Battleships are the most heavily armed and armored gunships afloat. The first ships were built a few years after the ironclads Monitor and CSS Virginia proved their worth in battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Battleships built in the late 19th century usually had four or so big guns (around 12 inches in diameter), and an assortment of smaller guns. Turrets, armor plate, and steam engines were all improved over the years, and torpedo tubes were introduced.
Battleship design changed, however, with the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Dreadnought had 10 identical big guns mounted in turrets, giving it far more firepower than anything else afloat. It was so revolutionary that battleships built before it were all classed as "pre-Dreadnought battleships," and those after as "post-Dreadnought battleships," or simply "dreadnoughts."
An arms race ensued, especially between Germany and Great Britain. The Royal Navy had ruled the seas for most of the 1800s (see Two Power Status), but Kaiser Wilhelm set out to change that, in part for strategic reasons, but mainly due to a simple desire for a large navy. The culmination of this race was the Battle of Jutland during World War I, nominally a German victory, but the Kriegsmarine's surface fleet remained in port for the rest of the war.
After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles required the scuttling of most of the German fleet. With the Washington Naval Agreement, the navies of the world scaled back on their battleship arms race, with numerous ships on all sides scuttled or repurposed. With an extension, that treaty lasted until 1936, when the major navies of the world began a new build-up. Famous ships like the Bismarck, USS Missouri, and the IJN Yamato were all launched within the next few years in preparation for the coming of World War II.
In the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, Germany's surface fleet threatened the Atlantic convoys, so the English battle fleet and carriers devoted themselves to seeking out and trying to destroy it. Among early successes, the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau managed to surprise the carrier HMS Glorious and sink it in June 1940. When the Bismarck sank the Battlecruiser HMS Hood, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent every element of the Royal Navy he could to sink it.
As it turned out, however, technology was overtaking the battleship. A battleship's big guns might have a range of 20 miles, but the aircraft carrier had aircraft with ranges of hundreds of miles, and radar was making those attacks ever more effective. The Bismarck was sunk a few days after it destroyed the Hood, after being crippled by torpedo bombers from HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor sank or damaged most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet's battleships, but the aircraft carriers were not in port and so escaped damage. Six months later, it was those carriers that were to turn the tide of the Pacific War at the Battle of Midway. Battleships in the Pacific ended up primarily providing shore bombardment and anti-aircraft defense for the carriers. The largest battleships ever constructed, Imperial Japan's Yamato and Musashi, were sent out on what were essentially kamikaze missions, but were destroyed by aircraft without ever sighting the American fleet. The last German battleship Tirpitz survived until late into the war by hiding in Norwegian fjords, but was eventually sunk by aircraft.
As a result of the changing technology, plans for even larger battleships, the American Montana class and Japanese Super Yamato class, were shelved. At the end of the war, almost all the world's battleships were decommissioned or scrapped. The United States recommissioned all four Iowa-class battleships for the Korean War and the USS New Jersey for the Vietnam War, and all four were recommissioned under the Reagan administration, with the New Jersey, seeing action in Lebanon and Missouri and USS Wisconsin firing 16 inch guns at land targets and launching cruise missiles in the Gulf War. All four were decommissioned in the early 1990s, by far the last battleships to see active service. The Missouri and Wisconsin are now museums and the New Jersey is destined to be one; the USS Iowa has been "mothballed."
The game Battleship is a guessing game played by two people. Although made popular in the USA by a boardgame published by the Milton Bradley Company, it was played as a pencil and paper game before being printed as a board game.