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Naval artillery, or naval riflery, is warship-mounted artillery used in naval warfare for attacking enemy vessels, bombarding targets on shore (naval gunfire support), or for anti-structural demolition. Conversely, the term may be used as a descriptor about the naval rifles (see coastal artillery) used in land batteries for anti-shipping area denial purposes. Smaller-bore guns are sometimes referred to as deck guns, such as on Coast Guard cutters and destroyers.
The crowning achievement of naval artillery was the Dreadnought-era battleship. The dominance of the modern naval battleship was from about 1906 to the start of World War II during which typical main armament rose from 305-millimetre (12 in) guns to 381-millimetre (15 in) guns or 406-millimetre (16 in) guns with consequent increase in range and shell firepower. The largest naval guns ever mounted were the 460-millimetre (18 in) guns used on the Japanese Yamato class battleships, firing a 1,460 kilogram (3,219 lb) projectile to a maximum range of 42,000 metres (45,930 yards) (26.1 miles).
The limitations to the range of the battleships' heavy guns meant that they were effectively replaced by naval aircraft. The secondary and anti-aircraft weapons have fallen to the range and flexibility of guided missiles and naval guns have been reduced in importance though never completely replaced. Modern warships such as destroyers and frigates are typically only armed with one or two naval guns.
In naval vernacular the word "cannon" is never used to describe naval guns.
Because of the constant competition between the range and penetrating power of a shell, and the armor designed to resist it, naval rifles have seen extensive development and refinement over the last 150 years. Because of advances in accuracy of the rifle itself, optical, and later, radar range finding, and stabilization of the gun platform, typical battle ranges between capital ships rose from 4000-8000 m (4000-8000 yards) in 1890, to 30,000-40,000 m (30,000-40,000 yards) by the end of World War II. Initial pre-dreadnought battleships tended to have a greater concentration of armour along the sides of areas to be protected because direct-fire line-of-sight was the most likely vector of shellfire. However, as both the ability to direct fire and the range of the weapons themselves increased, greater consideration had to be given to both underwater protection schemes and horizontal armor because of the increasing likelihood of plunging shot.
As time progressed, naval rifles increased in length to provide greater accuracy. In naval guns having a bore of 25 mm (1") or greater, caliber is an expression of the relationship between bore and barrel length, rather than simply an expression of bore diameter found in smaller pieces. Therefore, a rifle stated as having a 16"/50-caliber barrel would mean that the barrel length is 800 inches (20,320 mm). The problem of casting and milling longer barrels is very complex, and poor quality control, inadequate skill, or substandard material and milling equipment can not only lead to inaccuracy, but barrel-droop after prolonged use, and in some cases, a shell jamming in the barrel and detonating.