Naval ram

Naval ram
A ram on the bow of Olympias, a modern reconstruction of an ancient Athenian trireme.

A naval ram was a weapon carried by varied types of ships, dating back to antiquity. The weapon consisted of an underwater prolongation of the bow of the ship to form an armoured beak, usually between six and twelve feet (2–4 m) in length. This would be driven into the hull of an enemy ship in order to puncture the hull and sink, or at least disable, that ship.


Ancient rams

The ram was a naval weapon in the Greek/Roman antiquity and was used in such naval battles as Salamis[1] and Actium. Naval warfare in the Mediterranean rarely used sails, and the use of naval rams specifically required oarsmen over sails in order to maneuver with accuracy and speed, and particularly to reverse the movement of a ramming ship to disentangle it from its sinking victim, lest it be pulled down when its victim sank. The Athenians were especially known for their diekplus and periplus tactics that disabled enemy ships with speed and ramming techniques.[2]

Naval rams were first recorded in use at the battle of Alalia in 535 BC.[3] There is evidence available to suggest that it existed much earlier, probably even before the 8th century BC. They appear first on stylized images found on Greek pottery and jewelry and on Assyrian reliefs and paintings.[4] The naval ram most likely evolved from cutwaters, structures designed to support the keel-stem joint and allow for greater speed and dynamism in the water.[5]

Many other historical vessels were used as rams, such as the Korean Turtle ship.

The Athlit Ram

The Athlit ram, found in 1980 off of the coast of Israel near Atlit, is the only known surviving ancient naval ram. Carbon 14 dating of timber remnants date it to between 530 BC and 270 BC.[6]

Rams were thought to be one of the main weapons of war galleys after c. 700 BC, and the Athlit ram's construction implies advanced technology that was developed over a long period of time. Heavy timbers were shaped and attached to the hull, and then the bronze ram was created to fit around the timbers for added strength. The evidence for this lies in the remnants of timbers found inside the Athlit ram when it was discovered. The blunt edge of the ram and the patterned protrusion was intended to break open the seams of the target ship while at the same time dispersing the force of impact impact on the attacking ship to prevent the ram from twisting off and damaging the attacking ship. It was also less likely to get stuck in the hull of its target.[7]

The Athlit ram consists of a single bronze casting weighing 465 kilograms (1,030 lb).[6] It is 226 centimetres (89 in) long with a maximum width of 76 centimetres (30 in) and a maximum height of 96 centimetres (38 in). The bronze that makes up the shell is a high quality alloy containing 9.78% tin with traces of lead and other elements. The shell was cast as a single piece to fit the timbers it protects perfectly.[8] The casting of an object as large as the Athlit ram was a complicated operation at the time, and would have been a considerable expense in the construction of a war galley.

The ram can be separated into three parts, the driving center, the bottom plate, and the cowl. The driving center is 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 76 centimetres (30 in) wide[9]. This is the area of the ram that makes contact with enemy vessels in battle. The front wall of the head of the ram has the thickest layer of casting at 6.8 centimetres (2.7 in) for extra protection during battle. The surface of the ram was decorated with several symbols[10]. On each side, an eagle head, a helmet, and an eight point star. These symbols are similar in dimension, but contain many inconsistencies with each other, suggesting that they were made from the same mold.[9] The ram has a handle depicting a tri-form thunderbolt.[9].It is attached with mortise and tenon joints and strengthened with 15-millimetre (0.6 in) oak pegs. The wales and the ramming timber are designed to interlock for extra strength. The bottom of the ram features a mortise cut into the ramming timber to fit the most forward end of the keel which was formed into a 4-centimetre (1.6 in) thick and 10-centimetre (3.9 in) long tenon.[10]

Steam rams

USS General Price, a Union ram and gunboat, near Baton Rouge, LA, January 18, 1864

With the development of steam propulsion, the speed, power, and maneuverability it allowed again raised the idea of using the ship's hull, which could be clad in iron, as an offensive weapon. As early as 1840, the French admiral Nicolas-Hippolyte Labrousse proposed building a ram steamship, and by 1860, Dupuy de Lôme had designed an ironclad with a ram.[11] The quick success[12] of the CSS Virginia's ramming attack on the USS Cumberland at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862 attracted much attention and caused many navies to re-think the ram. The first coastal battleship, France's Taureau, was built in 1863 for the purpose of attacking warships at anchor or in narrow straits, and was armed with a ram.[13] Many ironclad ships were designed specifically to ram opponents; in ships of this type, the armour belt was prolonged to brace both sides of the ram to increase structural integrity. Several wooden steamships were purpose-built as rams, or converted from existing commercial vessels, such as the General Price, pictured to the right.

The theory behind the revival of the weapon derived from the fact that, in the period around 1860, armour held superiority over the ship-mounted cannon. It was believed that an armoured warship could not be seriously damaged by the naval artillery in existence at the time, even at close range. In order to achieve a decisive result in a naval engagement, therefore, alternative methods of action were believed to be necessary. As it followed, from the same belief, that a ship armed with a ram could not be seriously damaged by the gunfire of its intended victim, the ram became, for a brief period, the main armament of many battleships. It was observed that the guns placed on the Taureau were there "with the sole function of preparing the way for the ram."[14]

The radical Confederate steam ram CSS Manassas.

The frequent use of ramming as a tactic in the Battle of Lissa (1866) and, to a lesser extent, at the Battle of Iquique also led to many late nineteenth century naval designers equipping their warships with ram bows. This only really aggravated a number of incidents of ships being sunk by their squadron-mates in accidental collisions as ramming never featured as a viable battle tactic again. The fixation on ramming may also have inhibited the development of gunnery.

When it became clear, towards the end of the nineteenth century, that breech-loading cannon could hit, and hit effectively, enemy ships at several thousand yards range, the ineffectiveness of the ram became clear and ships ceased to be fitted with them.

No other ironclad was ever sunk by an enemy ship in time of war by the use of the ram, although the ram was regarded by all major navies for some thirty years as primary battleship armament. A number of ships were, however, rammed in peacetime by ships of their own navy. The most serious in terms of loss of life was the collision between HMS Victoria and HMS Camperdown, which took place in the Mediterranean in 1893.

Twentieth Century

During both world wars, there were a number of occasions when surfaced submarines were rammed and sunk by surface ships. If successful, such an attack could cut the submarine in two, such as the 1914 sinking of theU-15 by HMS Birmingham. The only battleship over submarine victory in history occurred during World War 1, when the battleship HMS Dreadnought rammed and sank a German U-Boat. However, U-boats were strongly built to resist water pressure at depth so the ramming ship could be badly damaged by the attack. This happened to HMS Fairy, which floundered in 1918 after sinking the U-boat UC-75. In March 1943, the destroyer HMS Harvester (H19) was badly damaged after ramming the U-444. She was sunk by another U-boat the next day as she sat helpless, without working engines.[15]

Ramming attacks during the Second World War, included the ramming of the U-405 by the USS Borie. The U-boat was not critically damaged and there followed a small-arms battle between the vessels as they were locked together and the U-boat was too close for the Borie to bring her main guns to bear. The submarine eventually sank but the Borie was too badly damaged by the ramming to be salvaged, so she was abandoned and deliberately sunk by Allied forces.

Other submarines sunk by ramming included the U-100 the U-224, the U-655[16], the Italian submarines Tembien[17] and Cobalto',[18] and the Royal Navy submarine HMS Cachalot.

As ramming was the only weapon available to unarmed merchant ships, there were a number of occasions when they attempted to ram U-boats. In 1915 the SS Brussels attempted, but failed, to ram the SM U-33. Her captain, Charles Fryatt, was captured by the Germans a year later. He was court-martialed and executed as they considered his act to be that of a franc-tireur. The French steamer Molière sank the U-boat SM UC-36 in 1917.[19] In May 1918 the SM UC-78 was sunk by the steamer, Queen Alexandra[20] and the RMS Olympic rammed and sank the U-103.[21]

During World War 2, the U-46 was struck by the British tanker, SS Ensis. The submarine survived the ramming but had to return to port for repair.[22]

Torpedo ram

HMS Polyphemus's ram.

The torpedo ram was a hybrid torpedo boat combining a ram with torpedo tubes. Incorporating design elements from the cruiser and the monitor, it was intended to provide a small and inexpensive weapon systems for coastal defence and other littoral combat.

Like monitors, torpedo rams operated with very little freeboard, sometimes with only inches of hull rising above the water, exposing only their funnels and turrets to enemy fire. In addition to the guns in their turrets, they were also equipped with torpedoes. Early designs incorporated a spar torpedo that could be extended from the bow and detonated by ramming a target. Later designs used tube-launched self-propelled torpedoes, but retained the concept of ramming, resulting in designs like HMS Polyphemus, which had five torpedo tubes, two each port and starboard and one mounted in the centre of her reinforced ram bow.

Civilian use

Originally the Seattle fireboat Duwamish was built with a 'ram' bow.

Naval rams have also been used on civilian vessels.[23] The Seattle fireboat Duwamish, built in 1909, was designed to ram wooden vessels, as a last resort.


  1. ^ Lazenby, J.F. The Defence of Greece 490–479 BC. Aris & Phillips Ltd., 1993 (ISBN 0-85668-591-7); pp. 34-37.
  2. ^ Coates, J., J. Morrison, and N. Rankov. The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000
  3. ^ Morrison, Coates & Rankov (2000), pp. 27-30
  4. ^ Casson, L. "The Ancient Mariners: Seafarers and Sea Fighters of the Mediterranean in Ancient Times." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991; pp. 76-77.
  5. ^ Mark, Samuel. "The Earliest Naval Ram." International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37:253-272, March 2008.
  6. ^ a b Avshalom Zemer. "The Athlit Ram". Haifa Museums:. Retrieved 18 October 2011. 
  7. ^ Mark, Samuel. "The Earliest Naval Ram." International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37:253-272, March 2008
  8. ^ Mark, S. 2008. “The Earliest Naval Ram” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 35: 261-4
  9. ^ a b c Oron, A. 2001. “The Athlit Ram: Classical and Hellenistic Bronze Casting Technology.” MA. Thesis, Texas A&M University
  10. ^ a b Casson, L., J. Steffy, E. Linder. 1991. The Athlit Ram. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  11. ^ Ropp, Theodore, and Stephen S. Roberts. The Development of a Modern Navy: French Naval Policy, 1871-1904. Naval Institute Press, 1987; p. 12.
  12. ^ The Cumberland sank so quickly that it almost brought the Virginia down as well.
  13. ^ Ropp and Roberts, p. 13; Hore, Peter: The Ironclads, page 38. Anness Publishing Ltd, 2006. ISBN 978-1-84476-299-6.
  14. ^ Ropp, Theodore, and Stephen S. Roberts. The Development of a Modern Navy: French Naval Policy, 1871-1904. Naval Institute Press, 1987; p. 13.
  15. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "HMS Harvester (H 19)". Ships it by U-boats. 
  16. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "U-655". 
  17. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "HMS Hermione (74)". Allied Warships. 
  18. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "HMS Pathfinder (G 10)". Allied Warships. 
  19. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "WWI U-boats: UC-36". U-Boat War in World War I. 
  20. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "WWI U-boats: UC-78". U-Boat War in World War I. Retrieved 23 February 2009. 
  21. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "WWI U-boats: U-103". U-Boat War in World War I. 
  22. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur. "U-46". 
  23. ^ James Delgado (1988). "Duwamish Fireboat: National Historic Landmark Study". National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2009-12-29. 

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