I spent some time looking into the short Ironclad era - an era of roughly 15 years that began with the first iron-armoured warships and ended with a seagoing warship that had all its guns in turrets and used neither sails nor oars (only steam engines and screws) for its propulsion.

There were less than a hundred Ironclads. The pace of construction was fairly modest compared to the exertions of the 1890's to 1916. Many ironclads were modernised with better guns few years after introduction in service, and some ironclads had their armour plating improved to keep pace with better-penetrating guns (even doubled armour thickness).

The quality and thickness as well as wood backing of armour advanced at a fast pace, and a ship launched just a few years earlier might just as well have been unarmoured when facing some of the newest, biggest guns.

The success of the era-concluding Devastation class seems unlikely to me even in hindsight; its freeboard was scary small and its armament were a mere four slow-loading heavy guns. Still, this was the prototype battleship, setting a dominant design that lasted until HMS Dreadnought (1906) appeared and in many ways more similar to today's warships than to warships just 15 years before its time.

HMS Devastation (built 1869-1873)
The Italians lost the only major naval battle of the era through a horrible fleet leader performance and an unbelievable degree of gunnery incompetence (missing seagoing ships at less than 1,000 m with entire salvoes).

Sadly, the literature about the era appears to be very limited. I found (and read some of them):

Modern Ships of War by Sir Edward J. Reed and Edward Simpson, 1888

The British Navy, Past and Present by S.Eardley-Wilmot, 1888

The Development of Navies by Captain S. Eardley-Wilmot, 1892

Ironclads in Action by H.W. Wilson, 1896

Our Iron-Clad Ships: Their Qualities, Performances, and Cost by Edward James Reed, 2011 (the author died 1906, so this is a new edition)

The Old Steam Navy: The Ironclads, 1842-1885 by Donald E. Canney, 1993

Ironclads At War: The Origin And Development Of The Armored Battleship by Jack Greene and Allessandro Massignani, 1998

War at Sea in the Ironclad Age by Richard Hill, 2006

Ironclads: An Illustrated History of Battleships from 1860 to the First World War by Peter Hore, 2006

British Ironclads 1860-75 by Angus Konstam, 2018 (Osprey)
European Ironclads 1860-75 by Angus Konstam, 2019 (Osprey)

Some of the new books recycle 19th century books' contents, including using refurbished drawings. I disregarded the many books about the uninteresting American Civil War's ironclad riverine boats and coastal fair weather (negligible freeboard) vessels.

I hoped to find some insights and lessons about what happens when there's some revolutionary technology and armed bureaucracies try to cope with rapid technological progress. I didn't find any such things in the books about the Ironclad era yet.
Technically, HMS Warrior's screw design and HMS Waterwitch's pump jets were surprises to me; both were approaches that would avoid the drag of the screw when the ship is sailing and became superfluous by the time HMS Devastation dropped the rigging altogether. Sailing rigs were afterwards only sensible for cruisers, particularly raiders (the auxiliary cruiser SMS Seeadler of WWI fame was a sailship for this reason).

BTW, three Ironclads survived; HMS Warrior in Portsmouth and two small Dutch ironclads (HNLMS Buffel (Hellevouetsluis, Netherlands) and HNLMS Schorpioen (Den Helder, Netherlands)).

You might find this summary of 19th century armour development of interest.


P.S.: Hat tip to the Russians for having a contemporary to HMS Devastation in their coastal warship Admiral Lazarev. It was actually laid down two years earlier and was superior in its armament concept by having three instead of two twin turrets. Reminder; the move from HMS Devastation's pattern of two twin main artillery turrets to a broadside of at least six main artillery guns was the key to the "all big gun battleship" concept a.k.a. "dreadnought" revolution three decades after HMS Devastation and Admiral Lazarev. The Russians were peripheral backwater to Western authors and their ship was a (not terribly small) coastal warship, so HMS Devastation get's more attention as groundbreaking design. I was guilty of this as well, hence this addition.


  1. I don't know if it discusses the specific issues you are interested in, but here is another book on this subject:


  2. I don't know if the change we are going through can be matched by any change in history.

    Drone swarms, 'cyber pearl harbour' and prompt (conventional) global strike seem like the end of the road. The world is too small to play silly battlefield games. There can't be another world war (or it would be the last), because how do you prepare for the post phoney war escalation and buildup? Stealth satelite orbital bombardment systems? FEBA drone factories? Directed energy (finally)?

    Sufficient technological advancement can render our understanding of warfare obsolete, unrecognisable. Other side of that is the water cooled machine gun and the 'war to end all wars'.

    1. Well, regarding the 'last world war' thing, keep in mind poison gas was introduced in WW1 (including the very lethal phosgene), city bombardments with phosgene were much-feared during the Interwar Years, Germany had even some nerve gas during WW2, still no poison gas was used in Europe during WW2, not even by the most desperate Nazis of 1945 when most German cities were already wastelands anyway.
      The assumption that a future world war would go nuclear is just that; an assumption. We could very well have a WW2 on steroids.
      (I am convinced I wrote about this before, but my search didn't yield an article.)

      Drone swarms aren't going to change much until small drones become useful for target detection & ID in autonomous mode.
      All that "cyber" stuff would probably merely lead to an internet cut-off between war parties and rest of the world, and damage might be repaired with similar astonishing effectiveness as factory and rail infrastructure bombing damage in 1943-1944.
      Satellites for bombardment are scary for first surprise strike scenarios, but mostly superfluous. They would be low orbit (or excessively expensive), and thus in range of anti-satellite attack profiles available to U.S., Russia and likely PRC.

      It is very easy and enticing to overestimate how very much new technologies change war. I have read about some Swiss officer who -under impression of WWI - demanded that the Swiss military turns into nothing but machinegunners. Rickover thought that the future of the USN would be all-nuclear. Jones thought that the era of manned combat aviation should end in the 1960's. Fuller thought that post-WWI armies should be all-mechanised. Others thought that tanks became pointless with the rise of ATGMs. There were fantasies about PGMs being all-powerful.

      So future war may happen at grand scale, and may be all-too recognisable.

      We should focus on the three big challenges:
      1) stop climate change and adapt to it (until 2050)
      2) become ready to feed 10 billion people, for that's where population growth heads to (by ~2100)
      3) avoid large-scale thermonuclear war
      A very nice-to-have achievement would be
      4) defeat extreme poverty by reduction of income inequality between and within countries

    2. If there is going to be a barney the opening act is going to be very awkward. We look at the thinking and the kit from the inter-war years and wonder how people could be stupid to think any of it could havr worked. But thats the point, that period of massive change is not analagous to today, though it is tempting to try to make it argue as if it is so.

      The world is not infinitely large. There comes a point where technological advancent makes it too small (awkward wording). After that point is reached, all prior technological revolutions are rendered minor in comparison.

      What does it mean when a tonne of explosives can be sent anywhere on the planet within hours? What fundementals does that change.

      War between major powers will always escalate to nukes. "If I die, the world dies with me." Regimes with nukes will use them if they judge it likely they will be defeated conventionally. That applies to the US as well.

      The 'cyber stuff' is not cyber. It is infrastructure. It is every network attached control system in the world (airgapped as well).

      Theres a defcon talk from years ago about SHODAN called "drinking from a firehose", worth a watch. How much damage would be caused if all of the prepositioned attacks were triggered? Nobody knows, anyone who says they do is dellusional.

      Also remember, spectre and meltdown have not been repaired. They can not be 'fixed' without a deletion of ten years of chip design (and five years ahead in the roadmap). This is not a NG firewall problem. Code can not save us. When you found that buffer overflow or moved to NoSQL you didnt make your security any better. They were even pushing edge security with the very atoms that are extra vulnerable a couple of years ago. They also used to say microtik was a competant company, oops. Supermicro too :(

      Blah blah, woof woof. A disorganised mess, appropriate for the topic.

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  4. Warrior to Dreadnought 1860-1905 by D.K. Brown, and Steam, Steel and Shellfire by Robert Gardiner might be the books you are looking for.