The Unpredictable Course of Naval Innovation – The Guns of HMS Thunderer


  • Dr. Ben Lombardi Defence Research and Development Canada


In January 1879, a muzzle-loading gun aboard HMS Thunderer, one of the Royal Navy’s most powerful warships, exploded. A parliamentary investigation determined that the accident occurred because of human error brought about by a highly innovative, but complicated, loading mechanism. Given earlier unsatisfactory experience with early breech-loading guns, contemporary naval engagements and expectations of the future nature of conflict at sea, retention of muzzle-loaders seemed a reasonable course of action. Vast sums were, therefore, spent in ensuring that Britain’s navy had the biggest and most powerful of that type of ordnance. But the explosion and other advances in gun design meant that muzzle-loaders were a dead end, and the incident on Thunderer became the impetus for the Royal Navy to adopt breech-loaders. This incident shines light upon the thinking within the Royal Navy at the time regarding advanced guns. But it also underscores the uncertainty and unpredictability that is inevitably attached to rapid innovation by a large military institution such as the Royal Navy was in the late-19th century. This story is highly relevant to force development considerations today because in any era of continuous technological change, mistakes are inevitable and their expectation should be accommodated within planning.

Author Biography

Dr. Ben Lombardi, Defence Research and Development Canada

Ben Lombardi obtained his PhD from Queen’s University (Kingston). He is a defence scientist with Defence Research and Development Canada and is currently embedded in the Royal Canadian Navy’s Directorate of Naval Strategy.  He has published on the relationship between naval capabilities and strategic effect, on the future maritime operating environment, and on the maritime implications of geopolitical developments in Asia and Europe. His research interests embrace all aspects of naval force development and strategy formulation, and include what insights we might derive from the work and experience of earlier generations.