The Rating System
Britain’s Royal Navy introduced a system of rating the ships of its fleet based on the number of guns they carried. This rating system takes its name from the capability of ships to stand in a line of battle (Ship-of-the-Line). Initially introduced by Samuel Pepys in 1677, the rating system underwent numerous revisions until the late 1800s. After its introduction, the other nations also adopted very similar systems to categorise their ships.
The largest ships were classified as 1st rate. They were capable of incredible firepower and able to withstand severe damage. They were very costly to build and to maintain but were magnificent war machines that inspired fear and awe in the enemy. By the late 18th century, 1st rate vessels came to be defined as a Ship-of-the-Line that did not mount any less than 100 guns.
Ships of this size were extremely expensive to operate. This can be demonstrated by the Royal Navy only having 5 completed in 1794. They tended to be used as commanding flagships and then only during times of conflict. This ensured a longer life by less exposure to the rigours of the sea. This is how ships like HMS Victory were able to serve at Trafalgar, despite having been in service for forty years at that point.
The US Navy did not operate such large vessels, but their 3rd rate frigates were exceptionally reinforced and often overgunned.
A 3rd rate ship, as defined by the rating system, was a ship of the line which mounted between 64-80 guns. Usually, this would mean two gun decks. Despite their relative size and power compared to the larger 1st and 2nd rates, it was considered that 3rd rates maintained an effective, perhaps even superior balance between sailing ability, firepower and cost.
3rd rates would thus become fairly common as the seventy-four gun ship folded neatly into this categorisation. It was the most popular size of ship for several navies of a number of nations; being cheaper to operate and easier to sail than 1st or 2nd rates, but still maintaining enough offensive capability to take on most single opponents (with the exception of three-decked ships)
5th/6th Rate Frigates & Unrated Brigs
Frigates were perhaps the hardest-worked of warship types during the Age of Sail. A small warship with a perfect balance of speed, armament and resilience that made it one of the perfect vessels for single-ship action and privateering against merchant ships. It usually had one main gun deck as well as the guns positioned on the top decks. These were categorised as either 5th or 6th rate within the British Rating System, dependent on the number of guns they mounted.
The 5th rates were the archetypal frigates of the period. Used for single-ship actions and privateering, they could make their crews very rich as a result of the share of the prize money for any captured ship. A frigate was a desirable posting for a Royal Navy officer as they often saw action, so glory and promotion were more likely in addition to monetary benefits.
Frigates scouted for the fleet, went on commerce-raiding missions and patrols, and conveyed messages and dignitaries. Usually, frigates would fight in small numbers or singly against other frigates. They would avoid contact with ships-of-the-line; Indeed, even in the midst of a fleet engagement, it was bad etiquette for a ship of the line to fire on an enemy frigate which had not fired first… Wargamers take note!
Brigs meanwhile were two-masted square-rigged vessels, with between 10 and 18 cannons, frequently used in combat actions by various navies. Ships with less than 20 cannons were considered Unrated. These were not really meant to participate in large battles – that was the domain of the ships of the line. However, they were the vessels of choice for privateers and still played a valuable role during larger battles, relaying orders and messages in a similar fashion to the 6th rates.
Other Unrated Vessels
Schooners are two-masted vessels with both masts having loose footed sails rigged on gaff and two or more headsails (staysails rigged in front of the fore mast). They were not designed for combat, being built mainly for cargo, passenger and fishing purposes.
During the Napoleonic era, Schooners were used to communicate dispatches, rather than divert more important warships for this purpose. In fact their size and swiftness made them ideal for this purpose. Such vessels sometimes received criticism from the Admiralty for their sailing durability and inherent weakness, without understanding their exact purpose.
That is not to say that schooners did not actively engage in combat. Their speed made them ideal to intercept Slaver ships for example.
Schooners count as small vessels in Black Seas, operating only a single broadside light cannon. Despite this, schooners make the ideal basis of a Privateer fleet.
A gunboat squadron is like a gnat in comparison to the larger ships-of-the-line. Nevertheless, they have a useful place in the fleet. A gunboat would typically have only a single mast with square-rigged sails, mounting between one and three fixed cannons.
Fleets of all navies kept gunboats on hand. They could be useful in shallower waters, as with only a single mounted cannon, they were able to manoeuvre relatively easily where a large ship could not. If this cannon was a 32-pounder it could still prove dangerous to larger vessels. For instance, a frigate could easily destroy a single gunboat with a single broadside hit. But if deployed in large numbers, the frigate would struggle to deal with every gunboat before sustaining heavy damage itself. The extremely cheap cost and relative time is taken to build these gunboats could prove a tremendous advantage.
Gunboats were crucial to Napoleon’s notion for the planned invasion of England in 1804, whilst the US Navy’s policy between 1803 and 1812 focussed its Navy around the concept – this was to prove ineffectual against the British Blockade in the war of 1812.
The range is also ever-expanding so keep your eyes on the horizon (and the Warlord Webstore) for future releases!
Our fleet starter box sets are the perfect way to start your voyages in Black Seas. They have a wealth of different vessels to sink your teeth into, and even offer extra components to outfit your fleets with vessels of legend!