A great navy is key to any great military. It’s what allowed Brittania to rule the seas for decades, France to establish vast colonies around the world, and Japan to assert itself over European powers in Asia in the early 1900s. But navies are, obviously, made up of dozens or hundreds of individual ships, and not all of them are created equal.
So we’ve dug through the history to find out top 10 picks for ships that, either because of revolutionary designs or because their crews made a new technology work where all others had failed, changed naval combat overnight:
The 64-gun warship Vasa was built in the tradition of the Mars, the first great artillery-focused naval warship.
(Jorge Lascar, CC-BY 2.0)
The Swedish warship Mars was the test platform for a bold new strategy in the 1560s: Elevate naval artillery from from a weapon used to hurt enemy ships to one that can actually sink enemy ship. The Swedish king was obsessed with the concept, and commissioned the Mars with five decks, two of them dedicated to naval artillery carrying massive cannons.
And the Mars was successful, reportedly sinking the enemy ship Longbark with concentrated artillery fire on its first day in combat. Unfortunately, the ship was so large and powerful that the opposing Lubeck fleet concentrated on it the next day, setting it on fire and causing a massive explosion and sinking the ship in 250 feet of water.
The USS Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered vessel in history.
As America wrestled with the implications of nuclear power after World War II, naval planners had a question about the new-fangled reactors: Can they give our ships unlimited range? The USS Nautilus was proof that, for submarines at least, the nuclear reactor could achieve nearly infinite range.
The Nautilus set speed and range records. It even conducted an entire cruise where it surfaced only once, rising to the open air only to transit the Panama Canal. It also completed the first transit of the ship across the North Pole, conducting the crossing underwater on August 3, 1958. Now, the entire U.S. submarine fleet is nuclear-powered.
The first-nuclear powered carrier and first nuclear-powered surface vessel in history, the USS Enterprise set range and speed records thanks to its powerful fuel source and engines.
The USS Enterprise of World War II was the most decorated ship of the war, and the Navy brought the name back to commission its first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1960. That USS Enterprise would, like the USS Nautilus, set speed and range records. It also led the Navy’s first and only all-nuclear task force, sailing around the world with USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge, a cruiser and frigate.
The ship launched planes during that cruise and also took part in the blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis, launched fighters into combat in Vietnam, and sent up jets in support of troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sinop and Chesma
Russian torpedo boats Sinop and Chesma were pretty forgettable warships except for one exchange in January 1878, when they launched the first successful self-propelled torpedo attack in naval history. The torpedo they used had been invented in England in 1866, but no navy had successfully used it in combat yet.
But 12 years later, the Russians ships were trying to take out larger and better-armed Turkish ships, and their torpedo attacks had failed repeatedly. The Sinop and Chesma went after the armed steamer Inibah, using their speed to avoid the Inibah’s fire before launching two torpedoes from less than 100 yards away. Both slammed home and sunk the enemy ship in less than a minute, proving the torpedo boat concept and leading to the torpedo’s prominence in World War I.
HMS Cobra and Viper
Without getting too technical, there’s a difference between steam-piston engines and steam-turbine engines. Steam turbines are much more powerful, and the HMS Viper and HMS Cobra were British torpedo destroyers commissioned at the same time in order to take advantage of the additional speed turbines gave.
Both ships were capable of flying across the surface at almost 40 mph (about 34 knots for the actual sailors out there). They were over 10 percent faster than most other warships of the day, and they helped prove the steam turbine technology. Today, steam turbines powered by nuclear reactors propel the new Ford-Class carriers.
The H.L. Hunley was named for its inventor, and it was an ill-fated but game-changing submarine of the Confederate Navy and famously was the very first submarine to sink an enemy ship. There were drawbacks to its designs, though.
It sank three times during testing, killing the crews each time and its inventor in one incident. Still, the Confederate Navy raised it one more time and sent it on its successful mission where it rammed the Union Housatonic with a mine attached to the spar in 1864. But the blast also killed the crew and sank the sub a fourth time. Obviously, submarine became a potent weapon of war, partially thanks to the Hunley, but the design was overhauled so crews would stop dying.
The Union referred to the CSS Virginia as the Merrimack, the name originally given to her by the Union, throughout the war.
USS Monitor and CSS Virginia
At the Battle of Hampton Roads, the clash of two American ships changed naval warfare overnight. The CSS Virginia, a Confederate ship captured from the Union, attacked the northern fleet at Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, and the Union ironclad USS Monitor showed up the next day to protect the rest of the fleet.
The Virginia mounted ten guns and the Monitor had two, more advanced cannons, but neither ship could deliver a decisive blow against the other despite fighting at close range for hours, ending in a stalemate. Immediately, it was clear to naval experts that wooden ships would become obsolete as the iron behemoths were created in larger quantities and new configurations.
The Napoleon was a 90-gun warship that was launched in 1850 and soon changed the way steam-powered ships operated. Prior to the Napoleon, steam was used to power paddle wheals on one side of a warship. Sails provided primary power, and the wheel helped the ship maneuver quickly during fights.
But the paddles were enormously vulnerable and blocked parts of the hull from being able to mount cannons, huge shortcoming in combat. But the Napoleon introduced screw propulsion, moving the action under the water, making it less vulnerable and more lethal. The ship fought in the Crimean War in 1852, and countries lined up to get their own screw-powered ships.
The HMS Furious was originally laid down as a battlecruiser in 1915 and slated to receive epic, 18-inch guns. Instead, it became the first aircraft carrier to conduct a successful raid, launching Sopwith Camels against German zeppelins in July 1918. The small planes successfully set a hangar ablaze and burnt two zeppelins to the ground, but most of the pilots were forced to ditch their planes at sea or in neutral Denmark.
The Furious had all sorts of shortcomings as a carrier, most notably the short flight deck that made landings extremely hazardous. It underwent multiple redesigns and refits between World War I and II, eventually becoming a full flat-top carrier.
Any naval buffs out there saw this one coming. While there are plenty of game-changing ships on this list, as well as dozens more from history that we could have chosen, the Dreadnought was such a game-changing ship that the entire world sought to copy its design and methods of construction, leading to the “Dreadnought Era” followed soon after by the “Super Dreadnought Era.”
The behemoth could throw 3 tons of steel and explosives in a single broadside and featured armor that could survive nearly anything available when it was launched. And, it was built quickly, launching in 1906 after just a year of construction. Germany raced to keep up with Britain’s new navy, building Dreadnought copies as fast as it could.
When the German and British fleets clashed at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, 50 battleships built in the Dreadnought’s image traded blows in a 250-ship fight that is, by some metrics, still the largest naval battle ever fought.