The period from 1500 to 1850 saw dramatic developments in naval warships.
The period from 1500 to 1850 saw dramatic developments in naval warships. Although the first effective gun-armed sailing ships had appeared around 1500, these ships were little more than converted merchant ships, not designed to make the most effective use of artillery. Nonetheless, they allowed Europeans to display maritime power on a global scale for the first time, as evidenced by the creation of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Asia and the Americas, and also in parts of Africa, in the early sixteenth century. The first type of sailing ship designed around gun armament was the
In the sixteenth century, galleons became the principal fighting ships. They were supported in the early seventeenth century by ships known as
By the late seventeenth century, further refinements had appeared. Navies increasingly classified their warships. Ships of the highest rating came to be called ships of the
A caravel like the one depicted here, based on a drawing attributed to Christopher Columbus, was used by explorers of Africa and Asia during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
In general, warships became more standardized and more specialized as the age of sail progressed. The distinction between warships and merchant ships became more sharply drawn, especially after the mid-seventeenth century, when the line of battle was developed. Ships grew in size, and also in number. Fleet actions were increasingly decided by shipboard artillery, leaving little scope for the boarding and hand-to-hand
By 1800 sailing warships were providing the great naval powers, particularly England, with weapons of tremendous power, versatility, and range. However, by the end of the 1850’s the tremendous technological developments in steam propulsion, iron working, and ordnance had rendered sail-powered wooden warships obsolete.
Other than strengthening the hull structure to resist the forces exerted in firing the
Peter the Great, czar of Russia, made a trip to Western Europe, including a highly anticipated visit to Holland in the Dutch Republic to learn the art of shipbuilding.
Even after the decisive defeat of the Spanish Armada, naval experts remained divided on the issue of guns versus boarding. Although wooden ships could be wrecked by gunfire, causing many casualties, they proved difficult to sink. Indeed, the English fleet nearly ran out of ammunition defeating the Spanish Armada. Therefore it is not surprising that the
Consequently, even the galleon, with its significant forward-firing armament,
By the time of the Third Anglo-Dutch
Ships of the line were considered powerful enough to fight in the line of battle, which became the characteristic fleet tactic.
The huge fleets–containing as many as one hundred ships–amassed for the great sea battles of the late seventeenth century rendered command and control nearly impossible for the admirals of the period. No matter where they placed their flagships, part of their line of battle, which could stretch for 10 miles or more, would likely be out of visual range. This problem would be compounded by the vast clouds of
Moreover, naval tactics in the age of sail suffered from the fundamental problems associated with relying on the wind for propulsion. Winds could die down or suddenly shift direction. Furthermore, the square rig–the most common rig on Western warships–did not permit ships to sail directly into the wind. Neither was sailing highly efficient with the wind directly behind.
By the eighteenth century, fleets had become easier to control. Although navies were larger, individual fleets tended to be smaller. This paradox arose because the major navies–those of England, France, and Spain–now operated over a much larger area of the globe, using multiple fleets. Smaller fleets had less difficulty maintaining the line formation. Navies also developed better signaling techniques, involving not only signal flags but also night signaling by use of lanterns. The increasing adoption of professional officer corps by eighteenth century navies brought the line of battle under better control.
However, these very improvements in the line of battle, in some ways, worked against its decisiveness. If fleets arrayed in the line of battle were relatively equal in numbers of ships and guns, it was difficult for either side to win a clear-cut victory. Such was the case, for example, at the
The best way to win a victory between evenly matched forces was to take advantage of an enemy’s error. This proposition is well illustrated by the Battle of Quiberon
Superior proficiency in seamanship and gunnery also permitted a navy to win without possessing greater numbers. For example, England was able to win a string of victories during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). English sailors were more skilled, and English gun crews shot faster than all of their opponents except the Americans. Conversely, the French navy, hitherto the most formidable opponent of the English, had been weakened by the loss of experienced officers brought about as a result of the French Revolutionary Wars. The most spectacular of the English victories were those won by Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), including the Battle of
From 1700 to 1815 the greatest fleet actions were fought by ships of the line carrying between 60 and 131 guns with a maximum shot weight of 32 to 42 pounds, arranged on at least two decks. During this period, ships were still classed by rate. First-rates carried more than 100 guns and weighed up to 3,000 tons; they were generally used as flagships and as strong points in the line of battle. The most common line-of-battle ship came to be a two-decked, third-rate vessel of 74 guns and around 1,500 tons. This size offered the best compromise between firepower and sailing capability. Ships had become much larger: This third-rate ship was approximately the size of a first-rate of the seventeenth century.
Admiral Horatio Nelson’s brilliant naval strategy overwhelmed Napoleon’s forces during the Battle of the Nile in 1798.
Many English officers considered French ships to be better and faster than English ships. French ships did tend to be slightly larger, but they may have been more weakly built. Furthermore, the English inaugurated most of the technical innovations of the period, including the use of copper bottoms on ship’s hulls, which reduced the loss of speed caused by marine growth, and
The French bombard Algiers during a naval battle in 1830.
The period from 1815 to 1850 marked the swan song of the sailing warship. Wooden ships had reached unprecedented sizes, due to the system of diagonal bracing developed in 1811 by the English naval constructor
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