An ironclad is an incredibly tough ship, able to withstand pounding by almost any comparable vessel. A thick outer skin of iron is riveted to a conventional wooden hull, and the two layers can defeat most solid shot except at very close range. Combined with a steamship’s ability to ignore the wind and go where the captain wills, this makes an ironclad a formidable opponent. This power is not without risk, though, as a boiler explosion will rip out the heart of any steamship.
Historically, ironclads first saw action during the American Civil War (1861-65). During the Battle of Hampton Road CSS Virginia made short work of the wooden ships in the river, but an encounter next day with USS Monitor ended inconclusively, as neither ship could knock out the other. These vessels were not, however, the first ironclad warships; they were heavy river gunboats or monitors, and almost incapable of going to sea. The first ocean-going ironclad warships were HMS Warrior and the French Navy’s La Gloire, launched during yet another arms race between Britain and France. Warrior was launched specifically to steal French thunder and make their ship obsolete, being commissioned and built while the French vessel was still on the slipway.