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This question is twofold. First, why the resurgence of naval ramming and return of rams to naval designs in the second half of the 1800s? Second, why the end to ramming in the 1900s?

Can one attribute the resurgence of ramming and of ram designs in the mid 1800s to the increased protection that more modern ships had been designed and equipped with during this period and the lack of sufficiently powerful naval artillery that could defeat the new armour?

Now, having read about the Battle of Lissa (1866), I was made aware that it was the last time deliberate and coordinated ramming was attempted and successful. I am aware of later incidents in which naval ramming occurred in times of war, HMS Dreadnought, HMS Glowworm and HMNZSs Kiwi and Moa, for example. However, what I would like to ascertain is: that the end of ramming as an accepted naval tactic by navies from the early 1900s onwards was due to improved gunnery and possibly the introduction of the torpedo as an offensive weapon. Furthermore, I wholly grasp that once the aircraft carrier became the dominant ship of a navy and aero-naval tactics were refined to a point where enemy vessels could be engaged well over the horizon, well, ramming between ships was not going to be effective due to the distances involved.

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The reason for the re-emergence of the ram in the mid-1800s is essentially a technological one. The introduction of the nautical steam engine gave ships a reliable source of power and the ability to move in any direction, and the introduction of armor-plating gave them greater weight (and therefore momentum), structural strength and protection.

During the Age-of-Sail most warships were wind-powered, square-rigged ships and, almost exclusively, had a broadside armament. This leads to several limitations;

  • Windpower limited the maneuverability and speed of these sailing warships. This could mean that a ramming attack might be impossible simply because the wind would not take you towards an enemy vessel or would do so at a speed that was too low to be effective.

  • Aiming your ship at the side of another to get a good square-on ram would mean that the bow of your ship (one of the weakest parts) was exposed to the full broadside of the enemy ship who was free to fire raking shot along the length of your ship as you approached.

  • The design of a square-rigged sailing ship meant that in a ramming situation, the ship doing the ramming would almost certainly lose its own bowsprit, effectively crippling its own sailing ability and weakening the whole of the ship's rigging.

So all in all, ramming in a sailing warship wasn't a good idea. However, once reliable steam engines were available, ships were no longer dependent on the wind and wind direction, and (in theory) armor protection meant that they could approach their targets at less risk.

It should be noted that the transition from wind power to steam power did not happen overnight. When the first ironclad rams appeared many of the warships in the world were still of the traditional wooden sailing variety (as were almost all of the merchant ships) or simply had an armor belt above the waterline with a wooden hull beneath. In theory, the steam powered ironclad should be able to out-maneuver the sailing ship and then use its ram to punch through the weaker wooden side of the target (so saving its expensive ammunition for stronger foes).

As to why it disappeared, it's a mix of tactical and technological reasons. As mentioned in other answers, in reality, actually getting into a position for an effective ram during a battle at sea was difficult and was almost as big a risk for the ship performing the ram as the target. This was realised fairly early on as noted by E.J.Reed (a British naval architect) in 1869 -

In order that a ship may be efficient as a ram, it is obvious, first of all, that she must be handy under steam. The effect of the blow she can deliver is in a large measure dependent on the directness of her attack, and an oblique or glancing blow on an enemy's side might sometimes do as much damage to the ram herself as to the ship she attacks. When a vessel steams directly down upon a ship at rest, as the 'Merrimac' did upon the 'Cumberland' at Newport News, or upon a vessel which can only maneuver sluggishly, as the 'Ferdinand Max' did upon the 'Re d'Italia' at Lissa, the attack by ramming can scarcely fail to be successful. But when an enemy is under way, and is perfectly under command of the steersman, there is much opportunity for her either entirely or partially to evade the attack of the ram, unless the latter is being maneuvered much more rapidly.

Just as there were improvements in ship's armor, there were also improvements in ship's armaments. Technological improvements in mechanization, metalurgy and chemistry lead to bigger guns, firing larger, more destructive shells over greater ranges and at higher velocities.

This meant that naval battles were fought at a distance and the pistol-shot pell-mell battles of the age of sail were a thing of the past. So in most cases warships simply didn't get close enough to ram each other and the designers realised that there was little point in adding a big chunk of metal to the bow that wouldn't get used.

refs:
The Sail and Steam Navy List, D.Lyon/R.Winfield (NMM/Chatham, 2004)
The Old Steam Navy, Volume 2, The Ironclads, 1842-1885, D.L.Canney (Naval Institute Press, 1993)
Our Iron-clad Ships, E.J.Reed (John Murray, 1869)
Development of Naval Guns 1850-1900, N.J.M.Campbell in British Naval Armaments, ed R.D.Smith (Royal Armouries, 1989)
Shells and Shell-Guns, J.A.Dahlgren (King & Baird, 1856)
  • Interesting, I hadn't realised that steam power coupled with the newer armour plating were the factors that ramming was back in vogue. – BOB Jan 21 '16 at 13:49
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Ramming survived as a tactic for use against submarines much longer than for use against surface vessels. The reason for this is that submarines are fairly fragile, and any significant leakage makes them unable to submerge - or at least, to surface again after submerging.

During WWI, the main anti-submarine weapons for most of the war were ramming (see the HMS Dreadnaught example) and gunfire, which was mostly ineffective against submarines at periscope depth and impossible if they were deeper. Depth charges took some time to develop, and for navies to make provision to carry enough of them.

During WWII, ramming was sometimes used by convoy escorts if a submarine came to the surface close by, as a finishing move. Some escort commanders objected to it, since a destroyer that rammed usually needed to be docked for repairs to the bows afterwards.

Ramming is also used on occasion as an attack of desperation. When a smaller ship finds itself fighting a larger and more powerful one, and its weapons aren't effective, ramming is worthwhile if you have no realistic hope of escape, or if it's very important that the enemy is damaged That was the case for the HMS Glowworm example.

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During the mid-1800s improvements in naval armor and construction was progressing somewhat faster than that in naval guns. This made it difficult to sink ships. Even many years earlier, in the War of 1812, the USS Constitution was famous for having cannonballs bounce off her sides. The SMS Kaiser at the Battle of Lissa, though it was a wooden ship was very large, tough, and held together strongly with iron bolts. This made it hard to sink. Also, at the time, many of the ship guns were actually mortars, designed to fire exploding shells. These are great for killing people, but not so good at sinking ships.

These considerations led the Austrian command at the battle to form the idea of rushing the Italians and engaging in a melee before the Italian gun fire could have an effect. This strategy succeeded, largely due to the incompetence of the Italians, many of whom were amateurs or had limited experience in naval warfare. When the Italian commodore returned after the battle he was indicted for incompetence.

The results of the battle caused some naval designers to show an increased interest in "ramming" technology, but this was just a fad. It swiftly became apparent that guns with armor piercing rounds were a lethal answer to the those kinds of tactics, which were never again repeated. At the battle of Lissa, the Italians actually did have penetrating naval rifles, the right type of weapon, but unfortunately they were only of smaller caliber. If they had equipped their ships with larger caliber naval rifles and had had gunners who knew how to use them, the Austrians would have been annihilated, long before they got anywhere near the Italian ships.

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There were very few naval wars and battles during the period in question, coupled with a rapid pace of innovation and uncertainty about the future development.

Naval architects concluded from a few lethal, unintentional ramming incidents that intentional ramming was a viable tactic. They should have noted that if problems at course keeping led to unintentional ramming incidents, then intentional ramming would be even harder.

  • This doesn't quite answer the questions I have asked. The resurgence of the naval ram I am interested in is before both incidents you mention after the reintroduction the ram as a design philosophy of ships. Indeed, both sources you provide concern ships with purpose built rams. Furthermore, you do not address whether naval artillery and gunnery were sufficient to defeat the new armour seen on ironclads. I recognise that the period had little practical engagements and plenty of uncertainty, thus the above question. – BOB Jan 20 '16 at 20:06
  • I believe that ramming was an "accepted" naval tactic without ever having been a viable naval tactic. So the decline of the ram is not so much due to new developments but due to recognition of the error. – o.m. Jan 21 '16 at 6:04
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During the age of sail, due to the nature of ramming an opponent when half of his cannon armament could be shot down the length of your ship, ramming was considered a suicidal maneuver for captains desperate to board. It could work if you were ramming an enemy bow or aft, but those places are small, and generally in motion. Bow to bow, you could expect to be equally crippled unless there was a big size difference. Bow to aft, you would damage your sails, but have an excellent boarding platform, if you were evendors going fast enought to do any damage relation to their speed. Bow to flank would result in the crippling of your bowsprit and your ship taking on water, while the enemy ship might have its planks scratched. The other big exception is in a fire attack, where you light your ship ablaze and send it at the enemy. That could cause serious damage, but if the enemy was mobile, they would surely dodge.

  • This doesn't really answer the question of why ramming reappeared and then disappeared in the 1800/1900s. – KillingTime Dec 19 '16 at 17:56

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