Sunday, February 8, 2015

Steel Ships and Iron Men

I ran across a very interesting post on “Weapons Man” blog today, that I though worth citing for my own comments on it. It concerns the adoption by the US Army and US Navy of steel breech-loading artillery in the 1880’s.  After having led the world in artillery design and production during the American Civil War, a general doldrums set in on both services in regards to any serious innovation.  Part was due to the wish on the part of most of the populace to just not think about war anymore, part was due to a serious lack of interest by Congress, and part due to the result of said lack of interest, being a lack of money to do any innovating.   

While there were a few innovations in small-arms (such as the general adoption of breech-loading rifles and revolvers firing self-contained metallic cartridges, as well as Gatling guns) there wasn’t any change in the sorts of artillery fielded by either the Army or the Navy.  They still used the same basic cast-iron (or sometimes bronze) muzzle-loading smooth-bores that had been made by the thousands during the Civil War, and economics dictated that they remain in service until something forced the issue.  President Chester Arthur authorized a board of officers to tour various European armouries to see just how far behind we were in such things. The essay discusses the book on the board’s tour, and some of their comments and conclusions.  A good read, BTW:

Interestingly, the production of steel in the US in large quantities came right at this time (1884 or so) due to the Navy modernization program known as the "ABCD Ships".  The USS Atlanta (under sail, right), USS Boston, USS Chicago and USS Dolphin formed the first real expansion to the US Navy since 1865, and the demand by the board authorized them to build them in steel, rather than in the iron that US foundries could produce in quantity.  Although Carnegie's Homestead Steel Mill could produce steel, it wasn't enough to construct armoured ships, so it would have forced the Navy to import sufficient steel from Britain or Germany.  However, the board also recommended that various subsidies be provided to US iron mills which would convert to the production of steel in order to ensure a sufficient supply: a case of "build it and they will come" (or rather "demand it and they will provide".)  

The entire story is nicely told by  Robley D. Evans, who retired out as an Admiral, in his book  "A Sailor's Log: Recollections of Forty Years of Naval Life", as he was on the board described. At least claims he was instrumental in the adoption of steel for ship building in the Navy and with it, a greater availability of steel for other uses by American industry.   For those interested, here is a link to his book, at Googlebooks:

Thus it was done, and you will note that such manufactures as Colt, Remington and Winchester went from producing iron-frame firearms to steel-frame firearms circa 1885 as well, due to the now-abundant production of steel. 

At any rate, it is interesting that the needs of the services for steel artillery came at a time when the need for steel ships had already become apparent, and that the need was actually being attended to due to some far-sighted officers in the Navy. Handy serendipity and a strong confirmation of the wisdom of Captain Robley Evans.



Nancy Frye said...

I'm guessing that steel existed in some form prior to this but was not common. Recently I dropped a historical novel after only a few pages when the author described "steel-clad" ships in the 18-teens, which didn't predispose me to read further.

Gordon said...

While steel was available from Carnegie's steel mills in Pittsburgh, most of it went into the production of rails and rolling stock for the railroads. While his production was pretty significant, it just wasn't nearly enough to supply the railroads AND the Navy, thus the need to expand the iron industry into a steel industry. From being a fairly minor producer of steel in 1870, the US came up from behind to out-produce both Britain and Germany in steel production by 1900, a pretty amazing feat.

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