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What Is A Frigate?

"Frigate" must be one of the most popular and abused words in the world's languages. It's very popularity is indicated by the fact that is recognizable in so many languages: fregat, fregata, etc. The abuse is demonstrated by the many meanings it has had over the centuries.

The earliest references to frigates in the English language occurred in the 15th Century, apparently referring to some smaller type of sailing vessel or craft; almost certainly not a warship. No details of their appearance, means of propulsion, or purpose have survived. Indeed, the word may have been used somewhat generically, as we use "boat."

After 150 years, during which time naval warfare shifted from occasional efforts by merchant ships armed and pressed into service to built-for-the-purpose warships, and as the weapons with which they were armed became more regularized in caliber and size, by the middle third of the 17th Century, men-of-war were beginning to evolve as discernible types.

In the late 1620s, the English built ten small "cruisers" (ships intended to operate independently) with which to combat Dunkirk pirates preying on the merchant shipping in the English Channel. These were known, fittingly, as the Lion's Whelps Class, and named First Whelp, Second Whelp, etc. Less than a hundred feet long, and armed with ten or twelve guns, the heavy armament in the tubby hull rendered them unsuccessful.

Then the English did what they probably should have done in the first place: they studied the hull forms of the pirate craft they did manage to capture, and, after some experimentation, began to design anew. They came up with a small, fast sailing ship with a keel length to beam ratio of 4:1 or greater, a long, lean vessel indeed. Armament was carried on the lower deck, out of the weather. The first of these seems to have been named Constant Warwick, built in 1646 and referred to as a "frigate." She had a keel length of about ninety feet, carried thirty guns, displaced 379 tons, and had a shallower draft than others of that size. Adventure, built the same year, and at least two sisters, were slightly larger and carried thirty-eight guns. So popular was Constant Warwick that the Royal Navy decided to "improve" her by adding another deck and more guns. End of popularity, as she then sailed like "a slug". Within a decade, the word "frigate" was being used to denote either a ship with a higher than usual keel:beam ratio or one with a good turn of speed. It must be in this sense that the word was used in relation to the 90-gun Naseby.

During the 17th Century, emphasis on building more powerful ships for the nation's battle line with two or more covered gun decks, had led to the solution of virtually every problem associated with the building of large hulls capable of supporting a huge number of large guns. They didn't sail well, but they could move and delivered enormous destruction to anything foolish enough to come within range. Inevitably, this growth in the size of ships of the line created a growing gap between themselves and the smaller, supporting units of the navy. It was to fill this gap that the frigate of popular history and fiction was designed.

This "new" frigate, meaning a medium size warship capable of sustained independent operation and powerful enough to take on any warship other than a ship of the line, seems to have had its English origin in a captured French privateer (a licensed, private man of war) named Tygre, which was captured in 1747 and commissioned in the Royal Navy. She carried twenty-six 9-pounder long guns on a single covered deck, and soon was seen to be a most useful addition.

Using the design of Tygre as a basis, the Royal Navy then designed and built the 28-gun frigates Unicorn and Lyme, the first of their type. The two ships were not identical. Unlike any warships before, Lyme had a rounded bow (as Constitution does) -- the first in a warship.


This provided the ship with a greater ability to withstand damage from ahead and also meant that the crew's berthing down below could be drier (and so healthier) because the hawse holes (by which means the anchor cables enter the hull) could be placed one deck higher. Unlike their bigger brothers, the frigates had no galleries weakening their sterns, just a row of windows for the Captain's cabin. French frigates, evolving at about the same time, were more lightly built and capable of speed adequate both to run down a prey and to escape if it should prove too strong. The British frigates generally weren't as fast, but they were better able to stand up in a fight. The type quickly became popular, and a requirement in many navies. The Dutch and the Danes both had added frigates to their fleets in the 1750s. All frigates, like the line of battle ships, were "ship-rigged" with three masts carrying square sails for propulsion. And just as the ships of the line had grown in size in the preceding century, the frigates quickly followed suit, to wit: Lyme (1748), 581 tons; Pallas (1756), 718 tons; Endymion (1797), 1277 tons.

Frigates, like all major warships of that era, were rated by the number of long guns they were designed to carry. The 28-gunners were inevitably followed by 32s, 36s, and 38s, which became the standard frigate of the Royal Navy. The heaviest long guns carried began as 9-pounders, but soon rose to 12- and 18-pounders, with numbers of the smaller calibers added to the forecastle and quarterdeck above. Smaller "swivels" also were carried, to be mounted in holes on the rails or in the fighting tops.


In addition to growing in size and carrying larger caliber guns, frigates underwent other changes, as well. A new "wrinkle" which may or may not have been present in the first frigates, but happened soon afterwards, was the location of the ship's wheel ahead of the mizzenmast.

This provided the helmsmen with greater protection from both weather and gunfire, and made it easier for the controlling officer to be in touch with activities at both ends of the ship. Perhaps the first change was the substitution of iron galley stoves ("cambooses") for brick fireplaces about 1752, complete with an iron smokestack to take smoke and some of the heat out of the ship. A major advance in the protection of a ship's underwater body from borers occurred in 1761 when the frigate HBMS Alarm became the first ship to be sheathed in sheet copper. It not only prevented shipworms from getting a start, it accumulated sea weed, etc., at a slower rate than wood.

An advance important to more than just frigates took place in 1774, when the Carron Iron Company in Falkirk, Scotland, produced the first new cannon in a century: the carronade. This weapon was short (3-4 feet long) and therefore light, but was of large caliber bore. This meant that a ship of given displacement could carry more of these more powerful weapons, and carry them higher in the ship without crippling stability. The disadvantage was that its maximum effective range was only about one-third that of a long gun. The carronade first went to sea in 1779. Experience resulted in frigates generally carrying long guns on their gun decks and carronades above on forecastles and quarterdecks, giving both long range punch and short range smashing power. Indeed, "smasher" was the popular nickname of this weapon.

Throughout most of the 18th Century, frigates were rather open on their upper decks. Quarterdeck bulwarks, enclosing roughly that area from the main mast aft, became commonplace after the American Revolution in the Royal Navy. Similar bulwarks around the forecastle followed about twenty years later. The French, in fact, adopted the practice ahead of the English.

Thus, by the time Constitution was on the drawing board, the frigate as a type had become stabilized and proven itself as the cost effective "workhorse" of many a navy. It is no wonder that it was thought the ideal "first effort" of a navy of limited means. Recognizing that the young country was in no position to create a full-blown navy in short order, her designer sought to combine what he saw as the best features of at least the French and British frigates then in existence. His frigate would be big and strong, able to carry heavy cannon in large numbers, and it would be fast enough to able to choose whether to fight or run. In Constitution he achieved what was to be seen as the ultimate development of the sailing frigate.

Since the passing of the sailing navy, the word "frigate" has seen rather uncertain usage in the U. S. Navy. After a long hiatus, it was revived in World War II as the "patrol frigate," an escort vessel somewhat more capable than a patrol vessel (or "corvette") but less so than the "destroyer escort," itself a wartime "economy model" destroyer.

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Right after the war, there was designed a class of "super destroyers" or "destroyer leaders" that were styled "frigates," the "patrol frigates" having been discarded. Because later classes of this type grew into the size range of what had been cruisers, such "frigates" were so reclassified in 1975. At the same time, the lowly "destroyer escorts," of new design and construction but still remembered as "second rate destroyers," were glorified with the name "frigate." And so, when we speak of frigates today we most often mean that type of small warship primarily designed to escort convoys and fight submarines: definitely not in the same league as the frigates of old.

Some sources:

Chappelle, Howard I. The American Sailing Navy. New York: Bonanza Books. 1949.

Howard, Dr. Frank. Sailing Ships Of War, 1400-1860. New York: Mayflower Books. 1979.

Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. A Timonier Book. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 1997.


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RCM 25 Jan 98