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The Ironclad was a steam-propelled warship in the early part of the second half of the 19th century, protected by iron or steel armour plates.[1] The ironclad was developed as a result of the vulnerability of wooden warships to explosive or incendiary shells. The first ironclad battleship, La Gloire, was launched by the French Navy in November 1859.[2] The British Admiralty had been considering armored warships since 1856 and prepared a draft design for an armored corvette in 1857; however, in early 1859 the Royal Navy started building two iron-hulled armored frigates, and by 1861 had made the decision to move to an all-armored battle fleet. After the first clashes of ironclads (both with wooden ships and with one another) took place during the American Civil War, it became clear that the ironclad had replaced the unarmored ship of the line as the most powerful warship afloat. This type of ship would come to be very successful in the American Civil War.[3] Ironclads were designed for several roles, including as high seas battleships, coastal defense ships, and long-range cruisers. The rapid evolution of warship design in the late 19th century transformed the ironclad from a wooden-hulled vessel that carried sails to supplement its steam engines into the steel-built, turreted battleships and cruisers familiar in the 20th century. This change was pushed forward by the development of heavier naval guns (the ironclads of the 1880s carried some of the heaviest guns ever mounted at sea), more sophisticated steam engines, and advances in metallurgy which made steel shipbuilding possible. The rapid pace of change in the ironclad period meant that many ships were obsolete as soon as they were complete, and that naval tactics were in a state of flux. Many ironclads were built to make use of the ram or the torpedo, which a number of naval designers considered the crucial weapons of naval combat. There is no clear end to the ironclad period, but towards the end of the 1890s the term ironclad dropped out of use. New ships were increasingly constructed to a standard pattern and designated battleships or armored cruisers.The ironclad became technically feasible and tactically necessary because of developments in shipbuilding in the first half of the 19th century. According to naval historian J. Richard Hill: “The (ironclad) had three chief characteristics: a metal-skinned hull, steam propulsion and a main armament of guns capable of firing explosive shells. It is only when all three characteristics are present that a fighting ship can properly be called an ironclad.”[4] Each of these developments was introduced separately in the decade before the first ironclads. [edit]Steam propulsion Le Napoléon (1850), the first steam battleship In the 18th and early 19th centuries fleets had relied on two types of major warship, the ship of the line and the frigate. The first major change to these types was the introduction of steam power for propulsion. While paddle steamer warships had been used from the 1830s onwards, steam propulsion only became suitable for major warships after the adoption of the screw propeller in the 1840s.[5] Steam-powered screw frigates were built in the mid-1840s, and at the end of the decade the French Navy introduced steam power to its line of battle. The desire for change came from the ambition of Napoleon III to gain greater influence in Europe, which required a challenge to the British at sea.[6][7] The first purpose-built steam battleship was the 90-gun Le Napoléon in 1850.[5] Le Napoléon was armed as a conventional ship-of-the-line, but her steam engines could give her a speed of 12 knots (22 km/h), regardless of the wind conditions: a potentially decisive advantage in a naval engagement. The introduction of the steam ship-of-the-line led to a building competition between France and Britain. Eight sister-ships to Le Napoléon were built in France over a period of ten years, but the United Kingdom soon managed to take the lead in production. Altogether, France built ten new wooden steam battleships and converted 28 from older ships of the line, while the United Kingdom built 18 and converted 41.[5] [edit]Explosive shells Further information: Paixhans gun A Paixhans naval shell gun. 1860 engraving. The era of the wooden steam ship-of-the-line was brief, because of new, more powerful naval guns. In the 1820s and 1830s, warships began to mount increasingly heavy guns, replacing 18- and 24-pounder guns with 32-pounders on sailing ships-of-the-line and introducing 68-pounders on steamers. Then, the first shell guns firing explosive shells were introduced following their development by the French Général Henri-Joseph Paixhans, and by the 1840s were part of the standard armament for naval powers including the French Navy, Royal Navy, Imperial Russian Navy and United States Navy. It is often held that the power of explosive shells to smash wooden hulls, as demonstrated by the Russian destruction of a Turkish squadron at the Battle of Sinope, spelled the end of the wooden-hulled warship.[8] The more practical threat to wooden ships was from conventional cannon firing red-hot shot, which could lodge in the hull of a wooden ship and cause a fire or ammunition explosion. Some navies eve n experimented with hollow shot filled with molten metal for extra incendiary power.[9] [edit]Iron armor Main article: Floating battery French Navy ironclad floating battery Lave, 1854. This ironclad, together with the similar Tonnante and Dévastation, vanquished Russian land batteries at the Battle of Kinburn (1855). Following the demonstration of the power of explosive shells against wooden ships at the Battle of Sinop, and fearing that his own ships would be vulnerable to the Paixhans guns of Russian fortifications in the Crimean War, Emperor Napoleon III ordered the development of light-draft floating batteries, equipped with heavy guns and protected by heavy armor.[10] Experiments made during the first half of 1854 proved highly satisfactory, and on 17 July 1854, the French communicated to the British Government that a solution had been found to make gun-proof vessels and that plans would be communicated.[11] After tests in September 1854, the British Admiralty agreed to build five armoured floating batteries on the French plans,[11] establishing the important Thames and Millwall Iron Works within the docks.

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