US battleships fired their guns for the last time 30 years ago. Here’s how they dominated the seas for nearly a century.


USS Iowa firing guns
USS Iowa fires a full broadside of its nine 16-inch and six 5-inch guns during an exercise near Puerto Rico, July 1, 1984. US Navy
  • With massive guns and stout armor, battleships were the centerpiece of any major navy for decades before World War II.

  • The US Navy sent its battleships into combat from the 1890s until the Gulf War. Here’s how they were used during that century of warfare.

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

For nearly a century, battleships were the preeminent symbol of naval dominance, commanding the seas until the use of carriers became widespread during World War II.

Armed with massive guns and a host of secondary armaments, battleships were originally the centerpiece of any major fleet. They would deliver knockout blows in massive engagements and bring lesser powers to heel.

At least 21 different classes of battleships were built for the US Navy between 1888 to 1947, and they played decisive roles in projecting American power.

The pre-dreadnoughts

USS Texas navy battleship
USS Texas in 1898. Library of Congress

By the 1880s, all-metal ships had only recently become popular. The performance of ironclads in the American Civil War and the Third Italian war of independence – particularly at the Battle of Hampton Roads and the Battle of Lissa – showed that the future of naval warfare was armored vessels with large guns.

The first American battleship, USS Texas, was the US’s attempt to catch up to European powers that were fitting their metal ships with rotating turrets. Texas was actually ordered in response to the purchase of European-made ships by South American countries, which briefly made Brazil the strongest naval power in the Western Hemisphere.

Texas featured two turrets with a single 12-inch gun in each. It also had six other 12-inch guns in different mounts throughout the ship, as turrets were still relatively new and secondary armaments were considered equally important.

Though Texas was a new design, the fast-paced shipbuilding environment made it largely obsolete by the time it was commissioned no less than eight other classes of battleships between 1895 and 1908, as well as a number of protected cruisers.

Dominance in the Spanish-American War in 1898, as well as the Great White Fleet’s voyage around the world between 1907 and 1909, proved American naval power, but the ships themselves were still considered wanting compared to those of the major sea powers – namely Britain.

Dreadnought battleships

USS New York navy battleship
USS New York underway at high speed, May 29, 1915. Commissioned in 1914, it was the first ship designed to carry 14-inch guns. US Navy

Battleship design entered a new phase in 1906 when the Royal Navy commissioned HMS Dreadnought.

Dreadnought was the first warship to feature a uniform main battery with large guns in multiple turrets instead of a few large guns with a sizable complement of secondary guns. Dreadnought’s general layout became the model for all future battleships, and it sparked a naval arms race around the world.

By the time of World War I, the US Navy had at least 16 battleships from eight Dreadnought-inspired classes in service.

Ships in four of those classes had 12-inch guns, while ships of the other four had 14-inch guns. The number of turrets varied, as did their number of guns: The Wyoming-class had as many as six twin turrets, while the Pennsylvania-class had four triple turrets.

Although World War I saw a number of major ship-to-ship engagements – most notably the Battle of Jutland – the US entered the war too late to join any major naval battles, though some of its battleships did fire on German vessels while on patrol or escort duty.

The Washington and London Naval Treaties

USS Colorado navy battleship
USS Colorado off of lower Manhattan in 1932. US Navy

Two more classes of battleships, the Tennessee and Colorado classes, were completed after the war ended.

The Colorados featured an upgraded armament of eight 16-inch guns in four twin turrets. The developments proved that the US had caught up and was now a major naval power.

But worries of another naval arms race sparking a second major war lead the US, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan to sign the Washington Naval Treaty in 1922, putting strict limits on new capital ships, their total tonnage, and the size of their guns.

In the US, this resulted in the canceling of all six vessels of the planned South Dakota-class, as well as one incomplete Colorado-class battleship. No new American battleships would be under construction again until 1937.

In 1930, the London Naval Treaty extended the restrictions to submarines and cruisers, but by 1936, Japan and Italy had both renounced the treaty, and Germany had withdrawn from the League of Nations and the World Disarmament Conference.

France, Britain, and the US also signed the Second London Naval Treaty that year, in an attempt to keep the limitations alive.

World War II

USS West Virginia pearl harbor
The sunken battleship USS West Virginia, with the battleship USS Tennessee inboard of it, during or after the attack on Pearl Harbor. US Navy

All eight Battleships of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The newest battleships of the North Carolina-class were in the Atlantic and had to support operations against Germany.

But the war would be entirely different than what the Navy envisioned. The Navy’s aircraft carriers, all of which survived the Pearl Harbor attack unscathed, became the prime weapon against Japan’s formidable navy, dealing decisive blows at the battles of the Coral Sea, Midway, and Eastern Solomons.

American battleships were instead mostly used to escort aircraft carriers and provide shore bombardment for amphibious landings. They engaged Axis powers’ battleships only three times during the war: the Battle of Casablanca, the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, and the Battle of the Surigao Strait.

Surigao Strait, part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, was the last battle between battleships in history.

The Cold War

USS Missouri Tomahawk 1991
USS Missouri fires a Tomahawk cruise missile at an Iraqi target in January 1991. US Navy

By 1947, the US had decommissioned all its battleships except the four vessels of the Iowa-class. In addition, all five of the planned 48,000-ton Montana-class ships were canceled.

While World War II had proved that carriers were the kings of the seas, battleships were still extremely useful for shore bombardment and were still a symbol of naval supremacy.

The four Iowa-class battleships were held in such high regard that they were brought in and out of service multiple times during the Cold War. They provided naval gunfire support for UN forces during the Korean War and shelled Vietcong positions during the Vietnam War.

In response to the arrival of the Soviet navy’s Kirov-class battlecruisers in the 1980s, the Iowas were modernized. They were given launchers for land-attack and anti-ship missiles, four Phalanx Close-in Weapon Systems, and the ability to launch unmanned aerial vehicles.

US battleships saw combat for the last time during the Gulf War in early 1991. USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin fired 1,078 16-inch shells and launched 52 cruise missiles at Iraqi targets – a show of force meant to deceive Iraqi commanders about the US-led coalition’s real plans.

The end of the Cold War, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and advances in missile technology all made it harder to justify keeping such large and expensive vessels. The four Iowa-class battleships were finally decommissioned between 1990 and 1992 and are now all museum ships.

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