In the end of the 1870s, the French Navy began moving away from the traditional ironclad warship featuring their main guns set at or near the waterline and began investigating a new approach fitting the primary battery to barbettes high above the water in an effort to reduce their wear in the salty sea environment. This work resulted in a four-strong class of warships - known as the Terrible-class - intended for the coastal defense role covering French interests. The group consisted of Terrible (1887), Caiman (1885), Indomptable (1883), and Requin (1885). All were well-armored and well-armed vessels for their time, featured a two-masted profile, with power from a boiler-fed, compound engine arrangement driving power to twin screws.
The Terrible-class were in the 7,530 ton range and dimensionally smaller when compared to the design they were based on, the Amiral Baudin. Their primary purpose was in operational service in the Baltic Sea to head off any advantage by the German Navy should the two nations find themselves at war once more. The class were named "barbette ships" for their gun placement and joined the Tonnant and Furieux classes under that classification.
Caiman's keel was laid down during 1878. Her silhouette showcased two superstructures, one fore and the other aft. Two same-height masts were seated fore and aft as well. The main guns - a pair of 16.5" weapons, were set about a raised structure section, one gun over the forecastle and the other overlooking the stern. This left the bow and stern deck sections relatively unobstructed. Her smoke funnels were contained just ahead of midships. With her boiler-fed vertical compound engines, the vessel could expect to make headway at 15 knots and ranges of 1,750 nautical miles (if cruising at about 10 knots). It was crewed by 373 personnel. Displacement was 7,260 tons (short) with dimensions consisting of a 271 foot length, 60 foot beam, and 26.2 foot draught. Armor protection spanned from 203mm to 500mm thickness.
During 1895, Caiman entered a period of rebuilding to keep her a viable instrument of war. She joined her sisters Indomptable and Requin in this program which lasted until 1901. Changes included all-new guns as well as boiler equipment. By 1910, Caiman's best sailing days were behind her as she fell into disrepair and abandonment where she lay until she was scrapped in 1927. While not seeing combat service during World War 1 (1914-1918), her sister - Requin - did see service in the Great War before being stricken in 1920. By this time, she had been rebuilt to show off a twin-funnel profile and military-grade mast structures. Indomptable joined Caiman in being scrapped during 1927 and Terrible was written off earlier in 1911.