In contrast to the chaotic development of ironclad warships in preceding decades, the 1890s saw navies worldwide start to build battleships to a common design as dozens of ships essentially followed the design of the British Majestic class. The similarity in appearance of battleships in the 1890s was underlined by the increasing number of ships being built. New naval powers such as Germany, Japan, the United States, and – to a lesser extent – Italy and Austria-Hungary, began to establish themselves with fleets of pre-dreadnoughts, while the navies of Britain, France, and Russia expanded to meet these new threats. The decisive clash of pre-dreadnought fleets was between the Imperial Russian Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Battle of Tsushima on 27 May 1905.
These battleships were abruptly made obsolete by the arrival of HMS Dreadnought in 1906. Dreadnought followed the trend in battleship design to heavier, longer-ranged guns by adopting an "all-big-gun" armament scheme of ten 12-inch guns. Her innovative steam turbine engines also made her faster. The existing pre-dreadnoughts were decisively outclassed, and new and more powerful battleships were from then on known as dreadnoughts while the ships that had been laid down before were designated pre-dreadnoughts.
The pre-dreadnought developed from the ironclad battleship. The first ironclads — the French Gloire and HMS Warrior — looked much like sailing frigates, with three tall masts and broadside batteries, when they were commissioned at the start of the 1860s. Only eight years later HMVS Cerberus, the first breastwork monitor, was launched. After a further three years followed HMS Devastation, a turreted ironclad which more resembled a pre-dreadnought than previous and contemporary turretless ironclads. Each ship lacked masts and carried four heavy guns in two turrets fore and aft. Devastation was the first ocean-worthy breastwork monitor, built to attack enemy coasts and harbours; because of her very low freeboard, she could not fight on the high seas as her decks would be swept by water and spray, interfering with the working of her guns. Navies worldwide continued to build masted, turretless battleships which had sufficient freeboard and were seaworthy enough to fight on the high seas.
The distinction between coast-assault battleship and cruising battleship became blurred with the Admiral class, ordered in 1880. These ships reflected developments in ironclad design, being protected by iron-and-steel compound armour rather than wrought iron. Equipped with breech-loading guns of between 12-inch and 16 ¼-inch (305 mm and 413 mm) calibre, the Admirals continued the trend of ironclad warships towards gigantic weapons. The guns were mounted in open barbettes to save weight. Some historians see these ships as a vital step towards pre-dreadnoughts; others view them as a confused and unsuccessful design.
The subsequent Royal Sovereign class of 1889 retained barbettes but were uniformly armed with 13.5-inch (343 mm) guns; they were also significantly larger (at 14,000 tons displacement) and faster (due to triple-expansion steam engines) than the Admirals. Just as importantly, the Royal Sovereigns had a higher freeboard, making them unequivocally capable of the high-seas battleship role.