Torpedo Ram

The torpedo-ram was an armored vessel, with curved deck, fighting awash, and attacking, in fleets, with the torpedo and the ram. Strickly speaking a torpedo ram would have torpedo tubes, and would be built specially for ramming. In practice, the term was applied rather loosely in the 1870s and 1880s, before falling from favor.

The office of the ram in coast defence was to be similar to the torpedo boat, acting on the offensive by making excursions against the enemy at night and in thick weather; in attacking a vessel that has been disabled by gunfire or torpedo, or that has grounded, or become deprived of the support of her companions fiom any cause, as well as acting in conjunction with other vessels in a general attack."

By the 1890s the automobile torpedo had yet to win success in battle against ships in motion. It was, in some types, subject to deflection, if discharged from broadside tubes when a vessel is at speed. In under-water broadside tubes, it was liable, further, to injury during discharge. Above-water tubes would seem to be a source of danger in action, especially if unarmoured. Bow-tubes had been criticised with regard to the danger of the vessel overrunning her own projectile. It seemed, at best, a weapon of errant aim and limited range, although of great destructiveness, if it should reach the mark.

The first vessel that marked the transition from the ironclad proper to the torpedo-ram was probably the Tordenskiold, built for Denmark, after the plans of Nielsen, during the years 1879-82. This vessel possessed no ram. The first real torpedo-rams were built in 1880-81, by Armstrong and Co., for the Chinese Government. They were constructed of steel, measured 64m. in length, and 10m. in breadth. They drew 4'6m. of water and had a displacement of 1,350 tons. The success of these vessels caused the Chili Government to commission the same firm to build them two similar ships, the Esmeralda and Arturo Pratt. The latter was christened by the President, but was afterwards bought by Japan and renamed the Tsukuschi. The oldest European torpedo-ram is the Sfax, built, in the years 1881-84, by the French Government. It is 83'4, m. long 15m. broad, and has 4,488 tons burden and a horsepower of from 5,000 to 7,500, giving a speed of from fifteen to sixteen knots. Its price was probably considerably over six millions of francs. Italy has adopted the idea of torpedo-rams even more thoroughly than France.


A very formidable torpedo-vessel was built by that greatest of living engineers, Captain John Ericsson. It was appropriately named the Destroyer. The Destroyer was armed with a torpedo-gun which discharges under the water a projectile carrying a charge sufficient to sink the largest iron-clad afloat. The submarine gun is mounted in the bow of the vessel, near the keel, and is thus nearly ten feet below the surface of the water. It consists of a cylinder of gun-metal, or steel, 30 feet long, additionally strengthened at the breech by broad steel rings. It is loaded at the breech, the muzzle being incased by the vessel's stem, and closed by a valve to exclude the water. This valve is opened by suitable levers just before the gun is to be discharged, and closes automatically as the projectile leaves the muzzle. A light, wooden disk, which is shot away at each discharge, is inserted in the muzzib just hefore the gun is loaded, and prevents the entrance of water during the time the valve is open. The form of the torpedo is cylindrical, with a conical point in which is placed the percussion-lock and firing-pin, and the explosion takes place upon impact.

While Captain Ericsson's submarine torpedo-gun may be applied to vessels of almost any class, the Destroyer was so well adapted to such an armament as to merit a description. The vessel's lines are very sharp, and alike at both the bow and stern, thus enabling her to move ahead or astern with almost equal facility. The hull is 130 feet in length, built wholly of iron, partially armored at the bow; width, 17 feet; draught of water, 11 feet. Two iron decks, separatedby a distance of about 3 feet, extend the whole length of the vessel, sheltering the crew and machinery, the space between the decks being filled with cork floats and bags of air to increase the buoyancy. A heavy iron shield, 2 feet thick, backed by 5 feet of solid timber, crosses the deck near the bow, inclining backward at an angle of 30 degrees, so as to deflect any shot that may strike it, below and behind which the crew, the gun, and all the vital parts of the machinery are situated.

When equipped and ready for action, only a few inches of the Destroyer show above the water, thus exposing to an enemy but a small target, and at the same time affording to the crew and engines the protection of the surrounding water. The gun is discharged by electric wires leading to the pilot-house, likewise situted behind the shield, where a reflector affords the officer in command and the helmsman a full view of the horizon in front of the vessel.

Experience showed that vessels discharging the torpedo ran no risk in employing a mine of 55 to 66 pounds of powder, 13 to 15 pounds of dynamite, or 22 to 27 pounds of peroxylene, if it be not less than 19 feet distant from the place of explosion, the mine being at a depth of 7 feet. Since from 19 feet distance there is little difficulty in directing a torpedo against an enemy's ship by the use of a spar, the problem became simply how best to build vessels which would be unnoticed on approach.

Her speed, though good, was not entirely satiafactory. The torpedoes were to be discharged from a tube under water, by compressed air or other agent, but as yet the plan had not proved a practical success.


USS Intrepid, a 1150-ton steam torpedo ram built at the Boston Navy Yard, was commissioned at the end of July 1874. She spent the next few months conducting torpedo trials in the waters off New England and New York and was then decommissioned at the New York Navy Yard. Intrepid had occasional active service over the next several years and in 1882 began conversion to a light-draft gunboat for service in Chinese waters. This work continued slowly until 1889 and was then suspended. USS Intrepid was sold in May 1892. The Intrepid was never regarded as a snccess.


By the time of the American Centennial in 1876 one of the most formidable of ocean-going torpedo vessels was the dispatch boat Alarm, designed by Admiral Porter. The Alarm was a vessel of a very novel type. This vessel combined the qualities of a gun-boat, ram, and torpedo-boat. USS Alarm, an 800-ton experimental steam torpedo vessel, was built at the New York Navy Yard. She was commissioned in 1874 and served as a test ship for the Bureau of Ordnance at the Washington Navy Yard during most of the rest of the 1870s, with a year away on torpedo duty at Newport, Rhode Island, in about 1877. Alarm was generally stationed at the New York Navy Yard during the first half of the 1880s and was laid up there in 1885. She reportedly was under conversion to a gunnery training ship during the early 1890s, but appears to have no active service in that role. Stricken from the Navy list in 1897, USS Alarm was sold in February 1898.

This vessel had a length of 172 feet, including the snout or ram, which projects 32 feet from the stem; her breadth of beam is 27 feet 6 inches, and she draws 11 feet of water, with a displacement of about 700 tons. She is built of iron, with double sides and bottom, divided into water-tight compartments.

The Alarm had an immense underwater prow, or ram, 32 feet long, projecting from the bow. Within this hollow prow, which is covered with 4 inches of wrought-iron armor, was the torpedo machinery. This consists of a cylindrical iron "spar," 35 feet long, carrying a torpedo attached to its outer end, and capable of being run out, under the water, a distance of 25 feet ahead of the prow. Electric wires lead from the torpedo along the spar, through grooves to a firing pedestal on deck. She carries three cylinders, one at the snout and one on each side. By these cylinders or hollow spars of iron, which are 18 feet long at the sides and 32 feet long forward, either of two kinds of torpedoes might be placed against the hull of the enemy's ship. One is a modification of the Whitehead or fish torpedo, to be detached and darted off; the other kind is a fixed spar torpedo, to be held and thrust forth.

Like the Destroyer, the Alarm was designed to fight "bows-on." Remarkable turning and manauvring powers were obtained by adopting the "Mallory Propeller," an ingenious invention by which the screw may be quickly moved so that its full force is exerted in a direction at right angles to the vessel's length, causing the latter to turn almost upon a fixed pivot. The armament, in addition to the ram and torpedo, consists of one heavy gun mounted in the bow, for firing directly ahead.

ABCD and After

Besides the Alarm and Intrepid, of 1,150 and 800 tons respectively, the United States Government ordered four torpedo-rams of different sizes. The first, the Chicago, laid down in 1883, is very similar to the Sfax. It is 91'44m. long and 14 63m. broad. It has engines of 5000 H.P., giving a speed of sixteen knots. It was to cost about $280,000, an enormous price for such a vessel. Two others, the Atlanta and Boston, are slightly smaller. Their speed is only fourteen knots, with a horse-power of 3,500. The fourth, the Delphin, can only by courtesy be called a torpedo-ram. It was little larger than a despatch-boat.

These vessels were more generally considered cruisers, rather than torpedo rams, a term that soon passed from the scene,

As late as 1905 the concept remained alive in the search for assailants which it will be difficult for the heavy battleships to keep at bay. Unarmoured destroyers cannot withstand the hail of bullets from their quick-firing armaments ; but a determined attack by a group of destroyers protected by armour - say armored torpedo-rams - might be very formidable. The armored torpedo-ram was no new conception. The "Polyphemus" was a first specimen of the type. Faults - inevitable when all when all is novel - might be corrected. Advocates thought it whould not be difficult to design a vessel of the same class, heavily armoured, of high speed, armed with torpedo-tubes and with one heavy gun in the bows. Many might be built for the cost of one battleship. Armored rams might do more than the heavy ships to decide tie issue of a hard-fought day.

Join the mailing list