View Full Version : Ships Ratings

10-02-2008, 02:21
Someone recently made reference in a post to a ship being Third Rate. I wonder if some members reading this might have thought it meant being not very good. So I have put together a list and explanation of this rating system.

It was a system used to classify a wooden warship according to the number of guns mainly. It has been used since the RN was formed and died out when hulls turned metallic.

First Rate

These were the biggest. And most expensive. And safest which is why they were usually used as flagship.

They had a displacement over over 1200 tons and a crew in excess of 700. They carried over 80 guns, sometimes many more. HMS Victory is a First Rate ship.

Second Rate

These ships had between 60 - 80 guns. e.g Swiftshure.

Third Rate

These ships formed the bulk of the navy. They usually had about 50 guns. e.g. Nelson's ship The Captain. They were formidable fighting vessels in every sense of the word.

Fourth Rate

These ships had about 40 guns. Displacement about 500 tons.

Fifth Rate

Nearly always Frigates with about 20 - 30 guns. They were not as a rule ships of the line but performed duties such as blockading and patrolling. The dear old HMS Surprise was such a ship.

There was no hard and fast rule to the classification however.

I hope other members will modify this and add examples that they know of.

Commodore Armiger
10-02-2008, 09:31
I fear Herakles hasn't quite got it right. My sources give the following:

First rate 3 decks, 100+ guns (42 pounders on lower deck, 24 pounders on middle deck, 12 pounders, later 18s on the upper deck), crew 800+.

Second rate 3 decks, 90-98 guns (32 pdrs on lower deck, 18 pdrs on middle deck, 12pdrs or 9pdrs on upper deck), crew 700+.

Third rate 3 or 2 decks, 60-80 guns (large class 24 pdrs on upper deck, common class 18 pdrs), crew 500-700.

Fourth rate 2 decks, 50-60 guns, crew 350.

Fifth rate 2 decks, 40s, 44s (including razee 3 deckers) and large frigates 36s and 38s, crew 250-300. (Razee means cut down by one deck to make a powerful two decker.)

Fifth rate 2 decks, other frigates, mostly 32s, crew 215.

Sixth rate 1 or 2 decks, 20-30 guns, crew 135-200.

Sloops of war and Corvettes, crew 65-120.

The size of crew and of guns authorised for each rate, and the pay of the captain (and others) was linked to the rate of the vessel. (Naturally the bigger the vessel the bigger the crew, and - usually - the bigger the guns.)

Sixth rates and above were Captains' commands. Corvettes and the larger sloops were Commanders' and the smaller sloops Lieutenants' commands.

Admirals often chose the largest vessel available as their flagship. This was not just "folie de grandeur", as they needed to accommodate their own staff and to hold meetings of captains. However on occasion the Admiral would choose another vessel, perhaps for sentimental reasons, perhaps because it was a better sailer (Admiral Keith in the Mediterranean preferred a two decker 80 to the three decker 98 that was with the fleet). Flagships in less important stations such the Far East or the Caribbean might be small third rates or less.

The archetypal ship of the line at the end of the 18th century was the two decker 74, which, captained by any of the dozens of top-flight British captains and manned by an experienced crew could stand in the line or fight a one to one action against a French or Spanish three decker of 100+ guns with a more than even chance of victory. Close action which made the most of the short-range carronade and favoured the stoicism and experience of the British matelot did much to negate the size factor.

First rates were usually paid off pretty sharpish at the close of hostilities as they cost a great deal to maintian in seaworthy condition and neede a crew several times larger than a more modest vessel. It was probably also true that an immobile first rate was a more likely hot-bed of unrest than the equivalent number of men distributed among several smaller vessels that were more likely to be employed at sea.

I recommend Brian Lavery's "Nelson's Navy" to those who would broaden their knowledge of the ships, men and organisation of the fleet in those days. How we understood Hornblower and his like when young, heaven knows. The authors who brought such naval heroes to our bookshelves both knew an enormous amount and could put it across in such a way that we could enjoy the experience without diving into works of reference.

10-02-2008, 09:39
I brought "Nelson's Navy" as a Xmas present for a friend doing his dissertation on Napoleonic War security. After having read through the book I almost cried as I gave it away, it was so good.

Out of interest, Herakles where did your rate classification come from?


10-02-2008, 09:55
I obtained it from a book.

I must say that w are in broad agreement. I certainly didn't give the detail that you have so helpfully provided.

10-02-2008, 10:05
It is not surprising how many can get in a twist over rating of ships in Napoleonic times. Another source says the following:-
First Rate;- 3 gundecks, 100 guns or more
Second Rate:-3 gundecks,90-98 guns
Third Rate:-2 gundecks,64, 74 or 80 guns
Fourth Rate:- 1 or 2 gundecks, 50 guns
Fifth rate(Frigates):-1 gundeck,32-40 guns
Sixth Rate(Frigates):-1 gundeck,20-28 guns
Unrated:-The following:-
Ship-Sloops:- 1 gundeck,up to 22 guns
Brig-Sloops:- 1 gundeck,up to 28 guns
Others:- 1 gundeck,up to 18 guns.
The complements of each ship can also differ greatly, for instance a Third Rate could have a crew between 494 and 724 Officers and men.

10-02-2008, 10:10
By the way another author of enjoyable fiction, is Julian Stockwin, whose stories about Kydd from his beginnings as a a pressganged young man to his following years life in the Navy. Worth reading.(Get them in order however starting with KYDD.
Cheers, Stan.

The Sailor
10-02-2008, 12:04
Good post Commodore. Well presented and informative.

10-02-2008, 12:08
I wanted to keep things simple. Which is why I ignored the number of decks.

I wanted to produce a simple rule of thumb - the number of guns.

I wasn't attempting to educate the educated. rather those who might not have heard of the ratings system.

10-02-2008, 12:37
Harley - I have that book - "Nelson`s Navy". You are totally right with your assessment as it is a treasure house of well laid out information...

10-02-2008, 12:56
Good thread herakles.

Although my general area of (limited) knowledge is from 1860 onwards, I often come across these terms and have tried to find a definitive, er, definition of what they actually mean. I have found a few sources but never two that agree with each other, always being decided on a different basis - like the number of decks or number of guns.

Commodore Armiger
10-02-2008, 16:38
Herakles: You correctly quote HMS Captain as a third rate. But it was a 74 not a 50. And what a ship, what a crew! Captain stood in the line at St Vincent on 14 February 1797 against seven Spanish three deckers of 100+ guns and captured two (San Nicholas and San Josef) and Nelson (a Commodore, who would have not have been criticised for sending a Lieutenant) personally led the boarding party that captured both.

You could have been referring to any of six Swiftsures (Swiftshure is when you need to think about putting a little more tonic in the glass!):

The first (1573) was a 41 gun galleon;
the second (1621) was a 46, (both this and the first are often referred to as "Swiftsuer" in documents of the period, i.e. swift pursuer);
the third (1673) a 70 and the first to be rated (third rate);
the fourth (1750) was a third rate 68 (later 64);
the fifth (1787) was a third rate 74 captured by the French in the Med in 1801 and was with the French/Spanish fleet at Trafalgar where also was:
the sixth (1804) another third rate 74;
the seventh to tenth post-date the age of sail.
Incidentally the fifth was re-captured at Trafalgar and re-named Irresistible (one Swiftsure: good, two Swiftsures: too little tonic?)

10-02-2008, 22:17
I wanted to keep things simple. Which is why I ignored the number of decks.

I wanted to produce a simple rule of thumb - the number of guns.

I wasn't attempting to educate the educated. rather those who might not have heard of the ratings system.

Yup and I found all of the posts very informative (and a tad confusing, but I got there in the end!)