The Evolution of American Submarines

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Cropped from a painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, a young artist who also served in the Confederate army.
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USS Housatonic - The first war ship to be sunk by a submarine
On February 17, 1864, the HL Hunley became the first submarine to sink an enemy warship. The warship was the USS Housatonic, a northern ship in the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor. Horace Lawson Hunley built the 40-ft. long submarine in Alabama for the Confederate cause. The vessel was shipped to Charleston in the summer of 1863 where it underwent trials by the Confederate army. In one trial five crew waere lost. In a subsequent trial the full crew of 8, including Hunley himself, was lost. The sub was raised and made ready for service. It was successful on February 17, but it sank and its crew of 8 was lost. 7 men hand cranked a propeller shaft while the 8th man manned the rudder. The weapon was essentially a gunpowder bomb on the end of a long wooden shaft with a barb to attach it to the hull of the unlucky target ship. The Hunley was discovered and raised in 1995 and is now on display in Charleston…. the oldest museum submarine.
The U.S Navy also built a submarine nicknamed the Alligator, similarly powered by a manually cranked propeller shaft, This sub had some neat design features, but it was lost to heavy weather while being towed toward Charleston to participate in the blockade.
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In the 1890’s John Philip Holland and his Holland Torpedo Boat Company based at Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey, built the first modern US naval submarine. The Holland Torpedo Boat Company later became Electric Boat, the company that builds modern nuclear submarines in Groton, Connecticut.
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The Holland VI was 55 ft. long, was powered by a small gasoline engine for surface propulsion and and electric motor for underwater propulsion. She carried three torpedoes for her submerged 18 inch torpedo tube. She was also armed with a pneumatic dynamite gun in the bow to launch an aerial torpedo. She could dive to a depth of 75 ft. with a crew of six.
The U.S. Navy paid $150,000 for the vessel and she was commissioned as the USS Holland (SS-1) in Newport, RI on October 12, 1900. The Navy ordered more submarines from the Holland company which were to become the “Plunger Class” and sometimes referred to a the A class.
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USS Holland started an evolution of submarines designed for the U.S. Navy, with a small number built with each design and every few years a new design with incremental improvements. The sections below will show a steady progression from the first submarine to the ones that were instrumental in defeating the Japanese in WW II.
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Above: USS Plunger (SS-2) was the first of 7 submarines in this class — the first to form a submarine feet.
Plunger Class (A-Class) Submarine
The USS Plunger ((SS-2) was the second submarine officially in the US Navy. She was the first of the Plunger Class of submarine, later known as the A class. Her keel was laid in May, 1901 and she was launched in February, 1902. Submarines were still a new idea for the defense of the nation, so the Plunger was more of a test ship than a working war ship. In August of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt boarded Plunger for a 3-hour run which included a brief dive. He loved the experience and was fascinated by the concept, but he was not completely certain of the submarines’ real value as a functional and useful weapon. Between 1901 and 1903, a total of 7 Plunger Class submarines were built at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the Union Iron Works in San Francisco.
The ship was 63 ft. long with a beam of 12 ft. It was powered by a 160-hp gasoline engine and an electric motor for running underwater. It had a speed of 8 knots on the surface, and 7 knots submerged. A crew of 7. Armament was a single 18-inch torpedo tubes.

The Five Plunger-classboats on the East Coast were based at New Suffolk, NY until 1905 at which time their base was moved to Newport, Rhode Island. They were America’s firs submarine fleet.

Number built: (7) 1901-1903
Length: 64 ft. Beam: 12 ft.
Power: 160 hp gasoline engine
Test Depth: 150 ft.
Armament: (1) 18” torpedo tube
Crew: (7) incl officers.

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Designed for greater speed, range and firepower, the B class submarines were longer and more powerful than their predecessors. They featured caps over the torpedo tubes to reduce drag. Designed by Electric Boat (Formally the Holland Co.), they were built at Fore River Shipbuilding in Quincy, MA
Number Built: (3) 1906-07
Length: 82 ft, Beam: 12.5 ft.
Test Depth: 150 ft.
Power; 250 hp gas engine
Range: 540 naut. miles
Crew: 10 incl. officers
Armament: (2) 18” bow tubes.
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Also built at Fore River Shipbuilding in Quincy, MA for designer, Electric Boat, the C class were the first to employ 2-shaft propulsion. powered by twin 500 hp gasoline engines and twin 300 hp electric motors for undersea propulsion.
Number: (5) built 1906-1909
Length: 105 ft., Beam, 14 ft.
Surface Speed: 10.5 knots
Range: 800 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (1) officer, (14) enlisted
Armament: (2) 18” bow torpedo tubes
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Also designed by Electric Boat and built at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, MA, the D-class were bigger, a little faster and the first to be armed with four forward torpedo tubes, but they carried only one torpedo for each tube. They were powered by two 600 hp gasoline engines and twin 330 hp electric motors.
Number built: (3) 1909-1910
Length: 134 ft., Beam, 14 ft.
Surface Speed: 13 knots
Range: 1179 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (1 Officer, (14) Enlisted
Armament: (4) 18” bow torpedo tubes
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Designed by Electric Boat and built at the Fore River Shipbuilding Company in Quincy, MA. The first class to employ diesel engines and the first to employ bow planes to achieve more precise depth control. Diesels were considered safer than gasoline engines, which were an explosion risk. Though the two subs in this class were used mainly for training and coastal defense, one was used on war patrols in the Azores in WW1.
Number built: (2) 1911-1912
Length: 135 ft., Beam 14 ft. 7 in.
Surface Speed: 13.5 knots
Range: 2100 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (20) Officers and Enlisted
Armament: (4) 18 inch torpedo tubes
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Designed by Electric Boat and built by Union Iron works in San Francisco and Moran Brothers in Seattle, the four F-Class subs were similar to the E-Class, also using diesel power and bow plaines. However, consistent with the general evolution of American submarines, they were heaver and a little longer. They served in the Pacific fleet.
Number built: (4) 1911-1912
Length: 142 ft. Beam: 15 ft. 5 in.
Surface Speed: 13.5 knots
Range: 2,300 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (22) officers and enlisted
Armament: (4) bow torpedo tubes
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Unlike earlier classes all designed by Electric Boat, the company started by John Holland, The G-class was the result of a competition, with the four subs designed and built by four different shipbuilding companies. Three were powered by gasoline engines and one by a diesel engine. Two of the subs had six torpedo tubes and one had two stern torpedo tubes.
Number built: (4) 1909-1913
Length: 157 ft. to 161 ft. Beam: 13 to 17 ft.
Surface Speed: 14 knots
Range: 2500 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (24-26) officers and enlisted men
Armament: (4-6) torpedo tubes.
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The record of this class is a bit confusing, because some were built for the Russians prior to their revolution and some were built for Britain. Nine ended up in the U.S. Navy
Number built: (9) 1911-1918
Length: 150 ft. , Beam: 15 ft. 10 in.
Surface Speed: 14 knots
Range: 2300 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (25) Officers and Enlisted men
Armament: (4) 18 inch torpedo tubes
with a supply of (8) torpedoes on board.
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Designed by Electric Boat and built Quincy, MA, San Francisco, and Seattle shipyards. Powered by twin 950 hp diesel engines and twin 650 hp electric motors driving two shafts. Four of this class served in the Azores during WW1 as convoy escorts. Their experience in this mission informed improvements in future designs.
Number built: (8) 1912-1914
Length: 153 ft. Beam: 16 ft. 8 in.
Surface Speed: 14 knots
Range: 4,500 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (28) Officers and Enlisted men
Armament: (4) 18 in. bow torpedo tubes
with a supply of (8) torpedoes on board
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With some in the class designed by Electric Boat and some by Lake Torpedo Boat Company, the objective was to have a more ocean-going vessel. While no L-Class subs did not sink any German subs in their WW1 convoy duty, they did prove to have good endurance during long range patrols.
Number built: (11) 1914-1917
Length: 165-167 ft. , Beam: 14 ft. 9 in. to 17 ft. 5 in.
Surface Speed: 14 knots
Range: 4,500 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (28) Officers and Enlisted men
Armament: (4) 18 in. bow torpedo tubes with a
supply of 8 torpedoes on board.
(1) 3 in. Retractable Deck Gun
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S Class No. 44- Click on Image to Enlarge
The 7th design variation (class) after the L Class and 5 design variations before the first subs to be deployed as attack submarines in World War 2, the S Class was the most successful in that 51 were built between 1918 and 1925. During World War 2 many in this class were used by the Navy for reconnaissance, supply, and coastal defense. They were too slow and limited in range to be deployed in the Atlantic or Pacific Theatre.
Number built: (51) 1918 - 1925
Built by: Electric Boat, where it was designed, and 4 other shipyards.
Length: 219 ft. , Beam: 21 ft.
Surface Speed: 14 knots
Range: 5,000 nautical miles
Test Depth: 200 ft.
Crew: (88) Officers and Enlisted men
(4) 21 in. torpedo tubes
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In the 18-20 years following John Holland’s submarine, the first in the U.S. Navy to be powered by an engine and capable of diving deep and firing a torpedo, submarines had evolved from a length of 55 ft. requiring a crew of 6 to a length of 165 ft. requiring a crew of 28. By the end of WW 1, submarines had become strategically useful in several of the world’s navies. In the two decades between World War One and World War Two, submarines would evolved to move faster, have greater range, more fire power, and the strategic value of submarines would be better understood. During World War Two, the U.S. started out with a small number of pre-war subs and proceeded to build 197 more submarines with newer design that would ultimately play a huge role in defeating the Japanese by sinking large numbers of her merchant and naval fleet. It took four decades and trial and error to design the underwater war machine that could bring down Japan’s ability to maintain its essential supply lines.


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