Sims watched gunnery practice on board the Terrible and learned how the British had improved their accuracy by an order of magnitude while nearly quadrupling their rate of fire. The work of one ship could have the destructive potential of a squadron of ships still using the old methods. Despite the fact that the Royal Navy didn’t seem interested in Scott’s innovation, Sims immediately took it back to the U.S. Asiatic Squadron and began tinkering with the gearing of its ships’ guns and training crews in the new techniques. Having worked as an intelligence collector and analyst while in Europe, he immediately wrote a report that he sent back to the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) in Washington, D.C.
But the bureau didn’t appear to believe the report; its claims seemed too extreme. Instead BuOrd stowed the report away in a basement file cabinet at the Washington Navy Yard. Sims heard nothing. However, he continued to develop and improve the continuous-aim fire techniques—adjusting the gearing, working with the gun crews to develop training methods, and writing papers on all of his findings.
Over the course of two years Sims wrote 13 reports, all of which were sent to the bureau. Many of them had the endorsements of captains on China Station and even Rear Admiral George Remy, who commanded the squadron. They had seen the results. However, the Bureau of Ordnance still didn’t believe the success Sims claimed to achieve. It decided to run its own test to prove he was wrong.
The bureau’s experts used a gun mounted on the banks of the Anacostia River at the Washington Navy Yard; their report stated that what the lieutenant in the Pacific was claiming was impossible. Of course they hadn’t changed the gearing of the gun, as Sims’ reports instructed, and they tested the technique on dry land instead of on the rolling deck of a ship, which changed the physics. But the Navy stood by its report, and the official policy was that continuous-aim fire was impossible.
Sims, after two years of developing the procedures and writing the reports, was understandably frustrated. As a result he did something he later admitted was “the rankest kind of insubordination.” Sims wrote a letter directly to President Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, a knowledgeable student of naval affairs and former assistant secretary of the Navy, read the letter and realized that if what Sims claimed was actually possible it would have significant ramifications. He suggested the Bureau of Navigation fill the relatively obscure billet of “inspector of target practice” by bringing Sims home from China Station. Even if continuous-aim fire didn’t work, American naval gunnery was so poor it was worth taking the chance.
Sims returned to Washington and took on his new position with the tenacity of a blue crab grabbing a chicken bone. Given two junior lieutenants to serve as his assistants, Ridley McLean and Powers Symington, he began revolutionizing gunnery in the U.S. Navy. They started by circulating the procedures for continuous-aim fire and instituting mandatory gunnery practice for all ships. They also initiated an annual gunnery competition involving every ship in the Fleet. The winner would be announced in the newspapers of the day and have the honor of being known as the best ship in the Navy. Also, the gunnery officer in the winning ship was required to write a report on how his ship won. The reports were circulated to U.S. wardrooms all around the world, and consequently, gunnery methods and techniques were constantly refined.
Sims was promoted to lieutenant commander and traveled the world to visit ships and help train gun crews. In the span of just a few years he and his team changed naval warfare forever. The system they introduced increased the speed with which American gunners hit their targets by 100 percent and the effectiveness of American batteries by 500 percent. U.S. sailors became some of the best gunners in the world and led a revolution in naval affairs. Subsequent innovations included fire control and the all-big-gun battleship, or dreadnought. Throughout the Fleet, William Sims became known as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”
Sims continued pushing boundaries in the years leading up to World War I—advocating for all-big-gun battleships, developing torpedo-boat destroyer tactics, and eventually commanding all American naval forces in England when the United States entered the war. During the conflict he was central to the adoption of the convoy system that won the First Battle of the Atlantic. When he returned home he served a second term as president of the Naval War College, where he helped establish the system of study and war-gaming used throughout the interwar years to develop American naval aviation and submarines.
Naval innovation is too often seen through the lens of technology, defined by the weapons and hardware we label as “game-changers” or “transformations.” However, some of the most important developments in history have come from the “software”: innovations in tactics, techniques, and procedures such as the development of continuous-aim fire. Ideas, it must be remembered, can be even more powerful than the steel and explosives that dominate our naval history.
LCDR Armstrong is a naval aviator, frequent contributor to Naval Institute publications, and a PhD candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. His book 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era is available in February from the Naval Institute Press.