Frigate (sail)

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For more information, see: warship (sail).

The frigate was the most glamorous warship type during the era of Napoleonic seapower. Its glamor came from its ability to operate independently for scouting and raiding, the predecessor of the modern cruiser. In comparison, the ship of the line was analogous to the battleship when big-gunned battleships were still the most powerful ships, but tied to fleets for action.

"Frigate", in modern use, covers a very wide range of ship types, with the definition dependent on the navy and time.

Royal Navy

Frigates made up a quarter of the 412-ship royal fleet in wartime, and were kept in active service during peacetime. The frigate had between 32 and 44 guns and a crew of 217 to 297 men. While not as big as the ship of the line, it could outrun anything with more firepower and catch commercial ships, sloops, and corvettes. It could handle a variety of tasks, including raiding coastlines, running down opposing ships, and scouting.

Sloops were even smaller and cheaper; their 20 guns were enough to overpower any merchant ship, or control rivers and bays.[1]

United States Navy

In the American revolution John Barry, a 30-year-old Philadelphian and senior captain of the almost-landlocked American navy in 1778 Barry commanded the Raleigh, a 700-ton frigate with 36 guns and 235 crewmen. In late September 1778, the Raleigh engaged the Unicorn, a 22-gun ship, and the Experiment, a 50-gun ship of the line. Barry lost the Raleigh and 135 men were captured, but he disabled the Unicorn and escaped with 86 men.[2]

The era of dominance by frigates ended when "big" frigates like the "USS Constitution" appeared in the waters.[3]


  1. Robert Gardiner, Frigates of the Napoleonic Wars (2006) excerpt and text search
  2. See Gardner Weld Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (1913) p. 317-19
  3. Mark Lardas and Tony Bryan, ''American Heavy Frigates 1794-1826 (2003) excerpt and text search