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"How did battleships shoot?" Topic

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Comments or corrections?

Bozkashi Jones02 Sep 2017 3:37 p.m. PST

Just wondering how battleships actually fired…

Did they fire all guns in one broadside or did they fire one turret every ten seconds or so to maintain constant fire?

bsrlee02 Sep 2017 3:52 p.m. PST

Fire by slavos, fire from individual turrets was too hard to spot in a general engagement. At least initially there was a deliberate offset in the range set for each gun in an attempt to provide a quick correction to the range tables – IIRC the British and Germans used slightly different systems, but the effect was to produce a ladder of splashes over and under (and maybe a lucky first hit) which would allow the Fire Director to know how much actual conditions changed the range from theory(humidity, air pressure, high altitude winds).

Tsushima was about the last major fleet engagement that used the 'shoot as soon as you are loaded' system, the Japanese also had functional rangefinders (personal purchases by officers visiting Britain) while the Russians relied on educated guesses.

KPinder02 Sep 2017 4:02 p.m. PST

This is the sort of question for which Google should be able to provide a B+ answer. That being said, BBs fired all their guns at once. The notion being that each salvo was aimed as perfectly as possible so you wanted as much hurt going out en masse. Only one exception I can think of right off. Agincourt had 14 12" guns in 7 turrets. They fired half salvos initially for fear of what the concussive force might do. After a while they got sick of that and cut loose all at once. The ship held up fine, but they broke all the cups and plates in the galley.

Ed Mohrmann Supporting Member of TMP02 Sep 2017 4:21 p.m. PST

I don't know about B'ships prior to the 1930's, but
somewhere I read that the more modern ships (including
refits/retrofits late 20's and forward) had a built-in
delay (tenths of a second) so that all the guns in a
turret fired a couple tenth/seconds apart from each

Can't remember where I read that and don't recall
the reasoning behind it, if in fact that is/was

idontbelieveit Supporting Member of TMP02 Sep 2017 5:02 p.m. PST

In the Japanese A class cruisers, the 10 gun ships had a programmed delay of .03 sec between the firing of each gun so that the projectiles in a salvo left at different times. This reduced the interference of shells in flight. Don't know whether other classes of ships or other navies did the same thing.

Lion in the Stars02 Sep 2017 5:29 p.m. PST

First, guess range to target.
Guess ambient conditions aloft (which changes where your shells land).
By a certain time (I don't know when, but I know someone does), people had figured out that you also need to account for the Earth's rotation, even in shots where you can see the target.
Guess shell velocity, though that should be pretty standardized with powder lots testing.
Guess wind conditions.

Fire a couple shells.

Observe where they splashed down, figure out what guesses you made were wrong (often range, always ambient conditions and winds)

Adjust settings.

Fire again.

Continue adjusting until shells hit target.

Also, realize that where the ship is in her roll, pitch, and heave will throw your shots off, which is what made the US's Stable Vertical firing system so much better than everyone else's.

emckinney02 Sep 2017 6:08 p.m. PST

The problem with "continuous fire" is that you inevitably lose track of which splash belongs to which shell, so you can't adjust the range properly. Similar to the problem with multiple ships firing at the same target.

LostPict Supporting Member of TMP02 Sep 2017 6:26 p.m. PST

Ed, you may have heard it from me. I knew the former ops officer on the NJ during the Beirut shelling (who was subsequently the USS NC memorial director). He told me that the Navy off set the broadside timing to prevent the over pressure from damaging the more delicate topside electronics that she carried in the 80s. Not sure about prior to that.

Newer stuff is designed to support Time on Target so that a single rapid fire gun can fire a sequential volley with near simultaneous impact.

attilathepun4702 Sep 2017 8:22 p.m. PST

I believe that I recall reading that in World War I the Germans used only a partial centralized fire control. Range-finding was centralized, but aiming and firing was by individual turrets. The German system tended to get "on target" faster, but results declined as the action went on, while British accuracy with their fully centralized system improved as the battle progressed.

Bozkashi Jones03 Sep 2017 4:05 a.m. PST

Thank you gentlemen; informed and erudite answers as always!

Much appreciated,


Personal logo Virtualscratchbuilder Supporting Member of TMP Fezian03 Sep 2017 4:15 a.m. PST

There were a number of different firing patterns, and a number of reasons for not firing all guns at once.

At Denmark Strait, Bismarck fired four gun half-salvos. At Jutland, the German BC's at times fired "ladder" salvos where each gun was fired at a slightly different bearing, hoping to "walk" the salvo across the target, and then fire regular salvos based on the bearing of the ladder rung that came closest to the target.

Since salvos are based on previous fall of shot, firing whole broadsides at a rate of one salvo every thirty seconds or more would make it difficult to adjust fire because the target might not move as anticipated in that thirty seconds.

A salvo sequence might look like this:

Fire one gun or two gun ranging salvos until you get near or on the target. Once you straddle or hit with a ranging salvo you fire half-salvo A at where you think the target will be flight-time from your last ranging salvo. Then, probably while half-salvo A is still in the air, you fire half=salvo B at the next anticipated bearing. Maybe, by the time salvo A lands the guns that fired it are reloaded and, based on the fall of shot for salvo A you correct aim and fire salvo C, continuing this process until you cease fire. Remember, shells do not get to the target instantly and a lot can happen target-side during flight time. This is one of the reasons the US came to prefer the 6" gun for night time actions – the 8" cruisers could not fire rapidly enough to track and hit rapidly maneuvering destroyers.

Incidentally there are several good Youtube videos of Iowa class ships firing ripple salvos, but keep in mind these are for demonstration purposes and not under combat conditions.

Dexter Ward04 Sep 2017 2:22 a.m. PST

Firing at the sort of ranges typical for battleship engagements, the shells are in the air for almost 30 seconds – much longer than the time between salvoes.

Captain Corcoran04 Sep 2017 4:16 a.m. PST

Firing guns at targets 10-15 miles away is a complex task and navies developed early analogue "computers" to help. There is a nice summary here:

And more information here on ship fire control systems (plus some nice links at the bottom on this Wiki article:

Please have a look at the NavWeapons website, lots of quite complex articles about firing guns here:

Personal logo Cacique Caribe Supporting Member of TMP05 Sep 2017 1:38 a.m. PST

Yes but … did they drop anchor right before firing?



recon3505 Sep 2017 8:12 a.m. PST


Mobius05 Sep 2017 9:57 a.m. PST

the German BC's at times fired "ladder" salvos where each gun was fired at a slightly different bearing, hoping to "walk" the salvo across the target, and then fire regular salvos based on the bearing of the ladder rung that came closest to the target.
That was the German fast ranging method. Rather than the British method of firing one or two guns then correcting on the splashes.

Murvihill08 Sep 2017 10:55 a.m. PST

The Iowa class would fire all their guns at once for photo ops and such, but when trying to hit something they would fire the center gun and one side gun from a turret, put the turret back on target and fire the last gun. The force of the gun going off pushed the turret around. That is what was explained to me anyway.

hindsTMP Supporting Member of TMP08 Sep 2017 2:51 p.m. PST

It varied depending on the nationality, historical time period, and sometimes by ship.

In WWI, both British and Germans typically fired salvos of 1 gun per turret, while Americans fired broadsides (quick skim of Friedman's "Naval Firepower"). Between the wars and in WWII it apparently got more complicated, but salvos were apparently still the norm.

hindsTMP Supporting Member of TMP08 Sep 2017 4:01 p.m. PST

WW2 example, from "HMS Rodney" by Ballantyne, describing the sinking of KM Bismarck:

"… Rodney had tried to adhere to the 5-gun and 4-gun pattern salvo one, the wing guns of A and X turret (2 x 2), plus the centre of B Turret; salvo two, the centre guns of A and X turets (2 x 1) and wing guns of B turret (1 x 2). Rodney fired 104 salvoes of 16-inch in that fashion. Once she was well within the killing zone, and trying to inflict maximum damage in the shortest period, with no danger of enemy reply, Rodney fired nine broadsides, which meant all loaded guns on target firing at once. The broadsides were composed of: one eight gun salvo, three seven gun salvoes, once six gun salvo, two five gun salvoes, one three gun salvo and one two gun salvo. According to Lt Cdr Wellings, X turret was the least active, due to the fact that it could not fire ahead.".


Blutarski09 Sep 2017 11:02 a.m. PST

Boz asked "Just wondering how battleships actually fired…"

Simple question; very complicated answer. In fact the "answer" will vary depending upon the time period (and often the navy) in question.

For the sake of brevity, my response will be confined to the British and Germans in WW1.

First some misnomers must be gotten out of the way:

1- The RN did not fire single shots for ranging purposes. To the best of my knowledge, the only example of single shot ranging was the case of LION at Dogger Bank when seeking to determine when BLUECHER was actually within range of her main battery. A single shot from B turret at 8:32 am fell short; a second single shot two minutes later (8:34 am)was seen to pitch beyond BLUECHER. "Slow deliberate firing from A' and B' turrets " was adopted at that point, with the first hit upon BLUECHER occurring at 9:09 am. For reference, Admiralty order (G.0800-/14, Sep 1914) calling for economization of ammunition at that time due to a munitions shortage was also in effect at that time.

The problem with use of single shots for finding the range is that it is impossible for an observer to properly sense the MPI (mean point of impact) of the salvo. Salvo MPI can only be judged at long range by counting the number of "shorts" in comparison to the number of shots in the salvo; one or two "shorts" from a four shot salvo was a reasonable indicator that the "50-pct zone" of the salvo spread (the zone within which 50-pct of the shots in a salvo would be statistically expected to fall) was probably situated upon the target. A four shot salvo was considered to be the standard for ranging fire.

2 Individual shots of a salvo were never to the best of my knowledge dispersed in an extended ladder fashion for the purpose of finding the range. After Dogger Bank, Beatty did propose to the Admiralty that artificially altering the salvo for spread (along the line of fire) might be investigated as a means of optimizing the chance of a hit upon the target. Beatty's exact words "A very big spread is known to be bad. A very small spread, which approximates to a single shot, makes it most difficult to straddle, and spotting thereby loses half its efficiency. There must be some figure, between ten feet and ten cables (2,000 yards), at which the spread of a salvo gives most efficient results."

- -

Leaving aside preliminary maneuvering to achieve a position and heading best suited to visibility, sea state, wind and tactical conditions, the opening of fire was customarily preceded by issuance of fire distribution orders by the OTC. Once established, each ship ideally generated a target plot (estimated target range, speed and course) based upon range-finder observations, measurement of target relative bearing, and visual estimates of target speed and target inclination (relative heading of target). This observed/measured/estimated target data was fed (often manually, sometimes electrically) into the ship's FC computer, an excruciatingly complex analog mechanical computer device designed to solve complicated two-dimensional trigonometric problems in more or less real time, generating continuously updated range rates and deflection rates and converting those results into continuously updated range and deflection orders to the gun battery.

Range and deflection gun orders were electro-mechanically transmitted to the gun turrets where they were manifested by the movement of pointers on range and deflection dials. Members of the FC party in each turret closely attended these dials by manually keeping the pointers controlling gun elevation and turret bearing matched to the positions of the range and deflection pointers controlled by the FC computer ("follow-the-pointer gear").

In the case of British ships fitted with directors, the FC computer gun orders were relayed through the director position, where certain adjustments might be made to the gun orders in order to allow for where in the ship's roll arc the director layer intended to actually fire ("dip"). The German "semi- director" controlled the guns only in bearing; gun orders for range and deflection went direct to the turrets and the guns were individually fired by the turret gun layer as the ship's roll to an even keel brought his gun-sight onto the target.

Surprisingly, no formalized gunnery doctrine really existed in the RN until adoption of the 1916 Spotting Rules after Jutland. However, the method in general use was bracketing fire by salvos, whereby a salvo consisted of one gun per turret per salvo (usually organized on an alternating left gun / right gun basis). Initial attention was paid to getting the deflection correct, as it was easy to do and spotting for range was greatly assisted when fall of shot was in line with the target. Spotting was performed by a gunnery officer stationed aloft, well above any interference from spray and gun or funnel smoke. At ranges much above 10,000 yards it was only possible to sense that the salvo had fallen short or over; there was no guarantee that overs or even hits (especially AP penetrations) would be seen. Without going into all the excruciating details, spotting/adjusting for range was customarily accomplished by establishing a salvo short of the target, arbitrarily increasing the range of succeeding salvoes by 400 yards each until the target was "crossed" and a salvo fell over the target, then halving the increment and successively decreasing the range until the target was once again crossed. This back and forth procedure would repeat until a straddle was achieved. A straddle implied (but did not by any means confirm) that the range and deflection rates predicted by the FC computer were correct and rapid fire would then be ordered.

The German approach to initial fire differed in its use of a ranging fork, usually of 800 meters – one salvo at 400 meters over the range-finder estimate and a second salvo at 400 meters under. According to Mahrholz (gunnery officer of VON DER TANN at Jutland), this was to allow for "error of the day" effects – air temperature and barometric pressure, wind speed and direction in the upper atmosphere, etc. These two initial salvos were fired in succession, with the second discharged upon the fall of the first. A third salvo was fired at the estimated range-finder range upon the fall of the second salvo. A further salvo would be fired at a range based upon the observed results of the first three. British observers described it as "mechanical" in nature, but it proved very successful in rapidly establishing the range.

It all sounds elementally simple, but, as they say, the devil is always in the details. First, the range-finder observations must be accurate just to get the initial salvoes in the general neighborhood of the target. Second, and more importantly, an accurate range rate (change of range versus time) was necessary to maintain the fire in the neighborhood of the target. Everyone is familiar with the challenges of accurate range-finding at sea under action conditions. Generation of a good range rate by the FC computer relied even more heavily upon accurate knowledge of target inclination; absence of a reliable mechanical measurement device meant that such estimates were generally made by eye alone and consequently not fully reliable. Add to this the fact that the essentially important range rate is, with only a few rare exceptions, a dynamically changing value, even when both ships maintain steady courses. This totally ignores any evasive maneuvering by the target: whether slight weaving about the base course or outright salvo-chasing. Even a simple alteration of course by the opponent will throw out the range rate.

Since the number of spotting corrections possible within a given unit of time is vitally important to getting a good plot and achieving a straddle, the time factor involved in correction of fire by the spotting officer must also be appreciated. The time of flight of a salvo at typical combat range would be in the range of 20-30 seconds. The time required to spot the fall of the salvo, transmit a correction from the spotting top to the FC computer, compute new elevation and deflection orders, transmit them to the turrets and apply them to the guns would run from 12 to 15 seconds. Hence, a ship would be doing well to get off two salvos per minute of properly spotted and corrected fire; at 24,000 yards, that time factor would be perhaps one per minute.

Rapid fire would be relatively brief in duration a few minutes at best. It exhausted the gun crews, fall of shot could not be effectively spotted due to the multiplicity of shell splashes, and the target ship would almost certainly have resorted to evasive maneuver. Once over, spotting for range would resume anew. Don't believe the maximum rate of fire values often touted for various heavy guns. For example, the 30.5cm/L50 of DERFFLINGER was credited with a maximum rate of fire of 3 rounds per minute per gun. Yet, when in rapid fire against QUEEN MARY, von Hase's gunnery log counted five salvos discharged between 6h 24m 20s (the time rapid-fire was ordered) and 6h 26m 10m (the time at which fire was ordered switched to a new target) i.e., 5 salvos in 110 seconds, or one salvo every 22 seconds, which equates to 1.36 rounds gun per minute, a bit less than half the official maximum rate of fire. My study of British rapid fire rate is approximately consistent with that.



Bozkashi Jones10 Sep 2017 12:36 a.m. PST

Thanks to everyone who has replied I'm glad I asked the question as it is apparent that it's a lot more complex than just going Boom! and I'm sure I'm not the only one learning a lot.

Of course Cacique has provided the most compelling documentary evidence of how it actually worked in practice!


Blutarski10 Sep 2017 11:39 a.m. PST

"… it's a lot more complex than just going Boom"

True words, Boz.

I've been studying this subject for fifty years. My above post, for the sake of brevity as much as anything else, did not even touch upon effects of own ship maneuver upon gunnery, cross-roll effects upon own ship gunnery, effects of heavy weather, concentration fire (which was a lot more common than the history books suggest).

WW1/WW2 naval rules which seek to emphasize "fast play" either ignore or leave on the cutting room floor a lot of really important (IMO) factors when modeling gunnery.


By John 5410 Sep 2017 5:49 p.m. PST

There is some great footage in the classic 1960 film, 'Sink the Bismarck' showing how guns are loaded and fired, on a capital ship. The use of cranes, and lifts, to load the guns, and the cordite(?) charges, loaded with hydraulic rammers was facinating stuff. I believe HMS Vangard was used to film the footage?
Not wishing to thread-jack, but I love the heavy engineering involved in Battleships!


Pontius12 Sep 2017 2:12 a.m. PST

The book "73 North: The Battle of the Barents Sea" by Dudley Pope gives a good description of the processes involved in firing salvoes from a British 6" cruiser in WW2. This, as far as know, was almost the same as that for battleships. This gives a simplified description of how information from a number of sources; such as ship's course and speed, target's course, speed and range, was integrated by the Transmitting Station and transformed into elevation and bearing for the guns.

Blutarski12 Sep 2017 7:50 a.m. PST

Pontius wrote "This, as far as I know, was almost the same as that for battleships."

Spot on, Pontius. Slow firing battleship main batteries used "doubles" (forks consisting of a pair of salvoes). Faster firing cruiser and destroyer batteries as well as battleships secondaries employed "triples" (ladders consisting of three salvoes). Otherwise, the logic was the same.


Wolfhag14 Sep 2017 8:30 p.m. PST

I'd go with Blutarski. A few years ago we discussed this over the phone and he listed the original references he researched.

I approach WWI naval warfare mostly from the Gunnery Officers viewpoint. To gain the initiative in getting the first salvo off involves spotting, ranging and building up a range plot. Then ranging shots to straddle and start firing salvos. Whichever side can do this first has a big advantage. That what I like to simulate.

The opposing British and German sides had advantages and disadvantages that can be simulated in a game. Personally, I like the risk-reward decision of firing a tight salvo with a smaller chance of a straddle but a better chance for more hits if you straddle or a loose salvo with a better chance to straddle but less chance (or even no chance) for a hit.

I think that historically when you first straddled you walked the salvo back and forth over the target or shortened your salvo length to achieve more hits. This is why you started taking evasive action when straddled. However, course changes over 2 degrees per second did not allow the turret to stay on target. Forcing your opponent to take evasive action could buy you some unobstructed firing time.

The game that works best for me is a modified version of Seas of War. Why? Because it gives the best representation of naval gunnery and allows those risk-reward decisions I mentioned above. I can also simulate half-salvos and other gunnery techniques too.

In larger games, I abstract the amount of time it will take for each side to get that first straddle and start firing salvos. The more time you initially take to build up a range plot will give a better chance of getting a straddle when you start firing ranging shots/ladders. However, if you take too long your opponent may start firing salvos first.


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