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Sailing Ship Rates

Ships of the Continental Navy were in three classes.

  • Ships-of-the line were the battleships of the sailing days. They carried from 64 to over 100 guns.
  • Frigates were the cruisers of the 18th century. Usually smaller and faster. They carried 28 to 44 guns.
  • Sloops-of-war were the smallest warships. They carried 10 to 20 guns.

In the age of sail, after the development of the line of battle tactic in the mid 17th century, and up to the mid 19th century, a ship of the line (of battle) was a warship powerful enough to take a place in the battle line. Another term, a "line of battle" ship, later shortened to become a "battleship". Generally, this meant a third-rate or larger ship, with guns on two or three (or in rare cases, four) decks. Rated ships smaller than this were frigates, which mostly carried all their guns on a single deck. European navies in particular used battleships to fight fleet actions which might last for days and involve over 100 ships.

The rating of a ship by the number of guns was purely nominal. It indicated the ship's approximate size and strength but a ship could and often did carry a few extra guns -- especially if the captain was wealthy and could afford to bring his own cannons.

On 3 March 1819 an act of Congress stated that "all of the ships, of the Navy of the United States, now building, or hereafter to be built, shall be named by the Secretary of the Navy, under the direction of the President of the United States, according to the following rule, to wit: those of the first class shall be called after the States of this Union; those of the second class after the rivers; and those of the third class after the principal cities and towns; taking care that no two vessels of the navy shall bear the same name." An act of 12 June 1858 specifically included the word "steamship" in the ship type nomenclature, and officially defined the "classes" of ships in terms of the number of their guns. Ships armed with 40 guns or more were of the "first class"; those carrying fewer than 40, but more than 20, guns were of the "second class." The name source for the second class was expanded to include the principal towns as well as rivers.

Royal Navy Rating System
Type Rate Guns Gun decks Crew Displacement
[in tons]
Ship of the line 1st Rate 100 + 3 + forecastle
and quarterdeck
850 to 875 >2000
2nd Rate 90 to 98 3 + forecastle
and quarterdeck
700 to 750 about 2000
3rd Rate 64 to 80 2 500 to 650 1300-1600
Frigate 4th Rate 50 to 60 2 320 to 420 about 1000
5th Rate 32 to 40 1 200 to 300 700 to 1450
6th Rate 20 to 28 1 140 to 200 450 to 550
Sloop-of-war 16 to 18 1 90 to 125 380
Gun-brig and Cutter 6 to 14 1 5 to 25 <220

The rating system of the Royal Navy was used between the 1670s and early 19th century to categorise sailing warships of the Royal Navy of its power to stand in a line of battle based on the number of guns. The rating system was only used by the Royal Navy, and by the end of the 18th century, the rating system had mostly fallen out of common use, ships of the line usually being characterized directly by their number of guns.

First-rate was the designation used by the Royal Navy for its largest ships of the line, those mounting 100 guns or more, typically on three gundecks. First-rate vessels carried over 850 crew and displaced in excess of 2,000 tons. In the original rating system from the 1670s, first-rates were ships of exactly 100 guns, but as time passed, ships were built with more guns, and they too were called first-rates. Although nominally very powerful, first-rates tended to be slow and invariably expensive to operate.

Nothing more evidently manifest the great improvement of the marine art, and the degree of perfection to which it had arrived in England by the later years of the 18th Century, than the facility of managing first rates; which were formerly esteemed incapable of government, unless in the most favourable weather of the summer. They were known to be as easily navigated, and as capable of service, as any of the inferior ships of the line, and that frequently in the most tempestuous seasons of the year. A ship of two decks, such as are generally all those of the third and fourth rates, cannot be so strongly connected as is furnished with three: a vessel pierced for 15 guns on one side of her deck must necessarily be very long, and is sometimes apt to droop at the two ends; or, in the sea-phrase, to break her back under the enormous weight of her artillery.

In the British Royal Navy, a second-rate was a ship of the line mounting 90 to 98 guns, typically built with three gun decks. Second-rate vessels displaced about 2000 tons, carrying a crew of 750. Being smaller than first-rate vessels, lighter guns were carried on their middle and upper decks. Powerful and able to fight in the center of a line of battle, second-rates were sometimes criticised for being slow and hard to maneuver. Where a first-rate vessel was considered too expensive or vulnerable to risk, a second-rate often served as a flagship.

When the rating system was first established, in the 1670s, the third rate was defined as 70 guns, with second-rates having 90 guns, and fourth-rates 54-60 guns. As time passed, and different ships were built with greater or fewer numbers of guns, the term was expanded to include the whole range from 64 to 80. This designation became especially common because it included the 74-gun ship, which eventually came to be the most popular size of large ship for navies of several different nations

Historically the frigate was a ship of the 4th or 5th rate. Originally, the name referred to a vessel of the Mediterranean propelled by sails and by oars. The French, about 1650, transferred the name to larger vessels, and by 1750 it had been appropriated for a class of war vessels intermediate between corvettes and ships of the line. Frigates, from about 1750 to 1850, had one full battery deck and, often, a spar deck with a lighter battery. They carried sometimes as many as fifty guns. After the application of steam to navigation steam frigates of largely increased size and power were built, and formed the main part of the navies of the world till about 1870, when the introduction of ironclads superseded them. The role they filled was that of independent patrol, or fleet picket work. Later in time the former task fell to cruisers and the latter to the destroyer. The term has come back into fashion in modern navies. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, a frigate was a sailing vessel designed for speed, with a flush gun deck carrying 24 to 44 guns, used as a commerce raider and for blockade duty. When warships were made of wood and had sails, frigates were small, fast, long range, lightly armed (single gun-deck) ships used for scouting and carrying dispatches. Frigates formed the backbone of the early American Navy. These wooden warships sailed quickly across the seas to protect merchant shipping, capture enemy cargo, and fight battles with enemy ships. A typical American frigate was a square-rigged, three-masted ship. Frigates were built with oak, pine, and elm wood. A frigate had many levels, or decks, that were used for different reasons. The open upper deck, called the spar deck, carried short-barreled guns called carronades used at close range. The gun deck, the next one down, was lined wiht heavy guns on each side of the ship. Below that was the berthing deck where the ship's crew slept in hammocks and ate their meals. The orlop was a small storage deck that doubled as the ship's hospital during battle. All supplies were stowed in the hold, the lowest deck on any ship. The oldest American frigate is USS Constitution.

A sloop of war, was formerly defined as a vessel of war rigged either as a ship, brig, or schooner, and mounting from ten to thirty-two guns, and later changed to any war vessel larger than a gunboat, and carrying guns on one deck only. A Corvette was a war vessel, ranking next below a frigate, and having usually only one tier of guns. A Corvette was called a sloop of war in the United States navy .

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:04 ZULU