I tried this question on Google with limited results. I think mostly because I’m not sure how to phrase it. What I am interested in is old sailing ship categories (like 1500s). For example what is the difference between a frigate and a ship-of-the-line? What were the types of ships and how did they relate in terms of this type is stronger than that type. With modern ships, I can say that a battleship is stronger than a destroyer, but I don’t know how it lines up with historical ships. Any help is appreciated.
Your terminology relates best to the time between about 1650 and about 1850.
A frigate was a fast, fairly powerful warship that could defeat anything except a ship of the line. They were used for commerce raiding, escorting convoys, scouting and communications.
Ships of the line were the equivalent of battleships. They were slower than frigates. Fleets of ships of the line fought for overall naval supremacy, and were used to blockade ports.
Ships of the era were rated by the number of guns that they had. The cut-off point between ships of the line and frigates evolved over time. Prior to the French Revolution (1789), ships of the line had as little as 50 guns. Later, a ship needed 64 or even more guns to be considered able to stand in the line of battle.
In the 1600’s the Dutch had a strong navy which outfought the British on several occasions. Later, the British became the preeminent naval power, occasionally challenged by the French and Spanish.
After 1700, with rare exceptions, the British controlled the sea. One of those rare exceptions facilitated the American/French victory at the climactic battle of Yorktown during the American Revolution. The French fleet in question (made up of ships of the line) controlled the American coast long enough to prevent the British from relieving Cornwallis’ army, which led to its surrender. This fleet was later destroyed by the British in a battle in the Caribbean.
In the wars of the French Revolution (1789-1815), the British won several key naval battles which kept the French and their (sometimes unwilling) allies from assembling a fleet which could seize control of the English Channel and support an invasion. These victories (in battles between ships of the line) allowed British frigates to strangle French trade.
During this era, Americans did not have ships of the line, which were very expensive to build. However, during the war of 1812, the U.S. built several very powerful frigates (most notably, the Constitution, which survives today in Boston Harbor) which defeated British frigates in several notable single-ship battles. Not used to defeat, the British claimed that these were ships of the line in disguise. IIRC, these were 44 or 48 gun ships, which were comparable to heavier British frigates of the era. The American ships were better designed and built, which led to the victories. (It’s generally accepted that British ships of the era were often poorly designed and built. They rountinely beat superior French and Spanish ships and fleets because the Royal Navy had better officers and crews. As American crews were essentially equivalent to British, the better ships tipped the balance.)
The era of (naval) ssailing ships was over by the 1850’s, although this was not completely accepted until the American Civil War and the battle between the steam powered ironclads at the battle of Hampton Roads.
I’m currently reading a pile of books on fighting sail. It’s a fascinating topic, I think. Here’s how the Royal Navy classified their ships during the Napoleonic Wars.
1st Rate: A three gundeck ship of the line carrying 100 or more guns. They were just over 200’ in length, and crewed by ~900 men. Broadside weight 2500-2550lbs.
2nd Rate: A three deck ship of the line carrying 90 or 98 guns. Just under 200’ in length, with about 750 crew, they were very much like the 1st Rate vessels. Broadside weight 2050-2300lbs.
3rd Rate: A two gundeck ship of the line carrying 64, 74, or 80 guns. The 74’s were the most common ship in the Royal Navy, and were generally viewed as having the best balance between speed and firepower. Crew ranged from 500-700. Broadside weights 1200, 1764, and 1970lbs respectively.
4th Rate: A 50 gun two-decker with a crew of about 350. By the Napoleonic wars, these were uncommon, as they weren’t fast enough to act as frigates, but weren’t strong enough to stand up in the line of battle. 800lb broadside weight.
5th Rate: A frigate with 32-44 guns on a single deck and 200-300 crew. Around 150’ in length, frigates acted as scouts for the main battle fleet, as escorts for merchant shipping, or as commerce raiders. 350-636lb broadsides.
6th Rate: Light 125’ frigates with 20-28 guns, used mostly as couriers and convoy escorts. 180-250lb broadsides.
Unrated vessels: Anything else, typically brigs, cutters, or schooners that would do mostly scouting and courier duty, as they had precious little firepower.
Frigates and ships of the line didn’t ordinarily fight each other. On the open sea, any frigate captain not utterly insane would keep his distance from a battleship. About the only place they might exchange fire would be a frigate getting shot at while running a blockade.
One interesting anecdote I’ve come across in a couple places relates an episode during the Battle of the Nile (1798) when Nelson, with 13 74’s plus the 4th rate Leander attacked a French fleet of 13 sail of the line (8 74’s, 4 80’s, and the 120 gun flagship L’Orient) and 4 frigates that were supporting General Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign. Shortly after the British line attacked the French van, the French frigate Seriouse fired on the 74 gun Orion. Two sources that I’ve read state that it was considered “very bad form” for a battleship to fire on a frigate in a fleet action, but the Seriouse had voided that courtesy by opening fire. Orion’s captain reportedly said “Sink the brute,” and with a single broadside the Seriouse was dismasted and holed, and sank shortly after. Moral of the story: don’t try to take on a British 74 with your frigate.
The biggest ship of the era was actually a Spanish vessel, the Santissima Trinidad, a 4 deck behemoth mounting 130 guns. She was captured by the British at Trafalgar and scuttled, presumably because she was too damaged to tow to Gibraltar.