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HMS Warrior: 'A black snake among rabbits'?

Why was the 'Warrior' built?
Launch and impact of the 'Warrior'
Career of the 'Warrior'
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Launch and impact of the Warrior

Launch of the 'Warrior'

Launch of the HMS Warrior
View full size imageThe launch of HMS Warrior at the Thames Ironworks, Blackwall. 
HMS Warrior was launched on 29 December 1860 during the coldest winter for 50 years. Snow covered the dockyard, but when Sir John Pakingham came to perform the launch ceremony she refused to move.

The grease on the slipways had frozen, despite the burning braziers placed alongside. Extra tugs and hydraulic rams pulled her while hundreds of men ran from side to side on her upper deck, trying to rock her free. After 20 minutes, Warrior finally eased down the slipway.


HMS Warrior.
View full size imageHMS Warrior, designed by Isaac Watts. 
After her launch, the Warrior was fitted out with turbines, condensers, boilers and guns.

She boasted 23 cannon:

  • six 100-pound Armstrong breech-loading cannon
  • four 40-pound Armstrong breech-loaders
  • 13 68-pound smoothbore cannon.

Isaac Watts, the designer of Warrior, decided to place the guns on a single long gun-deck. This broke with the traditional idea of several gun-decks. To protect the guns from bombardment by enemy ships, Watts housed the guns inside an armoured compartment. The compartment was sealed at each end with strong bulkheads and doorways.

Revolutionary design

Model of HMS Warrior
View full size imageModel of HMS Warrior. 
The launch of the Warrior had a huge impact. At a stroke all existing ships became out of date. Warrior housed all her main guns, engines and boilers within an armoured iron hull, and she was powered by both steam and sail.

The combination of iron hull, armour-plate, breech-loading guns and powerful steam screw propulsion meant that she could outrun and outgun any ship afloat.

Charles Dickens called her, 'A black vicious ugly customer as ever I saw, whale-like in size, and with as terrible a row of incisor teeth as ever closed on a French frigate'. Another commentator called the ship, 'a black snake among rabbits'.

Refitting and return to service

Upper deck of Warrior
View full size imageThe main deck of HMS Warrior. 
In 1864 the Warrior was paid-off for refitting and her guns were upgraded to four 8-in and 27 7-in muzzle loading rifled cannon. She returned to service in 1867.

The view shown here is of her gun-deck, which was also the mess for most of the 700 men. This was unusual - the mess was usually placed one deck lower.  The reason was to make the ship more stable by reducing the number of decks.

Combining steam and sail

HMS Warrior
View full size imageHMS Warrior under full sail, c. 1860. 
As well as a steam-driven propeller, Warrior carried a bowsprit and three masts:

  • a foremast
  • a main mast
  • a mizzen mast.

These were capable of holding more than 4000 square metres (almost 50,000 square feet) of sail.

On one occasion, Warrior reached a speed of more than 17 knots with combined steam and sails, which was an amazing feat for that time. However, sails remained the main method of propulsion.

Problems and solutions

Campbell's Patent Floating Dry Dock adopted for HM Dockyard at Bermuda with HMS Warrior
View full size imageThe Warrior at Bermuda Floating Dry-dock, 1869. 

The Warrior's boilers and steam engine were inefficient because they operated at low pressure and consumed large amounts of coal. This meant that mechanical propulsion was used only when absolutely necessary.

The large twin-bladed propeller created a lot of drag. This slowed the ship down when Warrior was under sail alone. The funnels also affected the aerodynamics of the sails.

To overcome these problems the propeller was designed to be lifted out of the water when the ship was under sail and the funnels were designed to be telescopic. They could be lowered and raised by means of a hand-operated crank.


Fitted out

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