The Dynamite Cruiser Vesuvius
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The latter decades of the 19th century saw
a flowering of technical innovation, as steam-powered
ships, railroads and telegraphs completely
changed the social and economic landscape.
In 1867, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel patented
dynamite, a far more powerful explosive than
Dynamite saw extensive use in construction
and mining, but attempts to use it as a weapon
foundered on its chemical properties. Dynamite
is nitroglycerine mixed with diatomaceous
earth (the fossilized shells of tiny sea creatures);
nitroglycerine is highly explosive but also
very unstable. Dynamite is much less sensitive
to shock, but it will “sweat”
out its nitroglycerine over time which makes
it dangerous to store for long periods. Experiments
with dynamite-filled artillery shells failed
with terrible results; the heat of firing
such a shell through a conventional cannon
detonated the explosive before it left the
barrel. Chicago schoolteacher D.M. Medford
solved this problem with a pneumatic gun,
using compressed air to fling a small dynamite
In 1883, Medford arranged a demonstration
at Fort Hamilton, New York, in hopes of selling
his invention to the U.S. Army. Medford failed
to get a contract, but one of the observers,
Lt. Edmund Zalinski, was impressed enough
to start his own series of experiments. Zalinski
built ever-larger weapons, and in 1885 showed
naval officers a pneumatic gun with an 8-inch
bore and a purported range of two miles. Impressed,
the U.S. Navy sought funding for a ship armed
with the novel weapon.
Vesuvius was laid down at William
Cramp & Sons’ shipyard in Philadelphia
in September, 1887. Though classed as a “dynamite
cruiser” she was a very small ship,
displacing 929 tons. By comparison, the cruiser
Baltimore also building at Cramp’s
displaced 4,400 tons. Vesuvius could
make 20 knots, a good speed for the day, but
she was a very poorly-designed vessel. She
proved difficult to steer in even mild seas,
had a huge turning radius, rolled very heavily
and had severe structural weaknesses around
the pneumatic gun installation. The three
tubes took up about half of the small ship’s
The dynamite cruiser Vesuvius,
in the early 1890s.
The pneumatic guns, canted at an 18-degree
angle, could not be trained; to aim them the
entire vessel had to be turned. Range was
controlled by altering the compressed-air
charge. Because of her small size, Vesuvius
only carried 10 rounds for each gun. Once
fired, the projectiles had a very short range
— just under 3,000 yards at maximum
range, using sub-caliber rounds. Because of
the very low muzzle velocity (anything higher
would set off the dynamite charge), the rounds
tended to drift badly in windy conditions.
They did carry a very large charge, 500 pounds
Internal plans of Vesuvius.
Commissioned in 1890, Vesuvius joined
the North Atlantic Squadron and underwent
test firings. These apparently made little
impression on the Navy; plans for a sister
ship, authorized in 1889 while Vesuvius
was still under construction, were quietly
dropped. Vesuvius’ major duty
consisted of appearances to “show the
flag” at minor festivals and county
fairs on the East Coast, but even so her fragile
hull wore out quickly and in 1895 she was
decommissioned for overhaul.
In early 1897 she rejoined the North Atlantic
Squadron, and went to Cuba to join the blockade
when the Spanish-American War broke out the
next year. She served as a dispatch boat,
carrying messages between the fleet off Santiago
and Key West. Finally deployed to bombard
the Spanish defenses in June, she could operate
only at night since the Spanish coast-defense
guns greatly outranged her pneumatic launch
Eight times Vesuvius crept towards
the entrance to Santiago’s harbor and
lobbed three projectiles toward the harbor
on each occasion before speeding away. As
the targets could not be sighted from the
craft, accuracy was poor and it’s somewhat
debatable whether the Spanish even realized
they had been shelled — while American
commanders claimed the bombardments had “great
psychological effect,” there is no evidence
of this from the Spanish side.
“The first shot struck near the ridge
of the hills,” an observer wrote later,
“and exploded with a tremendous roar.
. . . An immense volume of red earth was blown
straight up into the air to a height of 200
feet. The effect of the second shot, which
struck higher up on the cliff, was similar
to that of the first. The third shot went
over the hill, and probably reached the supposed
location of the torpedo boats in the harbor.”
The power of Vesuvius: a Zalinski
As soon as the war ended, Vesuvius
was laid up in Boston. In 1904 her pneumatic
tubes were removed and she was converted into
a torpedo test craft, with four tubes of various
types, and performed for three years before
another overhaul. Recommissioned in 1910,
she remained in harbor service at Newport,
Rhode Island, until scrapped in 1922.
As a weapons system, Vesuvius represented
a waste of $350,000 of tax money but in the
continuing tradition of the military-industrial
complex represented a great success for Zalinski
and the investors in his Pneumatic Gun Company.
Many foreign naval officers toured the ship
and reported home on their observations; no
other navy ever constructed a dynamite cruiser.
By the turn of the century, new explosives
could deliver just as much force as dynamite
without the stability problems.
Vesuvius appears in Great
War at Sea: Remember the Maine with the appropriate
gunnery factor of zero. She is utterly useless
in the game, as she was in life.
here to order Great War at Sea: Remember the Maine.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.