American 'A' Boats
(Type 7)


A-13-Plunger and Shark

Plunger and Shark in 1914

US Navy Photo


A-19-Interior of a-4

Interior of A-4

US Navy Photo


Length 63 feet 4 inches
Diameter 11 feet 9 inches
Displacement 120 tons

On June 10, 1896, the Congress of the United States authorized the secretary of the Navy to contract for two submarine torpedo boats of the Holland type at a cost not to exceed $175,000 provided that the Holland boat currently under construction [Plunger] shall be fully tested and accepted by the Secretary of the Navy.1 Three years later, on March 3, 1899, Congress amended the act to permit the Secretary to contract for two submarine boats of the Holland type similar to the submarine boat Holland.2

On November 23, 1899, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company offered to sell the Holland for $165,000 and proposed to build a second boat in accordance with the plan and specifications submitted. The specification described a larger, improved boat that would cost $170,000.3

The Naval Appropriation Act of 7 June 1900 canceled the contract for the original Plunger and provided for the construction of five boats of the "improved Holland" type. On 25 August, the Navy contracted with the Holland Torpedo Boat Company for six boats. The Adder, Moccasin, Porpoise and Shark were built at Lewis Nixon's Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, NJ while the Grampus and Pike were built at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, CA.

A total of seven 'A' boats were built for the United States between 1900 and 1903. They were:


No. Name Laid Down Launched Commissioned Stricken
A-1 Plunger 21 May 1901 1 Feb 1902 19 Sept 1903 24 Feb 1913
A-2 Adder 3 Oct 1900 22 July 1901 12 Jan 1903 16 Jan 1922
A-3 Grampus 10 Dec 1900 21 July 1902 28 May 1903 16 Jan 1922
A-4 Moccasin 8 Nov 1900 20 Aug 1901 17 Jan 1903 16 Jan 1922
A-5 Pike 10 Dec 1900 14 Jan 1903 28 May 1903 16 Jan 1922
A-6 Porpoise 13 Dec 1900 23 Sept 1901 19 Sept 1903 16 Jan 1922
A-7 Shark 11 Jan 1901 19 Oct 1901 19 Sept 1903 16 Jan 1922

The 'A' boats were "improved Holland" torpedo boats. They were 10 feet longer than the Holland and 18 inches greater in diameter. The two cylinder 45 h.p. Otto engine was replaced by a larger, more powerful four cylinder 160 h.p. Otto engine which increased the surface speed and permitted the 'A' boats to recharge their batteries underway. Early sketches show an improved dynamite gun which could be raised and lowered, but it was omitted from the final design. The armoured turret, however, was retained due to the immaturity of contemporary periscopes. Nonetheless, the Adder was fitted with an experimental periscope that permitted a field of view of 15 degrees to port and starboard. This permitted the turret to remain submerged, but the lack of 360 degree visibility and the inability to judge distance were severe limitations.

John Holland was an inventor - a man of ideas, who was always trying to improve on his existing designs. Holland believed that dangers of submarine navigation were too great to rely on men to operate the submarine. The USS Holland had a steering engine designed to maintain a steady course, and a diving engine to control the depth. The commander could dial-in the desired depth and the diving engine would initiate the depth change by applying the appropriate up or down angle to the "horizontal rudders", return the rudders to zero angle, then reverse the angle in time to level out at the desired depth. The diving engine was also connected to a pendulum in order keep the boat on a level keel as the crew moved about.

Holland had intended to include improved steering and diving engines in the 'A' boats, but Lawrence Spear and Frank Cable had different ideas. Spear and Cable felt that these "contraptions" introduced unnecessary complication and risk so they took it upon themselves to remove Holland's contraptions from the 'A' boats. One day, Holland looked down from his office to see his invention lying dismantled on the dock. Demanding an explanation, Spear and Cable tried to reason with him. In tears, Holland said, "You might expect this from a young whippersnapper from the navy. He has ruined my life's work." 4

John Holland's influence on submarine design was waning. In June 1900, Holland signed a five year contract retroactive to 1 April 1899. By the terms of this contract, he was demoted from general manager of the Holland Torpedo Boat Company to chief engineer. 5 Isaac Rice and Elihu Frost felt the time had come to generate a return on the stockholder's investments. They no longer needed the inventor. They needed a naval constructor, so they made Lawrence Spear an offer. In 1902, Lawrence Spear resigned from the Navy to become vice president and naval architect of the Holland Torpedo Boat Company - John Holland's boss. Although the 'A' boats began as a John Holland design, Spear's influence is evident.

  1. Act approved June 10, 1896, Statutes at Large, vol. 29, p. 379
  2. Act approved March 3, 1899, Statutes at Large, vol. 30, p. 1039
  3. John Lowe manuscript, Library of Congress
  4. Barnes, Robert Hatfield, United States Submarines. (New Haven: H. F. Morse Associates, Inc, 1944), p. 26.
  5. Morris, Richard Knowles, John P.Holland: Inventor of the Modern Submarine. (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1966; 2nd ed., Univ. S.C. Press, 1998), p. 113.

For more information on the these boats, read the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships entries posted on the Haze Gray and Underway website or the Cyberspace Association of United States Submariners (Subnet) website.

A somewhat fanciful retelling of President Theodore Roosevelt's trip on board the A-1 (Plunger) can be found on this site.


Copyright 1999,2000,2001,2002 Gary McCue

1