Differences Between a Battleship & a Destroyer

Battleships, such as the USS Missouri, carried heavy guns to attack enemy warships.

Battleships and destroyers were both types of naval vessels. Battleships flourished from the 19th century until the end of the Second World War, although they gradually fell out of use in the following decades. Destroyers were developed toward the end of the 19th century and continue to play a role in modern naval warfare. Although there are some similarities between them, the two types of vessels are different in many ways.

1 Battleships

Battleship USS Iowa at berth in San Pedro, CA.

Battleships were a descendant of the naval ships of the line of the 18th and 19th centuries. The first battleships were built in the 1870s by the French navy. Made entirely of steel, rather than wood with steel armor plating, they were steam-powered and armed with batteries of heavy guns. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 signaled the beginning of the age of the battleship. Fast, heavily-armored and bristling with high-caliber guns, the battleship was the center of an arms race between the European powers. Its role was to engage and destroy other large enemy ships or to bombard the shore.

2 Destroyers

Destroyer USS Stockdale

The origin of the destroyer came during the same period as the origin of the battleship. Originally called "torpedo boat destroyers," they were developed by the British Navy in response to the threat posed to larger ships by small, fast-moving torpedo boats. Light and maneuverable but still heavily armed, destroyers were used to escort larger ships by intercepting and destroying threats. By the Second World War, they were also being used to provide protection from submarines and aircraft attack for larger vessels, including merchant ships.

3 Differences in Armaments

Silhouette of the USS Mississippi

The armament of battleships and destroyers was completely different. Intended to attack heavily-armored targets, battleships carried tremendously powerful main batteries. For example, the USS Mississippi, which fought in the Battle of the Surigao Strait in 1944, probably the last battleship battle in history, carried 12 14-inch guns as her main armament, along with 12 5-inch guns, four 3-inch guns and a pair of torpedo tubes. She had a crew of over 1,000 sailors. By contrast, a contemporary destroyer, USS McGowan, carried only five 5-inch guns, but 17 anti-aircraft guns along with torpedo tubes and depth charge projectors. Her crew was just over 300.

4 Differences in Tactical Roles

Battleship USS Wisconsin fires Mark 7 cannons during Operation Desert Storm at Iraqi military targets

As can be seen from the differences in armament, the two types of vessel were used differently in battle. The role of the battleship was to engage enemy vessels with its heavy main armament, while the destroyer screened larger vessels from fast attackers such as aircraft, submarnies and smaller boats. The Second World War saw air attack become the dominant form of naval warfare; aircraft carriers could attack targets far beyond the reach of even the biggest battleship cannons. Battleships went into decline following the Second World War, used only for fire support and prestige missions. In 2006, the U.S. Navy removed them from its register. Destroyers are now the heaviest surface combat vessels in most navies, although a handful still employ the heavier cruisers.

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.