Key Point: This was the very first battleships that inspired fear.
State-of-the-art battleship armament in the late nineteenth century involved a mix of large- and small-caliber weapons. Naval architects believed that most engagements would take place within the range of the smaller guns, and that a variety of guns would combine penetrating power with volume. Indeed, some argued that large armored ships with small weapons (armored cruisers, which were roughly the same size as battleships) could defeat battleships by saturating them with fire.
However, developments in optics and improvements in gun accuracy at the beginning of the twentieth century began to tilt the balance towards heavier guns. The increased accuracy meant that ships could engage and expect hits at previously unimagined distances, giving an advantage to bigger, longer-ranged weapons. Some were concerned that the high rate of fire of smaller guns was mitigated by the fact that it was difficult to acquire the range by gun splashes when there were so many splashes around the target. This meant that the presence of smaller weapons could make it more difficult to get hits with larger guns. In 1904, the Japanese and the Americans began thinking about “all big gun” ships, which would carry a larger main armament at the expense of the secondary weapons. Satsuma, laid down in 1905, was designed to carry twelve twelve-inch guns, but ended up carrying four twelve-inch and twelve ten-inch guns, because of a shortage of twelve-inch barrels. The slower Americans didn’t lay down South Carolina (which would carry eight twelve-inch guns in four twin turrets) until December 1906, about the time that HMS Dreadnought entered service.