm. David Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay (1864). These were detonated either by contact or by wires connected to primitive electric batteries ashore.
Postwar Apathy.America turned to its western frontier after the Civil War, scrapping the Union's 700‐ship fleet and laying up its ironclads to rust. The seagoing fleet ossified, with wooden ships and antiquated guns. A new fast cruiser, the Wampanoag, became the first ship to use superheated steam, achieving an unprecedented 17.7 knots in 1868 sea trials; but a special board of line admirals, fearing the rise of naval engineers, ordered her boilers removed, and she rotted away at the pier. An 1869 general order required all U.S. naval vessels to have “full sail power” in addition to steam.
In Europe, meanwhile, innovation accelerated. Breech‐loading guns entered naval service in the 1870s, rapid‐firing guns using cordite charges in the 1880s, and armor‐piercing high‐explosive shells in the 1890s. In 1866, British engineer Robert Whitehead invented the self‐propelled torpedo, which provided the first effective weapon for fast attack craft and, later, for submarines. Contact and magnetic mines, which did not require remote detonation, also appeared.
American Naval Resurgence.Stimulated in part by the seapower theories of Capt. (later Rear Adm.) Alfred T. Mahan, the U.S. Navy began to revive. In the 1880s, it built its first all‐steel ships, forerunners of the oceangoing steel fleet that emerged in the 1890s. That fleet no longer reflected a vibrant maritime culture, America's merchant marine having declined; rather, it reflected the industrial might of a nation that had become the world's leading steelmaker by the mid‐1890s.
Europe continued to lead in naval technology, with the United States playing catch‐up. Work carried out at the Washington Naval Shipyard gave the U.S. Navy the ability to cast ever larger rifled guns, and the service encouraged steelmakers to produce first‐rate armor and shells. As improved guns, optical rangefinders, mechanical calculators, and electrical distribution systems increased effective gunnery ranges from 6,000 yards in 1898 to more than 20,000 yards in World War I, the United States kept pace.
In 1906, Britain built the Dreadnought, the revolutionary “all‐big‐gun” battleship designed to take advantage of this technology. The first U.S. “dreadnought,” was actually funded before the Dreadnought, but was not completed until 1909. Like the Dreadnought, the Michigan had 12‐inch guns but its design was much more advanced, with superfiring turrets and all turrets on the centerline. Britain completed the first battleship with 14‐inch guns in 1911; America matched it with the battleships New York and Texas in 1912. By the end of World War I, Britain had settled on a 15‐inch standard for capital ships, while America adopted a 16‐inch standard.
American pursuit of newer naval technologies was more uneven. The first true submarine, propelled by a gasoline engine on the surface and an electric battery when submerged, was built in America in 1881 by Irish immigrant John Holland. In 1893, he built the Holland, the first truly practical sub, which the U.S. Navy acquired two years later. But the navy lost its early lead in submarine technology as European navies forged ahead with such innovations as diesel propulsion.
U.S. torpedo development also lagged. In 1907, after decades of depending on foreign suppliers, the navy finally built its first torpedo factory, in Newport, Rhode Island, but the factory continued to produce variants of foreign torpedo designs until the 1920s. During World War I, the service absorbed early British antisubmarine technology, such as the depth charge and hydrophones.
The navy had also shown early interest in aircraft, another American invention. In 1910, it fitted the scout cruiser Birmingham with a temporary wooden flight deck so that civilian aviator Eugene Ely could make the first landing on a ship. In 1911, Ely not only landed on the armored cruiser Pennsylvania, but also took off again. Yet, as with the submarine, Europe once more took the lead, and it was Britain that operated the first experimental aircraft carrier (1917) and commissioned the first true carrier, the Argus (1918).
The U.S. Navy Comes of Age.By the end of World War I, America's naval building program dwarfed that of any other power, particularly in battleships and battlecruisers. The other powers therefore reluctantly agreed to the 1922 Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty, which left only the Royal Navy equal to the U.S. Navy. Limitations on capital ships were the heart of the treaty, although it limited other ship types as well. Ironically, however, the battleship's supremacy was nearly at an end, and the U.S. Navy was taking a leading role in the aviation technology that would seal its fate.
In 1922, the navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier, the Langley, a converted collier. Two half‐built battle cruiser hulls to be scrapped under the new treaty became instead the world's largest aircraft carriers: the Lexington and the Saratoga. Aircraft carriers built for the purpose soon followed. The torpedo bomber, developed by the British in World War I, and the dive‐bomber, developed in the 1920s by the U.S. Marine Corps, would become the carriers' great offensive weapons of World War II.
Also from the Royal Navy the United States obtained “Asdic,” which it christened Sonar. The British and the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory in Washington, D.C., each developed radar independently, but the two countries subsequently collaborated on its perfection. One key U.S. Navy radar innovation was the “plan position indicator”—the familiar radar scope.
The shipboard combat information center (CIC), developed during World War II, used radar data to control fighter aircraft defending the carrier task force. Closer in, the ships defended themselves with antiaircraft guns and dual‐purpose 5‐inch guns firing shells equipped with newly invented proximity fuses—miniature radars that detonated the shells as they neared enemy aircraft.
The U.S. fleet submarines of World War II could not dive as deep as German submarines, but they had long range and good surface speed. They also had radar to help locate and target Japanese ships. Like several other navies, the U.S. Navy had developed a magnetic exploder to detonate its torpedoes lethally directly beneath the keel of enemy ships. However, while other countries quickly abandoned those unreliable devices, the U.S. Navy's reluctance to do so initially hindered its submarine campaign against Japan.
For antisubmarine warfare the navy continued to develop sonar, weapons, and tactics. Mortars for projecting charges ahead of the ship supplemented depth charges rolled off the stern and projected over the side of destroyers and destroyer escorts. Aircraft equipped with radar drove submarines beneath the surface, where they could less readily intercept Allied convoys.
U.S. Preeminence in Naval Weaponry.The United States emerged from World War II with by far the most powerful fleet, but nuclear weapons delivered by long‐range bomber aircraft seemed destined to render fleets irrelevant. When the Soviet Union obtained nuclear weapons, the resulting stalemate placed a premium on deterrence. The navy deployed nuclear‐armed Regulus I cruise missiles on diesel‐electric submarines in the 1950s, but it did not obtain a significant share of the deterrence mission until the 1960s, when the marriage of the long‐range ballistic missile and the nuclear‐powered submarine enabled it to provide the least vulnerable leg of America's nuclear “triad,” which also included land‐based missiles and bombers.
In conventional war, which continued to exist, guided missiles were slower to rival aircraft. The Soviet Navy fielded land attack and antiship missiles from the 1950s, but they tended to be inaccurate or vulnerable to countermeasures. By the 1970s, missile technology had advanced, and the U.S. Navy developed two subsonic cruise missiles: the Harpoon antiship missile, for launch by either aircraft or ships; and the ship‐ and submarine‐launched Tomahawk, which came in nuclear, conventional land attack, and antiship versions.
The missile also became the preeminent defensive weapon, since only a missile had the range and homing capability to intercept supersonic aircraft and cruise missiles. In the 1950s, the navy fielded Tartar, Terrier, and Talos—the so‐called 3‐T missile systems. However, the unprecedented complexity of these shipboard systems made them unreliable, despite several “get‐well” programs. The only solution was to treat the entire ship as a single weapon “platform,” with all of its war‐fighting equipment integrated into a single system. Such “total system engineering” became the hallmark of the successful Aegis program, which, starting in the late 1970s, oversaw all development and building of guided‐missile cruisers and destroyers.
The same level of integration increasingly characterized submarine programs as well. Nuclear propulsion gave the submarine high underwater speed and unlimited submerged endurance, making it not only an unprecedented threat to surface ships but also the foremost weapon against enemy submarines. The Mk‐48 torpedo reflected that new priority, being designed primarily for antisubmarine warfare and secondarily for use against surface ships.
Antisubmarine warfare necessarily became much more sophisticated. Aircraft now dropped sonobuoys for detection and lightweight torpedoes for attack. Surface ships mounted powerful bow‐mounted active sonars and carried antisubmarine rockets and helicopters. Beginning in the 1970s, the fleet relied increasingly on Tow‐ed passive sonar arrays. From early in the Cold War, extensive arrays of passive receivers were also emplaced on the ocean bottom. However, the post–Cold War threat of diesel submarines in shallow coastal waters has posed a new challenge that may require a return to active sonar, or “bistatic” sonar, which employs a remote sound source.
The U.S. Navy in the Twenty‐First‐Century.Just as technological developments in the post–World War II period led inexorably to the concept of total system engineering for entire ships, so the increasing complexity of data processing and communications in the new century will lead to “systems of systems” in which many ships and aircraft must be able to act swiftly and reliably as a single entity. Increasingly, all platforms will have access to a common picture of the “battle space,” permitting an aircraft to control an air defense missile launched by a distant cruiser, or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to control a cruise missile launched from a submarine.
This “network‐centric warfare,” as the navy calls it, will not be easy to master. Like steampower, armor, and long‐range guns in the nineteenth century, or aircraft and submarines in the twentieth, it promises revolutionary increases in combat effectiveness. But to obtain that capability, the U.S. Navy will have to summon up the best attributes of its most progressive eras: the boldness to make mistakes, the discipline to study those mistakes impartially, and the unfailing ambition to seek out solutions.
[See also Navy, U.S.: 1866–98; Navy, U.S.: 1899–1945; Navy, U.S.: Since 1946; Navy Combat Branches; Weaponry, Evolution of; Navy, U.S.: 1783–1865.]
Richard Hough , Dreadnought: A History of the Modern Battleship, 1964.
John D. Alden , The American Steel Navy, 1972.
Clay Blair, Jr. , Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War against Japan, 1975.
Nathan Miller , The U.S. Navy: An Illustrated History, 1977.
Henry E. Gruppe , The Frigates, 1979.
Robert Gardner, ed., Navies in the Nuclear Age, 1993.
Ivan Musicant , Divided Waters: A Naval History of the Civil War, 1995.
Raimundo Luraghi , A History of the Confederate Navy, 1996.
Robert J. Schneller , A Quest for Glory: A Biography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren, 1996.
Norman Friedman , U.S. Naval Weapons, 1997.
John J. Patrick
"Weaponry, Naval." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/weaponry-naval
"Weaponry, Naval." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/weaponry-naval