South Carolina Class battleships

The two South Carolina class battleships were the first American battleships to be built with all big-gun main armament, and were designed at around the same time as the British Dreadnought, although took much longer to build, and were not completed until 1910.

The concept of the all big-gun battleship emerged independently in Britain and the United States. In the US the main motivation was the improvements in long range gunnery seen in previous years, which made the secondary armament of older battleships less useful. Work on the designs began in 1904, and they were authorised by Congress on 3 March 1905. It is sometimes said that the construction of the Dreadnought was a major mistake, throwing away the Royal Navy's massive lead in battleships, but if she had not been built the first all big-gun ships would have been American, the Royal Navy's lead would still have disappeared, and the prestige of developing a new type of capital ship would have gone to the US Navy instead. 

Plans of South Carolina Class Dreadnought Battleships
Plans of
South Carolina Class
Dreadnought Battleships

Work on the design of the new battleships was entrusted to the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Progress was slow, and this played a part in a successful campaign to move responsibility for ship design from the Bureau to the General Board of the Navy.

The Bureau had a rather difficult task. The new ships had to carry eight 12in guns, but they were restricted to a displacement of 16,000t by Congress. The Bureau's first design mounted four of these guns in twin turrets fore and aft, and the remaining four guns in single turrets, two on each side of the ship. This duplicated the layout of pre-Dreadnought American battleships, which had carried their secondary 8in guns in twin turrets in these positions, but did limit the design's broadside to six of her eight guns, while the heavier guns causes structural problems.

USS South Carolina (BB-26) firing salute, 1921
USS South Carolina (BB-26) firing salute, 1921

The design was modified by Chief Constructor Washington L. Capps to use four twin-turrets, mounting in superfiring pairs - all four turrets were placed on the centre line, with the second and third turrets raised above the first and fourth. This allowed the ship to fire all eight guns on a broadside, but meant that the upper turrets had to fire above the lower turrets to fire ahead or astern. This was a better layout than the one used on the Dreadnought, which had three turrets on the centreline and two wing turrets, meaning that it needed ten guns to achieve the same broadside of eight.

However there was some concern about the impact of superfiring on the men in the fore and aft turrets, and so in March 1907 the monitor Florida was modified to allow tests to be carried out on the blast effects of a 12in gun firing just above the roof of a turret. By the time these tests were carried out, the South Carolina was already under construction, but they did prove that the ships would be able to fire four guns directly ahead or to the rear without destroying the lower turrets.

The South Carolina class was also the first to be built with the cage masts used on subsequent US dreadnoughts. These were designed to resist battle damage, allowing the crucial fire control bridge to remain in operation for as long as possible. The cage masts were also tested on the monitor Florida, during 1908, and the design was then adopted across the US battleship fleet.

The Dreadnought was superior to the American ships in one aspect - she had turbine engines which gave her an impressive top speed of 21kts. The South Carolina class used expansion engines, and had a top speed of 18.5kts, on a par with older American battleships, but too slow to allow them to operate with later dreadnoughts. Indeed they were almost obsolescent by the time they were completed. The two Delaware class battleships were laid down in 1907, after South Carolina but before Michigan, and were powered by turbines, giving them a top speed of 21kts. The two South Carolina class and two Delaware class ships were all completed in the first four months of 1910.

USS Michigan (BB-26) firing broadside
USS Michigan (BB-26) firing broadside

The two South Carolina ships had short careers. Their lack of speed meant that they couldn't operate with the American squadrons that worked with the British during the First World War. The South Carolina spent most of the war as a training ship, although did escort one convoy half way across the Atlantic in 1918. The Michigan took part in the American intervention in Vera Cruz in 1914, and was also involved in training duties during the American involvement in the First World War. On 15 January 1918 her foremast buckled and fell off the port side of the ship, killing six and injuring thirteen, but she was back in service in April. Both ships were stricken in 1923-24, under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, after active lives of only 13 and 14 years.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed



5000nm at 10kts

Armour – belt


 - over magazines


 - over machinery


 - casemate


 - barbettes


 - turret faces


 - coning tower


 - decks



452ft 9in


80ft 5in


Eight 12in guns in twin superfiring turrets
Twenty-two 3in guns
Two 21in submerged torpedo tubes on beam

Crew complement


Ships in Class


USS South Carolina (BB 26)

Stricken 1924

USS Michigan (BB 27)

Stricken 1923

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

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 September 2011), South Carolina Class battleships,

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