In November 1900, Lieutenant William Sims joined the wardroom of the Kentucky, the U.S. Navy’s newest battleship. He had just come from a tour as an attaché at the American Embassy in Paris, where he had been studying and collecting intelligence on European battleship design and gunnery practices. As the Kentucky sailed to China Station, Sims got his sea legs back after three years on shore duty. He also studied his new ship and started comparing what he had observed in Europe with what he found back at sea with his shipmates. That led him to conclude that despite new ships and newfound importance, the U.S. Navy still had a lot of room for improvement.
While visiting Hong Kong, Sims had a chance encounter with a Royal Navy captain who opened his eyes to a way he could help improve American naval standing. Percy Scott was the commander of the protected cruiser HMS Terrible, and what the lieutenant discovered was the British captain’s new gunnery technique of continuous-aim fire. It was a revolutionary change to naval gunnery that virtually nobody in the Royal Navy was taking seriously. Sims saw it for what it was: a chance to change naval warfare forever.
On board his previous ship, the cruiser Scylla, and again in the Terrible, Scott regeared the elevation mechanisms on his big guns and added telescopic sights. The latter allowed gun directors to see the enemy at the extreme ranges naval guns were achieving at the turn of the century. Maximizing the gearing allowed the directors to constantly adjust the barrels of the guns as the ship moved. This allowed them to keep the guns continuously aimed at the enemy, rather than waiting for the rolling of the ship to put the enemy in the crosshairs. Gun crews could not only shoot more accurately but also fire as quickly as they could reload the giant guns.
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.