A Guide To The Gunboat

Key Point: Gunboats are small naval vessels, often shallow-draft, designed for river or coastal operations. They are equipped with guns and provide versatility for patrol, escort, and support roles.

In this article, we will delve into the gunboat. What was it and how were these little ships used to great effect by Western powers such as Britain and the U.S.A?

Now, before we begin with this installment of naval weapons, let’s establish the context with a quick definition. What was the gunboat?

Gunboats first came into use in the 18th century, during the American Revolution, and were used extensively in the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They continued to be used throughout the 19th century, playing a significant role in conflicts such as the American Civil War and the Crimean War. While they lacked the firepower of larger warships, they were effective in engagements with other small vessels or in hit-and-run attacks against larger enemy ships.

Now, let’s discover how old gunboats really are by taking a look at their origins.

Origin Of The Gunboat

The earliest known example of gunboats goes back to ancient China in the 9th century. But, gunboats, as we know them today, emerged during the Napoleonic Wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Royal Navy developed small, shallow-draft vessels equipped with cannons that could navigate rivers and shallow coastal waters. These gunboats proved effective in disrupting enemy supply lines and conducting amphibious assaults. They were in effect a cheap and reliable way for navies to disrupt enemy movements. And even if one of them was taken out. Replacing them was rather cheap.

Gunboats continued to be used in various conflicts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including the American Civil War and the Boxer Rebellion. They were also used extensively in colonial warfare, as European powers sought to control trade routes and protect their interests in far-flung territories.

Gunboat Dimensions By Centuries

Now, considering gunboats are still in use, let’s take a look at gunboats by centuries … starting with the 19th.

19th Century Gunboats

In this era, gunboats were typically small. These shallow-draft ships were highly maneuverable and armed with one or two guns. Gunboats were used primarily for coastal defense, river patrols, and amphibious operations. They ranged in size from 50 to 150 feet in length and had a top speed of around 10 knots. The guns used on these vessels were typically smoothbore muzzle-loading cannons, although some gunboats were also equipped with small-caliber rifled guns.

20th Century Gunboats

These gunboats evolved to meet the changing needs of naval warfare. They were larger, faster, and more heavily armed than their 19th-century counterparts. The average gunboat of this era was around 200 to 300 feet in length, with a top speed of up to 25 knots. The armament of these ships also increased, with many gunboats being equipped with rapid-fire guns, machine guns, and torpedoes. Some gunboats were also fitted with anti-aircraft guns and missiles.

Modern Era Gunboats

In the 21st century, gunboats continue to play an important role in modern naval warfare. They are typically smaller than other types of warships. With an average size of around 100 to 200 feet in length. However, they are highly versatile and can be used for a wide range of missions, including coastal defense, maritime security, and special operations.

Modern gunboats are equipped with various weapons systems, including machine guns, autocannons, guided missiles, and torpedoes. They are also fitted with advanced communications and surveillance equipment, as well as armor and stealth technology to protect against enemy fire.

How Gunboats Were Used?

Primarily gunboats were used as a coastal defense weapon. Because of their low coats, they proved to be a cheap way for colonial powers to patrol their faraway colonies and project power. And if one of them gets blown off, they were easy to replace …

In the 20th century, their role however did evolve. In the 20th century, gunboats were used for convoy escort, mine sweeping, and coastal bombardment. They were also used in amphibious assaults, providing fire support for troops landing on beaches (Battle of Inchon during the Korean War in 1950).

In the modern era, they are still used to patrol coastal areas, but they also go after pirates. Again their shallow draft makes them perfect for anti-piracy operations and special operations support.

Now, given that this warship design stood the test of time from the Age of Sail, does it have any weaknesses? Well … let’s see.

Gunboat Weaknesses

One of the main drawbacks of gunboats is their limited range and endurance. Due to their small size, they have limited fuel and storage capacity.

Another weakness of theirs is their limited firepower and armor. While gunboats can be equipped with heavy weapons such as machine guns, rocket launchers, and artillery, they are often vulnerable to larger, better-armed warships. This was true in the 19th and it’s true in the 21st century as well … a bigger better-armed warship can demolish a simple gunboat.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. And I will see you at the next one. I suggest you take a look at my article on the Xebec warship right here. It also has its origins in the famous Age of Sail era.

Take care!


“The Influence of Sea Power upon History” by Alfred Thayer Mahan
“Naval Warfare 1815-1914” by Lawrence Sondhaus
“Naval Weapons of World War One” by Norman Friedman
“History of United States Naval Operations in World War II” by Samuel Eliot Morison