"One might suppose the vessel were built around the guns, so important a part do they bear in the construction of the ship. With many tons of dynamite in her magazines the Vesuvius is not only a deadly menace to the enemy’s fleet, but also to her own crew. One shot from a dynamite gun would sink a battleship, but if one well-directed shot from the enemy were to strike Vesuvius it would be blown to fragments by the explosion of its own cargo." (The Great American-Spanish War Scenes, 1898, by Lieutenant Edgar Johnston, at page 65)
Imagine a weapon system of such destructive power that one shot could sink any existing battleship. What’s more, the weapon system could be designed and built on the cheap. One such vessel costing a mere $350,000 could send to the bottom scores of multi-million dollar foreign battleships. Naval warfare will be turned upside down with this marvel of modern technology! Only the inspiration of Yankee know-how could conceive and perfect such a fearsome weapon but there it is, the pneumatic dynamite gun.
In the 1880s the United States Navy was being recreated from the relics of the American Civil War. However, the initial designs, the A,B,C,D ships, were distinctly second rate. Like a toddler just learning to walk, the new American Steel Navy was cautious in its first steps. Better take a small step and not fall down, rather than being too bold and fall flat on the face. By the end of the decade, however, the USN had achieved new confidence, not only in its ability to construct modern warships but also in its ability to incorporate cutting edge technology into new construction. There was no longer any fear to experiment with unproven weapons systems. Two new warships were constructed specifically around a weapon’s system. One system was as old as naval combat, the ram. The armored steam ram Katahdin was specifically designed to attack by ramming. She was heavily armored, could be partially submerged and had only minimal gun-power. The other ship used brand new technology. In concept she could stealthily approach a battleship on a moon-light night, devastate the foe with a few shots and then use her great speed to evade return fire. What was this stealth warship? It wasn’t the black painted torpedo-boats, which attacked in mass. It was not the invisible submarine, which was concealed beneath the waves. It was the USN Vesuvius, pneumatic dynamite gun cruiser.
"The formidable dynamite gun cruiser Vesuvius was launched in 1888. Her 15-inch guns were the invention of Mefford, of Ohio, although they were improved by Captain Edmund L. G. Zalinski, U.S.A. The guns are 55 feet long, and placed at an angle of 16 degrees they throw projectiles (expelled by compressed air) containing from 500 to 600 pounds of explosive gelatine and dynamite a distance of one mile, or projectiles containing from 100 to 200 pounds a distance of 4,000 yards. The explosive is controlled by an electric fuse, and it is believed that the force of the charge would destroy any battleship yet built." (History of Our War with Spain, 1898, by James Rankin Young, at page 88)
"The projectiles from these deadly weapons are launched with compressed air. The speed of the Vesuvius enables her to get away from every vessel except the very fastest cruisers; and if she can escape the guns of an adversary just long enough to explode one charge of dynamite against its side it would end the career of the adversary in a moment." (The Great American-Spanish War Scenes, 1898, by Lieutenant Edgar Johnston, at page 64)
Dynamite was a new wonder explosive of the 19th century. Far more powerful than black powder, dynamite was directly responsible for the rapid development of the American railroad system across the continent. It was far faster and easier to blast tunnels through mountains or too create manageable grades through the use of dynamite, than through gun-powder. But how do you harness this awesome explosive force to an engine of war? Since the invention of explosive shells, gunpowder provided the bursting charge. Dynamite or nitrocellulose would provide a far greater magnitude of explosive force than gunpowder in the same volume. However, these new explosives were extremely sensitive to shock. Firing shells containing dynamite with black powder propellant could cause the charge to explode in the gun barrel, destroying the gun and quite possibly the firing warship. Nitrocellulose, guncotton, had been used for warheads of torpedoes but they were of extremely short range and doubtful accuracy.
US Army Lieutenant Edmund L. G. Zalinski invented a gun that could fire dynamite projectiles. By using compressed air, a shell could be fired with far smoother acceleration than could be achieved through black powder. Another safety advantage would be the total absence of the black powder explosion of propellant in the gun barrel. The Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Company of New Jersey was formed to develop this weapon system to sell it to the United States Army and Navy and then perhaps as international arms merchants. In 1886 a contract was inked, in which the Company would produce the weapons for a trial warship. The actual hull and machinery for the ship was subcontracted to the Cramp Yard of Philadelphia. The ship would be rated a Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Cruiser and was to be named the USS Vesusius.
Laid down in September 1887 the Vesuvius resembled a yacht more than a warship. Totally devoid of armor, her defense was her blistering top speed of in excess of 21-knots. She would race in at night, deliver an unassailable barrage of dynamite shells and then speedily escape retribution by speeding away. Her yacht like lines were designed to facilitate speed. Displacing only 929-tons she mounted four boilers, which provided 3,200ihp to her two shafts. However, because of the weight of the gun system at the extreme bow, the Vesusius was decidedly unhandy. She had the largest turning radius in the fleet and was very difficult to steer. Additionally, her low freeboard also made her very un-seaworthy.
She was built around the weapon system of three fixed 15-inch pneumatic guns mounted in the bow. The guns would be charged from compressed air contained in cast-iron bladders, which stored the air at 1,000psi. The smoothbore gun tubes were loaded below decks and extended from the forecastle by a few feet. They were fixed and pointed forward. To hit a target, the ship would have to be aimed, rather than the guns. Three types of shells were designed. The largest, most powerful shell of 15-inches, weighed 980 pounds with a 500-pound dynamite warhead. Two smaller sub-caliber shells were also designed, which allowed greater range at the expense of a smaller warhead. Interestingly enough, these sub-caliber shells also employed cutting edge technology. Since the barrels were smoothbore, wooden sabots provided a smooth fit and the shells were equipped with fins to provide stabilization and accuracy. The exact range of the shells would be adjusted by manipulating the exact amount of compressed air used for propellant with the weight of the projectile selected. Thirty shells were carried.
Tests proved that she effective range of the largest shells was a miserly 500 yards but the sub-caliber munitions had an effective range of up to 2,000-yards. Her publicized range was more than twice the actual effective figures. Launched on April 28, 1888, Vesuvius was commissioned on June 7, 1890. Her firing tests provided great spectacle. "During tests on the Delaware River in 1890, explosions from dynamite shells fired by the Vesuvius rattled windows five miles distant and produced great geysers of mud and water towering some two-hundred feet into the air." (American Steel Navy, 1972, by John D. Alden, at page 48) The USS Vesuvius was immediately a favorite of press and public. Here was Yankee ingenuity developing a cheap weapon system that could overthrow the enormously expensive European fleets built around battleships. With her shallow draft, Vesuvius could go much farther up rivers than conventional deep draft warships and consequently could be viewed by the citizenry at many more towns than standard designs.
"Why would the Indiana be regarded as a formidable foe? In the first place her belt armor of Harveyized steel is unusually thick – 18 inches. There is hardly any doubt that she could keep afloat during the severest engagement. The dynamite cruiser Vesuvious might destroy her – that is, if the Indiana were taken by surprise on a moonlight night or at dawn." (History of Our War with Spain, 1898, by James Rankin Young, at page 99)
Her fearsome reputation with the press and adoration by the public was in reality totally at odds with her actual performance. It was extraordinary difficult to hit a stationary target and impossible to hit a moving warship. All of the variable that went into sending a shell to an exact location could not be overcome through the system of altering the charge of compressed air and since the bow of Vesuvius had to be aimed in direct line with the target, and whim of tide, current or movement of the target would only create a spectacular explosion in empty water. The electric fuses were also of dubious value. In all respects, she was worthless in naval combat. Although the USN did not pop the bubble of the ridiculously inflated public opinion of the merits of this ship, a second ship of this type was cancelled. The navy knew that it was an evolutionary dead end, for the technology of the day, even if the press still described it as a wonder weapon. With no armor, even a small shell could ignite the entire ship, making her a far greater danger to herself and accompanying warships, than to any hostile target. She was decommissioned on April 1895 for repairs and stayed out of commission until January 12, 1897.
Still, USS Vesuvius was used in combat. When the Spanish cruiser squadron was bottled up in Santiago di Cuba, the Vesuvius was sent to see if she could at least hit stationary targets. Her efforts in combat matched the dismal predictions developed by the USN after her trials. "Hiding behind the battleships and cruisers during daylight hours, the little warship would creep inshore at night to belch dynamite shells at the fortifications. To the fascinated sailors of the blockading fleet the firing of her guns had the ‘strange sound of a giant’s cough’ issuing from the darkness. The blindly aimed projectiles splashed near some of the Spanish warships in Santiago harbor and gouged several impressive scars in the surrounding hillsides – badly frightening the defenders – but the final effect, in the words of Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, ‘was materially unimportant though morally great." (American Steel Navy, 1972, by John D. Alden, at page 48) She conducted eight such bombardment missions of the port.
Since the harbor at Santiago was mined, the Vesuvius was also considered for another unique mission. She could use the massive explosions of her dynamite shells to create sympathetic explosions of the Spanish mines, thus eliminating their threat and allowing the US fleet to enter the harbor free from the threats of mine damage. However, this idea was shelved as still being too risky. "Commodore Schley was inclined to think the dynamite cruiser Vesuvius might be able to countermine, but the ships would have to go in single file, and if one were sunk in the channel the progress of the others of the fleet would be blocked." (History of Our War with Spain, 1898, by James Rankin Young, at page 588) The pneumatic guns were later removed and Vesuvius became an experimental torpedo vessel in 1904. She lingered in the USN arsenal until 1921, when she was sold. (History from: ." (American Steel Navy, 1972, by John D. Alden; Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1860-1905, 1979; The Great American-Spanish War Scenes, 1898, by Lieutenant Edgar Johnston; History of Our War with Spain, 1898, by James Rankin Young).
The Combrig USS Vesuvius
In another of the off the beaten path releases from Combrig, the pneumatic dynamite gun cruiser USS Veuvius is now available in 1:700 scale. Don’t hold your breath waiting for this odd bird to appear in plastic form. It won’t. So what if these compressed air cannons can’t hit a moving target? Its no big deal that they can’t even hit a stationary target. OK, OK, so they can’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle in a telephone booth, does it really matter? As long as the established naval powers think that one hit can sink one of their expensive battleships, that is all that matters. You’ll have instant credibility in threat wonderful game of international brinkmanship. Just remember that perception is reality and as long as you don’t go over the brink, you’ll have an inexpensive weapon that will give established naval powers cause to think before they call you bluff.
Measuring a diminutive four ¼-inches, the hull casting reflects the small size of the Vesuvius. Although the casting is small, it is nonetheless packed with detail. Most of this is on the deck as the low freeboard limits the detail on the hull sides. With a raised forecastle, there is just a row of portholes on each side of the forecastle. The ship has a very straight stem with almost vertical sides with a slight hint of tumblehome. On the other hand, the narrow cabin behind the deck break shows very nice detail with a series of square windows, which is further enhanced with brass photo-etched doors.
The raised forecastle some detail but most of the deck detail is on the extended quarter deck. The forecastle has half-height solid bulkheads extending a short distance behind the cutwater. There are two small anchor splash-boards right behind them. Also at the bow is an access hatch and base plate for a windlass. Combrig has placed very faint locator lines on the deck to ease placement of the 15-inch gun tubes and behind these base plates for the two forward QF guns. At the aft end of the forecastle is another curved entrance passage, small deckhouse and circular conning tower with a locker on the starboard side. Further detail includes two twin bollards on each side.
At the deck break is another locker and low deck fitting. The amidships area is dominated by the narrow deck cabin, while the aft portion is dominated by six skylights. Just aft of the deck cabin are two oval houses, each with locator holes for ventilators and two skylights. To the aft of these are two more centerline skylights and two more curved deck access passages. Also on each side are three more base plates for QF guns. Combrig shows eight QF guns rather than the three QF guns with which the ship was completed. It appears that the original three QF positions were the two forecastle positions and a centerline position at the stern. (See the profile drawing by A. D. Baker III on page 360 in American Steel Navy.) The most likely reason for the increase in guns is that the plans used probably reflected additional QF guns fitted during her 1895-1897 refit.
Smaller Resin Parts
The instructions are in the standard Combrig format. There is one back-printed page. Page one has a 1:700 scale profile and plan, which is of material assistance in assembling the model. However, with the small number of parts in the Vesuvius, these drawings are of much less impact than typically found in a Combrig kit. There is a very good history of the ship written in English, as well as ship’s statistics, also in English. The back of the sheet includes the traditional diagonal view with two detail insets. These insets show a detailed assembly for the QF guns and for attaching doors and vertical ladders to the center cabin. The only defect that I could discover was the absence of the placement of two very small brass parts.
Pssst! Hey Buddy, do you need a naval equalizer to all of those fancy-pants European Fleets? Take a gander at this Rolex, …er…, Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Cruiser, instant naval credibility on the cheap. What if you could get a 900-ton ship, which mounted three 15-inch guns and capable of a blindingly fast 21-knots, all for the laughably low price of 350k smackers. These are no ordinary cannons but through the miracle of compressed air and American know-how, they fire nitrocellulose, dynamite filled shells. One hit from one of these babies and there goes one of those expensive 15,000-ton battleships. With a squadron of these in your fleet, John Bull will go weak in his knees, Kaiser Bill will have heart palpitations and the Dons will be all a-twitter. Combrig has produced this marvel of naval technology of 1890 in 1:700 scale with their release of USS Vesuvius.