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Iron Plates and New Projectiles.


October 1862

From The Missouri Democrat, Friday, October 17, 1862.

Iron Plates and New Projectiles.

The British Government is in a state of uncertainty and confusion.  It cannot make up its mind whether the Warrior and her iron cased consorts are equal to a firm resistance against heavy projectiles, or whether Mr. Whitworth or Sir William Armstrong are able to batter the sides of any Warrior or other new fashioned vessel which mechanical ingenuity can invent.  Two remarkable series of experiments at Shoeburyness have just been added to the history of this investigation.  The last of these took place on the 25th of September, and the result, as reported in the London journals received by the Persia, shows that the equation is more hopelessly befogged than ever.  “The subject, says the London Times, “is beset with difficulties.  The iron men believe that they can so coat a ship as to practically render her invulnerable to any shot; while, on the other hand, artillerists are as firmly of opinion that they can make guns which shall also be practically equal to crippling any iron frigate that ever floated.”

The fact seems to be that the Whitworth flat-headed shell was driven through a built-up section of the Warrior’s side, piercing the iron, shattering the inner lining of teak, and making a ragged opening which would have produced an irreparable leak in a vessel at sea; and that the solid shot of the great Armstrong gun smashes in all the Warrior targets that are made.  The destructive effect of the Whitworth projectile is greater than that of Armstrong’s at a distance of six hundred yards, with small charges of powder’ so that, according to the last accounts, Whitworth is ahead, and the iron-plated frigates are as yet incapable of resisting the fearful power of his new projectiles.  The detailed account of the effect of the fire upon the Warrior target is interesting:

“The first experimental shot was fired with a charge of twenty-three pounds of powder and a solid hexagonal shot weighing one hundred and twenty-nine pounds, the piece being laid a half a degree of elevation.  It struck the left center of the target at which it was aimed, and at the instant of the tremendous concussion of the metals a bright sheet of flame was emitted, almost as if a gun had been fired from the target in reply.  This shot passed completely through the armor plate (four-and-a-half-inch iron) shattering the teak beyond (eighteen inches) into minute splinters, and fell full upon one of the massive vertical angle lines, which it tore in half as if it had been paper, sending its screw bolts and rivets in all directions.  The shot, however, did not pass through the target, but remained buried in the teak with its flat head resting against the broken angle iron.  But the fracture it made was much worse that mere penetration.  It was a smash, not a hole, and the inner skin of the ship was bulged and torn wide in many places, so that in the case of an actual vessel such a shot striking on the water line would have made a leak which nothing could have stopped.  As regarded the effect of these flat-fronted shot on iron ships, the experiment was conclusive.  Such a missile against a wooden ship would have gone through both sides, making a clean hole and doing little damage, but the iron, without protecting, offered only sufficient resistance to make the fracture, if below the water line, an irremediable mischief.

“The next experiment was with a live shell loaded with three pounds and eight ounces of powder.  The total weight of this projectile was one hundred and thirty-one pounds, and it was fired at the same range and elevation with a twenty-five pound charge of powder.  The effect of this shot astounded every one.  The previous solid shot, at six hundred yards, was for Whitworth nothing very extraordinary, but to get a shell through the target at the same range was regarded as almost an impossibility.  Yet the shell went completely through everything, bursting apparently when it encountered the last resistance of the inner skin, which the explosion blew completely away, lighting for a moment the timbers at the back which supported the target, and sending the bits of shell onward and over what, had it been the Warrior, would have been her main deck, and therefore right in the midst of her crew.”

The London Times, commenting upon this experiment, remarks:

“The new frigates of the Minotaur class building at London and Birkenhead are not to be partially coated like the Warrior, but completely cased from stem to stern with armor of inches thick instead of 4½.  It is yet to be seen how they will bear this enormous mass of metal, and the result of the experiment in a sea-way is looked forward to with no little anxiety and even apprehension.  The Warrior, it is said, is in a sea-way a rolling ship in the fullest and most unmanageable sense of the term, and against a head wind plunges heavily.  It is, therefore, only reasonable to conclude that the new ships, which carry heavier armor and more of it, are, to say the leas, not likely to be more handy under similar conditions.  The limit, therefore, to which we can safely go with the thickness of armor for sea-going frigates has been reached, yet the Whitworth guns is not unlikely to turn out an overmatch for all.”

Here are two notable admissions; first, that the Warrior is really an unmanageable frigate, notwithstanding all that has been said in her praise; and, secondly, that the present iron navy of England is not to be relied upon in case of an emergency, but that ordnance lighter than that of the Rodman class is an “overmatch” for the ships of which it is composed.  Nevertheless, the Admiralty proposed to make still further experiments, in hope of better results.