American Torpedo Boats (1885-1901)

USA – 35 boats

Prologue: Early precursors (1800-1870s)

The invention of the “Torpedo”

While the torpedo was invented only in 1866 by Robert Whitehead, just a year after the end of the Civil War, the prototype was first created in 1863 by the Austro-Hungarian officer Ivan Lupis. Called salvacoste it had many shortcomings that were solved by Whitehead, turning it into a practical weapon. Before that, the “torpedo” named after an electric ray sub-species was essentially a naval mine. A towed gunpowder charge was first tested operationally by Robert Fulton in 1800 with its submarine Nautilus. There were other attempts at mining ships in the war of 1812, and in the Crimean War in 1855.

USS Spuyten Duyvil, US Navy dedicated spar-torpedo vessel, 1863.

Torpedo ships of the American Civil War

The torpedo’s first real impetus came from the American Civil War, in particular in the form of air-filled demijohn and powder charges that exploded on contact, later carried by spars. The spar-torpedo boat became in effect a precursor of the torpedo boat, as the carrier of the spar-based weapon was generally small and fast. That was a dangerous endeavor, a reckless and desperate form of warfare to say the least, and was mainly practiced by the Confederates to try to balance out the huge advantage of the Union navy.

An enlarged CSS David was started, but captured at Charleston in 1865 before completion.

The USS Cairo was sunk in 1862 by such a contact mine. A 30-foot (9.1 m) long spar was also carried by the HL Hunley, the first “submarine” (propelled by a manned crankshaft). Despite sinking twice (with all hands), the innovative boat succeeded in destroying the USS Housatonic.

HL Hunley, the most famous Confederate submarine

CSS David, famous Confederate torpedo-ram

CSS David daguerreotype

USS Spuyten Duyvil. Despite its overwhelming superiority on the Confederates, the Union navy also built a spar-torpedo boat in 1964.

USS Alligator, 1862. This Union fleet (and first American sub) boat was capable of operating divers, carrying two limpet mines.

The Confederate river ironclad CSS Atlanta (1863), carrying a spar torpedo at the front.

The Confederate river ironclad CSS Chicora (1862), carrying a spar torpedo at the front.

Other ships of the “Old Navy”

After the famous Monitor, the US Navy built other, less-known classes like the Passaic, Miantonomoh, Canonicus, Kalamazoo, Milwaukee, Casco, or the remarkable USS Dictator, a sea-going monster. But other smaller ships had been converted to be used as torpedo rams, notably to destroy Confederate boat barrages on the James River. In addition to the Spuyten Duyvil (see above), two large experimental, iron-hulled ships were also built after the war in 1873, the Alarm and Intrepid. However, both were too slow for their intended role.

USS Alarm, 1873 spar-torpedo vessel.

Unusual ships of the “New Navy”

Two interesting ships were built in the 1880-90s, one was not torpedo-carrying but experimented with another idea: launching dynamite with pneumatic guns. The USS Vesuvius (we will come back to this very unique design) had three Zalinsky 55 feets pneumatic guns at the front on an open barbette. The projectiles weighed 980 Ibs, with 500 Ibs dynamite warheads.

Launched in 1888, its only action with the not convincing bombardment of Santiago ten years later. However, the USS Katahdin could have been a torpedo ram in the European tradition. Launched in 1893, it had a very sloped hull, cigar-shaped, made up of iron plating backed by wood. But instead of TTs or a spar, she was fitted with four 6-pdr quick-firing guns. Her most interesting feature was that her hull was fitted with ballasts so she could be submerged before ramming.

The Spanish destroyer Furor. The American Civil War broke out in 1898, but none of the commissioned TBs were ever put to action due to the distance both of Cuba and the Philippines. They did provide however an harbor coastal defence in the unlikely case of a retaliation by the Spanish Navy on the US Coast.

American Torpedo Boats (1885-1899)

The famous Stiletto was not a very successful boat. Its contemporary namesake is an Experimental stealthy pentamaran capable of 60 knots.

A short lived experiment

For 15 years, the US Navy ventured into this kind of boat, though not without reticence as many in the fleet advocated not for a defensive but more “active” stance on the international scene. Indeed Alfred Thayer Mahan became president of the Naval War College by default in 1886 and befriended future president Theodore Roosevelt in 1888. Both had the same views about the duty of the US Navy. But whatever the case, by 1895 TBs were definitely out of the picture as the first American destroyers, looking more promising, took their place. The move was decidedly towards a “fleet in being”.

An early USN TB launching a torpedo

US Navy TBs Specifics

There are nevertheless specifics about American TBs. First, most were largely semi-experimental, with gradual improvements on small orders of 2-3 ships. In total, 35 had been built, and many were one-off experiments. The lightest has been the first Stiletto at 31 tons, and the heaviest was the Nicholson series, at 218 tonnes. Their average displacement was about 160 tons. They were fitted with either Thornycroft, Normand, Mosher, or Seabury or locomotive boilers, and used VTE engines (vertical triple expansion) while in rare cases, VQE (Quadruple expansion) engines were used. The fastest was the Dahlgren, at 31 knots, but the average speed was 25 knots.

Stiletto, the first American TB, bow-launching a torpedo.

Most ships’ standard armament was composed of two to three 18 in Torpedo Tubes and one to three 1-pdr QF guns. They nearly all presented a front turtleback and some tumblehome all along their hull because of expected North Atlantic rough seas. Their average range however only allowed for short sorties of 50 miles, due to the limited size of the ship’s coal stores, reaching 80 tonnes on the Nicholson.


They were many small shipyards involved, some more than others. The most active in this area was Herreshoff, which turned out seven TBs, including the first one, and later rose to fame as the builder of eight successful defenders of America’s Cup from 1893 to 1934. There is a museum accessible from Providence and Boston.

Bath Iron Works (Kennebec River, Bath, Maine), launched five ships, Columbian Iron Works (Baltimore, Maryland) five, followed by lesser-known yards like Iowa Ironworks (TB2), Moran (TB8), Wolff & Zwicker (TB12-13), Charles Hillman (TB17), George Lawley (TB27-28), Lewis Nixon (T29-30), WR Trigg (TB-31-33), and Gas Engine & Power and CL Seabury (which also built boilers) delivered the very last one, USS Wilkes alias TB35 in 1901.

Only one was delivered by a foreign yard, the world’s famous specialist: Schichau, in 1897, delivered USS Somers, commissioned just a few days before the Spanish-American War.

USS Stiletto, illustration by the author

To simplify things, we will treat these TBs in three series: The “small” and “medium” TBs prior to the Spanish-American war of 1898 and the large post-war models of the Blakely class commissioned up to 1905.

The “light group” 1886-1898

USS Cushing, TB1.

USS Stiletto
The first one was called WTB1 to mark its experimental nature. Laid down at Herreshoff in 1885, launched in 1886, and commissioned in 1887 it was small (28.64 x 3.50 x 0.91m, 31 tons), had a flat deck and ram, but no TT. Instead, it carried two Howell torpedoes, but only from 1898. It was fitted with an Almy boiler coupled with a vertical compound engine that turned a unique shaft, producing 395 ihp for a whopping 18.5 knots. Coal was limited to just four tons and thus the ship was limited to coast. Shortly after its introduction into service, it was stranded ashore after a collision with a steam launch. This was a single funnel, wood-hulled boat that was confined to runs and experimental works. A bad steamer, her 1897 fuel trials were a failure. After being mothballed for some years, she was sold for scrap in 1911

USS De Long.

Coastal TBs of the Talbot & Mackenzie class
Among the smallest American TBs, these two classes (Talbot, Gwin, Mackenzie, McKee) were authorized under the act of 10.6.1896. The first two (Herreshoff) had a single funnel, two single TTs far apart – one front of the funnel, one aft, and were both commissioned in April 1898. The Gwin was later used as a Ferry and was later renamed Cyane in 1914 while USS Talbot was used from 1900 for oil fuel tests and decommissioned in 1925.

USS MacKenzie.

The two MacKenzie were quite different, 65 tons, same length at 30.94m but larger at a width of 3.89m vs 3.81m. The latter also had a larger draught at 1.29 m vs. 0.99m. For propulsion, they had Thornycroft instead of Normand boilers. Apart from their two funnels and the same three 18 in TTs, they had all a single 1-pdr gun bar the USS McKee had two. They also had two funnels. Both served as target ships, from 1912 (MacKee) and 1916 (MacKenzie).


USS Talbot, TB15

Talbot class specifications

Dimensions 30.48 x3.81 x0.99 m
Displacement 46t FL
Crew 12
Propulsion 1 screw, 1 VTE, 2 Normand boilers, 850 ihp
Speed 20 knots (38 km/h; xx mph), coal 9 tons
Armament 2 TT 18 in, 1 x1pdr QF gun.

USS Foote, illustration by the author

The “medium group” prior to 1898

This was by far the largest, with the USS Cushing, Ericsson, Rowan, Morris, and Somers, and the classes Foote, Porter, Dahlgren, and Davis.

USS Dahlgren, TB9.

USS Cushing
The first official TB commissioned for service was the TB1, built by the same yard after many design revisions. It was laid down in April of 1888, launched in January 1890, and completed in April of the same year. She had two funnels far apart, a ram bow, turtleback (the first US TB to be fitted with such a scheme), two broadside training 18 in TTs, and one fixed forward into the bow. Her armament was heavy, with three 6-pdr guns. The TB1 was sunk as a practice target in 1920.

USS Cushing, starboard side, 1891.

USS Ericsson (1894) was heavier (120 rather than 116 tons), and very similar but for its armament back to three lighter 1-pdr guns. It could reach 24 knots. In 1912 it was used as a target and sunk.

The Foote class (1896) comprised also USS Rodgers and Winslow. They were commissioned in 1897-98. They had two funnels far apart, three TTs on each broadside and a third aft, and three 1-pdr guns. 142 tons, 48.76 m long, and two had Mosher instead of Thornycroft boilers but two shafts for 2000 ihp, and could run at 25 knots. They were sold in 1911-1920.

The Porter class (1896) from Herreschoff were 165 tons, 53.50 m (175 feet) long ships capable of 27.5 knots and armed with four 1-pdr guns. The first was sold in 1912, and the second in 1920.

The Dahlgren class (1899) were 146-ton boats, 46.13 m long (151 feet), with a different armament of four 1-pdr but only two TTs, centerline, aft, and far aft. They had Normand boilers and were the fastest of them all, reaching 30 knots. Details of their superstructure and funnels were also reminiscent of French designs. The Craven ended as a target in 1913, and the Dhalgren served through WW1 before being sold for scrap in 1920.

The Davis class (1898) also comprised the USS Fox (TB-13). These 1550 tons ships had two vertical triple expansion engines, coupled with Thornycroft boilers, and were capable of 23 knots. They had three TTs in the usual disposition. Fox was sold in 1916, the other in 1920 after being decommissioned in 1913.

USS Rowan was a 182 tons ship authorized under the act of 2.3.1895, and had funnels and TTs arranged like the Porter, but also had a raised forecastle. She was decommissioned in 1912 but only sold in 1918.

USS Morris was a relatively light TB of 105 tons, 42.35 m (139’6”) long, with two funnels not far apart, and Normand boilers. She was capable of 23 knots and carried the usual armament of three TTs and three 1-pdr guns.

The USS Somers was German built at Schichau, as a private speculation, carried by the steamer SS Manhattan on its way to US waters. She had a single funnel and three masts, two training TTs on the deck, and one submerged TT at the bow. It was 17.5 m (156 feet) long for 143 tons and its locomotive boilers fed a VQE engine which developed 1700 ihp, for 23 knots. Like other TBs in reserve, she was renamed TB N°9 to leave the name for a new destroyer.

USS Foote.

Post war group: USS Blakeley class

This relatively homogeneous class counted the USS Blakely, USS DeLong, Nicholson, O’Brien, Shubrick, Stockton, Thornton, Tingey, and Wilkes (TB-27-35).

They were assimilated because of the same 04.05.1898 order, but differed as much as their shipyard’s own specs: Their displacement ranged from 165 (Tingey) to 220 tonnes (O’Brien), but all measured 53.35 meters overall and 5.38 m in width (175′ and 17’8”) but with an underwater height of 1.42 to 1.98 m (6’6”).

Their armament was also uniform, with the same three 18-in TTs (port, starboard, far aft) and three 1-pdr QF guns, but three 3-pdr for the Shubrick sub-class (Stockton, Thornton). Their average top speed was 25 knots but Wilkes was the faster of them all, at 27 knots.

USS Blakeley, TB-27 underway off Grant’s tomb.

Nicholson sub-class specifications

Dimensions 53.35 x5.18 x1.96 m
Displacement 218-220 tons FL
Crew 28
Propulsion 2 screws, 2 shafts VTE, 3 Mosher boilers, 3000 ihp
Speed 25 knots (47 km/h; xx mph), coal 80 tons
Armament 3 TT 18 in, 3 x1pdr QF guns.

USS Fox, David class (TB-13), 1898.

American TBs in ww1

About 20 were left in service when the war broke out. Some were quickly converted as target ships, and others were just mothballed and played no significant part in the operations bar potentially some coastal patrols.

They were not equipped for ASW warfare in any case. A good example of an “active career” was the USS Tingey (TB-34): She joined the Reserve Torpedo Flotilla (Norfolk Navy Yard), laying tied up at a pier side, doing a few sorties to ensure her operational readiness.

By 1908, she was part of the 3rd Torpedo Flotilla, and next year “the Atlantic Torpedo Fleet”. She moved however late this year to Charleston, S.C., staying in reserve. In 1917, she was sent to the Philadelphia Navy Yard and decommissioned from 8 March to 7 April 1917.

She patrolled the coastal waters of the 1st Naval District and was eventually renamed in September 1918 to “Coastal Torpedo Boat No. 17”, before being decommissioned at Philadelphia on 30 January 1919, struck from the list, and sold. USS Gwin and Morris survived until 1924-25.


Although the story of American TBs before ww1 seems like a footnote, quickly swapping over long-range destroyers instead, there was a revival of the concept in WW2, at the occasion of the Pacific War, shaped as the mass-built “PT boat” from Elco, Higgins and assimilated wooden type Motor torpedo boats, which disrupted Japanese shipping and sunk many military ships.


USS Bagley (TB-24), the first to carry a floatplane.

USS Davis (TB-12).

USS Ericsson.

USS Bailey, TB-21.

USS Farragut, TB-11 off Mare Island Navy Yard circa 1899.

USS Goldsborough, TB-20.

USS Manley (TB-23), mothballed.

USS Porter (1898).

USS Morris, TB-14.

USS Rowan – TB-8.

USS Stringham (TB-19).

USS Somers (TB-22).


Conway’s all the world’s fighting ships 1865-1905

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