Ironclad Civil War rams, were they intended to ram other ships?

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Nov 2, 2019
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
How was the actual ram or prow attached to the boat? It surely wasn't bolted onto the hull.
If you will look at the ancient example above you can see the holes where the bolts attached it to the hull. Of course, the structure had to be designed to absorb the impact. There were instances where the ram became ensnared & the victim sank the attacker.


Feb 18, 2017
The fundamental concept of the ram originated based on two factors.

The first was that a previous great leap in armament from the previous major war to the then-most-recent one (Napoleonic to Crimean) had then been followed up by a seemingly even greater reaction in the other direction, as for the first time ships were being fielded which were nearly immune to the guns then available. It was felt that this marked a fundamental change in the nature of combat, and that ships would no longer be able to damage other ships with guns.

It is not quite a coincidence that this period sees the development of reliable naval mines, the spar torpedo, the locomotive torpedo and the paravane as well as the ram. It also sees a sudden surge of interest in gun technology, and an equilibrium is quickly restored where heavy guns can pierce the then current heavy armour (but guns quickly become obsolescent as heavier armour is introduced). The concern is always about how one might remain relevant when the next ship that comes along might well be immune to your guns - but cannot be immune to your ram.

The second is that this happens concurrently with improvements in the engine technology available, which means that it is now possible to build a powered ram with enough power and speed to actually ram something and do damage to it (since ancient rams had been built to pierce the flimsy racing shells of oared galleys, but steamships could maintain useful speed while being quite heavily built). You couldn't really ram a sailing ship reliably with another sailing ship, but powered vessels might be able to ram.

This probably would have been a shorter-term fad were it not for the instances where it actually did work, particularly Lissa. It was a bit of a case of selection bias - the dozens of times that ramming attempts glanced off or were shrugged off went unremarked, but the few dramatic successes in the only fleet actions providing real combat data were focused on heavily.

Effectively one can think of the ram as being a weapon you can always resort to if your guns are not available or not able to pierce (including if you were not built with them in the first place). The concept is actually quite workable assuming that the ramming ship has a notable advantage in manoeuverability over the victim, or is caught by surprise and does not steer out of trouble in time; it's more effective against low freeboard/low reserve bouyancy ships, also a fad at the time, because a ramming effect would be more immediately critical.


Aug 4, 2011
Granted the prow of a ram is under the waterline but can you tell a ram from another sort of ship just by looking at it?Are there other features that designates a ship as a ram?

The bow above water often gave a clue,


although there were also ships with a "plough" bow not intended for ramming.


After the 1860s there were relatively few ships officially designated "rams", but as others have noted, the ram was a common feature of battleships and cruisers. Until the development of the torpedo, it was the almost the only means of inflicting crippling underwater damage. Gunfire would mainly strike above the waterline, and even if a ship was "hulled" it would usually not be immediately fatal or even unrepairable.
Feb 20, 2019
Richmond, VA
In the 1880s, both the U.S. and Royal navies each built one ship to fully test the ramming theory. In 1881, the Brits built Polyphemus. Although primarily a torpedo boat she featured a ram with a specially reinforced bow to accept the loads of a collision. She served from 1882 to 1900. In late 1889, an order was placed in the U.S. for Katahdin, a pure "harbor defense ram." The ram never made design speed so a special congressional authorization was required for the Navy to complete the purchase. Her first commissioning lasted just a bit more than a month and her second, during the Spanish-American War, lasted almost exactly seven months. Her service total thus was far less than a year. She was ultimately sunk as a target in 1909. Polyphemus was ultimately more successful because her use as a ram did not compromise her design as a torpedo boat. She was in all respects a conventional ship. Katahdin, on the other hand, was designed solely as a ram and could not be confused with anything conventional. Think of an armored, bow reinforced, Skipjack-class nuclear submarine without a sail. Habitability, speed, and maneuverability all were compromised and bordered on non-existent.






Feb 18, 2017
That's a unique design. It looks like it was designed to separate the planks.
As I alluded to above, the target vessels for these were usually thin racing shells rather than the ribbed construction of Atlantic (and later Mediterranean) vessels. This is because rowed warships need to be rowed, usually at speed for short bursts in battle (as much as nine knots) and at lower speeds of ca. 4 knots for long periods of time during the manoeuvering around a battle. Under those circumstances you want as little weight as possible.

Boarding tactics are a bit less weight critical, but they still matter.