August 04, 2019

The Maximum Battleship

Now that I've finished with my tale of the development of the British and American battleships as actually built, I can turn my attention to some of the cul-de-sacs along the way, design concepts that were considered and then bypassed for one reason or another. Probably the most interesting and certainly the most famous of these is the Maximum Battleship.

Benjamin Tillman

The maximum battleship was the brainchild of Senator Benjamin Tillman, a powerful member of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs.1 In 1912, Tillman, exasperated with the continual growth of the ships the Navy was requesting, asked them to study the biggest battleship they could actually make use of, given the limitations of the existing docking facilities, most notably the Panama Canal, which would open in two more years. The first result was an enlarged version of Nevada: 38,000 tons, 12 14" guns, a 17" belt and 23 kts. The Bureau of Construction & Repair was horrified at the size of the resulting ship, which could only fit into two drydocks in the country, both on the West Coast. To bring size down, they cut speed to 20 kts, which saved 3,000 tons and enough length to fit the ship into drydocks on the East Coast.

Design 1: 70,000 tons, 12 16" guns, 18" armor

Tillman was not happy. He believed that any future battleship needed to be able to make at least 25 kts, which C&R pointed out would mean a sacrifice of 4 guns and substantial protection, producing a battlecruiser instead of a battleship. The Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, was determined to hold down battleship growth, so Tillman had to bide his time. His chance came 4 years later, when Democrats had taken control of the Senate and he was now chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee. He asked for another investigation, and this time, the navy took things more seriously. The main limits of this series on length and beam were the Panama canal, at 975' and 108' respectively, while draft was limited by harbors to around 34'. At this point, C&R was working on the South Dakota class, and the resulting slate of four designs can be seen as extensions of those ships, with a base armament of 12 16" guns, 13"-7" belt and 3" deck armor and turboelectric drive.

Design 2: 70,000 tons, 24 16" guns, 13" armor

The first two designs were each of 70,000 tons and capable of 26.5 kts. The rest of the tonnage went into bolstering either armor or firepower, with one ship having a belt of 18"-9", while the other saw the four triples of the base design replaced by sextuple turrets, each still carrying 16" guns. Both designs had serious and obvious problems. The armor-heavy one would have required plates considerably thicker than the US was able to produce at the time, while the very idea of a sextuple 16" turret is completely insane. Nobody ever built more than a quadruple turret, and the US had only limited experience even with triples at the time. The third design placed the emphasis on speed, a 63,500 ton ship with the standard armor and armament but capable of 30 kts. The last design was the largest, 80,000 tons and with the combined heavy armor and heavy armament of the first two designs, at a cost of only being able to make 25.2 kts.2

Design 3: 63,500 tons, 30 kts, 12 16" guns, 13" armor

In an attempt to make the design a tiny bit more sane, the Bureau of Ordnance suggested studies with an 18" gun instead of 16-inchers. Two were conducted, each based on design 4, but with the maximum belt thickness reduced to 16". One of them had five triple turrets, while the other had five twins and one triple. This arrangement is almost as bizarre as the sextuple turrets, and the most logical arrangement, four quads, wasn't explored at all.

Design 4: 80,000 tons, 24 16" guns, 18" armor

A possible reason for some of the design silliness is that none of these designs were ever intended to be built. Even at best, one would have been about twice as expensive as a standard battleship, and there was fear of rendering all previous battleships obsolete, just as Dreadnought had rendered previous battleships obsolete.3 There were also logistical problems: while they could fit through the Panama Canal, they couldn't fit into most other drydocks, berths, and so on.

Design IV-1: 80,000 tons, 13 18" guns, 16" of armor

The Maximum Battleship is also of interest as the forerunner of the extremely large battleships contemplated a quarter-century later before and during WWII. In particular, the first two schemes are almost exactly the same tonnage as the Yamato class, the design of which was based off a similar analysis to the one Tillman requested. The Japanese believed that the US would never build a battleship too big for the Panama Canal, and thus designed the Yamatos to overmatch anything which could make that transit. The US planned to get around this problem in the Montana class by the simple expedient of installing a newer and larger set of locks on the Canal. But when comparing the Yamato to the American designs, one of the most striking things is the disparity in armament. The Maximum Battleships considered with 18" guns had either 13 or 15 guns, while Yamato mounted only nine, despite having similar speed and technological progress that made many systems, most notably propulsion, lighter. Ultimately, this was the result of progress in air and underwater attack requiring defense which soaked up a tremendous amount of weight. Yamato's deck, designed to cope with air attack and truly long-range gunfire, was 8-9", while even the heavy-armor Maximum Battleship's was only 5".

Design IV-2: 80,000 tons, 15 18" guns, 16" of armor

While it was never a serious proposal, the Maximum Battleship is a fascinating look at both the politics of warship procurement, and the fundamental limits on battleships in the late dreadnought era. Ships similar to these sketches, if probably less extravagantly armed, might well have seen service if that era was not cut short by the Washington Naval Treaty.

1 Tillman is also remembered for being exceptionally racist even by the standards of South Carolina c.1900, gaining the nickname "Pitchfork Ben" for his aggressive speeches. Overall, not a nice man, but he did ask the Navy to produce some interesting battleships.

2 A ship with more draft could be more efficient, and if the Panama Canal limit of 38' had been in effect, this ship could have made 28 kts. Another 10,000 tons was available if speed was held constant.

3 I will admit that the logic of this never made sense to me. If it's going to happen sooner or later, then spending extra money on ships that you think will be obsolete is stupid.


  1. August 04, 2019beleester said...

    Sextuple turrets. Sextuple turrets. I did a double-take when I read that - surely you mean six turrets, not one turret with six 16-inch guns side-by-side, right? That's the sort of nonsense I'd expect to see in From the Depths or something.

    Did anyone else try sextuple turrets, even on paper?

  2. August 04, 2019bean said...

    No, I mean six 16" guns in a turret. I don't know of any serious attention to the concept from any ordnance people, even in the US, but it's hilarious to think about.

  3. August 04, 2019doctorpat said...

    The ridiculous number of guns, even when compared to the same sized Yamato class, brings to mind your early article that mentions how there are two types of navy. Navy's that have ships that sit in harbour, and occasionally go for a show of force demonstration cruise. And navys that actually spend their time sailing around the world's oceans and being used to project force. And how ships in the first sort of navy tend to have much bigger and more guns and other weapons. While the second sort of navy tend to prefer having fewer, smaller weapons in exchange for better weight distribution, the ability to actually man and use said weapons, more space on board, having more ammunition for practice, and other mere practical considerations. I guess that pure paper designs can be even more extreme on the "all show, no go" end of the scale.

  4. August 04, said...

    Sextuple 16" turrets, pah. I give you my proposal for the battleship with the octuple, 18" turret. Well OK, the battleship that IS an octuple, 18" turret. Is disk-shaped, like silly Russian floating-saucer ironclads, da? Entire battleship is octuple 18" turret. Azipod propulsion, for aiming at enemy and also for steaming sideways so we can deliver proper broadsides at the enemy.

    Granted, it could never transit Panama. But we only need to build one for each ocean, and no enemy would dare threaten us. Does anyone know if Senator Tillman's RFP is still open?

  5. August 05, 2019bean said...


    I think there are several factors involved. The first is probably just the designers being kind of silly with their response to this request. "Hey, we've been asked for this absurd design, so let's give it sextuple turrets." The second is the one I gave, pointing out that heavy deck armor and underwater protection both take up a lot of weight. The third is that the design is simply too big for its guns. Agincourt is another example of this. The initial plan was to give that ship 13.5" weapons, but the Brazilians wanted compatibility with the 12" on their existing dreadnoughts, and so it got 7 turrets instead.


    You, sir, are a madman. Given the issues those ships had, I wouldn't be surprised if the guns weren't better propulsion than the azipods. And while the RFP is still open, the address is that of C&R, and NAVSEA refuses to accept messages on this topic.

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