Her Majesty’s War-steamer Terrible

Experimental firing of the Bellepheron at the Royal Sovereign at Spithead. 1849. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Hathi Trust Digital Library and The University of Michigan Library and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. — George P. Landow

The Number of this Journal for May 14, 1864, contained an Engraving of H.M.S. Royal Sovereign, with a description of that remarkable vessel, which was the firat turret-ship built for the British Navy on the plan of Captain Cowper Coles. On Friday, the 15th inst., this ship was subjected to the severe ordeal of having her turret fired at thrice by H.M.S. Bellerophon, with one of her great rifled guns of 9 in. calibre, at the distance of 200 yards; the object being to try two important questions — first, that of the vulnerability of the turret; and, secondly, the liability of the machinery on which, it revolves to injury either from a shot striking the rollers or from a splinter from the side of the ship so injuring them as to render the turret practically useless.

The experiments took place in the waters of the Solent off the coast of the Isle of Wight, at St. Helens, where the two ships were moored, as shown in the Sketch engraved on page 640. The Duke of Somerset and other Lords of the Admiralty, with Admiral Robinson, Comptroller of the Navy, witnessed the proceedings from on board the steamer Osborne. There was a great number of spectators on board the excursion steamers and the private yachts which lay as near the H.M.S. Bellerophon as they were allowed.

A brief description of the thickness of the turret and of the size of the shot directed against it will give some idea of the nature of the trial. The bull's-eyes, about 1 ft. in diameter, are on the right and left of the port, the centre of the former being at a distance of about 2 ft. 9 in. from the edge of the latter, and at a height of about 2 ft. 3 in. from the raised plating (forming a sort of combing) which, surrounds the turret. This plating is 3 1/2 in. in thickness, and gradually slopes for a distance of about 3 ft. For about 6 ft. on each side of the port (and the bull's-eyes were within this distance) the thickness of the turret is about 2ft. Outside is a 5 1/2 in. plate; then comes a 4 1/2 in. plate, which is backed by 14 in. of teak; and the inner skin is 1/2in. iron plate; the whole forming a compact circular wall, 24 1/2 in, in thickness.

The shots or bolts (composed of steel) were 246 lb. and 250 lb. weight, and were 17 in. or 18 in. long, and 9 in. diameter. They were fired from the 121-ton rifled Armstrong gun, mounted on the main- deck battery of the Bellerophon, with a charge of 43 lb. each, and at a distance of 200 yards.

The gun and carriage belonging to the after-turret of the Royal Sovereign had been removed, and a skeleton supplied their place with ballast equal to the weight of the ordinary gun and carriage. Against this proceeding, however, Captain Coles protested, contending that it was unfair to remove that which might be an excellent barrier in the event of a shot entering the port.

The Board of Admiralty, having on their arrival inspected the turret, retired to the Bellerophon. The deck of the Royal Sovereign having been cleared, the first shot, of 246 lb, was fired at a canvas target surmounting the turret (the gun being at an elevation of 12 mins), and a portion of the canvas was carried away. This shot, however, was fired with no other object than to obtain an accurate range, but it was speedily followed by a second for a very different purpose. This was also a 246 1b. shot, and was fired at the bull's-eye on the turret. With tremendous force the shot struck the left edge of the port, and penetrated the 5 1/2-inch plate; but, on reaching the 41-inch plate, it glanced off, crossed the port, caused a slight indentation on the right side, and was shivered into a dozen pieces. The skeleton gun and carriage were broken into fragments; the plate of iron next to that on which the bull's-eyes were pointed was forced out several inches; a portion of the top of the turret was carried away; and the whole of the bolts in the neighbourhood of the target mark were started. The revolving machinery was then tested, and it was found that it had not sustained any injury, the turret moving with as much ease as before the shot was fired. A revolution of a quarter of a circle was then made, and this exposed the thinnest side of the turret (there being only a single plate of 5 1/2 in. at this point) to the Bellerophon's fire.

The next shot was of 250 lb. weight, fired at au elevation of 12 mine. It entered the turret at a junction of two plates, and made a clean breach through and separated them. The shot passed through the 5 1/2 in. plate, splintered the teak immediately behind it, and, taking an upward direction, forced up the top of the turret, and remained in the teak, the hand of the shot projecting from beneath the plate. The bolts were started, but the machinery on which the turret revolves, again escaped damage.

Shotholes in the turret of the Royal Sovereign

The last shot (of 250 lb.) was a glancing shot, the elevation being 9 min. Striking the deck at a distance of about 6 ft. from the turret, and at a point where there is a thickness of 6 in. of wood and 1 in. of iron, the shot glided along the deck, tearing up the planks in its pro- gress to the plate surrounding the turret, which it slightly bent. The shot then glided on to the side of the turret, caused an indentation about 17 in. long, 9 in. wide, and 3 1/2 in. deep, and flew away on the port bow, a cutter yacht at a distance of some 800 or 1000 yards narrowly escaping the shot as it passed. For the third time the machinery was tried, and the turret revolved on the rollers as easily aa before. This closed the experiments of the day, and Captain Coles was at once surrounded by a large number of officers and friends, who warmly congratulated him on the success which had attended the trial. The gun was trained by Jonathan Boning (a gunnery instructor on board the Excellent) with admirable accuracy.


“Experimental firing at the Royal Sovereign Turret-ship.” Illustrated London News (26 June 1866): 639-40. Hathi Trust Digital Library version of a copy in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 16 January 2016.]

Last modified 16 January 2016