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As ship's bow is designed to break the waves, the physics (something like hydrokinetics) makes it should look like a wedge. And it really is, if we look from above. This should be also kept if look from side.

This is a picture of the bow of a modern ship (let's call it a 7-shape):

enter image description here

Wikipedia has also different kinds of bows on this picture, but all are very similiar:

enter image description here

Looking at warships bow during historic eras we can notice that shapes have changed.

This trireme bow was designed to operate as a ram and destroy enemy's ships.

enter image description here

A caravel was not intended to touch other ships, so her bow is physically correct:

enter image description here

HMS Africa, which fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, had "normal" bow too:

enter image description here

But in 19th century and early 20th the ships bow was again looking like the one of the trireme, but more C-shaped, having keel longer than the deck:

enter image description here

German postcard comparing losses during the Battle of Jutland:

enter image description here

I think however it is not as long as in ancient galleys.

The RMS Titanic did not have a ram, as she was a civilian ship:

enter image description here

Then again, in WW2 and later, we go back to "correct" 7-shape, for example:

USS Missouri:

enter image description here

Modern USS Bainbridge:

enter image description here

And my question is:

What was the reason of C-shaped bows in 19th century and WW1? Was it the same as a ram in ancient galleys? Why did everybody expect to ram enemy's ship? Were there any successful attempts in the age of heavy naval artillery?

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Examining the bow only above the waterline does not give you the whole story. This picture of the Bainbridge will show you what's under the waterline. The answers have addressed the rest of what I'd offer. – KorvinStarmast May 10 at 15:07
@KorvinStarmast Ok, what is that link doing there? It has no relation to this question at all. – SMS von der Tann May 10 at 21:33
The link has to do with the full view of one of the ships in the question. – KorvinStarmast May 10 at 21:37
up vote 12 down vote accepted

While I can't answer for the reason for a C-Shaped bow in the 19th Century and WW1 - I can provide you with an example of a successful ramming attack in WW1.

HMS Dreadnought(Wiki link) rammed and sunk the German submarine U29 on the 18th March 1915.

As a side note, I know that there was such a thing as a Torpedo ram trialled around WW1 as a method of delivering a torpedo - they were more of monitor sized rather than battleship sized, and were never seriously used (I believe). It's plausible that the ram type bows seen on that era of ships stemmed from these trials as the designers found they could have a purpose? It might be worth looking into that.


After doing some research on this, I have found that Norman Friedman talks about ship design, and may explain the apparent use of the "ram bow" in his book U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History.

On page 62 he states:

Given the 1904 recommendation to abandon the ram bow, the 1905 conference thought retention of such a bow in the new ship a major flaw. It considered the ram a menace, in that collisions seemed likely in wartime, particularly in fleet actions. The forepart should be designed instead for dryness at high speed, with a flared bow and overhang. The latter might even reduce the effects of collision. At least in later ships, what appeared to be a ram bow was actually a bulbous bow that increased speed.

This makes it appear to be the case, at least in US Naval Ship design (and therefore it is not inconceivable that other large navies were following similar trains of thought), that pre-1905 ships were designed with a ram bow as a method of protecting against bow on collisions when fighting a close fleet action and post-1905 what appears to be a ram bow above the water is in fact an early implementation of a bulbous bow.

This may also explain why the RMS Titanic appears to have a ram bow, but I can't find anything that indicates the Titanic did have a Bulbous bow or indeed a ram bow. It is possible that is bow design was chosen to increase the impression that this class of passenger ship was "unsinkable". In fact, the Olympic (Titanic sister ship) was involved in 5 collisions/rammings during it's service life.

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Also, it's a bit later on - but in WW2 the ramming of submarines by destroyers became relatively common practice when the submarine was too close to attack with gunfire leading the the RN discouraging the practice around 1943. That may also provide a lead. – Kobunite Jun 24 '13 at 13:57
But they had 7-shaped bows, examples British and American Fletcher class – Voitcus Jun 24 '13 at 14:39
Also, the German heavy cruiser Hipper was rammed by the HMS Glowworm during WWII. Churchill has a very moving (if somewhat embellished) account of it in his memoirs of WWII. – T.E.D. Jun 24 '13 at 18:15
Well, thanks, great answer! – Voitcus Jun 24 '13 at 21:46
the bulbous design is present in almost all ocean going vessels today. Titanic had its bow I believe to protect her against collisions with ice bergs in the north Atlantic, the one that sunk her sadly hit her on the side rather than the bow, had it hit the bow it'd likely have caused far less damage, allowing the ship to reach port. – jwenting Jun 25 '13 at 5:23

There are a number of reasons for the appearance of the ram bow in the 19th century. The ram bow is a more natural bow form for tumblehome hull forms. Tumblehome was used on most ships during this period, hence the proliferation of the bow type. Shot deflection was not a major concern when adopting this form as the bow section is not an easy target, or a vital area of the ship. Ramming of enemy vessels was a concern until in the 1890's advancements in torpedoes made close approaches of enemy vessels dangerous (battleships had submerged broadside torpedoes back then). The final reason is stability. The ram bow cuts under waves and reduces the pitching motion present in rough seas. This was very important during this period as gunnery was relatively imprecise and every advantage helped. By 1905, bow forms begin to reach vertical and take on more traditional angles by 1914. This coincides with the development of accurate gunsights and techniques.

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Finally a sensible answer. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 22 '13 at 18:51
Excellent answer; would have been better if it had provided references for concepts such as "tumblehome" that may not be obvious to the unitiated. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 23 '13 at 11:48

What was the reason of C-shaped bows in 19th century and WW1? Was it the same as a ram in ancient galleys? Why did everybody expect to ram enemy's ship? Were there any successful attempts in the age of heavy naval artillery?

  1. It actually depends on which ship you are talking about from that era. In the British naval world the HMS Dreadnought actually marked the transition from ram bow to bulbous bow. Take a look at the images below.

Here is a Swiftsure Class pre-dreadnought battleship and the last British battleship class completed before the Dreadnought herself. Note the pointed ram bow. enter image description here Image Source

Here is Dreadnought with a bulbous bow. enter image description here Image Source

Here is the Lord Nelson class battleships completed right after the Dreadnought. Even though these ships are pre-dreadnoughts, since they were built after the Dreadnought they used bulbous bows instead of ram bows enter image description here Image Source

  1. Why keep the ram as modified to a bulb? Well, as @Alias72's answer says, it is to have better stability for gunnery. Passenger liners don't really need this portion as much because they don't have to shoot guns at sea (Although it would also help with keeping seasickness down among passengers too). And yes, as stated above, Dreadnought did ram and sink SM U-29 by ramming as sort of an ironic statement to her "father's", John Fisher, decision not to give her a true ram.

  2. Speaking of "modern" ships, the Zumwalt class guided missile destroyers are actually designed with a bow shape very similar to those of the 19th century. There is nothing really "modern" about any of the hull types, the designers just use what seems fit for what the ship needs to do (and for looks to a lesser extent). I also do want to point out that the Zumwalt also uses a tumblehome (wider hull at waterline tapering inwards as it goes up) which has not been used on naval ships for quite some time. Take a look:

enter image description here

Image Source

All in all, ship designers find what type of bow is the best fit for a certain model, so the designs will bounce back and forth over time.

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What a relief - a knowledgeable answer at last. – Pieter Geerkens May 8 at 1:10

I can't source this at all but I believe that early armor-plated ships were shaped this way after the design of the ACW-era ironclads like the Merrimack and the Monitor. The idea was to present the enemy with convex angles which cannonballs would bounce off of at oblique angles rather than concave ones that would take the brunt of the blow. As time went by, the relative advantage of this set-up was lost as solid shot was replaced by explosive shot, and the significant disadvantages of this set-up (chiefly, I think, the fact that you had so much more of the ship below the waterline, making them both slow and vulnerable to torpedo fire) meant that they soon went back to the old-fashioned V-shaped fronts.

As an example of US Civil War era technology, here is the USS Merrimack, converted into the CSS Virginia:

CSS Virginia

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Sounds reasonable. [Wikipedia}(en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ram_bow#Steam_rams) describes similar reasons. – knut Jun 24 '13 at 18:01
I've decided to accept Kobunite's answer, but if I could, I would accept yours too. Thanks also to @knut, the link you provided leads to article about Battle of Lissa. This could be that this Austrian victory changed naval warfare (although there is a "citation needed") so both bow operations as a ram and a reflection shield are possible. – Voitcus Jun 26 '13 at 9:29

For what it's worth, the Wikipedia article on inverted bows notes that

Inverted bows maximize the length of waterline and hence the hull speed.

Inverted bows were popular on battleships and large cruisers in the early 20th century. They fell out of favour, as they were very wet on high speeds and heavy seas, but have made a comeback on modern ship design.

I do know of cases where individual warships built in the 1920s and 1930s with rather vertical bows were refitted with more forward-slanting "Atlantic bows" because they shipped too much water over the bow in their trials (e.g., the two ships of the German Scharnhorst class), which supports what the Wikipedia article says. Possibly the trend towards faster and faster warships in the early 20th Century (typical battleship top speeds going from less than 20 knots at the beginning of the century to around 30 knots in the 1930s) contributed to this.

The same Wikipedia page includes some other examples of modern inverted bows, in addition to the Zumwalt class.

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