Of the Conparative Powers and Expense of Ships of War


[This article is reprinted from Miscellaneous Letters and Writings of Thomas Paine, London, 1819, pp. 221-25.-Editor.]

THE natural defense by men is common to all nations; but artificial defense as an auxiliary to human strength must be adapted to the local condition and circumstances of a country. What may be suitable to one country, or in one state of circumstances, may not be so in another.

The United States have a long line of coast of more than two thousand miles, every part of which requires defense, because every part is approachable by water.

The right principle for the United States to go upon as a water defense for the coast is that of combining the greatest practical power with the least possible bulk, that the whole quantity of power may be better distributed through the several parts of such an extensive coast.

The power of a ship of war is altogether in the number and size of the guns she carries, for the ship, of itself has no power. Ships cannot struggle with each other like animals; and besides this, as half her guns are on one side the ship and half on the other, and as she can use only the guns on one side at a time, her real power is only equal to half her number of guns. A seventy-four can use only thirty-seven guns. She must tack about to bring the other half into action, and while she is doing this she is defenseless and exposed.

As this is the case with ships of war, a question naturally arises therefrom, which is, whether seventy-four guns, or any other number, cannot be more effectually employed, and that with much less expense, than by putting them all into one ship of such enormous bulk that it cannot approach a shore either to defend it or attack it; and though the ship can change its place, the whole number of guns can be only in one place at a time, and only half that number can be used at a time.

This is a true statement of the case between ships of war and gun-boats for the defense of a coast and of towns situated near a coast. But the case often is, that men are led away by the GREATNESS of an idea and not by the JUSTNESS of it. This is always the case with those who are advocates for navies and large ships.

A gun-boat carrying as heavy metal as a ship of one hundred guns can carry, is a one gun ship of the line; and seventy-four of them which would cost much less than a 74 gun ship would cost, would be able to blow a 74 gun ship out of the water. They have, in the use of their guns, double the power of the ship, that is, they have the use of their whole number of 74 to 37.

Having thus stated the general outlines of the subject I come to particulars.

That I might have correct data to go upon with respect to the expense of ships and gun-boats, I wrote to the head of one of the departments at Washington for information on that subject.1

The following is the answer I received:

“Calculating the cost of a 74 or 100 gun ship, from the actual cost of the ship United States of 44 guns, built at Philadelphia, between the years 1795 and 1798, which amounted to 300,000 dollars, it may be presumed that a 74 gun ship would cost 500,000 dollars and a 100 gun ship 700,000 dollars.

“Gun-boats calculated merely for the defense of harbors and rivers will, on an average, cost about 4000 dollars each when fit to receive the crew and provisions.”

On the data here given I proceed to state comparative calculations respecting ships and gun-boats.

The ship, United States, cost 300,000 dollars. Gun-boats cost 4000 dollars each, consequently the 300,000 expended on the ship for the purpose of getting the use of 44 guns, and those not heavy metal would have built seventy-five gun-boats each carrying a cannon of the same weight of metal that a ship of an hundred guns can carry. The difference therefore is, that the gun-boats give the use of 31 guns heavy metal, more than can be obtained by the ship and the expenses in both cases equal.

A 74 gun ship cost 500,000 dollars. This same money will build 125 gun-boats. The gain by gun-boats is the use of 51 guns more than can be obtained by expending the money on a ship of 74 guns.

The cost of an 100 gun ship is 700,000 dollars. This money will build 175 gun-boats. The gain, therefore, by the boats is the use of 75 guns more than by the ship.

Though I had a general impression, ever since I had a knowledge of gun-boats, that any given sum of money would go farther in building gun-boats than in building ships of war, and that gun-boats were preferable to ships for home defense, I did not suppose the difference was so great as the calculations above given prove them to be, for it is almost double in favor of gun-boats. It is as 175 to 100. The cause of this difference is easily explained.

The fact is, that all that part of the expense in building a ship from the deck upward, including mast, yards, sails and rigging is saved by building gun-boats which are moved by oars, or a light sail occasionally.

The difference also in point of repairs between ships of war and gun-boats is not only great but is greater in proportion than in their first cost. The repairs of ships of war is annually from 1-14 to 1-10 of their first cost. The annual expense of the repairs of a ship that cost 300,000 dollars will be above 21,000 dollars; the greatest part of this expense is in her sails and rigging which gun-boats are free from.

The difference also in point of duration is great. Gun-boats, when not in use, can be put under shelter and preserved from the weather, but ships cannot; or the boats can be sunk in the water or the mud. This is the way the nuts of cider mills for grinding apples are preserved. Were they to be exposed to the dry and hot air after coming wet from the mill they would crack and split and be good for nothing. But timber under water will continue sound for several hundred years, provided there be no worms.

Another advantage in favor of gun-boats is the expedition with which a great number of them can be built at once. An hundred may be built as soon as one if there are hands enough to set about them separately. They do not require the preparations for building them that ships require, nor deep water to launch them in. They can be built on the shore of shallow waters, or they might be framed in the woods or forests and the parts brought separately down and put together on the shore. But ships take up a long time building. The ship United States took up two whole years ’96 and ’97 and part of the years ’95 and ’98 and all this for the purpose of getting the use of 44 guns and those not heavy metal. This foolish affair was not in the days of the present administration.

Ships and gun-boats are for different services. Ships are for distant expeditions; gun-boats for home defense. The one for the ocean; the other for the shore.

Gun-boats being moved by oars cannot be deprived of motion by calms, for the calmer the weather the better for the boat. But a hostile ship becalmed in any of our waters, can be taken by gun-boats moved by oars, let the rate of the ship be what it may. A 100 gun man of war becalmed, is like a giant in a dead palsy. Every little fellow can kick him.

The United States ought to have 500 gun-boats stationed in different parts of the coast, each carrying a thirty-two or thirty-six pounder. Hostile ships would not then venture to lie within our waters, were it only for the certainty of being sometimes becalmed. They would then become prizes, and the insulting bullies on the ocean become prisoners in our own waters.

Having thus stated the comparative powers and expense of ships of war and gun-boats, I come to speak of fortifications.

Fortifications may be comprehended under two general heads.

First, fortified towns; that is, towns enclosed within a fortified polygon, of which there are many on the continent of Europe but not any in England.

Secondly, simple forts and batteries. These are not formed on the regular principles of fortification, that is, they are not formed for the purpose of standing a siege as a fortified polygon is. They are for the purpose of obstructing or annoying the progress of an enemy by land or water.

Batteries are formidable in defending narrow passes by land; such as the passage of a bridge, or of a road cut through a rough and craggy mountain that cannot be passed any where else. But they are not formidable in defending water-passes, because a ship with a brisk wind tide and running at the rate of ten miles an hour will be out of the reach of the fire of the battery in fifteen or twenty minutes, and being a swift moving object all the time it would be a mere chance that any shot struck her.

When the object of a ship is that of passing a battery for the purpose of attaining or attacking some other object it is not customary with the ship to fire at the battery lest it should disturb her course. Three or four men are kept on deck to attend the helm, and the rest, having nothing to do, go below. Duckworth in passing the Dardenelles up to Constantinople did not fire at the batteries.

When batteries for the defense of water-passes can be erected without any great expense, and the men not exposed to capture, it may be very proper to have them. They may keep off small piratical vessels but they are not to be trusted to for defence.

Fortifications give, in general, a delusive idea of protection. All our principal losses in the revolutionary war were occasioned by trusting to Fortifications. Fort Washington with a garrison of 2500 men was taken in less than four hours and the men made prisoners of war. The same fate had befallen Fort Lee on the opposite shore, if General Lee had not moved hastily off and gained Hackinsack bridge. General Lincoln fortified Charleston, S. C, and himself and his army were made prisoners of war. General Washington began fortifying New York in 1776, General Howe passed up the East river landed his army at Frog’s Point about twenty miles above the city and marched down upon it, and had not General Washington stole silently and suddenly off on the North river side of York Island, himself and his army had also been prisoners. Trust not to Fortifications, otherwise than as batteries that can be abandoned at discretion.

The case however is, that batteries, as a water defence against the passage of ships cannot do much. Were any given number of guns to be put in a battery for that purpose, and an equal number of the same weight of metal put in gun-boats for the same purpose, those in the boats would be more effectual than those in the battery. The reason for this is obvious. A battery is stationary. Its fire is limited to about two miles, and there its power ceases. But every gun-boat moved by oars is a movable fortification that can follow up its fire and change its place and its position as circumstances may require. And besides this, gun-boats in calms are the sovereigns of ships.

As this matter interests the public, and most probably will come before Congress at its next meeting, if the printers in any of the States, after publishing it in their newspapers, have a mind to publish it in a pamphlet form, together with my former piece on gun-boats, they have my consent freely. I take neither copy-right nor profit for any thing I publish.


July 21, 1807. NEW YORK

  1. The letter Paine refers to seems to have disappeared, for it is not included in any collections in the Library of Congress or in the National Archives.

    Paine also sent two letters to Thomas Jefferson on the subject of gun-boats in the summer and fall of 1807, and included in the first letter (dated August 29, 1807) a “model of a contrivance for making one gun-boat do nearly double execution.” (See Jefferson’s letters to Paine, September 6, October 9, 1807, Andrew A. Lipscomb and

Albert Ellery Bergh, eds., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D. C , 1905,vol. XI, pp. 362, 378.) Both the letters and the diagram seem to have disappeared; they are not included in the Jefferson collection in the Library of Congress or in the collections of the Navy Department in the National Archives. In a report in the National Archives, Naval Affairs section, entitled “Data on the Gun-Boats built by the United States, 1804-1808,” Jefferson’s letter to Paine, September 6, 1807, is quoted, after which appears the following comment: “Whether Paine’s plan had any influence upon gun-boats authorized in 1807 and 1808, we are unable to say.” It may very well be that Paine simply sent Jefferson the articles on gun-boats which appear in the present collection of his writings, and wrote nothing else on the subject.-Editor.