Until July 1920, U.S. Navy Battleships did not officially have "BB" series hull numbers. They were, however, referred to by "Battleship Number", with that number corresponding to the "BB" number formally assigned in July 1920, or which would have been assigned if the ship had still been on the Navy list. For convenience, all of these ships are listed below under the appropriate numbers in the "BB" series.
In addition, the Navy's first two "modern" battleships (rated as "Second Class Battleships") never received hull numbers. For the sake of completeness, these two ships are included at the beginning of this page's "BB" series.
U.S. Navy battleship construction began with the keel laying of the Maine in 1888 and ended with the suspension of the incomplete Kentucky (BB-66) in 1947. During this almost six-decade-long era, 59 battleships of 23 different basic designs (or "classes") were completed for the Navy. Another twenty battleships and battle cruisers (three more "classes") were begun or planned, but not completed.
Though the building rate averaged almost exactly one per year, it was not a steady process, but was concentrated in two phases. The first, corresponding to the rise of the United States to first-class naval rank, began in 1888 and came to an abrupt halt with the signing of the Naval Limitations Treaty in 1922. The second building phase began in 1937 and was effectively finished in 1944 with the commissioning of USS Missouri (BB-63), the last of ten battleships completed during this period.
These warships can be conveniently divided into four main groups:
- Two experimental second-class battleships, of about 6000 tons, begun in the late 1880s (Maine and Texas);
- Twenty-five battleships (eight "classes") with mixed main batteries of large and medium caliber guns, ranging in size from about 10,000 tons to 16,000 tons, begun from 1891 to 1905;
- Twenty-nine battleships (eleven "classes") and six battle cruisers (one "class") with "all-big-gun" main batteries, begun between 1906 and 1919 and ranging from 16,000 tons to over 42,000 tons (including seven battleships and six battle cruisers cancelled in 1922);
- Seventeen faster big-gun 35,000-60,500 ton battleships (four "classes") begun in 1937-41 (including seven 45,000-60,500 ton ships cancelled or suspended in 1943-47).
- Gun caliber, as well as ship size, grew steadily, from ten inches in Maine to sixteen inches in the ships finished in the 'Twenties and afterwards. Effective gunnery range also increased, from a few thousand yards to about twenty miles.
Except for the fast Lexington Class battle cruisers and Iowa Class battleships, these were all relatively slow vessels, as heavily armored as they were armed, intended primarily to steam in formation with their "sisters" and slug it out with similar opponents, using their powerful guns to settle the matter. In their day, they were the "Queens of the Sea", the foundation of national strategic offense and defense. That "day" ended only with the arrival, effectively just before the start of World War II, of aircraft that could not only out-range the big guns, but also deliver blows of equal or greater power. Thereafter, at least in the daylight when the planes could fly, battleships performed as auxiliaries to aircraft carriers.
The Second World War brought another mission, shore-bombardment, in which the fire of heavy guns was precisely directed against enemy facilities ashore, to pave the way for invasion or to simply destroy war-making potential. This justified the retention of the big-gun ships in the post-war era and brought them back to active duty on three different occasions.