Here’s an interesting topic that was suggested during the last open comment post and I thank the anonymous reader for the idea. I encourage anonymous readers to include a username with their comment. No need to formally establish a sign-in ID but a name at the end of a comment allows me to give credit!
In the very early 1800’s, President Thomas Jefferson was faced with an aggressive British movement against American merchant shipping.
From 1800 to 1805, fifty-nine American merchant ships had fallen captive to Britain; from 1805 through 1807, four hundred and sixty-nine ships, or approximately half the merchant fleet, fell into British hands. (1)
In 1807 alone, the British impressment of American sailors resulted in the loss of 6,000 men.(1)
Jefferson’s solution was to abandon any offensive action against the British and instead to fall back on a home waters defensive force. He recognized that the US could not take on the might of the British navy and he opted, instead, for a defensive force of small gunboats. The specific means of defense that he chose was a fleet of small gunboats designed for coastal defense and for use on the western rivers and lakes. Later, several served in the Mediterranean and other areas outside the US home waters.
First authorized in 1803, a couple of hundred gunboats were built in many port cities until at least as late as 1811. The gunboats were 50-75 ft long, 18 ft wide, shallow draft, variously rigged, and could sail under wind or oar. Armament consisted of two or three 18-24 pound swivel mounted guns or 32 pound traversing guns.(1)
Jefferson Gunboat Model - Note cannon in bow and two offset
cannon amidships, one to port and one to starboard
Jefferson’s gunboat concept was based, in part, on the effectiveness of gunboats in the defense of Tripoli.(1) In his letter to Congress, Jefferson cites evidence of the effectiveness of gunboats using historical and contemporary examples:
Algiers is particulary known to have owed to a great provision of these vessels the safety of its city since the epoch of their construction. Before that it had been repeatedly insulted and injured. The effect of gunboats at present In the neighborhood of Gibraltar is well known, and how much they were used both in the attack and defense of that place during a former war. The extensive resort to them by the two greatest naval powers in the world on an enterprise of invasion not long since in prospect shews their confidence in their efficacy for the purposes for which they are suited. By the northern powers of Europe, whose seas are particularly adapted to them, they are still more used. The remarkable action between the Russian flotilla of gunboats and galleys and a Turkish fleet of ships of the line and frigates in the Uman Sea in 1788 Will be readily recollected. The latter, commanded by their most celebrated admiral, were completely defeated, and several of their ships of the line destroyed. (2)
The Mariner’s Museum provides an explanation of the general theory about the gunboats.
Jefferson and other Republicans knew that gunboats posed no threat to the British navy and thus would not provoke a preemptive strike. Gunboats could be distributed to many American ports and provide defense to a larger territory for less money than a frigate navy. Jefferson envisioned gunboats used in conjunction with land batteries, movable fortifications, and floating batteries to repulse attacks. (1)
Jefferson, himself, explained his theory about gunboats in a Feb 10, 1807 letter to Congress:
Under present circumstances, and governed by the intentions of the Legislature as manifested by their annual appropriations of money for the purposes of defense, it has been concluded to combine, first, land batteries furnished with heavy cannon and mortars, and established on all the points around the place favorable for preventing vessels from lying before it; second, movable artillery, which may be carried, as occasion may require, to points unprovided with fixed batteries; third, floating batteries, and fourth, gunboats which may oppose an enemy at his entrance and cooperate with the batteries for his expulsion. (2)
Thus, the gunboats, individually weak as naval vessels, were intended to operate as part of a combined (we would call it joint) defense utilizing land fortifications and artillery.
The Museum also offers thoughts on the weaknesses of the concept.
A passive defense was useless against an invader with a strong navy like Britain. One frigate had the gun power of forty gunboats, and with their thin planking and low decks exposed to gunfire, gunboats stood little chance of survival. Invasion points were never known, and the few gunboats stationed at various American ports could provide only minimal defense. Furthermore, a gunboat was useless at sea and thus could not defend U.S. commerce. (1)
Jefferson acknowledges the limitations of the gunboats in his letter:
It must be supenduous to observe that this species of naval armament is proposed merely for defensive operation; that it can have but little effect toward protecting our commerce in the open seas, even on our own coast; and still less can it become an excitement to engage in offensive maritime war, toward which it would furnish no means. (2)
Cost was also an issue. Congress authorized 25 gunboats in 1805, 50 in 1806, and 188 in 1807 with construction occurring at ports all around the country.(1)
First estimates put a gunboat's cost at $5,000; in actuality, costs totaled over $10,000. (1)
Apparently, the Navy had difficulty estimating costs even back then!
One of the consequences of the gunboat program was a cessation of major naval construction which left the nation ill-prepared for the War of 1812. In 1809, Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, began to remove the gunboats from active service and by the end of 1811 only 63 gunboats remained in service.
Jefferson's theory of naval defense would lead to the loss of much of the naval strength the United States had gained since the Barbary War of 1805, leaving the nation with an inadequate naval force when it needed it most. (1)
The Mariner’s Museum sums up the situation at the start of the War of 1812 quite nicely:
The U.S. Navy had seven frigates, four schooners, four ketches, and 170 gunboats to pit against the greatest naval power the world had ever seen. (1)
So, what can we learn from Jefferson’s gunboat program? Some of the similarities to today’s currently vogue concepts are remarkable. Here are some noteworthy points of consideration:
Distributed Lethality – Each gunboat carried 2-3 guns which epitomizes the modern US Navy concept of distributed lethality. A 40 gun frigate or 100 gun ship of the line was, essentially, broken down into 20-50 individual ships each carrying a couple of guns. The problem, as noted by the Mariner’s Museum description, is that the individual gunboats, while carrying a weapon equal to a frigate or ship of the line, was an incredibly weak, non-survivable vessel. Thinly and weakly built, with no ‘armor’ (meaning thick protective strakes of wood on the hull), the vessels were easy kills and would be lucky to get off a single shot in combat. They might be useful as peacetime patrol vessels but they were utterly useless in high end combat. Jefferson built a navy that could not fight.
Today, we are headed down the same path of building small, individually weak vessels that are incapable of contributing to high end combat. Replacing Burkes with small, weak, unmanned vessels is a repeat of Jefferson’s concept with the same attendant flaws.
It should be noted, however, that the gunboat concept did not call for the gunboats to operate as standalone naval forces but, rather, as one aspect of a multi-faceted defense that relied on combined land-sea forces. In other words, the gunboats were intended to operate under the close protection and cooperation of a heavy land artillery force. In contrast, the US Navy’s distributed lethality concept has the individual vessels operating in enemy controlled or contested waters with no other support. This glaring difference, alone, should give pause to the US Navy’s proponents of distributed lethality and force a consideration of where and how our individual ships will be supported and, if they cannot be supported, why we are exposing them, individually to certain loss. Simply using the word ‘lethality’ in the phrase ‘distributed lethality’ does not actually make it lethal any more than the word ‘combat’ in ‘Littoral Combat Ship’ makes the LCS a warship.
Massing – One of the foundations of modern military theory is the massing of localized force (conceptually accomplished by maneuver) to achieve victory even against overall superior forces. In contrast, Jefferson’s gunboat concept scattered the gunboat force all over the coastal US, preventing any massing of force. Any enemy attack would, by definition, be met by only a small fraction of the total force and would be inadequate for defense against all but the smallest of enemy forces. This automatically granted the enemy the achievement of localized mass and assured their victory. The gunboats would be subject to defeat in detail against any enemy that wished to make the effort. Similarly, our distributed lethality concept, our push for disaggregated ARG/MEUs, and our trend towards scattered unmanned vessels exposes our entire force to defeat in detail. Just as naval leaders in WWII recognized the value of massing of ships (convoys, task forces, escorts) for mutual defense, so too, should we recognize that same value and yet we’re knowingly proceeding in the opposite direction. We are scattering our naval force like a Jeffersonian gunboat fleet.
Combat Resilience – Throughout history, naval warfare has been characterized by the ability of ships to stand and fight. Damage is absorbed while the ship continues to fight effectively until the enemy is subdued. In the age of sail, ships were generally not sunk but were, instead, slowly pounded into submission. This required the ships to be able to maintain constant volleys while absorbing constant damage. In WWII, the same behavior occurred. As an example, the naval battles of Guadalcanal saw Japanese and American ships absorb dozens or hundreds of shell hits while maintaining effective fire of their own.
Gunboats, as we have noted, had absolutely no ability to absorb damage. They were completely unable to stand and fight. One or two hits and the gunboats would be mission killed, if not destroyed.
Today, we’re building ships that are actually designed to be abandoned at the first hit (LCS, LAW, and, by virtue of its minimal crew, the Zumwalt). This is not combat-effective and represents very poor combat value for the money.
Armament – The gunboats were the epitome of heavy but extremely limited armament. Most gunboats had 2-3 guns which were, as individual guns, considered heavy armament, equal to a frigate or ship of the line. However, as a fighting unit, the gunboats were very weakly armed with, as noted, only 2-3 guns. Thus, a single gunboat was, essentially, combat-useless. It was capable of successfully engaging only weaker armed ships which, from a naval perspective, meant that it had no use in naval combat. Only if operating in massed squadrons – what we would refer to as a swarm, today – could they apply enough collective firepower to have a chance to be effective. Unfortunately, being scattered across dozens/hundreds of port locations, they had no chance to ever mass.
As an example of the typical armanent, gunboat #5 carried, at various times (3):
1805: 2x 32-pounder guns
1812: 1x 24-pounder + 2x 6-pounder
1813: 1x 24-pounder + 4x 6-pounder
1814: 1x 24-pounder + 4x 12-pounder
This is exactly the situation the Navy is creating with the LCS, each of which will be armed with 4-8 Naval Strike Missiles as its entire anti-ship weaponry. Thus, a single LCS is capable of successfully engaging only corvette size ships or smaller, if even that. An LCS’ 4-8 anti-ship missiles constitute no threat to, say, a Chinese 052 or 055 Burke-type destroyer.
This should also serve as a warning to the Navy about their plans to arm amphibious and logistics ships. A very limited capability of 4-8 missiles offers no useful combat capability.
As noted, the parallels between Jefferson’s gunboat concept and today’s distributed lethality concept are striking and today’s concept contains all the same flaws as the gunboat concept. History constantly screams its lessons at us and we resolutely cover our ears and refuse to listen. History has judged the gunboat program an abject failure and yet we seem determined to repeat it.
The one theoretical strength of the gunboat concept was its link with land based fortifications and artillery. Thus, the gunboats and the land fortifications were intended to operate as a single defensive entity. This emphasizes two aspects of the program: the ‘joint’ nature of the concept and the purely defensive nature. Our modern distributed lethality concept abandons both of those aspects by operating the individual ships without support and in an offensive role which, by definition, places them forward, in higher risk situations.
If we are determined to repeat the gunboat concept, we need to study the gunboat program and explain how/why our version will succeed gloriously despite containing all the same flaws (and none of the few strengths!) as Jefferson’s program.
(1)The Mariner’s Museum website, “Jefferson’s Gunboat Navy”, retrieved 12-Dec-2020,
(2)History Central website,