Sailing frigates were 4th, 5th, or 6th-rated ships in the rating system of the Royal Navy.

Frigate is a name which has been used for several distinct types of warships at different times. It has referred to a variety of ship roles and sizes. In the age of sail, it referred to a ship smaller and faster than a battleship, used for patrolling and escort work rather than fighting fleet actions. In modern military terminology, the definition of a frigate is a warship intended to protect other warships and merchant marine ships and as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups, and merchant convoys. However, many ships known as frigates have bordered on, or entirely been more similar to a different class of ship including everything ranging from a destroyer to a cruisier or even a battleship. The variation coming from a number of sources such as the era, the particulars of battlefield roles, and the standards of a given country.

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La Rieuse, a 30-gun oar frigate (1674-1698)
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The fictitious ironclad frigate USS Abraham Lincoln, based on late 19th Century vessels, from the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Age of sail

A frigate was a medium-sized sailing warship with one gun deck, plus guns on the spar deck. It was faster than the larger ship of the line and larger than a sloop-of-war. British sailing frigates during the period 1640-1860 were rated fourth-rate, fifth-rate and sixth-rate according to the rating system of the Royal Navy.

Frigates were perhaps the hardest-worked of warship types during the age of sail. They scouted for the fleet, went on commerce-raiding missions and patrols, conveyed messages and dignitaries, and filled in places in the line of battle if there was a shortage of battleships (from the term "line of battle" ship, but more commonly referred to as "ships of the line" or referred to by the number of guns they carried (for example, "74s"). Usually frigates would fight in small numbers or singly against other frigates. Unlike larger ships that were placed in ordinary, frigates were kept in service in peacetime both as a cost-saving measure and to provide quality experience to frigate captains and officers which would be useful in wartime. Frigates may also carry marines or naval infantry for land-based and ship-boarding operations.

In the 17th century, frigates were masterpieces of engineering and design; the British added more sails and weapons, the Dutch made frigates with a shallow draft and the French added bow and stern weapons and Baroque designs. Frigate armament ranged from 22 guns on one deck to up to even 70+ guns on two decks. Common armament was 32 to 44 long guns, from 8 to 24 pounders (3.6 to 11 kg), plus a few carronades (large bore short range guns), which weren't counted in the rating of the ship. In the early steam age (1840-60) steam frigates were the fastest ships around, finally evolving into the cruisers of the 20th century.

The oldest commissioned warship in the US Navy is USS Constitution, better known as "Old Ironsides", a frigate launched 21 October 1797. It is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world; HMS Victory, although older, is maintained in drydock. The US Navy's 44-gun frigates (or "super-frigates"), which usually actually carried 56-60 guns, were very powerful and tough. These ships were so well-respected that they were often seen as equal to 4th-rate ships of the line, and RN fighting instructions ordered British frigates (usually 32-guns or less) to never engage American frigates at any less than a 2:1 advantage.

In the late 1800s, the term "frigate" fell out of naval fashion; ships that had been designated frigates were redesignated "cruising-ships" and from there to cruisers. The term "frigate" would lie mostly unused until after the Second World War, when it would be reappropriated to describe ships that during that war had been called destroyer escorts.

Creation of the frigate

The term "Frigate" was used in the seventeenth century, normally indicating a ship that was faster than usual.

Perhaps one of England's greatest shipwrights, Sir Phineas Pett (1570-1647), lived for ten years after the construction of one of the world's greatest ships, the Sovereign of the Seas was built and launched by his son Peter. Phineas Pett's innovations were perhaps to be finally realized in the designs of his son Peter Pett for the Frigate a design of English shipwrightry worthy of Mathew Baker. Sir Peter Pett was almost as distinguished as his father. He was the builder of the first frigate, Constant Warwick.

Sir William Symonds said of this vessel: "She was an incomparable sailer, remarkable for her sharpness and the fineness of her lines; and many were built like her." Pett "introduced convex lines on the immersed part of the hull, with the studding and sprit sails; and, in short, he appears to have fully deserved his character of being the best ship architect of his time."

This kind of 17th-century "frigate" later developed into the two-decked ship of the line of 60-70 guns.

The classical sailing frigate as we know it from the Napoleonic wars can be traced back to French developments in the second quarter of the 18th century. These ships were ship-rigged and carried all their main guns on a single gun deck, what had used to be the upper gun deck on similarly-sized two-decked ships earlier. What had used to be the lower gun deck was now totally unarmed and functioned as an orlop deck where the crew lived, and was in fact placed below the waterline of the new frigates. The new sailing frigates were able to fight their guns when the seas were so rough that comparable two-deckers had to close the gun-ports on their lower decks. Like the larger 74 which was developed at the same time, the new frigates were good sailers and good fighting vessels due to a combination of long hulls and low upperworks compared to vessels of comparable size and firepower.

The Royal Navy captured a handful of the new French frigates during the early stages of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) and were duly impressed by them, particularly for their inshore handling capabilities. They soon built copies and started to adapt the type to their own needs, setting the standard for other frigates as a superpower.

Early frigates were armed with 9-pounder (4 kg) guns, development soon led to 12- and 18-pounder (5 and 8 kg) armed frigates, and at the turn of the century the biggest ones even carried 24 pounder (11 kg) main batteries.

Royal Navy frigates of the late 18th century were based on the 1780-vintage Perseverance class, which displaced around 900 tons and carried 36 guns; this successful class was followed by the Tribune class batch of fifteen ships starting in 1801 that displaced over 1,000 tons and carried 38 guns.

Modern frigates

USS McInerney (FFG 8), an Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate.
USS McInerney (FFG 8), an Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate.
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A number of modern frigates carry helicopters for reconnaissance, Anti-submarine operations and rescue. Here, an Alouette III on the French La Motte-Picquet.
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The operational center of La Motte-Picquet frigate.
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The state of the art in 2005 features stealth frigates with anti-missile capabilities. Here, the La Fayette class stealth frigate Surcouf

Sail and early steam frigates are only related to modern frigates by name. The name frigate passed out of use in the mid-19th Century and was readopted after World War II by the British to describe an anti-submarine escort vessel larger than a corvette but smaller than a destroyer. Such a vessel had a bit less armament than a destroyer; its lesser grade propulsive machinery would yield a lower top speed; and it could carry far less fuel. To cross even the Atlantic ocean, such a vessel needs to be refueled en route. These limitations were not much hardship for a WWII anti-submarine vessel but would seriously limit a battle fleet which replaced destroyers by such frigates.

In the 1960s and 1970s, "guided missile frigates" have brought an anti-air warfare (AAW) capability to the frigate mission, but they have some limitations. Designed as cost-efficient surface combatants, they lack the multi-mission capability necessary for modern surface combatants faced with multiple, high-technology threats and offer limited capacity for growth. Until 1975, these vessels were called "Ocean Escorts" and designated "DE" or "DEG" (a holdover from the Second World War, when they were called "Destroyer Escorts").

From the 1950s to the 1970s, guided missile frigates were commissioned in modern navies, which were actually AAW cruisers built on destroyer-style hulls; some of them (the American Bainbridge, Truxtun, California and Virginia classes) were nuclear powered. These were far larger than any other frigates ever seen (though the use of these "frigates" in comparison to the larger "cruisers" was analogous to the relationship between age of sail frigates and ships of the line), and all were properly reclassified as "guided missile cruisers" in 1975 (except for the smaller Farragut class class ships, which were reclassified as guided missile destroyers) and struck from the Naval Vessel Register in the 1990s. With the improvement of the anti-air and anti-missile missiles (like the Aster 15), such frigates are increasingly used as a fleet defense platform.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some frigates are specialised in anti-submarine warfare. They bear improved sonar equipements, torpedoes, and even missile-carried anti-submarine torpedoes. They retain minimal anti-surface capabilites with anti-ship missiles (like the Exocet), but are weak against air threats.

Many modern frigates have landing decks aft and can carry helicopters, which give them extra capabilities: the helicopters can be used for reconnaissance tasks (bearing radars), have anti-submarine capabilities (by dropping sonobuoys or wire-mounted sonars, and carrying torpedoes and depth-charges), are invaluable for rescue operations, and can also perform other support duties such as ferrying.

Modern times have seen the arrival of stealth frigates fitted with anti-missile capabilities. Their shapes, designed to offer a minimal radar signature, also give them a good air penetration; the manoeuverability of these frigates has been compared to those of sailing ships. A good example is the French La Fayette class with the Aster 15 missile.

See also

Further reading

  • Gresham, John D., "The swift and sure steeds of the fighting sail fleet were its dashing frigates", Military Heritage magazine, February 2002.

External links

Lists of frigates

Note that Algerian, Tripolitan and Tunisian sail frigates are listed under Turkey. All Italian city-state frigates are listed under Italy.

Partially from:

Sailing frigate and its
Sailing frigate and its rigging

de:Fregatte es:Fragata fr:Frgate (navire) nl:Fregat ja:フリゲート pl:Fregata (okręt) sl:Fregata zh:护卫舰 sv:fregatt


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