In last night’s final presidential debate, Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney charged that the Navy is at its smallest size since 1917. In response, President Obama said,“We also have fewer horses and bayonets” – a zinger that caught on quickly. Below, we round up fact-checks and coverage on the size-of-the-Navy issue.

David Nakamura and Dan Balz reported on the original moment in the debate:

At one point, Romney argued that he would not support budget cuts to the military, pointing out that the U.S. Navy had reduced its fleet of warships to the lowest number since the early 1900s.

“Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” the president countered, “because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

Scott Wilson wrote that Obama’s tone in the exchange was was “harsh, even condescending at times”:

Responding to Romney early in the debate, Obama noted that he understood his rival had “never executed foreign policy.”

He later explained, as if to a child, that the modern U.S. Navy has aircraft carriers “where planes land on them” and “ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines,” to rebut Romney’s criticism that federal spending cuts threaten to reduce U.S. naval power to levels not seen since early in the last century.

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Dan Balz wrote that Romney’s refusal to respond aggressively to Obama’s quip was a sign of a new dynamic in the debates: Obama trying to “rattle and disqualify his challenger,” a more cautious Mitt Romney:

Obama tried to goad him, perhaps mindful that, when Romney has been challenged by opponents in debates, he has often responded too aggressively. Romney was on guard Monday night after a performance at the second debate at Long Island’s Hofstra University in which he was judged even by supporters to be too hot.

When the president upbraided his challenger over the decline in the number of ships in the naval arsenal by noting that there were also fewer horses and bayonets in use than in the early 20th century, Romney didn’t take the bait. When the president contrasted his trip to the Middle East as a candidate in 2008 with Romney’s trip last summer, noting, for example, that he hadn’t gone to Israel to raise money from wealthy donors, Romney didn’t respond.

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The Washington Post’s resident Fact Checker Glenn Kessler wrote on the Election 2012 live blog that comparing ship numbers from 1917 and today is like apples and oranges, a claim that was previously awarded three Pinocchios:

Mitt Romney asserted that this is the smallest Navy since 1917.

Obama had a ready retort: “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.” In other words, it makes no sense to compare the firepower of a modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a battleship circa 1916.

This is an issue the Fact Checker has looked at before.

The historical records of the Navy show that in 1916, the Navy had 245 ships. This was also the year that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Naval Act of 1916, which put the United States on a crash course to build a world-class Navy.

But take a look at the types of ships on the list. Yes, there are cruisers and destroyers, but also: 

Steel Gunboats
Torpedo Boats
Monitors (that’s kind of a small warship)

These types of boats aren’t on the list anymore. Instead, the current list of Navy ships includes behemoths such as aircraft carriers, “SSBN” (nuclear-powered, ballistic-missile carrying submarines) and “SSGN” (cruise-missile submarines).

In other words, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Romney’s line reminds us of a similar strained comparison he made last year regarding the workforce needs to make ships during World War II and today. But in this case he goes even deeper back into history. After all, 1916 is not only before computers, it is before television — even before regular radio broadcasts.

John Pike, director of, notes that it is difficult to make comparisons between ships that are even much more recent. “Today’s aircraft carrier has about 10 times the lethality of an aircraft carrier of 20 years ago, due to the advent of precision munitions — in the old days, it was sorties per target, now it is targets per sortie,” he said.

The current level of ships, 285 in fiscal 2011, is actually not even the lowest since 1916. The historical list shows that the lowest ship force was reached during the Bush administration, when the number of ships fell to 278 in 2007. Given the change over time in the composition of the naval force, that probably is the most relevant comparison — and the trend line is up.

(Continue for more on this claim, or read the original Fact Checker column)

The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote last night that there is still a small use of bayonets in the military:

Does our military, as President Obama told Mitt Romney tonight, have fewer bayonets than it did in 1916? Almost certainly.

But that doesn’t mean the bayonet has gone the way of the cavalry horse or the arrow.

U.S. Marines still train on bayonets in boot camp. Many Marines still are issued bayonets as standard equipment. But the Army discontinued bayonet training at its basic training facilities in 2010.

After the debate, the Obama campaign bought a promoted tweet for searches of #horsesandbayonettes, Natalie Jennings reported:

Wondering if the Obama “horses and bayonets” line was planned? The Obama campaign moved quickly after it was delivered to take out a promoted tweet on the hashtag #horsesandbayonets, which suggests his team may have known it was coming.

(Continue to see an image of the promoted tweet)

The Romney campaign isn’t backing down from the Navy assertion; it released an ad quoting the candidate today, Rachel Weiner reports on the Election 2012 blog:

What it says: The ad quotes Mitt Romney in Tuesday’s debate saying, “Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. … That’s unacceptable to me.”

What it means: Taking out President Obama’s memorable response to this line – “we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” Romney is again pushing one of his more aggressive debate attacks out to voters. He also cut an ad accusing Obama of apologizing for America. Our Fact Checker gives the Navy claim Three Pinocchios, calling it a “nonsense fact.” 

Who will see it: Military-heavy areas, most likely.