The Evolution of Battleship Gunnery in the U.S. Navy, 1920-1945

by William J. Jurens

Part 1

This article was originally published in Warship International No. 3, 1991.

USS Missouri BB-63

Note the projectiles in flight on the right.


The wealth of descriptive information on the ships and weapons of the first half of the twentieth century has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the quantity of information surrounding the probable effectiveness of those weapons in combat.  Even today, those wishing to estimate the combat effectiveness of these weapons systems have been forced to resort to the overanalysis of anecdotal or incomplete evidence, or to base their conclusions upon mere guesswork.  Though war-gaming is a popular (and sometimes historically useful) research method, few of the algorithms used to estimate the effectiveness of naval gunfire have been based upon official findings, and virtually none have based their conclusions upon the analysis of systematic testing.1

This paper, distilled from the pages of the little known U.S. Navy "Reports on Gunnery Exercises" series, will attempt to address those deficiencies.  The paper is divided into four major sections:

1. A general narrative describing the various exercises and their evolution
2. A series of detailed example of actual firings
3. A summary and analysis of trends and tendencies
4. A highly personal conclusion.

As a complete analysis of the material in the Reports on Gunnery Exercises will take many years, perhaps decades, to accomplish, this paper might therefore be best characterized as an interim report, analyzing in some detail - and confining itself to - the sections dealing with battleship main and secondary battery gunnery between 1920 and 1945.

Gunnery Exercises and their Evolution:

For the first forty years of the century the battleship's guns were considered the ultimate weapons of seapower.  Not surprisingly, testing and evaluating their gunnery was considered a high priority, and the U.S. Navy, like most of its rivals, conducted gunnery practices at least once a year.  The specific rules under which any given exercise was to be fired were promulgated in various editions of the Orders For Gunnery Exercises, which, amongst other things, contained the arcane and somewhat arbitrary formulas from which the ship's "gunnery merit" could be computed.  These mathematically computed merits were used to rank the various ships in the fleet, to award prize money and trophies to the winners, and sometimes to censure the losers.  Their application seems to have been always controversial, and the system was several times deleted only to be reinstated again.  Two computations were normally done.  Each ship was granted a regular merit score derived from computations given in the rules.  In addition, to its regular merit every battleship was assigned a "graded merit" which was determined by giving the best ship a score of 100%, and factoring the others down from that.  The result of real or perceived inequities in the rules generated a good deal of sometimes not-so-good-natured complaining, especially from the crews of the fourteen-inch gunned ships who could not realistically compete one-on-one with their sixteen-inch gunned sisters, and who thus had little chance of winning a prize.  In response, the CNO once investigated (and subsequently rejected) a handicap system, although the rules were eventually modified to reflect the inherently greater dispersion of the smaller gun.  The entire merit system finally died out shortly before the beginning of the war.

The schedule of gunnery exercises to be fired in any given year was selected from a master list according to the priorities of the time, Policy dictated that every active ship in the fleet participate in at least some basic gunnery exercises every year.  Long Range Battle Practices, Short Range Battle Practices, Night Battle Practices, and Anti-Aircraft Practices were fired annually.  Experimental Practice - usually designed to explore technical questions such as the ability of new directors to keep on target during radical turn - were fired every couple of years.  Advanced Day Battle Practices, often involving evolutions such as firing in indirect mode (through smoke screens) were fired less often.  Prior to 1931 the battleships fired torpedo practices as well.

Criticisms of equipment and technique in the Reports on Gunnery Exercises were expressed with remarkable candor.  Each significant failure or "deficiency" was recorded by an observing party, after which the deficient ship was required to provide a description of the problem, and to recommend a remedy.  Junior officers were encouraged (or perhaps required) to submit a critique of each practice.  Although there was an evident (and understandable) tendency to phrase these critiques in the most positive light, frank criticism was common, suggesting that censure was rare.  The major risk in speaking one's mind seems to have been facing the reply of the various bureaus, who got the last word, and often responded with equally frank replies.2

Candid commentary in these Confidential documents was by no means restricted to junior officers.  Admirals and even CNO would occasionally take up an issue as well.  In 1937, for example, Admiral Simons, then Commander Battleship Division One, would write of Night Battle Practice, Secondary Battery:  ". . . night firing requires common sense and constant drill in estimation of ranges of objects under illumination.  I mention this because in some instances common sense was not used."  ". . . it soon became apparent," he continued, warming to the topic, "that a nebulous doctrine guided procedure [which sometimes resulted in a] senseless waste of ammunition coupled with an unreasonably long time before the target was hit."

A large proportion of the complaints revolved around personnel.  Comments by Lt. Cdrs. Foy and Hagen of the USS New Mexico were typical of complaints throughout the thirties.  Gunnery officers were in short supply and transferred much too often, they wrote.  "We continue to start at zero each first of July," they complained.  "As to enlisted personnel, the situation is almost as grave." "There is," they noted, "a continual recruiting from the deck divisions of men for special details.  Inducements are offered to the brighter men who comprise the guns' crews to become yeomen, cooks, storekeepers, bakers, or to learn the various mechanical trades." "In practically every department in the ship outside of the gunnery department...  a man can learn a trade which will be useful to him after his enlistment expires [so that the division officer receiving a transfer request] either loses a good man [or] has a dissatisfied man on his hands.  [A man] is usually recruited to learn a trade and just as soon as he discovers that he is not learning one by staying [in gunnery], he does his utmost to leave." The conclusion was grim:  "Generally speaking what we have left with which to fight the battery is pretty apt to be the least desirable material on board." "This question of fighting the guns with 'what's left' of the crew, officered by officers so young that they have just arrived or so unfortunate . . .  that they can't get away, is a very serious one."3

The stakes were high, or at least officers acted as though the stakes were high.  An admittedly very preliminary and highly informal analysis correlating achievement in gunnery with later success in the Navy, however, seems to show that although a good gunnery record could hardly help but assist an officers' career, a poor record - barring outright incompetence - was little impediment to promotion.4

For most of those in the fleet the major incentive for good gunnery lay not in the chance to make admiral, but in the opportunity to win a monetary prize, either in the form of a monthly bonus, or a lump-sum payment.  Such awards could, in some cases, be fairly generous.5  Ships were, for whatever reasons, not above bending the rules or exploiting loopholes in the complex scoring system in order to gain an advantage.  In one classic example, a battleship avoided a rule which prohibited taking ranges on the target sled before "open fire" by ranging on the towing tug instead, and shifting deflection at the appropriate time.

That sort of problem highlights the artificialities that were inherent to gunnery practices throughout the period, most of which were never entirely overcome.  Because observation of the fall of shot - and detailed scoring - was often difficult in poor visibility, gunnery exercises were usually, conducted in good weather.  Spotting the fall of shot at night was even tougher, and analysis of the resulting fire, except for counting holes in the target, was essentially futile (As one of the photos shows, even counting holes was often impossible).  Difficulties in towing targets meant that target speed was usually under ten knots, and the use of drifting or motionless targets was common.  Target towing technology also meant that radical target maneuvers were difficult or impossible to simulate, as the target sled would simply fail to follow the maneuvers of the tug.6

Long and consistent observation revealed that large errors in range were more common than large errors in deflection, and much more difficult to detect.  At short ranges, especially with high velocity guns, the outline of the towing tug could actually intersect the nominal trajectory.  This, and the danger from ricochets, resulted in safety precautions which precluded the towing of targets at high range rates, i.e., nearly toward or away from the firing ship.  The same problems afflicted anti-aircraft gunnery practices as well.  Low level nearly head on aerial attack - such as might be conducted by a torpedo bomber - were rough to arrange unless the towline was very, very long.  High level bombing attacks could be simulated by using a relatively short towline, but maneuvering the sleeve at the end of such a tow line was entirely impracticable.  Simulating dive-bombing (or much later, Kamikaze) attacks was well-nigh impossible, except by using drones.  Even this technique was rarely employed; an out-of-control (and very expensive) drone could easily crash the firing ship.

Further, the requirement (or desire) to assess relative merits fairly required that each exercise be fired under nearly identical conditions.  Most exercises, therefore, were conducted against slow moving targets, in good visibility, moving at moderate ranges almost parallel to the battle line.  In the late thirties, so called "offset" battle practices were adopted from a British model.  In these practices the optical line of sight of the fire control instruments was offset four to seven degrees (70-120 mils) by means of beam-splitting prisms so that a phantom image of the target ship could be optically superimposed upon a shot pattern falling several hundred yards astern.  There remained, however, constant fear of a truly catastrophic accident, and the discovery of several cases of crossed or omitted prisms meant that the practices were very conservatively conducted, and never entirely trusted.7

The target for most gunnery exercises was a sled towed by another battleship, a tug, or a destroyer.  As the figure below shows, a wide variety of targets was employed, the largest being towed on 172-foot long battle rafts.  For long range practices, potential targets larger than a light cruiser were represented by a 140 foot by 40 foot "battle rafts" made up of light wood battens (which allowed "overs" to be spotted through the mesh).  Destroyers were represented by a 140 x 20 foot screen.  For short range practices, a wide variety of "sled" or "high speed" targets were used.  The largest of these, the PSAO, displaced 28 tons, and carried three 25-foot square target screens.  The target screen for 5-inch short range practices was typically 15 feet square with a 6 foot bulls-eye at the center; from 3,000 yards, almost every shot was expected to hit the screen.  Pyramid targets were used only as drifters.


Rarely, live firings were conducted against actual ships.  These were hulks if they were to be sunk, grounded wrecks or radio-controlled "mobile targets" if they were not.  Destroyers Lamberton and Boggs, and ex-battleship Utah (normally used as a live bombing target) were available in 1940.  Firing directly at the mobile targets was generally forbidden - a single heavy caliber hit could easily do extensive and perhaps irreparable damage - and the mobile targets were in practice most often employed as towing ships, especially where the use of a very short towline could permit the simulation of difficult and otherwise potentially dangerous maneuvers.  When a towed target was unavailable or inconvenient, offset practices could be fired instead.

Regardless of the actual size of the target itself, which often served only as an aiming point, standard scores were often computed - and merits assigned - with reference to a so-called "constructive target," a mathematical entity designed to represent the vulnerable area of a typical target vessel.  The constructive target, laid out as an imaginary rectangle on the surface of the ocean, was 564 feet long for battleship or aircraft carrier targets and 258 feet long for destroyers.  The width or "beam" of the constructive target rectangle varied with the angle of fall, and was thus dependent upon range and the type of gun firing the exercise.8  Although surface gunnery targets experienced relatively slow evolution, aerial targets varied markedly over time.  In 1940, five types were available, the smallest 31 inches in diameter and 19 feet long, the largest 42 inches in diameter and 30 feet long.

Main battery fire was controlled by a variety of methods.  In local control, both pointing and training were done at the gun.  In director fire, training and pointing instructions were sent to the guns from instruments located aloft.  In older systems, the guns were laid (and left) at the proper elevation, matched to the director sight in train, and fired from a single key in the director when the roll of the ship brought the sights on the target.  The rate of fire was highly dependent upon the period of roll and, if the ship was pitching or the guns were being fired on bearings well forward or aft of the beam, upon the pitch rate as well.  Wave movements, or ship maneuvers meant that the hull and the turrets were tilted in various directions over time; the unwanted components of roll and pitch along the line of fire could be removed either by elevating and depressing the guns in synchronism with the roll, a process known as continuous aim, or more commonly by leaving them at fixed elevation and firing when the sight wires crossed the horizon.  As the guns were held at fixed elevation, the elevation (and therefore the range) could be  and sometimes was slightly increased by firing at the top of the roll.

A 20 foot by 60 foot raft on the way to an exercise.  They were generally in much poorer condition coming back.  Although this photo was probably taken during WWI, this same type of target was employed through to the end of WWII.
W. Jurens collection.

The component of roll perpendicular to the line of sight, known as cross-roll, required frequent small adjustments of the turret in train and resulted in a phenomena known as trunnion tilt, which although it typically caused only moderate variations in range, resulted in large errors in deflection.  A simple solution, though one which (at least at first) required the simultaneous use of two directors instead of one, was to fire in so-called "selective cross roll."9  In this method, one director was pointed at the horizon 90° to the line of sight, i.e., parallel to the trunnions of the guns, and the other director was pointed at the target.  The operator in the target director kept his cross hairs on the horizon, and thus sent a series of continuous corrections to the pointers at the guns.  His firing key was closed all the time.  The cross-level operator completed the firing circuit when his crosshairs crossed the horizon, i.e., when the trunnion tilt was zero, or some other arbitrarily chosen figure.  Achieving simultaneous (salvo) fire was important using either of these systems, as guns firing "early" or "late" would have differing angles of departure, and would thus markedly increase the pattern size, especially if the range was short.  Later, directors were modified to combine both level and cross level telescopes in a single installation.  Constant elevation and depression of the guns could cause problems as near maximum ranges, as excessive roll could then cause the guns to come up hard - and sometimes jam - against their upper or lower stops.10  None of these optical methods could be used at night, in poor weather, or in any other situation when the directors could not clearly see the horizon.

After the storm.  Targets often returned from battle practice much the worse for wear.  Compare with previous photo.
C.C. Wright collection.

True continuous aim, which employed gyroscopic "stable verticals" to determine level and cross level without requiring visual observation of the horizon, became available in the mid-to-late 1930s.  In smooth seas, this new system was capable of sending corrective signals to the guns on a continuous basis, so that - at least in theory - they always remained correctly oriented in space, and the ship in effect rolled and pitched around the guns.11  Because there was no longer any need to wait for the roll of the ship to bring the sights on the target, continuous aim allowed the guns to fire any time they were ready.  Firing the guns at irregular intervals marginally increased the rate of fire at least in theory - but only at the cost of smaller patterns and a considerable loss of spotting efficiency.

Many of the older battleships were equipped with guns in single slides, i.e., with all the guns of a turret attached to a single elevating mechanism.  This had mechanical advantages only one elevation operator or "pointer" was required to control all the guns in a turret for example - and meant that the guns could be mechanically aligned with each other with great precision, thereby theoretically decreasing the pattern in range, especially when ranges were short and pointing errors dominated.  One disadvantage was that the single slide system allowed no way to individually adjust the elevation of the guns to compensate for changes in initial velocity as the guns wore out, which markedly increased the patterns if the range was long.  In many older turrets a curious arrangement of the single slide adjustment mechanisms meant that correcting the elevation of a barrel resulted in a decrease in the parallelism of the guns.12  In addition, a single slide installation also reduced the rate of fire of the entire turret to that of its slowest gun crew - everyone had to wait until the last gun to load - and was vulnerable to a single component failures.  Loss of the elevating gear, for example, or the incapacitation of the pointer, could put the entire turret out of action.  Single slides were abandoned as soon as new design (or redesign) allowed the installation of multiple slides, which allowed each gun to elevate independently.

Salvos could be fired as full salvos, where all guns were discharged more or less simultaneously, as partial salvos, where half the main battery (usually either the forward after group) fired together, or as split salvos, where one gun of each turret fired together.  Each system had its own advantages and disadvantages.  Full salvos looked spectacular, but resulted in relatively large patterns which were difficult to spot and which arrived at relatively long intervals, thus making corrections difficult.  Partial salvos reduced the pattern size, made spotting easier, and meant that corrections could be made (on the average) twice as often.  Split salvos, due to the extreme separation of the guns, lead to the greatest accuracy and, theoretically, to the highest rate of fire as the director could fire as soon as any arbitrarily selected number of guns was ready to shoot.13

The Navy started experimenting with delay coils - simple mechanisms which prevented adjacent guns from discharging absolutely simultaneously - about 1935.  Prior to the installation of delay coils, shells fired in salvo could travel in such a tight formation that they could actually collide, or "kiss" in flight, a phenomena which could be occasionally observed through binoculars.  The velocity difference between projectiles traveling in salvo was so small - often less than ten feet per second - that shells fired very slightly late, and perhaps traveling very slightly faster than their counterparts, could spend a considerable amount of time in the confused air stirred up by the leading shells in the group.  This increased their drag and made them fall short.  An associated problem was that shells were often disturbed by the muzzle blast of an adjacent gun, especially if the muzzles were close together.  The resultant wobble also increased the drag.  The net result was a considerable number of "wild-shorts," i.e., shells which fell far enough short to be completely out of the pattern.14  Early installations of delay coils, which fired all guns at different times, created problems with turret whip, a problem which was, incidentally, rediscovered in the 1980s when Iowa and her sisters installed similar delays in order to decrease the effects of muzzle blast on pressure-sensitive equipment.  Later installations fired both outside guns of a triple turret simultaneously in order to negate, or at least minimize, the effects of whip.  The problem was, of course, inherently incurable in twin mounts, which is one reason that it was never used in 5"/38s.

Prior to the advent of radar, spotting, i.e., correcting the fall of shot, was done visually, either from directors aloft or from aircraft.  Visual spotting, in good hands, is still very effective today, and is often better - at least in deflection - than radar.  Accurate visual spotting took keen eyesight, good judgment, and prolonged training.  The spotter had to judge the amount each shell was short (or over) by visually estimating the very small distance between the base of the splash and the waterline of the target.  This was an almost impossible job if the waterline was below the horizon or if the pattern was off in deflection, so patterns had to be brought on in deflection before accurate range spotting could begin.  At short ranges, i.e., under about 15,000 yards, so-called "direct" spotting could be used, with the spotter estimating the error in the impact point straight away.  At longer ranges, the "bracket" or "halving" method was common, with the spotter depending upon the "sense" of the splashes to tell if the pattern was short or over, then coaching the pattern "on" by deliberately crossing and recrossing the target until straddles were achieved.  Secondary batteries often employed the "ladder" method, deliberately opening short, thereafter firing salvos as quickly as possible at small increments in range until the target had been crossed, then reversing so as to re-cross the target in the opposite direction.  A somewhat similar technique was to aim short, fire as rapidly as possible at constant range until the target had passed through the resulting barrage, change the range by some predetermined value, and wait for the target to steam through the patterns again.  When air spot was available, the spotters on the ship would use aircraft observations to correct the range, and visual observations from the ship to correct the deflection.  If air spot was unavailable, as was normal, the pattern had to be spotted in deflection first.

The development of aircraft spotting was well advanced in 1922, when Admiral Robinson, then Commander in Chief of the Battle Fleet considered the installation of catapults and planes in each battleship of prime importance toward developing the coordination of effort of battleships and planes."15 Although an aircraft orbiting the target could obviously do a better job of spotting the MPI than an observer nearly at sea level ten or fifteen miles away, many difficulties remained.  Establishing the exact line of fire - which was required to differentiate range and deflection error - was difficult.  In action, the aircraft would be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, and presumably to enemy fighters and observation planes as well.  The radio transmission of spots to the firing ship was subject to transmission errors, sensitive to atmospheric conditions, and susceptible to enemy jamming.  And it was difficult to decide whom to believe when spotting instructors from observing aircraft differed from spotters on the ship.16

Passive methods to transmit spots, such as dipping a specified wing to signal an "over," were developed, but met with little success.  If the enemy was behind a smokescreen, an aircraft could continue to signify the range (and with considerably less precision, the bearing) by circling over the target.  A better method was to have the spotting plane indicate the bearing by flying a straight-line path between the target and the firing ship, dropping a flare to mark the range as it passed over the enemy battle line.  At night, once (and if) they found the target, aircraft could drop flares, which obviated the necessity of firing starshell or using searchlights.  Generally air spot was expected to have little effect at ranges under 20,000 yards, where visual spotting remained supreme.  The advantage of air spot increased markedly thereafter.  In 1935 the Naval War College estimated that at 29,000 yards air spot would be expected to deliver six times as many hits as observation from spotters aloft.17

Examples of Actual Gunnery Exercises - Main Guns:

The most important and historically meaningful gunnery exercise was Long Range Battle Practice (LRBP), also known as Day Battle Practice (Turrets), where the battleships engaged targets at maximum effective range.  The exercises were designed to train main battery personnel in firing at long ranges under conditions simulating day battle and to provide maximum training for ship's spotters.  The emphasis in LRBP was hitting and hitting early; ships which got on target rapidly could achieve much higher scores than other ships which got on target late, but achieved an equal or even greater number of hits.  A typical set of instructions for Long Range Battle Practice, as used in gunnery year 1934-35, follows:


The practice [is to be] fired as a division practice in accordance with the following organizations: West Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, California, Tennessee, New Mexico, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, New York, Texas.


1.  Objects:
(a) To train main-battery personnel in firing at long ranges under conditions simulating day battle.
(b) To test the ability of battleship to maintain an effective indirect fire after the establishment of the hitting gun range by direct fire.

2. Tactical situation:
The tactical situation assumes a battleship division in the battle line engaging an opposite enemy capital ship in triple concentration in normal action to starboard.  During the firing the enemy ship is obscured by a smoke screen.  The firing division maintains fire by indirect methods while executing maneuvers to reduce the effectiveness of the enemy fire.

3. Special provisions and artificialities:
(a) The practice shall be fired as a division practice in which all ships of the division fire simultaneously.  In order that there may be reasonable assurance that smoke made by the target screening ship . . . will effectively screen the targets during the firing, it is desirable that the practice be fired when there is a true wind of at least 10 knots.
(b) Director fire shall be used.  Selective level or cross level may be used.
(c) The ammunition allowance for one group of turrets shall be expended before the other group opens fire.  The purpose of this provision is to prolong the practice and at the same time afford each turret the training incident to firing at least 10 consecutive salvos.
(d) The battery shall be loaded as directed by the division commander.
(e) The firing division's own aircraft and personnel may be used for furnishing observations of the course and speed of the targets and for observing and reporting the fall of shot throughout the practice, provided that such aircraft shall not approach closer than 5000 yards.
(f) The gun range at which fire is opened should be 17,000 yards or greater if visibility permits and not be less than 14,000 yards.
(g) During the approach the Mk XXXIV range finder shall be used by the firing division's own aircraft, and radio or visual bearings of these aircraft shall be taken.  Fire shall not be opened until the ranges and bearings thus obtained have been checked by ranges and bearings taken from the firing ships.
(h) The target shall be one battle raft.18

Quite often, the "plain vanilla" practice was spiced up by requiring ships to change from direct to indirect fire part way through the practice, by simulating various equipment failures (typically the failure of a main battery directors or part of the communication system), or by using fall-of-shot observations from planes.  Other variations consisted of attempting to complete a turn midway through the shoot, shooting in concentration with other ships, or attempting to use the observations of spotters based on other vessels.

Practices were fired with reduced charges (and reduced velocities) in odd numbered years prior to the 1933-34 gunnery year and from 1936-1941.  The resultant ranges average about 16,200 yards.  The result was equivalent in angle of fall and time of flight to 14-inch full charge practices fired at about 22,000 yards and 16-inch practices fired at 26,000.

Improvements in technology rendered World War II battleship gunnery dramatically more effective than that achievable during the twenties and thirties.  Four changes were important.  First, modifications alter Pearl Harbor saw the 5"/51 and 5"/25 mixed secondary batteries aboard the older U.S. battleships replaced by the ubiquitous (and still remarkably useful) 5"/38.  Second, the new South Dakota and Iowa class battleships carried new versions of the 16-inch gun coupled to vastly superior fire control systems.  Third, the extensive use of radar, virtually unknown between the wars, completely transformed the surface and aerial fire control problem both in daylight and in darkness.  Fourth, the proximity fuze completely revolutionized the effectiveness of anti-aircraft gunnery.

The following examples illustrate the performance of typical ships in detail.  In each case, the example represents the performance of the median ship in the fleet, so this is average shooting, neither exceptionally good nor bad.  As the original "Sheets 4" describing the exercises are nearly illegible, and extremely complex, the accompanying illustrations have been withdrawn to a common scale and considerably simplified to make the results more meaningful to the reader.  The actual target used in the exercise, which was often defined mathematically rather than physically, has been replaced by a scale plan view of a typical enemy battleship, in this case a 785 foot (240 meter) vessel traveling in a straight line at 20 knots.  Shell splashes are shown as open circles, and probable hits as solid dots.  Three examples shall suffice.

Nevada turned in the median performance for battleships during 1924-25.  The practice was fired at an average range of 18,001 yards.  Poor Nevada botched her approach and opened fire with the target bearing 57° instead of nearly 090° as was desirable, a situation which required her to fire the last two salvos during the process of making a 30° turn.  Mechanically, the practice was a disaster.  The recoil of the first salvo threw open a switch and disabled the training gear of one turret for the rest of the shoot.  On the first two salvos the left gun of Turret I misfired due to a fault in the firing circuit.  When the primer of one gun was ejected alter salvo 1, it fell into the breech mechanism and jammed the plug.  After the fifth salvo, the elevating mechanism of Turret IV failed.  On salvo 6 the left gun of turret III misfired due to a faulty primer.  The elevating mechanism of Turret II failed after salvo 7, and one gun was fired with a three-bag load.19

Despite these problems, Nevada did remarkably well, actually shooting better than Bismarck did seventeen years later in the Denmark Straits under roughly comparable conditions.  The plot of the exercise, showing her performance against an 785-foot twenty-knot target instead of a battle raft, shows good clean straddles on salvos 1 through 4, a hit on salvo 5, two hits on salvo 4, and two hits on salvo 5, this within 5 minutes, 15 seconds.

Still, the Navy was far from satisfied.  "The large pattern obtained and the difficulty in making hits with the 14-inch, 45 caliber gun even with good fire control are sources of discouragement," noted Lt. D.P. Moon, Nevada's gunnery officer.  "While at the navy yard turret roller paths were carefully checked and compensators set.  Since leaving the navy yard checks at sea have repeatedly been made with all turrets within two minutes of each other in elevation.  . . . All the evidence points to the erratic performance of the guns themselves in producing large patterns." Admiral Robinson, Commander in Chief of the Battle Fleet, concurred, writing "The patterns in both range and deflection were excessive.  The causes of the excessive patterns obtained should be thoroughly investigated by the Nevada."  "The main battery performance," he wrote, "is not considered good.  . . . the causes of getting off alter being on [on] the first salvo, were due to either very poor rate keeping, gun laying errors or poor director pointing or a combination of the three.  The range finding up to the fifth salvo appears to have been good.  The spotting was exceptionally good."

Force Battle Practice (a variation of Long Range Battle Practice) for the 1930-31 gunnery year was specifically designed to test the battle line in engaging a numerically inferior force at close range, to test the efficiency of dye-loaded projectiles in concentration fire, to study the effect of torpedo fire on an engaged battle line, and to exercise casualty procedures in battle.  Although this was a short range reduced charge practice for most ships in the fleet, the mean gun range being 12,833 yards, New York fired full charges at 12,700 yards, so this was a high-velocity practice for her.  The plan was to have the eight ships in the line fire in double concentration on four battle targets during the beginning of the practice, shifting targets part way through the shoot to put two targets in triple concentration, and leaving the other two under fire from single ships.  The changeover did not go well; although New York correctly switched targets at the appropriate time, both California and Idaho bungled the swap, so that instead of ending up firing at her own target, New York found herself sharing a single hapless target with two of her offending sisters in triple concentration.20  The officer in charge of simulating casualties cut off New York's plane spots alter the second salvo, and disconnected the main-battery telephone circuits alter the fifth.  Mechanically, the main battery worked flawlessly, with the gunnery officer noting "All ammunition (70 rounds) was expended and there were no casualties except those constructively imposed."

The firing started out poorly, improved during the middle part of the shoot, and deteriorated during salvos six and seven.  Lt. Murphy, the gunnery officer, noted laconically ". . .The first salvo had an excellent range pattern of 250 yards [and] a good deflection pattern in the neighborhood of 100 yards.  Two plane spotters stated that all the shots in this salvo landed so close together that it was difficult to distinguish the individual splashes.  Unfortunately, the mean point of impact was 1,252 yards over . . ."  There were two wild shots in deflection on the sixth salvo, and two more in both range and deflection on the seventh.  These doubtlessly originated from Turret III, which "...  upon the casualty to the fire-control telephones went to pointer fire for some unaccountable reason." New York's time for the practice, 6 minutes and 43 seconds, was considered undesirably slow, the lag being accounted for by the need to hold up the second and third salvos to receive plane spots (which were being shared by USS Texas), by the requirement to shift fire alter salvo four, by the difficulties imposed by the loss of telephone circuits alter salvo five, and by the use of an inexperienced director pointer.  The average loading interval was 31 seconds; the director interval 10; the salvo interval, 66.  New York's merit for the practice was 21.255, ranking her fourth out of eight, achieving 0.1931 hits per gun per minute.  The best ship, Texas, achieved 0.4067 hits per gun per minute, and the worst, Tennessee, got only 0.1337.21

As before, the normal battle target has been replaced by the outline of a 785 foot, 20 knot target.  The signal to shift targets came at 1 minute 55 seconds into the firing, but fire was not shifted until after the fourth salvo.  Clearly, the change imposed little difficulty, as hits were obtained on the first salvo fired on target number 3.  The loss of communications imposed alter salvo five obviously had a much greater effect, opening the pattern significantly, although hits were still obtained.  The recovery from the large error associated with salvo 1 is remarkable, and in fact New York would probably have actually hit on salvo 2, fired 1 minute and 50 seconds into the practice.  After that, she would have obtained two hits on each of salvos 3, 4, and 5, and one hit on salvo 6, this within 7 minutes and 13 seconds.

Vice Admiral Leigh characterized New York's performance as ". . . generally good, though the lack of fire discipline in the case of turret II probably lost the vessel some hits.  The imposed casualties were handled correctly and promptly, though difficulty was experienced with voice-tube communication alter the fire control telephone system was placed out of commission." Leigh characterized the performance of the battle line during the main battery portion of the practice as "disappointing." "The volume of fire was comparatively low," he wrote, "the patterns (especially in deflection) were generally larger than was expected, the number of shots in the control zone were low (being only approximately 20 per cent of the shots fired as against the standard of 50 per cent set by reference (d)), and the fire discipline in some cases was poor."22

The Long Range Battle Practice for 1939-40 had the usual objectives of training main battery personnel and spotters.  To provide maximum training for control parties and spotters, the Director of Fleet Training made partial salvos mandatory, to be fired by forward and alter groups (each of which had their own spotting and control parties) in succession.23  This was a low velocity, i.e., 2,000 foot per second, practice, fired at an average gun range of 19,121 yards.  By now, the use of delay coils was standard operating procedure.  The weather conditions were, in the words of Commander Battleship Division Two, ". . . a fine example of one of the more unfavorable combinations of wind, sea, light, and visibility." Wind and sea were moderate, but ships were firing into a bad sun glare [and a] surface haze about 200 feet deep which caused a mirage effect on the horizon."24  Under these conditions both Tennessee and Maryland found that the usually more dependable stereo range finders were less accurate than coincidence types.25  A change of 30° from approach to the deployment course was made by simultaneous ship turns at "Commence Firing," and another turn of 30° away was made during the shift from the forward to alter groups between salvos 7 and 8.  Casualties were few; although Tennessee's written report listed no material casualties, her Sheet 4 for the practice noted that the left gun of Turret I misfired on both salvo 1 and salvo 2.

The target is assumed as a 785 foot ship traveling at 20 knots.  Neither of the turns, totaling 60°, seems to have had any significant effect on Tennessee's accuracy.  Deflection performance was excellent throughout, with all salvos crossing the target.  Note how neatly her spotters found the range during salvos 1 through 4, and how the plotting team for the alter group was able to keep the salvos "just over" during salvos 9 through 14.  In response to a series of "down" spots from salvo 10, plot brought the pattern "down 100" between salvos 11 and 12 to get a restraddle and ensure that the patterns were not excessively over.  The resultant hitting on salvos 13 and 14 was exceptionally good.  Tennessee's patterns were extremely tight, especially when compared to those shown in earlier practices; nine gun salvos would have been about 1.18 times as big.  Against a real ship target, she would probably have achieved her first hits on salvo four, 3 minutes, 42 seconds into the practice, hitting consistently thereafter and getting sixteen hits in the first fourteen salvos, a very creditable performance.  Again, note that this was the average performance for the fleet, and that other ships did considerably better.

The previous examples are typical of individual ships but do not compare relative performances directly.  Examination of other Long Range Battle Practices enables us to analyze the differences in performance between nominally identical ships as well.  The table below, for example, taken from LRBP for 1932-33, can be used to compare the relative performance of Colorado, Maryland, and West Virginia, all equipped with eight 16-inch guns in four twin turrets.

Note the large variation in the average error of MPI, a measure of the fire control accuracy.  Unfortunately the sample size remains too small to determine whether this is a real variation or merely a statistical artifact.

A graphical comparison of performance of the same three ships can be obtained by examining their performance at Force Battle Practice in 1930-31.  This was a seven salvo practice, so each ship had the opportunity to fire 56 shots.  The target was about 12,800 yards away.  The fall of shot diagram, shown below, combines all shots fired during the practice so as to make the pattern variation clearer, and once again substitutes a 785-foot battleship outline for the real target, in to aid the reader's perspective.  The ship-to-ship variation in pattern size and distribution is evident; Colorado's pattern is long and stringy with a noticeable "hole" near the Mean Point of Impact dividing the pattern into a collection of overs and shorts; she deserved better luck.  In contrast, Maryland's pattern is short and rather wide, indicative of poorly aligned turrets.  Spotting was relatively poor as well; almost all of her overs come from a single misplaced salvo.  West Virginia exhibits a pattern nearly identical to Maryland's, with the pattern bunched slightly long.  In all cases the Mean Point of Impact, i.e., the center of the pattern distribution, is right on the money.  The diagram also indicates how much pure luck sometimes seems to enter gunnery equation.  Even though the overall patterns are reasonably similar, West Virginia would have gotten five hits, Maryland, six, and Colorado only one.


A plot of salvo numbers vs. time allows us to compare their relative rates of fire.  Rates of fire between ships varied about twenty percent, although the straight lines indicate that the rate for each individual ship remained relatively constant.

Ship Name
Mean Range
Shots per Gun per Minute
Percent Hits
Hits per Gun
per Minute
Average Error
MPI (Yards)
West Virginia
 - 93
% Variation
(Av = 100%)

The introduction of the new 16"/45 and the 16"/50 batteries installed in the treaty battleships in the late 1930s and early 1940s was somewhat less than agreeable.  New 16-inch range tables used incorrect powder temperature velocity differentials and inaccurate instructions to compensate for the rotation of the earth.  Charge assessment problems gave the new 16"/50s an initial velocity about 30 ft/sec higher than expected, so they initially overshot their range tables, especially when the range was long.  At the same time, proving ground experiments showed the 'jump" for the new guns to be negative, rather than positive, meaning they undershot their range tables when the range was short.  The unfortunate combination caused a vexing problem which took at least two years to solve.  Further, although the new 14-inch guns were lighter and more reliable than their predecessors, when equipped with similar fire control systems they proved to be no more accurate than the guns they replaced.26

The reliability of the guns always appears to have varied markedly from ship to ship.  In 1942, USS Idaho undertook an exercise deliberately designed to determine ". . . the ability of battleships to maintain an adequate rate of fire under conditions simulating a protracted engagement," expending 597 rounds in 156 salvos.  The average salvo interval was 1 minute, 24 seconds, but only 20 of these were full six-gun salvos; the average was 3.82.  She suffered no fewer than 205 separate casualties during the firing, mostly requiring adjustment of the gas check pads or rammers.  Powder handling, however, was flawless, 2,400 one-hundred pound bags of powder being handled without mishap.27

In contrast, Indiana's main battery performed almost flawlessly.  Off Iwo Jima in 1945, she fired 203 16-inch rounds, with only eight guns missing a salvo.  Seven failures were caused by problems with the powder or projectile hoists; only one gun misfired.28  Off El-Hank in 1942, Massachusetts suffered only fourteen casualties in 786 expended rounds.  Only one of these was really serious; Turret I was placed out of commission for thirty-five minutes after her handling crew dropped a shell which jammed the rotating structure. The Mark 8 and Mark 13 fire control radar installed during World War II completely revolutionized spotting. Radar, which was much more accurate than visual spotting (at least in range) quickly superseded aircraft spotting entirely, and battleships were soon recommending that their aircraft be removed.29  Even in perfect weather, optical spotting deteriorated rapidly beyond 18,000 yards; in comparison with the Mark 8 mod 0 fire control radar could spot 16-inch splashes out to about 20,000 yards and the improved Mark 8 mod 3 could reliably spot 14-inch and 16-inch fire out to at least 35,000.30  The Mark 13 radar was even better yet. Officers testing the equipment aboard USS Iowa in 1945 would write:

"Spotting both 5-inch and 16-inch splashes, HC or AP, with the Mark 13 radar is comparable to deliberately drawing a picture of the splashes on paper and looking at it.  At all ranges fired during this period, the most inexperienced officer, given a brief explanation of what to expect, can spot splashes accurately to within 100 yards, and to within 50 yards with some experience."31

The introduction of improved stable verticals greatly improved the ability to control the accuracy of gunfire during turns.  In 1945, North Carolina tested her systems by aiming at the sun (and at night, the moon) while maneuvering through two 450° turns and two 100° turns maintaining propeller r.p.m. throughout while observers noted that such maneuvers could indeed move the MPI several hundreds of yards at battle ranges, such shifts were ". . . no more than would be desirable when using a rocking ladder of comparatively small increments," announcing that henceforth commanders might maneuver freely in battle.  This represented an order-of-magnitude improvement over the fire control systems of the late twenties and early thirties, when even thirty or forty degree turns were often sufficient to throw off the system entirely.  In 1927-28, for example, the battleships changed course by 20°, then by an additional 30° during a fifteen-salvo practice fired at about 25,000 yards.  The average error in placement of the MPI was about 400 yards in range and deflection, and not a single salvo hit the target.32

The new ability to fire accurately during turns, coupled with radar spotting, gave US World War II battleships a truly enormous tactical advantage over the majority of their potential enemies.  Most enemy ships which maneuvered to avoid incoming fire would have been unable to maintain effective return fire, while those which chose to keep to a steady course would have rapidly been smothered by highly accurate radar-controlled incoming salvos.  In contrast, the American battlewagons would have been able to maneuver, and fire, at will.  And the Iowas, at least, had enough speed to dictate the range.

Some exercises tested the reliability of the systems rather than the accuracy of the guns.  The achronistic Short Range Battle Practice for example, in which the battleships blasted away at targets only a couple of thousand yards away typically getting eighty or ninety percent hits, was fired every year until the outbreak of the Second World War.  It was retained because it tested loading and firing crews to the limit, even though the range was almost ridiculously low.33  The objects of SRBP were to test and train gun pointer groups at pointer fire, to test and train loading crews at maximum safe rates of fire to test material, and to stimulate interest in gunnery.  It certainly succeeded in increasing speed.  In 1919 battleship main batteries averaged about 1.9 Shots Per Gun Per Minute [SPGPM].  By 1930 the average rate had risen to about 2.5 SPGPM, though for a variety of reasons it never got much higher than this. In fact, the obsession with speed in Short Range Battle Practice finally became so great that in 1938, CNO, fearing that some ships were not checking for bore clear with sufficient care, promulgated regulations specifying a minimum twenty-four second loading interval, and imposing a penalty if it was not upheld.34  Navy "E"s in gunnery, predominantly displayed on the sides of turrets between the wars, were primarily awarded for performance in Short Range Battle Practice.  Aside from being a fertile source for the study of loading accidents, the results of SRBP are of relatively little historical value, and will not be studied here.

Considering the amount of firing that was done, serious injuries, even at Short Range Battle Practice, were surprisingly rare.  The secondary battery guns broke down a lot, but hardly ever injured anyone in the process, and deaths in casemates, at least aboard the battleships, were unknown.  Because of the powerful machinery and heavy weights involved, main battery turrets were (and are) inherently much more dangerous places.  Even there, barring a couple of truly spectacular accidents, few deaths took place during actual firings, however.35

The first major accident between the wars occurred in 1924 aboard USS Mississippi.  Seven salvos had been fired satisfactorily from the right gun of Turret II.  The shell and powder for the eighth salvo had been rammed, but just after the rammer was withdrawn, a small grey mass of smoke and flame came out of the breech followed immediately by a blinding flash of flame.  Fire and gas filled the gun compartment and passed through the safety doors into the other gun compartments, the upper handling room, and the turret officer's booth. 47 men were killed, most of them from suffocation, and nine others were injured.  An investigation later concluded that the bore had not been inspected properly after firing and that the safety doors had not been properly closed.  Four hours later, as the dead were being removed from the turret, the body of one of the men struck and closed a firing switch in the turret officer's booth.  This fired the left gun, which had not yet been unloaded, injuring ten more men standing in the vicinity of the muzzle.  The Court of Inquiry, demonstrating common sense and considerable compassion, recommended taking no disciplinary action for this later accident, concluding that, ". . . the magnitude of the casualty caused the minds of all concerned to be centered upon the dead rather than upon examination of the guns."  Coincidentally, this same turret burned out again under almost identical circumstances in 1944, this time via the center gun, killing 43.  The second casualty took place during the loading of the 13th salvo.  The breech was open, the projectile had been rammed home, and the rammer head was found stopped against the base of the projectile.  The air ejection system had been turned off, implying that the chamber had been checked and cleared, and the center powder car doors were open.  There had been no material failure; once again an investigative team ascribed the accident to careless checking of the bore. Again, the tragedy was compounded by successive human errors; the fireball probably reached the turret officer's booth and other interior spaces after someone opened the door to the center gun chamber while the unburned gases trapped inside were still hot enough to flash.36

Obviously, accidental ignition of the bag loaded propellant was the cause of most serious accidents.  Doctrine in the case of broken powder bags, which were common, was to call "Silence," i.e., have everyone in the turret freeze, and to submerge the loose powder grains in specially provided water tanks.  Slightly torn bags were re-stitched on the spot.  Spare bag provided to gather up the loose grains produce larger tears.  Rarely, undershirts or pillow slip used instead.37  There are no instances where the mg of a powder bag appears to have posed any of igniting the propellant.  In that regard, both Mississippi accidents, it should be noted, tool after loading was essentially complete.38

To Part 2


1 A notable exception is Allan Zimm's "Battle Stations" simulations, based upon official US Navy Maneuver and Fire Rules, themselves derived from actual tests.

2 The utmost outspoken commentary, incidentally, seems to have been delivered by aviators and those in submarines; by comparison the battleship personnel were positively conservative.  A rather typical example of a battleship complaint was submitted by Lt. (j.g.) D.D. Scott of USS Mississippi in 1935-36, who wrote, "The errors in the [Battle Antiaircraft Practice] run may be partially attributable to rangefinder errors due to interference from flue gases.  This caused erratic rangekeeping performance from a rate control standpoint since the range-finder operator frequently changed his readings, leading the rangekeeper operator to the erroneous conclusion that his Set up was greatly in error."  "During drills on board the Mississippi," he continued, "it has been necessary for the entire director personnel to abandon either director at various times because of flue gases suffocating personnel."  The problem was apparently never fixed.

3 FTP 36 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1922-1923) pp 170 et seq.

4 The commanding officers of the five top scoring destroyers in gunnery year 1922-23, for example, when future admirals would have been "cutting their teeth" as Lt. Commanders or Commanders, were, S.F. Helm, in Pruitt, R.M. Hinkley in Mervine, W.H. Lee (not W.A. Lee) in J.D. Edwards, J.0. Hoffman, in Mullany, and H.J. Abbot/W.L. Ainsworth in Marcus.  Of these, only Hinckley and Ainsworth rate an index entry in Morison; Rear Admiral Ainsworth commanded cruiser and destroyer forces off Guadalcanal; Commander Hinckley is listed as commanding destroyer-minelayer Butler off Okinawa.  The five low men on the 40 ship totem pole were H.B. Mecleary/N.R. Van der Veer in Stewart, M.F. Draemel/C.W. Crosse in Selfridge, G.J. Rowcliff/J.C. Byrnes, Jr. in Childs, J.S. Abbott in Peary, and J.B. Glennon in Sands.  Draemel, by then a Rear Admiral, was type commander of destroyers during the Pearl Harbor attack, so flag rank appears to have been accessible from both ends of the spectrum.  There were, of course, notable exceptions such as Arleigh Burke, whose crew aboard USS Mugford obtained 36 hits out of 36 shots at Short-Range Battle Practice in 1939-40, but Burke would probably have made it anyway.  The whole issue is a fruitful area for further research.

5 In 1934-35, for example, each member of the first place cruiser turret crew received a prize of $15.00.  By comparison, the average American family lived on about $1,350.00 per year and a New York hotel room cost about $4.50 a night.

6 The use of a towed target train sometimes posed laughable difficulties.  In one case a large caliber projectile cut the towline early in the exercise and the target train slowed rapidly to a stop.  The result was complete confusion in the battle line.  Some ships took no account of the problem at all, their salvos continuing a majestic march into completely empty ocean (some suspected that this was because they were actually tracking the towing ship instead).  Other ships adjusted their fire to remain on the slowing target train, but got hopelessly confused as the targets closed up on each other and began to overlap.  The net result was utter chaos, followed by a lengthy argument about exactly how the practice should be scored.  Clearly, disrupting an enemy battle line could cause as many problems as it solved.

7 Later, the offset system was changed so that prisms were not required.  Instead, the guns themselves were offset about 70 mils from the director line of fire, equating to a 2,000 yard offset at normal battle ranges.  One advantage of the older optical system was that it permitted ship to ship "duels," which must have been much more interesting (and realistic) than shooting at target sleds.

8 For a battleship, the width of the constructive target was 690 feet at 8,000 yards, shrinking to 210 feet at 34,000.  Technically, the width of the constructive target was taken as being equal to the danger space (itself dependent upon the mean target height) plus the virtual beam, plus a small allowance for damage that could be expected from near misses, ricochets and shorts.

9 This term, one of a variety of nearly synonymous terms such as "selected level" and "selected cross-level," had been replaced by other terminology by World War II.  The names changed often, but the methods remained the same.

10 F.T.P.134, Gunnery instruction, 1933 describes the systems then in use in great detail.  World War II systems are best described in Navpers 16116, Naval Ordnance and Gunnery, 1944, and/or subsequent editions.

11 The first reference I can find of a ship firing in what seems to have been a reasonable approximation to the continuous-aim methods employed during World War II was USS Nevada, which employed the system - apparently experimentally - in 1935.  Earlier references to "continuous aim" do exist, but apparently refer to entirely different techniques.  Although exact dates are difficult to establish, virtually all main batteries seemed to have been equipped with the necessary Mk XXXII stable verticals by 1935.  Although the new system seems to have taken a while to catch on, by 1940, continuous aim was the method of choice.

12 The error, though annoying, was not large; guns were typically aligned within 0.5° when new, and guns parallel at 10° elevation might be 0.25° out of line when the elevation reached 30°.  This equates to a deflection error of about 12 feet (0.1 mils) at 40,000 yards, which is entirely inconsequential when compared with the normal deflection pattern, which was about 4 mils for a 9 or 10 gun salvo.  Viz OPIS "Instructions for the Installation and Tests of Turret Guns and Sights, 1921."

13 The advent of delay coils, which staggered the firing times a fraction of a second, somewhat mooted this point, however.

14 The problem was by no means trivial; in 1927-28, about 10% of rounds fired fell into the wild-short category, and thus would be useless against an enemy.  "Wildovers" were very much rarer, and were generally caused by a gun firing very late on the up-roll, a short duration hang-fire, a faulty firing key, or a shell which had fallen back upon its powder bags, which tended to boost the chamber pressure and increase the initial velocity.  Muzzle blast interference, could, of course, be reduced by increasing the inter-barrel separation, but only at the cost of greatly increased turret weight.  Delay coils, in contrast, weighed essentially nothing.

15 FFP 36 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1922-23) pp 167.

16 The spotters on the ship were usually right.  In 1922 then Lt.Cdr. R.K. Turner of California would write ". . . the technique of using airplanes in the fire control must be further improved.  Communication is still unreliable, and it is not certain that the use of aircraft actually improved the shooting, although it would have seemed that this point would be particularly noticeable in hazy weather, such as existed [during the practice]." Obviously, opinions varied widely; that same year, the officers aboard Delaware would note ". . . The use of airplane spotting is undeniably superior in all phases to spotting from the firing ships."  FFP 36 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1922-23) pp 176.  Things work much better when the gunner can actually see the pattern himself, as it is now possible using televised pictures transmitted from a remotely piloted vehicle, or RPV.

17 Blue Fire Effect Tables, 16"/45, Department of Operations, U.S. Naval War College, June, 1935.

18 The layout has been slightly modified for publication.  Although the actual "Sheets 4" for this particular practice appear not to have survived, the statistical analysis indicates that the thirteen ships in the battle line achieved 60 hits for 1,179 shots, or slightly over 5% hits on the main battle raft at a mean range of 27,450 yards.  Each ship fired 10 salvos in a mean time of 12 minutes 5 seconds.  As the battle raft had an area of about 520 square meters, and planimetric measurements of a variety of World War I and II battleship designs yield a mean area of about 4,500 square meters, this would imply that in triple concentration fire on an actual battleship target, each three-ship group would have scored about 120 hits in 12 minutes, or about 3.33 hits per minute per ship.  U.S. Navy doctrine at this time assumed that about 20 penetrating 14-inch hits would sink a battleship, so an actual target would have only survived about two minutes under this concentration of fire.  Or so the theory goes.

19 The description of Nevada's mechanical failures during this practice is fragmentary and difficult to interpret.  Exactly which turret (or turrets) failed during the first salvo is not specified, although the failure was evidently minor, as all turrets continued to fire thereafter.  Salvo six was evidently missing the three guns of Turret IV and the left gun of Turret III, whereas salvo 7 evidently fired all guns except those in turret II.  The three bag-load attributed to salvo seven should have resulted in a wild short, and the pattern for salvo seven is unremarkable, suggesting that the three bag load took place in turret II, which did not fire.  For salvos 1 and 2 the Sheet 4 shows ten guns being fired, but the fall of shot diagram plots only nine splashes.  The missing shells may have been wild shorts.

20 The reason for Idaho's error is not recorded; in California, the error was due to the gunnery officer, who misinterpreted a signal.  Significantly, several suggestions to streamline and improve battleline signalling techniques resulted from this incident.

21 In 1940 the standard performance for 14-inch main batteries at 12,700 yards using full charges was about 0.84 HPGPM.  In comparison, the 1935 Naval War College Maneuver and Fire rules for the same range expected 0.1333 HPGPM.

22 The control zone was an arbitrary defined rectangular area which would catch 50 per cent of shots fired if control were perfect and the dispersion and variation of MPI were equal to standards based on past performance.  The exact size of the control zone thus varied from exercise to exercise.

23 California and Tennessee then had different firecontrol installations from other ships in the Battle Force, and they were authorized to employ a modified form of selected cross-level fire for both forward and after groups.  In the overall summary of battleship exercises, an unknown author, presumably Admiral Stark or Admiral Leary, noted "In view obsolescent fire-control installations of the batteries concerned, performance of Tennessee's main battery [is considered] especially noteworthy.  Results attained by these batteries are not to be considered as justifying the retention of older fire-control installations in service, but they do serve to demonstrate that alert, well-trained personnel can exercise effective control of their batteries if installations are properly maintained, and used as they are intended to be used."  A self-synchronous (i.e., improved) fire control system was scheduled for installation in Tennessee during fiscal year 1942.

24 FTP 203-1 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1939-40), pp 63.

25 Tennessee used two coincidence type 33 foot Mark XXII range finders and one 15 foot Mark XXXVIII stereo rangefinder during the shoot, noting that "Normally the latter is the ship's best range finder."

26 In fairness, the overshooting-undershooting problem would have only been a problem in true blind fire, where no observation of the fall of shot was possible; in most practical cases, of course, the initial salvos could be brought closer to the target by imposing ACTH (Arbitrary Correction To Hit) and successive patterns could be spotted on to a target visually or by radar.  Inherent dispersions, of course, couldn't be corrected that way.  The Bureau of Ordnance expected the nine-gun patterns given by the 16-inch batteries mounted aboard the Washingtons, South Dakotas and Iowas to be slightly larger than the eight-gun pattern sizes for the old 16-inch guns mounted aboard Colorado, Maryland and West Virginia.  Specifically, eight old guns were expected to yield an average range pattern of 1.8% of range while nine new guns would give a 1.9% pattern.  These were ideal figures; in practice the old 16-inch guns gave a seven-gun pattern size of about 2.2% of range during their last firings in 1941.  The dispersion of the 16"/45 and 16"/50 guns, incidentally, was essentially identical; ranging sheets at Dahlgren often listed dispersions for the two types interchangeably.  Today, the 16"/50 yields a 9-gun pattern size of about 1.5% of range at short ranges, slightly less if the range is long.  Viz. Bulletin of Ordnance Information, No.3, 1945, FTP 2101, Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1940-41 and Naval Weapons Laboratory Tech. Report No. K-26167.

According to the Bulletins of Ordnance Information, in 1944 main and secondary battery patterns were expected to be about as follows:
Pattern size in percent of range
Projectile Weight
Full Salvo
1.9 (9-guns)
South Dakota
1.9 (9-guns)
1.8 (8-guns)
New Mexico
2.4 (12-guns)
2.4 (12-guns)
3.4 (10-guns)
South Dakota
c. 55
1.4 (6-guns)
c. 55
1.7 (10-guns)

The current performance of the Iowa class is substantially better than this.

[Editor's Note:  A persistent anecdote is that the Iowa class suffered from alignment problems until after the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  William Jurens, the author of this article, together with Iowa crewmembers and the staff at NSWC Dalhgren, performed a search for detailed data on this "problem" in the 1980s and could find nothing in the files suggesting that the Iowas' alignments were in any way out of the ordinary.  The author's suspicion is that there may have been an oblique reference to an alignment problem in some document and it was taken out of context; perhaps they were waiting for parts. - TD]

27 BuShips Memo "USS Idaho (BB-42) Main Battery Exhaustion Firing," 21 October 1942.

28 USS Indiana, "Casualties to Ordnance Equipment," 28 January, 1945.

29 See, for example, USS Alabama "Report of Target Practices fired 9 May to 13 June, 1945," pp 7.

30 In poor weather, of course, the effectiveness of both optical and radar spotting could decrease markedly.  Older radars could see through rain, but not very well.

31 Illustrations from Mk 8 radar scopes reproduced in the Bulletin of Ordnance Information No.3, 1945, show that although individual splashes tended to blend together, the general position and size of the pattern was perfectly clear.  If the target was small, however, it was sometimes easy to confuse shell splashes and targets.  Comparing the radar screen to a "picture" is, frankly, stretching things a bit.

32 F.T.P. 89 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1927-1928) pp 60 et. seq.  Although the control of fire during turns had improved markedly by the late 1930s, the situation remained far from satisfactory.  In 1941, for example, USS California, firing during a 150° countermarch at 23,000 yards - characterized by the Commander of Fleet Training as ". . . a most severe test" - had an average deflection error of 212 yards, but this excluded one wild salvo which landed 4,100 yards left of the target and some 2,100 yards ahead of the towing ship.  In the same practice, one of Maryland's salvos landed 1,664 yards left of the target when the trainer in Turret III turned on his ready light when the turret was still 5° out of train, which corresponded to one full turn of the zero reading dial.  Salvos fired during turns tended to be "on" in deflection and "off,' in range, or vice-versa.  Navy observers at the Battle of Samar, who were intently watching incoming heavy caliber fire, noted the same error pattern in Japanese salvos.  Viz. F.T.P. 210-2 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1940-1941) pp 40 et. seq.

33 F.T.P. 191 (Orders for Gunnery Exercises (1940)) specified that:  "Except for gunnery school firings, Short Range Practice "A" shall be completed by each battleship prior to firing any other practice prescribed for the gunnery year."  FTP 165-2 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises 1936-1937) specified the range for Short Range Battle Practice to be 2,100 yards for 16-inch guns, 1,700 yards for 14-inch, 3 gun turrets, 1,900 yards for 14-inch, 2 gun turrets and 1,600 yards for 12-inch guns.  For the secondary - i.e., 5-inch battery, Short Range Battle Practice was 1,900 yards.

34 The change, CNO would later write, ". . . resulted in a reduction of about 8 percent in SPGPM of battleship main batteries, but is considered to have promoted smoother loading and to exerted a steadying influence which was in part responsible for a slight increase in percentage of hits (FTP 185-1 (Reports on Gunnery Exercises, 1938-39) p.1).  To show how closely the intervals were being shaved, the Director of Fleet Training suggested that the minimum interval be increased a further two seconds for turrets having all guns in open gun chamber.

35 On 28 July, 1936, during a scheduled gunnery school firing using full charges, a 6"/53 gun (Ser.No. 605) exploded aboard the cruiser USS Marblehead.  The gun fired perfectly on the first three salvos.  As the fourth salvo was being fired, an explosion in the breech killed one man instantly, and seriously injured ten others, two of whom later died.  The fault was eventually traced to a faulty reinforcing ring used to repair the gun, which spread and failed under load.  BuOrd must have been horribly embarrassed.  Turret accidents were usually confined to severed fingers and smashed hands, caused by getting something caught in the gears, and the occasional broken arm or leg, usually caused a fall or by being struck by a recoiling gun.

36 Navord OP 10143R Ordnance Safety Precautions pp 77 et. seq.

37 Use of these undoubtedly unauthorized containers was admittedly infrequent, at least in the larger ships (the smaller ships, especially the submarines, were apparently much less formal).  One of Tennessee's 14-inch turret crews used an undershirt to gather up loose grains in 1925-26; New York's report for 1924-25 mentioned the use of a pillow slip, removed before the loose grains were loaded into the breech.  RGE 1924-25 p.277, RGE 1925-1926 p.869.

38 A more detailed description of U.S. Navy main battery loading accidents may be found in Warship International No.2 1990.  This article describes recent developments surrounding the 1988 turret explosion aboard USS Iowa.

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