Born at Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey, he attended school in Philadelphia with future naval heroes Stephen Decatur and Charles Stewart. He was appointed midshipman on April 23 1797 and served in the West Indies during the Quasi-War with France on the frigate United States with Decatur and Stewart, a ship commanded by Captain John Barry. He was promoted to lieutenant on May 21 1799.
In 1800, Somers fought three duels on the same day with multiple opponents because they accused him of cowardice for failing to challenge Decatur over a joking insult they overheard. Somers was wounded in the first two duels and had to be supported during the third (by Decatur, who was acting as his second). 
Somers was detached from United States on June 13 1801 and ordered to Boston on 30 July 1801. He served in the latter frigate in the Mediterranean. After Boston returned to Washington, DC, Somers was furloughed on November 11 1802 to await orders.
On May 5 1803, Somers was ordered to Baltimore, Maryland, to man, fit out, and command USS Nautilus, and when that schooner was ready for sea, to sail her to the Mediterranean. Nautilus got underway on 30 June, reached Gibraltar on July 27, and sailed four days later to Spain. He then returned to Gibraltar to meet Commodore Edward Preble, in Constitution, who was bringing a new squadron for action against the Barbary pirates. Nautilus sailed with Preble on October 6 to Tangier where the display of American naval strength induced the Europeans of Morocco to renew the treaty of 1786. Thereafter, Tripoli became the focus of Preble's attention.
Somers' service as commanding officer of Nautilus during operations against Tripoli won him promotion to Master Commandant on May 18 1804. In the summer, he commanded a division of gunboats during five attacks on Tripoli, during the First Barbary War.
On September 4, 1804, Somers assumed command of fire ship Intrepid which had been fitted out as a "floating volcano" to be sailed into Tripoli harbor and blown up in the midst of the corsair fleet close under the walls of the city. That night, she got underway into the harbor, but she exploded prematurely, killing Somers and his entire crew of volunteers.
Somers is buried in Tripoli, Libya. In 2004, the New Jersey state assembly passed two resolutions calling for the return of his remains. It is hoped that with the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya in August 2011 that the effort to repatriate the remains will finally be successful.
Since 1804, six ships of the US Navy have successively been named the USS Somers in his honor.
The town of Somers, New York, located in Westchester County is named in his honor. Somers Point, New Jersey, is named after Richard's great-grandfather. Every year there is a Richard Somers Day celebration in Somers Point.
- United States Naval Institute Proceedings. United States Naval Institute. 1909. p. 1163.
- Simon Denyer (May 29, 2011). "Remains of ‘first Navy Seals’ lie in Tripoli". The Washington Post.
- Colimore, Edward (October 25, 2011). "Effort under way to bring back U.S. sailors buried in Libya". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 2011-10-26.
[E]ight of the 13 sailors [are] interred beneath Green Square in Tripoli .... Nearby are the graves of five more, ... at a tiny, walled cemetery that overlooks the harbor.