The Crimean War of 1853-1856 evidenced the vulnerability of wooden hulls to explosive projectiles. The first ironclads were warships whose timber hull was covered by thick iron plates. The weight of the armor limited the height of the hull to a single deck and because of this the earlier ironclads (broadside ironclads) are often referred as "armored frigates"; however they were capital ships, more heavily armed than regular frigates. The launching of the Gloire in 1859 put the French Navy on the lead position, but this first ironclad was soon eclipsed by the HMS Warrior which, launched on the last days of 1860, was the first warship built with an integrally metallic hull.

During the following decade the broadside ironclad would be the ruler of the seas, but then more evolved types outclassed the former. In the newer ironclads rotating gun turrets replaced broadside artillery and the sail rigging was abandoned forever. But a common characteristic in every ironclad, regardless the thickness of the armor, was the construction in iron, because until the decade of 1890 the utilization of steel in such large amounts would be prohibitive. During the 1880s this situation led to the construction of warships fitted with the thickest armor ever seen.

Sagunto ironclad

Spanish ironclad SAGUNTO circa 1870

Numancia ironclad Numancia ironclad

Spanish (French) ironclad NUMANCIA

Warrior ironclad

British ironclad HMS WARRIOR circa 1861

Gloire ironclad

French ironclad GLOIRE circa 1860

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