A Brief History
On December 29, 1860, the first British oceangoing ironclad warship, the HMS Warrior, was launched, but she was not the first such ship in World History.
Contrary to popular misconception that the US Navy USS Monitor and the Confederate States Navy CS Virginia (rebuilt from the Union wooden ship, USS Merrimac) were the first ironclad warships, iron armored floating batteries had already seen combat during the Crimean War, and the French ship, the Gloire, in service since 1859 was the world’s first ocean going warship. In fact, the Monitor and Virginia were actually designed for coastal work and not the open ocean.
Warrior was a 40 gun steam driven ship, the first of a class of 2 armored frigates, and was designed using the plans of a wooden steamship as the basis for the hull. Considered a “broadside ironclad,” Warrior‘s guns were arrayed on a single gun deck protected by an armored box structure with half the guns facing each side of the ship.
When launched, the Warrior was the fastest and most powerful warship in the world, stretching 420 feet long and 58 feet wide, with a draught of 26 feet,. giving her a displacement of a whopping 9137 metric tons, the size of a World War II cruiser. Her 5772 horsepower steam engine driving a screw propeller moved the ship at a 14 knot speed, fast enough to outmaneuver other warships. (Warrior could make 17.5 knots using steam and sail combined.) Protected by 4.5 inches of wrought iron armor, she was not designed to slug it out with ships of the line that could out gun her, but to dart around the battle scene inflicting damage and maneuvering out of danger. You may be surprised to know the iron hull of the Warrior actually weighed less than an equivalent wooden hull, adding to her sprightliness. Still, she was considered virtually invulnerable to the cannon of other ships when first launched. As was often the case with early steamships, Warrior was also fitted with masts and sails to save fuel while on long transits.
The heavy armament of the Warrior was arrayed with a mix of old and new technology, with 26 X 68 pounder smooth bore muzzle loading cannon, 10 X rifled breech loading 110 pounder cannon, and 4 rifled breech loading 40 pounder cannon. It took 702 men to man this great ship. This fearsome battery was able to fire solid shot and exploding shells, as well as the particularly fiendish shot loaded with a molten iron core. (No kidding, they really had that.) Max range of any of the guns was 3000 to 4000 yards. Maximum armor penetration was nearly 10 inches with a new gun later added in 1864-7 during a refit (8 inch bore breech loading rifle).
Although a sensation when first commissioned in 1861, Warrior was already obsolete by 1871 when the first of the mastless armored warships appeared (HMS Devastation) went into service. Failing to find any combat during her career, Warrior was first decommissioned in 1883 and went through a period of being given various other designations and duties, and even other names. By 1929 she was already stripped of guns and other equipment and served as an oil hulk (floating dockside fuel reservoir for other ships) serving as such through World War II. Interest in restoring the hulk as a museum ship started in the 1960’s and work began in 1979. In 1987 she was given a permanent berth in Portsmouth as a restored museum ship, a role she still serves, along with the other storied warships HMS Victory and HMS Mary Rose.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite museum ship? USS Intrepid? USS North Carolina? USS Cod? (3 of our favorites.) Let us know and share information with other interested naval buffs in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Davies, Wynford. HMS Warrior – Ironclad (Seaforth Historic Ships Series). Seaforth Publishing, 2011.
Lambert, Andrew. HMS Warrior 1860: Victoria’s Ironclad Deterrent. Naval Institute Press, 2011.
Mowll, William. Building a Working Model Warship: Hms Warrior 1860. Naval Inst Pr, 1997.
The featured image in this article, an illustration by Frederick James Smyth (fl. 1841–1867) after Edwin Weedon (1819–1873) of HMS Warrior, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: The author died in 1873, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1926.