The possibilities of ‘Steam-Punk’… at sea!

By Rob Morgan

The rise in popularity of this Victorian-Edwardian style of, well, just about everything, wargames included, has left many in the hobby far behind. Science Fiction. (Never ever Sci-Fi or Scy-Fy.) As Ben Bova used to say, ‘if the science is right, then the fiction’s right.’ It’s not, heaven be praised, ‘fantasy,’ with all those poxy goblins, orcs and sundry ‘Tolkien-esque’ species — and trolls and dragons. The science of steam’s very well known; it works.

I picked up on its potential some few years ago, when I was still teaching, having come upon an article in the ‘Ordnance Society’ newsletter about a steam gun, the ‘Winans Steam Gun,’ which was manufactured in Baltimore during the American Civil War, it looked brilliant! US readers will know it, of course.

My own main interest is and you might guess this, the sea — naval warfare. Now the main means of vessel propulsion after 1860, was steam — sail being elegant but slow (Steam-punk is nothing if not progressive, and fast!). If you think about it, many but sadly, not all, of the ironclad warships used by both sides in the war between the states, could be described as ‘steam-punk’. Look at this list:

  • CSS Manassas.
  • USS Cairo.
  • CSS Charleston.
  • USS Keokuk.
  • USS Galena.
  • CSS Nashville.
  • USS Choctaw.
  • USS Indianola.
  • USS Osage, and
  • USS Sandusky.

Now look at the actual ships, pure 100% steam punk, all great looking, some steamed, some couldn’t! I made a few odd groups of warships from them, in 1/600th scale, either Peter Pig or when I could get them, Thoroughbred to fill the gaps. All of these ships served in wartime navies, all fit the bill. Steam, elegance and unfortunately, often, a somewhat limited martial power.

Think about it! The Russians and French continued this stylistic approach to warships. Remember the two Admiral Popov round coast defence ships, and the massive and very odd French ram Taureau? Think a little about the Russian Fleet which limped to Tsushima. Plenty to convert and use, then the mass of torpedo boats, steam propelled, the submersibles of the American war, the balloon craft — did you know the Austrians bombed Venice by balloon in the 1860s?

Those ‘dynamite guns’ of the 1890s are worth recalling too, but that’s an aside.

Jim Rohrer mentioned some of the early SF writers. There are far more with a ‘steam-punk’ drift in their works, and some are more recent. Alternative histories abound; look them up. I don’t want, well I didn’t intend, this response to develop into a Lone Warrior length article, but I’ll end with a small Science Fiction, and 100% ‘steam-punk’ fleet I built a long time ago.

I’ve never liked ‘Games Workshop’ but sometimes they produce something which can be ‘lifted’ into serious, real wargames. The photographs are of models once described as a ‘Dwarf Monitor Fleet,’ seriously. When I saw them I thought well 1/1200th scale, near enough, and the four-funneled battleship reminded me of the Russian ‘Navarin’ which had the same suite.

Here they are (below), my c1885-1890 Steam – Punk fleet, steam-powered and with steam guns based on the Willans principle of 1861. That’s why the turrets are so large. The ‘dwarves’ omitted lifeboats and life rafts — going down like heroes, eh? But I added them. Two of the models are very far from home. This fleet, incidentally, is my Ruritanian flotilla for use on the disputed Danube and its delta and Black Sea. The small single-funneled ship, a patrol craft with two very small turrets, is a 1/1200th scale ACW gunboat called New Era and the slab-sided ACW ironclad is the Essex (you recognised that) and she’s just an armoured, and unarmed transport. The dirigible is a drop tank from a 1/72nd jet, with a gun turret forward. Accurate; the French mounted 20mm cannon on airships in WWI. The smaller guns incidentally are intended to be pneumatic, steam without the heat. Accurate though. Just a few thoughts, no rule sets emphasised or insisted on, your choice entirely.

Makes for a very different viewpoint on wargaming, and that’s just at sea!

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2 Responses to The possibilities of ‘Steam-Punk’… at sea!

  1. jimr says:

    Rob, I like your ships. Regarding airships, you might want to view the airship attack shown in the amazon prime series Carnival Row. I think it might have been in episode four. This series does contain a lot of fantasy with parallels to racism. Be warned: this series depicts explicit sexual content.

    Steampunk science fiction has been described as soft science fiction rather than hard because of the emphasis on social issues. However, the technological emphasis is strong also.

  2. Mike Hall says:

    If you want steampunk warships I recommend a study of French pre- dreadnoughts. The extreme tumblehome and absurd ram bow on a ship like the Massena just shout steampunk

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