Artifact Spotlight: Naval War Game Range Wands

---Amy King, Curatorial Volunteer

A naval war game in Pringle Hall during the early 1950s
War gaming has been an integral part of the Naval War College experience since 1885 when Alfred T. Mahan and William McCarty Little evaluated the tactics of various historic naval battles by moving cardboard vessels over a sheet of drawing paper. In 1887 Lt. William McCarty Little delivered lectures on war gaming and its applications on naval warfare to students attending classes at the College. By 1894, President Captain Henry C. Taylor established war games as part of the curriculum.

Conducted initially on tables in Luce Hall, games were eventually moved to entire rooms, using linoleum checker board floors as grids. Pringle Hall opened in 1934 and became the center of war gaming on the campus. The second level was dedicated as a floor-size maneuver board with a mezzanine for greater viewing capacity.
Range wands on exhibit overhead in the NWC Gallery

Range wands were used by participants during war games to measure distances between combatant ships. The wooden sticks are painted with alternating black and white sections. A description in the "Conduct of Maneuvers" developed at the College in 1930 describes the first section as six inches long (representing 1500 yards) and all other sections at four inches long (1000 yards).  Varying in size, range wands could be 104" long and represent distances as far as 26000 yards. The wands were placed on the floor with the zero end at the center of the target ship. Students would then make note of which section the firing ship was in, evaluate, and plan moves accordingly.

The wands were used primarily during the Pringle Hall era (1934-1958) and earlier in Luce Hall as well. The evolution of war gaming took a huge step forward when in the fall of 1958, the Naval Electronics Warfare Simulator opened in Sims Hall. War gaming would now be done electronically, using computers and simulators. No longer needed, the wands and other war gaming equipment were stowed in a campus building until discovered several years ago.


Detail of two range wands on exhibit

Images courtesy of the Naval War College Museum


  1. I really enjoy seeing photographs of the war games they ran in the pre-computer era. Can you tell us anything about the rules they used for these early games? Did they assume that if a certain ship got within a certain range of an enemy ship, it would inflict X amount of damage on that ship, etc.?

  2. According to Frank McHugh's "Brief History of War Gaming," during the interwar period outcomes were decided by expected values. "For example, if four rounds are fired, each with a single-shot hit probability of 0.25, the outcome is always one hit." The exception to this was torpedo hits which were decided by dice rolling. Post WWI games produced the, "war college fire effect system. This was a damage assessment system based on actual armaments and ships. The life values of ships were expressed in terms of fourteen-inch hits."

    Hope this helps. Please let us know if you have any further questions.

  3. Thanks for the info. You all do a great job with this blog!


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