Smith Class Destroyers

The Smith class of destroyers were the first in a series of 700 ton destroyers to be more sturdy than the earlier Bainbridge class destroyers, but that soon became known as lightweight 'flivvers' after the construction of 1,000 ton destroyers. 

In 1898 the US Congress authorised the construction of sixteen destroyers. These were produced in several groups, some to a Navy design and some to private designs, and divided into several classes (Bainbridge, Hopkins, Lawrence, Paul Jones, Steward and Truxtun). These were all similar ships, armed with 3in guns and 18in torpedoes. Some had a high forecastle deck, which improved speed and seaworthiness in high seas, while others had a turtleback foredeck, which reduced weight and thus improved speed in smooth water.

USS Smith (DD-17) at anchor, 1910
USS Smith (DD-17)
at anchor, 1910

Even as the 400t destroyers were being built, the US Navy began to plan the next generation of ships. In October 1900 the General Board asked for two destroyers to be included in the 1901 programme. In February 1903, it asked for four large destroyers for every four battleships. In October 1904 the board asked for six new destroyers, similar in size to the Truxtun class, which were then considered to be the best of the early batch.

USS Reid (DD-21) in Louisiana Intercoastal Canal
USS Reid (DD-21) in Louisiana Intercoastal Canal

Engine Room controls on USS Flusser (DD-20)
Engine Room controls on USS Flusser (DD-20)

The earlier 400t destroyers were nearly all significantly over weight when used in service. The Truxtun class ships averaged at just under 500 tons on trials, and had a deep load displacement close to 700 tons. The General Board of the Navy decided that the next group of destroyers should be built with the higher displacement figure in mind, and tested with a more realistic load.

USS Lamson (DD-18) at Sea, 1912
USS Lamson (DD-18)
at Sea, 1912

The designers of the Smith class destroyers had one great advantage. In most cases a new class was designed while the previous one was still under construction, and before any flaws with the design had been exposed. In this case the previous classes of destroyers had already entered service, and the Navy had some experience of operating them. In April 1904 Lt L.H. Chandler, commander of the Destroyer Flotilla, wrote a report on the 400 tonners at the end of a period of sea duty. Amongst his comments was a criticism of the sterns of the earlier ships, which were good for handling and speed, but structurally weak.

In order to solve this problem the Navy developed a new 'V-form' stern. This was stronger, and was used on a large number of American destroyers, including the vast Wickes and Clemson classes. However it did have two drawbacks. The first was that it greatly increased the tactical diameter (or turning circle) of the ships. USS Chauncey, one of the 400 tonners had a tactical diameter of 225 yards (2.75 times its own length). In contrast USS Drayton (Paulding class) had a tactical diameter of 860 yards, 7.7 times its own length. The second problem was that the new stern reduced the amount of space at the rear of the ship, just where it would be needed to carry anti-submarine weapons.

Panoramic View of USS Lamson (DD-18)
Panoramic View of
USS Lamson (DD-18)

President T. Roosevelt was concerned by problems with reliability on the earlier classes, which had been ordered while he was in charge of the Navy, and ordered a high level investigation to be carried out. This board, led by Rear Admiral G. A. Converse, began its work on 19 October 1904 and issued its report on 7 January 1905. This 'Converse Report' set down a realistic set of expectations for the destroyer. They saw the destroyer's main role as protecting the battle fleet from enemy torpedo boats. They would thus have to be able to keep up with the main fleet in heavy seas, and a good level of speed in rough water was thus more important than a very high speed in smooth water. Their main weapon was to be their guns, which they would use to destroy enemy torpedo boats. Torpedoes were still to be carried, in case the chance came up to attack the enemy fleet, but this was a secondary task. The board also made a key point about trials speeds - a high speed achieved at low levels of load couldn't be compared to a lower speed achieved at a more realistic load. The board also recommended 3in guns, 21in torpedoes, (at least four of each), four boilers in two boiler rooms and two separate engine rooms. The new ships were to have a full load displacement of no more than 800 tons.

USS Preston (DD-19) on Builder's Trials, 1909
USS Preston (DD-19)
on Builder's Trials, 1909

In June 1906 Congress authorised the first three members of the Smith class (DD-17 to DD-19). In October 1906 the General Board altered their description from 'repeat Truxtuns' to 'destroyers of the type recommended by the Torpedo Board of which Rear Admiral Converse was Senior Member', at a cost of $850,000 each ($100,000 more than a repeat Truxtun). In November 1906 the Board on Construction recommended asking for a 26kt trial speed and 28kt top speed. On 7 March 1907 Congress authorised two more destroyers (DD-20 and DD-21) and on the following day the Board on Construction approved a general design. All five are now grouped as the Smith class, but at the time some US Navy documents called them the Flusser class (or Flusser type), as that ship was completed first.   

The new ships were to be powered either by 10,000ihp reciprocating engines or 9,000shp Curtiss turbines. They were to achieve 28 knots at normal load and 26 knots at deep load. Bidders for the contracts were allowed to offer alternative power plants.

The new destroyers were to be armed with five 3in guns, replacing the mix of 3in and 6pdr guns on the earlier ships. One was mounted on the forecastle, two at the break of the forecastle, one on the centreline in front of the aft deck house and one on the fan tail. Three single 18in torpedo tubes were to be carried. Two were to be on the sides between the funnels and No.4 gun and one was on the centreline between the deckhouse and No.5 gun. This layout was adopted in order to avoid carrying a centre line torpedo at the widest part of the hull. One spare torpedo was carried for each launcher, carried in enclosed storage spaces near each tube.

When the bids were compared in September 1907 it became clear that the turbine powered bids were much cheaper, with the most expensive coming in at $685,000, $25,000 lower than the cheapest reciprocating engine design. The board thus decided to focus entirely on turbine powered ships, although did keep coal power. On this occasion the Navy decided to stick to its own design, although the work was split between three yards.

DD-17 and DD-18 were built by Cramp, and had their two middle funnels close together.

USS Preston (DD-19) was built by New York Shipbuilding, and had equally spaced funnels.

USS Flusser (DD-20) and USS Reid (DD-21) were built by Bath, and had their four funnels carried in pairs fore and after.

The Smith had an estimated cruising radius of 2,800 miles at 16 knots, using 304 tons of coal.

Despite the different arrangements of funnels, all five used the same power plant. Each had triple screws and Parsons turbines. The middle screw was powered by a high-pressure turbine, the outer screws by low-pressure turbines and the cruising turbines.

The different shipyards produced ships with somewhat different performance figures. USS Smith reached 28.35 knots at 9,946shp on trials, with a displacement of 716 tons. USS Flusser reached 30.41 knots at 11,541shp at 686 tons. The trials lasted for four hours, double the standard speed on the earlier ships, reflecting the increased reliability provided by turbine engines.

The Smith class ships were given a full navigating bridge, although limited space meant that the protected chart table jutted out of the side of the bridge.

All five members of the class had a high forecastle, which improved their handling and speed in heavier seas.

In service the single torpedo tubes and reload torpedoes were replaced with twin torpedo tubes, as also used on the Paulding class destroyers. All five members of the class had been updated by 1916. This saved weight, as the twin tube was lighter than the single tube, and allowed the storage for the single reload to be eliminated.

In service the stern torpedo tube turned out to be a mistake, as the water around the stern was too disturbed to allow for accurate aiming at speeds above 20 knots.

The Smith class ships were scrapped after the end of the First World War, along with all other coal powered destroyers.

After the appearance of the 1,000t destroyers the Smith, Paulding and Monaghan Class destroyers, officially rated between 700t and 742t, became known as the 'flivvers', after the Model-T Ford.   

All five members of the class carried out anti-submarine patrols and convoy escort duties after the American entry into the First World War, first from the Azores and later from Brest. They were all decommissioned shortly after the war as the Navy scrapped all of its coal powered destroyers.

Displacement (standard)

600t design

Displacement (normal load)

900t as built

Top Speed

28kts design
28.36kts at 9,946shp at 716t on trial (Smith)


3-shaft Parsons turbines
4 boilers


2,800nm at 10kts design
2,000nm at 18kts on trial


293ft 10in


26ft 0in


Five 3in guns
Two 0.30in guns
Three 18in torpedo tubes

Crew complement


Ships in Class

USS Smith (DD-17)


USS Lamson (DD-18)


USS Preston (DD-19)


USS Flusser (DD-20)


USS Reid (DD-21)

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 January 2016), Smith Class Destroyers ,

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