A gunboat is a naval watercraft designed for the express purpose of carrying one or more guns to bombard coastal targets, as opposed to those military craft designed for naval warfare, or for ferrying troops or supplies.

Gunboats at Fort Donelson
Union ironclad river gunboats assault the Confederates at Fort Donelson on February 1862, during the American Civil War.


Pre-steam era

In the age of sail, a gunboat was usually a small undecked vessel carrying a single smoothbore cannon in the bow, or just two or three such cannons. A gunboat could carry one or two masts or be oar-powered only, but the single-masted version of about 15 m (49 ft) length was most typical. Some types of gunboat carried two cannons, or else mounted a number of swivel guns on the railings.

The small gunboat had advantages: if it only carried a single cannon, the boat could manoeuvre in shallow or restricted areas – such as rivers or lakes – where larger ships could sail only with difficulty. The gun that such boats carried could be quite heavy; a 32-pounder for instance. As such boats were cheap and quick to build, naval forces favoured swarm tactics: while a single hit from a frigate's broadside would destroy a gunboat, a frigate facing a large squadron of gunboats could suffer serious damage before it could manage to sink them all. For example: in the Battle of Alvøen (1808) during the Gunboat War of 1807–1814, five Dano-Norwegian gunboats defeated the lone frigate HMS Tartar. Gunboats used in the Battle of Valcour Island (1776) on Lake Champlain during the American Revolutionary War were mostly built on the spot, attesting to the speed of their construction.

Decked kanonjolle1
A model of a type of decked "gun yawl" designed by Fredrik Henrik af Chapman and used by the Swedish archipelago fleet

All navies of the sailing era kept a number of gunboats on hand. Gunboats saw extensive use in the Baltic Sea during the late 18th century as they were well-suited for the extensive coastal skerries and archipelagoes of Sweden, Finland and Russia. The rivalry between Sweden and Russia in particular led to an intense expansion of gunboat fleets and the development of new gunboat types. The two countries clashed during the Russo-Swedish war of 1788–90, a conflict that culminated in the massive Battle of Svensksund in 1790, in which over 30,000 men and hundreds of gunboats, galleys and other oared craft took part. The majority of these were vessels developed from the 1770s and onwards by the naval architect Fredrik Henrik af Chapman for the Swedish archipelago fleet. The designs, copied and refined by the rival Danish and Russian navies, spread to the Mediterranean and to the Black Sea.[1]

Two variants occurred most commonly:

  • a larger 20 m (66 ft) "gun sloop" (from the Swedish kanonslup) with two 24-pounders, one in the stern and one in the bow
  • a smaller 15 m (49 ft) "gun yawl" (kanonjolle) with a single 24-pounder

Many of the Baltic navies kept gunboats in service well into the second half of the 19th century.[2] British ships engaged larger 22 m (72 ft) Russian gunboats off Turku in southeast Finland in 1854 during the Crimean War. The Russian vessels had the distinction of being the last oared vessels of war in history to fire their guns in anger.[3]

Gunboats played a key role in Napoleon Bonaparte's plan for the invasion of England in 1804. Denmark-Norway used them heavily in the Gunboat War. Between 1803 and 1812 the United States Navy had a policy of basing its navy on coastal gunboats, experimenting with a variety of designs. President Thomas Jefferson (in office: 1801–1809) and his Democratic-Republican Party opposed a strong navy, regarding gunboats as adequate to defend the United States' major harbors. They proved useless against the British blockade during the War of 1812.[4]

Steam era

USS Alliance screw gunboat
The screw gunboat USS Alliance, circa 1880.

With the introduction of steam power in the early 19th century, the Royal Navy and other navies built considerable numbers of small vessels propelled by side paddles and later by screws. Initially, these vessels retained full sailing rigs and used steam engines for auxiliary propulsion.

The British Royal Navy deployed two wooden paddle-gunboats in the Lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River during the Rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada. The United States Navy deployed an iron-hulled paddle gunboat, USS Michigan, to the Great Lakes in 1844.

Von der Tann became the first propeller-driven gunboat in the world. Conradi shipyards in Kiel built the steam-powered 120 long tons (120 t) gunboat in 1849 for the small navy of Schleswig-Holstein. Initially called "Gunboat No. 1", Von der Tann was the most modern ship in the navy. She participated successfully in the First Schleswig War of 1848–1851.

Britain built a large number of wooden screw-gunboats during the 1850s, some of which participated in the Crimean War (1853–1856), Second Opium War (1856–1860) and Indian Mutiny (1857–1859). The requirement for gunboats in the Crimean War was formulated in 1854 to allow the Royal Navy to bombard shore facilities in the Baltic.[5] The first ships the Royal Navy built that met this requirement were the Arrow-class gunvessels.[5] Then in mid-1854 the Royal Navy ordered six Gleaner-class gunboats followed later in the year by an order for 20 Dapper-class gunboats.[5] In May 1855 the Royal Navy deployed six Dapper-class gunboats in the Sea of Azov, where they repeatedly raided and destroyed stores around its coast.[6] In June 1855 the Royal Navy reentered the Baltic with a total of 18 gunboats as part of a larger fleet.[7] The gunboats attacked various coastal facilities, operating alongside larger British warships from which they drew supplies such as coal.[7]

Gunboats experienced a revival during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Union and Confederate forces quickly converted existing passenger-carrying boats into armed sidewheel steamers. Later, some purpose-built boats, such as USS Miami, joined the fray. They frequently mounted 12 or more guns, sometimes of rather large caliber, and usually carried some armor. At the same time, Britain's gunboats from the Crimean War period were starting to wear out, so a new series of classes was ordered. Construction shifted from a purely wooden hull to an iron–teak composite.[8]

SMS Panther
SMS Panther, a famous gunboat diplomat in the Agadir Crisis of 1911.

In the later 19th century and early 20th century, "gunboat" was the common name for smaller armed vessels. These could be classified, from the smallest to the largest, into river gunboats, river monitors, coastal-defense gunboats (such as SMS Panther), and full-fledged monitors for coastal bombardments. In the 1870s and 1880s Britain took to building so called "flat-iron" (or Rendel) gunboats for coastal defence.[9] When there would be few opportunities to re-coal, vessels carrying a full sailing rig continued in use as gunboats; HMS Gannet, a sloop preserved at Chatham Historic Dockyard in the United Kingdom, exemplifies this type of gunboat.

In the United States Navy, these boats had the hull classification symbol "PG", which led to their being referred to as "patrol gunboats". They usually displaced under 2,000 long tons (2,000 t), were about 200 ft (61 m) long, 10–15 ft (3.0–4.6 m) draught and sometimes much less, and mounted several guns of calibers up to 5–6 in (130–150 mm). An important characteristic of these was the ability to operate in rivers, enabling them to reach inland targets in a way not otherwise possible before the development of aircraft. In this period the naval powers used gunboats for police actions in colonies or in weaker countries, for example in China (see e.g. Yangtze Patrol). This category of gunboat inspired the term "gunboat diplomacy". With the addition of torpedoes they became "torpedo gunboats", designated by the hull classification symbol "PTG" (Patrol Torpedo Gunboat).

In Britain, Admiral Fisher's reforms in the 1900s saw the disposal of much of the gunboat fleet.[10] A handful remained in service in various roles at the start of World War I in 1914.[11] The very last in active service were two of the second Bramble class which survived until 1926, carrying out river patrols in west Africa.[12]

HMS Ladybird 31-12-1940 Bardia AWM 005012.jpeg
Insect-class HMS Ladybird (with larger-calibre guns installed in 1939).

In the circumstances of World War I (1914–1918), however, the Royal Navy re-equipped with small (625 long tons (635 t)), shallow-draught gunboats (12 ships of the Insect-class) with sufficient speed to operate in fast-flowing rivers and with relatively heavy armament. During the war and in the post-war period, these were deployed in Romania on the Danube, in Mesopotamia on the Euphrates and Tigris, in northern Russia on the Northern Dvina and in China on the Yangtze. In China, during anarchic and war conditions, they continued to protect British interests until World War II; other western Powers acted similarly.

More and larger gunboats were built in the late 1930s for the Far East. Some sailed there; others were transported in sections and reassembled at Shanghai.

World War II

United Kingdom

Most British gunboats were based initially in East Asia. When war with Japan broke out, many of these vessels withdrew to the Indian Ocean. Others were given to the Republic of China Navy (such as HMS Sandpiper, which was renamed Ying Hao) and some were captured by the Japanese.

Some were later redeployed to the Mediterranean theatre and supported land operations during the North African campaign, as well in parts of Southern Europe.

United States

In late 1941 the US Navy's Yangtze Patrol boats based in China were withdrawn to the Philippines or scuttled. Following the US defeat in the Philippines most of the remaining craft were scuttled. However, USS Asheville survived until being sunk in action during the Battle of Java in 1942.

Soviet Union

Russian postage stamp issued in 2013, showing the Soviet Project 1125 armoured boat BKA-75. Launched in 1940, it served with the Ladoga Flotilla, Volga Flotilla, Azov Flotilla and Danube Flotilla. In 1943 BKA-75 was awarded the status of a Guards unit.

During the 1930s, the Soviet Navy began developing small armoured river-boats or "riverine tanks": vessels displacing 26 to 48 tons, on which the turrets of tanks were mounted.[13]

Three classes, numbering 210 vessels, saw service between 1934 and 1945:

  • Proyekta 1124: their standard armament was initially two turrets from T-28 or T-34 tanks, each mounting a 76.2 mm gun and Degtyaryov tank machine gun (DT), as well as two anti-aircraft machine guns – in some cases the rear turret was replaced with a Katyusha rocket-launcher
  • Proyekta 1125: one T-28/T-34 turret with a 76.2 mm gun and DT, as well as four AA machine guns
  • S-40: one T-34 turret with a 76.2 mm gun and DT, as well as four AA machine guns

With crews of 10 to 20 personnel, riverine tanks displaced 26 to 48 tons, had armour 4–14 mm thick, and were 23 to 25 metres long. They saw significant action in the Baltic and Black Seas between 1941 and 1945.

Vietnam War

US riverine gunboats in the Vietnam War, included Patrol Boats River (PBR), constructed of fiberglass; Patrol Craft Fast (PCF), commonly known as Swift Boats, built of aluminum; and Assault Support Patrol Boats (ASPB) built of steel. U.S. Coast Guard 82-foot Point-class cutters supplemented these US Navy vessels. The ASPBs were commonly referred to as "Alpha" boats and primarily carried out mine-sweeping duties along the waterways, due to their all-steel construction. The ASPBs were the only US Navy riverine craft specifically designed and built for the Vietnam War.[14] All of these boats were assigned to the US Navy's "Brownwater Navy".[15]

See also


  1. ^ See Glete (1993), pp. 710–11 for lists of European navies that employed rowed gunboats
  2. ^ Anderson (1962), pp. 97–99
  3. ^ Anderson (1962), p.98.
  4. ^ David Stephen Heidler; Jeanne T. Heidler (2004). Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Naval Institute Press. p. 218.
  5. ^ a b c Preston (2007), pp. 19–22.
  6. ^ Preston (2007), pp. 26–27
  7. ^ a b Preston (2007), p. 28
  8. ^ Preston (2007), pp. 68–69
  9. ^ Preston (2007), pp. 162–63
  10. ^ Preston (2007), pp. 122–124
  11. ^ Preston (2007), pp. 128–129
  12. ^ Preston (2007), pp. 131
  13. ^ War Is Over (website), n.d., "Soviet WWII armored boats" (3 August 2016).
  14. ^ Friedman (1987).
  15. ^ "Escort and Patrol Vessels", Visitors Guide, Historic Naval Ships, archived from the original on 2010-11-23, retrieved 2010-11-23


  • Anderson, Roger Charles, Oared Fighting Ships: From classical times to the coming of steam. London. 1962.
  • Chapelle, Howard, The History of the American Sailing Navy Norton. 1949.
  • Friedman, Norman. US Small Combatants: An Illustrated Design History. 1987; Naval Institute Press. ISBN 0-87021-713-5.
  • Glete, Jan, Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America 1500–1860 (vol 2) Almqvist & Wiksell International, Stockholm. 1993. ISBN 91-22-01565-5
  • Preston, John Antony, Send a Gunboat! The Victorian Navy and Supremacy at Sea, 1854–1904. Conway Maritime, London. 2007. ISBN 978-0-85177-923-2.

External links

Media related to Gunboats at Wikimedia Commons

American Flower-class corvettes

The American Flower-class corvettes were those ships of the Flower class built for, or operated by, the United States Navy during World War II.

Asheville-class gunboat (1917)

The Asheville-class gunboat was a class of two gunboats, USS Tulsa and USS Asheville, which was based on Sacramento, an earlier gunboat. Laid down between 1917 and 1919, construction was completed in the early 1920s after which both ships were employed to project US naval power across several different theaters, including Central America and the Pacific, during the interwar years. Tulsa principally served in Asia, assigned variously with the South China Patrol, Yangtze Patrol, and the Inshore Patrol; Asheville mostly stayed in Central America, but did spend a few years on the South China Patrol alongside Tulsa. When war broke out with Japan in the Pacific, both ships were used to escort convoys. Asheville was lost during the war, but Tulsa survived to be broken up in the late 1940s. The class was awarded a total of three battle stars, one for Asheville and two for Tulsa.

Atami-class gunboat

The Atami-class gunboats (熱海型砲艦, Atami-gata hōkan) were a class of riverine gunboats of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The class consisted of two vessels: Atami (熱海) and Futami (二見).

Bombardment of Papeete

The Bombardment of Papeete occurred in French Polynesia when German warships attacked on 22 September 1914, during World War I. The German armoured cruisers SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the port of Papeete on the island of Tahiti and sank the French gunboat Zélée and freighter Walküre before bombarding the town's fortifications. French shore batteries and a gunboat resisted the German intrusion but were greatly outgunned. The main German objective was to seize the coal piles stored on the island, but these were destroyed by the French at the start of the action.

The German vessels were largely undamaged but the French lost their gunboat. Several of Papeete's buildings were destroyed and the town's economy was severely disrupted. The main strategic consequence of the engagement was the disclosure of the cruisers' positions to the British Admiralty, which led to the Battle of Coronel where the entire German East Asia Squadron defeated a Royal Navy squadron. The depletion of Scharnhorst's and Gneisenau's ammunition at Papeete also contributed to their subsequent destruction at the Battle of the Falklands.

Dubuque-class gunboat

The Dubuque class gunboats were a class of gunboats built by the United States prior to World War I. The class was designed in 1903. The United States Navy commissioned 2 Dubuque-class gunboats in 1903. Dubuques had a design speed of 12 knots, and a main armament of six 4" rapid-fire guns and four 6-pounder rapid-fire guns in single mounts.

Erie-class gunboat

The Erie class gunboats were a class of gunboats built by the United States prior to World War II. The class was designed in 1932, and commissioned into the United States Navy in 1936: Erie (PG-50) and Charleston (PG-51). The Eries had a design speed of 20 kn (37 km/h; 23 mph) and a main armament of four 6-inch (152 mm) guns in single mounts with four 1.1-inch (28 mm) quadruple mount anti-aircraft guns.

Finnish gunboat Turunmaa

Turunmaa was a Finnish gunboat built in 1918. She served in the Finnish Navy during World War II. The ship was named after Turuma, a type of frigate designed for use in shallow waters of the archipelago and served in the Swedish Archipelago fleet in the late 18th century. The frigates had in turn been named after the region of Finland.

During construction while in Russian lists (1916–1917) the ship had been named both Orlan and Tshirok. Turunmaa was built in Helsinki for the Imperial Russian Navy but was taken over by Finnish troops in the Finnish Civil War. The ship was used as a training ship for Finnish sea cadets during peacetime and was nicknamed as Surunmaa (land of sorrow).

Fly-class gunboat

The Fly-class river gunboats (or small China gunboats), collectively often referred to as the "Tigris gunboat flotilla", were a class of small but well-armed Royal Navy vessels designed specifically to patrol the Tigris river during the World War I Mesopotamian Campaign (the China name was to disguise their function).

Gunboat War

The Gunboat War (Danish: Kanonbådskrigen, Norwegian: Kanonbåtkrigen; 1807–1814) was the naval conflict between Denmark–Norway and the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The war's name is derived from the Danish tactic of employing small gunboats against the conventional Royal Navy. In Scandinavia it is seen as the later stage of the English Wars, whose commencement is accounted as the First Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

Gunboat diplomacy

In international politics, gunboat diplomacy (or Big Stick ideology in U.S. history) refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power; implying or constituting a direct threat of warfare, should terms not be agreeable to the superior force.

Insect-class gunboat

The Insect-class gunboats (or large China gunboats) were a class of small, but well-armed Royal Navy ships designed for use in shallow rivers or inshore. They were intended for use on the Danube against Austria-Hungary (the China name was to disguise their function). The first four ships—Gnat, Mantis, Moth and Tarantula—were first employed during the World War I Mesopotamian Campaign on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

Japanese gunboat Kotaka

Kotaka (小鷹) was a river gunboat of the Imperial Japanese Navy, part of the 11th Gunboat Sentai, that operated on the Yangtze River in China during the 1930s, and during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Participated in the Battle of Wuhan, June-Sept., 1938. Participated in Battle of Madang and Battle of Jiujiang, June, 1938. Nanchang Campaign: February–May, 1939. 1942: In service as passenger ship. Sunk May 31, 1944 on the Yangtze River while serving as a communications ship. The IJN official designation was 60-ton traffic ship (Motored river exclusive-Special type) (六拾瓲交通船 (内火式河用特型),, 60-ton kōtsūsen (Uchibishiki kawayou-Tokugata)).

Japanese gunboat Saga

Saga (嵯峨) was a river gunboat of the Imperial Japanese Navy, that operated on the Yangtze River and in coastal waters of China during the 1930s, and during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.

Mississippi River Squadron

The Mississippi River Squadron was the Union brown-water naval squadron that operated on the western rivers during the American Civil War. It was initially created as a part of the Union Army, although it was commanded by naval officers, and was then known as the Western Gunboat Flotilla and sometimes as the Mississippi Flotilla. It received its final designation when it was transferred to the Union Navy at the beginning of October 1862.

PGM-1-class motor gunboat

The PGM-1-class motor gunboats were a class of eight gunboats converted for the United States Navy from 1943-1944 and were succeeded by the PGM-9-class motor gunboats. All eight PGM-1s were converted from SC-497-class submarine chasers. The PGM-1s were created to support PT boats in the Pacific, but were too slow to keep up. The PGM-1s were discontinued and the PGM-9s, also too slow, were shifted to support minesweeping ships instead.

PGM-7 was the only PGM-1-class vessel lost in World War II. The others were sent to the Foreign Liquidation Commission in 1947. Their exact fate is unknown.

PGM-9-class motor gunboat

The PGM-9-class motor gunboats were a class of 24 gunboats converted for the United States Navy from 1944-1945, succeeding the PGM-1-class motor gunboats. All 24 PGM-9s were converted from PC-461-class submarine chasers while still under construction. The PGM-9s were created to support PT boats in the Pacific, but were too slow to keep up, and were shifted to support minesweeping ships instead.

Soviet gunboat Krasnoye Znamya

Krasnoye Znamya (Красное Знамя, Red Banner, ex-Khrabryy) was a Soviet gunboat. The ship had been built in the late 19th century as the Khrabryy (Храбрый, Brave) by the Russian Empire. The ship was the only craft of its class. The Krasnoye Znamya was sunk in the harbour of Lavansaari in the Gulf of Finland on November 18, 1942 after an attack by Finnish MTBs.

Type 062 gunboat

The Type 062 gunboat is a class of gunboat of the People's Liberation Army Navy first developed and constructed in the 1950's. This unsophisticated class is relatively well-armed for its size and is the most widely built and exported Chinese naval vessel in terms of numbers. A total of 30 were built, initial boats being known as the Shanghai I class and later slightly improved boats being known as the Shanghai II class. The Shanghai I class was slightly smaller than its successor, the Shanghai II class, displacing 125 tons instead of 135 tons, and had a twin Chinese Type 66 57 mm gun mount forward. All other specifications are identical to the Shanghai II class, which replaced the 57 mm with twin 37 mm gun mounts. Some boats remained in active service well into the early 1990s in the PLA navy and longer in the case of the Korean People's Navy.

Type 206-class gunboat

The Type 206 class gunboat is a gunboat of the People's Republic of China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Also known as the Huludao class, it is a simplified version of the Type 037 class submarine chaser (also known as the Hainan class). Used for patrol duties, it has slightly reduced displacement, but an enlarged superstructure.

Aircraft carriers
Patrol craft
Fast attack craft
Mine warfare
Command and support


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