Warship (sail)

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While the first warships were powered by oars, sail power, using wind, dominated naval warfare until the early 19th century.

There was no single metric of combat efficiency. A smaller but faster ship might be a valuable scout, as long as it was faster than ships with more powerful guns. If there was a single metric, it was pure number of guns, not gun type or caliber. A ship might be described as USS Constitution (44), indicating 44 guns of all types, although some specifications omitted the lightest guns and short-ranged weapons such as carronades.

Since the ships had to sail in a generally straight line dictated by the wind, and there was no source of mechanical power to turn turrets, most guns were arrayed in rows on the sides of the ships, perhaps with a few on bow and stern. Combat was conducted by broadside fire, one half of the guns firing at once. An exceptionally skilled captain might be able to maneuver his ship so that he could turn and get a second broadside on the same target, or perhaps use the other broadside on a different target.

A much more formal system was principally used by the Royal Navy. [1]

Type Rate Guns Gun decks
Ship of the line 1st Rate 100+ 3
2nd Rate 90-98 3
3rd Rate 64-80 2
Frigate (sail) 4th Rate 50-60 2
5th Rate 32-40 1
6th Rate 20-28 1
Sloop-of-war 16-20 1
Gun brig or cutter 6-14 1


  1. Sailing Ship Rates, Globalsecurity