Rating system of the Royal Navy
Ships of the line
For the bird, see Frigatebird.

A frigate is a warship. The term has been used for warships of many sizes and roles across eras.

In the 18th century, the term referred to ships which were as long as a ship-of-the-line and were square-rigged on all three masts, but were faster and with lighter armament, used for patrolling and escort. In the 19th century, the armoured frigate was a type of ironclad warship and for a time was the most powerful type of vessel afloat.

In modern navies, frigates are used to protect other warships and merchant-marine ships, especially as anti-submarine warfare (ASW) combatants for amphibious expeditionary forces, underway replenishment groups, and merchant convoys. But ship classes dubbed "frigates" have also more closely resembled corvettes, destroyers, cruisers and even battleships.

The age of sail


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Sailing frigate and its rigging

The term "frigate" originated in the Mediterranean in the 15th century, referring to a galleass-type ship with oars, sails and a light armament. [1]

By the 17th century, the phrase was used in England to describe a type of small, long, warship with small armament and a large crew used by Dunkirk Privateers for short-range raiding in the English Channel. The term was soon adopted for any relatively fast and lightly built warships, the first in British service being the Constant Warwick of 1645.

Because the British navy required greater endurance than the Dunkirk frigates could provide, the term 'frigate' was soon applied less exclusively to any relatively fast and elegant ship. Even the mighty Sovereign of the Seas was described as 'a delicate frigate' after modifications to her in 1651.

The fleets built by the Commonwealth in the 1650s generally consisted of ships described as 'frigates', the largest of which were two-decker 'great frigates' of the third rate. Carrying 60 guns, these vessels were as big and capable as 'great ships' of the time; however, most other frigates at the time were used as 'cruisers'; independent fast ships. The term 'frigate' implied a long hull design, which relates directly to speed (see hull speed) and also, in turn, helped the development of the broadside tactic in naval warfare.

In French, the term 'frigate' became a verb, meaning 'to build long and low', and an adjective, adding further confusion. [2]

According to the rating system of the Royal Navy, laid down in the 1660s, frigates were usually of the fifth rate, though small 28-gun frigates were classed as sixth rate.[1]

The 'classic' frigate

The 'classic' sailing frigate, well-known today for its role in the Napoleonic wars, can be traced back to French developments in the second quarter of the 18th century. The French-built Médée of 1740 is often regarded as the first example of this type. These ships were full rigged and carried all their main guns on a single gun deck, which had used to be the upper gun deck on similarly-sized two-decked ships earlier. The lower 'gun' deck now carried no armament and functioned as "berth 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 with all 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 sailed very well and were 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.

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.

In 1797, the US Navy's first major ships were 44-gun frigates (or "super-frigates"), which actually carried fifty-six to sixty 24-pounder long guns and 36-pounder or 48-pounder carronades on two decks, were exceptionally powerful and tough. These ships were so well-respected that they were often seen as equal to 4th-rate ships of the line, and, after a series of losses at the outbreak of the War of 1812, RN fighting instructions ordered British frigates (usually of 38-guns or less) to never engage American frigates at any less than a 2:1 advantage. The USS Constitution, better known as "Old Ironsides", the oldest commissioned ship afloat, is the last remaining example of an American 44, if not the last sailing frigate.

The role of the frigates

Frigates were perhaps the hardest-worked of warship types during the age of sail. While smaller than a ship-of-the-line, they were formidable opponents for the large numbers of sloops and gunboats, not to mention privateers or merchantmen. Able to carry six months' stores, they had very long range; and larger ships were valuable enough that they rarely operated independently.

Frigates scouted for the fleet, went on commerce-raiding missions and patrols, 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; even in the midst of a fleet engagement it was bad etiquette for a battleship to fire on an enemy frigate which had not fired first.

For officers in the Royal Navy a frigate was a desirable posting. Frigates often saw action, which meant a greater chance of glory, and with it promotion and prize money.

Unlike larger ships that were placed in ordinary, frigates were kept in service in peacetime both as a cost-saving measure and to provide experience to frigate captains and officers which would be useful in wartime. Frigates could also carry marines for boarding enemy ships or for operations on shore.

Frigate armament ranged from 22 guns on one deck to up to even 60 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).

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The fictitious, but representative, ironclad frigate USS Abraham Lincoln, from the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Frigates remained a crucial element of navies until the mid-19th century. The first ironclads were classified as 'frigates' because of the number of guns they carried. However, terminology changed as iron and steam became the norm, and the role of the frigate was assumed first by the protected cruiser and then by the destroyer.

Frigates are often the ship of choice in historic naval novels, such at the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey–Maturin series and C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series. The motion picture Master and Commander features a reconstructed historic frigate, HMS Rose to depict Aubrey's ship HMS Surprise.

The age of steam

Frigates continued to play a great role in navies with the adoption of steam power in the 19th century. in the 1830s, navies experimented with large paddle-steamers equipped with large guns mounted on one deck, which were termed 'paddle frigates'. From the mid-1840s, frigates which more closely resembled the traditional sailing frigate were built with steam engines and screw propellers. These 'screw frigates', built first of wood and later of iron, continued to perform the traditional role of the frigate until late in the 19th century.

From 1859, armour was added to ships based on existing frigate and ship of the line designs. The additional weight of the armour on these first ironclad warships meant that they could have only one gun deck, and they were technically frigates, even though they were more powerful than existing ships-of-the-line and occupied the same strategic role. The phrase 'armoured frigate' remained in use for some time to denote a sail-equipped, broadside-firing type of ironclad.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the term 'frigate' fell out of use. Armoured vessels were designated as either 'battleships' or 'armoured cruisers', wile unarmoured vessels including frigates and sloops were classified as 'unprotected cruisers'.

Modern frigates

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HMS Swale of the River-class, the original modern frigates

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HMAS Darwin, an Australian Adelaide-class frigate
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HMCS Regina, a Canadian Halifax-class frigate
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Surcouf, a French La Fayette-class frigate
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F220 Hamburg, a German Sachsen-class frigate
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HNLMS Van Speijk, a Dutch Karel Doorman-class frigate
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USS Vandegrift, an American Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate
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ARC Almirante Padilla, the first out of four Colombian Padilla Class light missile frigates


Modern frigates are only related to earlier frigates by name. The term "frigate" was readopted during World War II by the British Royal Navy to describe a new type of anti-submarine escort vessel that was larger than a corvette, but smaller than a destroyer. The frigate was introduced to remedy some of the shortcomings inherent in the corvette design, namely limited armament, a hull form not suited to open ocean work, a single shaft which limited speed and maneuverability, and a lack of range. The frigate was designed and built to the same mercantile construction standards (scantlings) as the corvette - allowing manufacture by yards unused to warship construction. The first frigates of the River class (1941) were essentially two sets of corvette machinery in one larger hull, armed with the latest Hedgehog anti-submarine weapon. The frigate possessed less offensive firepower and speed than a destroyer, but such qualities were not requisite in anti-submarine warfare (for instance, ASDIC sets did not operate effectively at speeds of over 20 knots). Rather, the frigate was an austere and weatherly vessel suitable for mass-construction and fitted with the latest innovations in anti-submarine warfare. As the frigate was intended purely for convoy duties, and not to deploy with the fleet, it had limited range and speed.

It was not until the Royal Navy's Bay class of 1944 that a frigate design was produced for fleet use (although it still suffered from limited speed). These frigates were similar to the United States Navy's (USN) destroyer escorts (DE), although the latter had greater speed and offensive armament to better suit it to fleet deployments. American DEs serving in the British Royal Navy were rated as frigates, and British-influenced Tacoma class frigates serving in the USN were classed as patrol frigates (PF). One of the most successful post-1945 designs was the British Leander class frigate, which was used by several navies.

Guided missile frigates

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Modern frigates

The development of the surface-to-air missile after the Second World War conferred anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) to the frigate mission, in the form of the "guided missile frigate." In the USN, these vessels were called "Ocean Escorts" and designated "DE" or "DEG" until 1975 - a holdover from the World War II Destroyer Escort or DE. Other navies maintained the use of the term "frigate."

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the USN commissioned ships classed as guided missile frigates which were actually AAW cruisers built on destroyer-style hulls. Some of these ships - the Bainbridge-, Truxtun-, California- and Virginia- classes - were nuclear-powered. These were larger than any previous frigates and the use of the term frigate here is much more analogous to its original use. All such ships were reclassified as guided missile cruisers (CG / CGN) or, in the case of the smaller Farragut-class, as guided missile destroyers (DDG) in 1975. The last of these particular frigates were struck from the Naval Vessel Register in the 1990s.

Nearly all modern frigates are equipped with some form of offensive or defensive missiles, and as such are rated as guided missile frigates (FFG). Improvements in surface-to-air missiles (like the Eurosam Aster 15) has meant that the modern frigate can increasingly be used as a fleet defence platform, negating the need for such specialised AAW frigates, and form the core of many modern navies.

Anti-submarine warfare frigates

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some frigates are specialised for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Increasing submarine speeds towards the end of the Second World War (see German Type XXI submarine) meant that the margin of speed superiority of frigate over submarine was greatly reduced. The frigate could therefore no longer be a relatively slow vessel powered by mercantile machinery, and as such postwar frigate construction was of fast vessels, such as the Whitby class. Such ships carry improved sonar equipment, such as the variable depth sonar or towed array, and specialised weapons such as torpedoes, ahead-throwing weapons such as Limbo and missile-carried anti-submarine torpedoes like ASROC or Ikara. They can retain defensive and offensive capabilities by the carriage of surface-to-air and to-surface missiles (such as Sea Sparrow or Exocet, respectively). The Royal Navy's original Type 22 frigate is an example of such a specialised ASW frigate.

Especially for ASW, most modern frigates have a landing deck and hangar aft to operate helicopters. This negates the need for the frigate to close unknown sub-surface contacts it has detected, and thus risking attack and is especially pertinent as modern submarines are often nuclear powered and faster than surface warships. The helicopter is utilised for this purpose instead, allowing the parent ship to stand off at a safe distance. For this tasking the helicopter is equipped with sensors such as sonobuoys, wire-mounted dipping sonar and magnetic anomaly detectors, to identify possible threats and combat confirmed targets with torpedoes or depth-charges. With their onboard radar, helicopters can also be used to reconnoitre targets over-the-horizon and, if equipped with anti-ship missiles such as Penguin or Sea Skua, to engage in anti-surface warfare as well. The helicopter is also invaluable for search and rescue operation and has largely replaced the use of small boats or the jackstay rig for such duties as transferring personnel, mail and cargo between ships or to shore. With helicopters, these tasks can be accomplished faster and less dangerously, and without the need for the frigate to deviate from its course.

Modern developments

Modern times have seen the arrival of stealth technology in frigate design. Their shapes are configured to offer a minimal radar cross section, which also lends them good air penetration; the maneuverability of these frigates has been compared to that of sailing ships. A good example is the French La Fayette-class with the Aster 15 missile for anti-missile capabilities, or the German F125 class and Sachsen class frigates.

The modern French Navy applies the term frigate to both frigates and destroyers in service. Pennant numbers remain divided between F-series numbers for those ships internationally recognized as frigates and D-series pennant numbers for those more traditionally recognized as destroyers. This can result in some confusion as certain classes are referred to as frigates in French service while similar ships in other navies are referred to as destroyers. This also results in some recent classes of French ships being among the largest in the world to carry the rating of frigate.

Also in the German Navy frigates were used to replace aging destroyers; however in size and role the new German frigates exceed the former class of destroyers. The future F125 class frigate will be the largest class of frigates worldwide with a displacement of 6.800 tons. Same was done in the Spanish Navy, which went ahead with the deployment of the first AEGIS frigates, the F-100 class frigates.

Some new classes of frigates are optimized for high-speed deployment and combat with small craft ahead of the usual idea of sea combat between equal opponents, an example of this school of thought is the American Littoral Combat Ship, as exemplified by the first ship of the type, USS Freedom.


1. ^ Henderson, James: Frigates Sloops & Brigs. Pen & Sword Books, London, 2005. ISBN 1-84415-301-0
2. ^ Rodger, N.A.M: The Command of the Ocean - a Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. Allen Lane, London, 2004. ISBN 0-7139-9411-8
  • Gresham, John D., "The swift and sure steeds of the fighting sail fleet were its dashing frigates", Military Heritage magazine, (John D. Gresham, Military Heritage, February 2002, Volume 3, No.4, pp. 12 to 17 and p. 87).
  • Royal Navy Frigates 1945-1983 Leo Marriot, Ian Allan, 1983, ISBN 0-7110-1322-5

See also

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.

Sail frigates
Steam frigates
Modern frigates
Current frigates
New ZealandNew Zealand
United KingdomUnited KingdomUnited KingdomUnited Kingdom
United StatesUnited StatesUnited StatesUnited States
Republic of China (Taiwan)Taiwan

Note that the People's Republic of China also currently operates the Jianghu and Jiangwei class frigates, as well as constructing the 054 Jiangkai series of modern stealth frigates.

Warship types of the 19th & 20th Centuries
Aircraft Carrier | Battleship | Battlecruiser | Cruiser | Destroyer | Frigate | Ironclad | Monitor | Submarine
    The rating system of the Royal Navy was used by the Royal Navy between the 1670s and early 19th century to categorise sailing warships according to the number and of weight of their guns.
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    ship-of-the-line was a type of naval warship constructed from the 17th century through the mid-19th century, the culmination of a naval tactic known as the line of battle, in which two columns of opposing warships would manoeuvre to bring the greatest weight of broadside guns to
    ..... Click the link for more information.
    First-rate was the designation used by the British Royal Navy for its largest ships of the line, those mounting 100 guns or more on three gundecks.

    First-rate vessels carried over 800 crew and displaced in excess of 2,000 tons.
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      In the British Royal Navy, a Second-rate was a ship of the line mounting 90 to 98 guns on three gun decks. They were essentially smaller and hence cheaper versions of the three-decker First rates.
      ..... Click the link for more information.

      In the British Royal Navy, a third-rate
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        In the British Royal Navy, a fourth-rate was, during the first half of the 18th century, a ship of the line mounting from 46 up to 60 guns. While the number of guns stayed subsequently in the same range up until 1817, after 1756 the ships of 50 guns and below were considered
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          In the Royal Navy, a fifth-rate was a sailing frigate mounting 32 to 44 guns with the main battery on a single deck.

          Fifth-rate ships acted as fast scouts or independent cruisers and included a variety of gun arrangements from 32 or 36 x 12 pounders to 36, 38, 40 or
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            Sixth-rate was the designation used by the Royal Navy for small warships mounting between 20 and 28 nine-pounder guns on a single deck, sometimes with guns on the upper works and sometimes without.
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              In the 18th and the earlier part of the 19th centuries, a sloop-of-war was a small sailing warship (also known as one of the escort types) with a single gun deck that carried anything up to eighteen cannon.
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              For the nuclear test codenamed Frigate Bird, see the main article Operation Dominic I and II.


              Scientific classification

              Kingdom: Animalia
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              warship is a ship that is built and primarily intended for combat . Warships are usually built in a completely different way than merchant ships. As well as being armed, warships are designed to withstand damage and are usually faster and more maneuverable than merchant ships.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              ship-of-the-line was a type of naval warship constructed from the 17th century through the mid-19th century, the culmination of a naval tactic known as the line of battle, in which two columns of opposing warships would manoeuvre to bring the greatest weight of broadside guns to
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              Square rig is a generic type of sail and rigging arrangement in which the primary driving sails are carried on horizontal spars which are perpendicular to the keel of the vessel and to the masts.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              ironclad was a steam-propelled warship of the later 19th century, protected by iron or steel armor plates.[1]

              The ironclad was developed as a result of the vulnerability of wooden warships to explosive or incendiary shells.
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              Ship transport is primarily used for the carriage of people and non-perishable goods, generally referred to as cargo.

              Although the historic importance of sea travel has lost much importance due to the rise of commercial aviation, it is still very effective for short trips
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              Anti-submarine warfare (ASW or in older forms A/S) is a branch of naval warfare that uses surface warships, aircraft or other submarines to find, track and then damage or destroy enemy submarines.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              convoy is a group of vehicles (of any type, but usually motor vehicles or ships) traveling together for mutual support. Often, a convoy is organized with armed defensive support, though it may also be used in a non-military sense, for example when driving through remote areas.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              corvette is a small, maneuverable, lightly armed warship, smaller than a frigate and larger than a coastal patrol craft. During the Age of Sail, corvettes were smaller than frigates and larger than sloops-of-war, usually with a single gun deck.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet or battle group and defend them against smaller, short-range but powerful attackers (originally torpedo boats, later submarines and aircraft).
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              cruiser is a type of warship. The nature and role of the cruiser has changed considerably over the years.

              Historically a cruiser was not a type of ship but a warship role.
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              battleship is a large, heavily armored warship with a main battery consisting of the largest calibre of guns. Battleships are larger, better-armed and better-armored than cruisers and destroyers.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              Mediterranean is a sea of the Atlantic Ocean almost completely enclosed by land: on the north by Europe, on the south by Africa, and on the east by Asia. It covers an approximate area of 2.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              During the Dutch revolt (1568 - 1648) the Dunkirk Raiders or Dunkirk Privateers (Dutch: Duinkerker kapers) were privateers in the service of the Spanish Empire operating from the port of Dunkirk at the Flemish coast.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              English Channel (French: La Manche, "the sleeve") is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates the island of Great Britain from northern France and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              HMS Sovereign of the Seas was a 90-gun (later 100) first rate ship of the line of the English Royal Navy. She was later renamed Sovereign, and then Royal Sovereign.
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              The Commonwealth of England was the republican government which ruled first England (including Wales) and then Ireland and Scotland from 1649 to 1660. After the regicide of Charles I on January 30, 1649, its existence was initially declared () by the Rump Parliament on May
              ..... Click the link for more information.

              In the British Royal Navy, a third-rate
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              cruiser is a type of warship. The nature and role of the cruiser has changed considerably over the years.

              Historically a cruiser was not a type of ship but a warship role.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              Hull speed, sometimes referred to as displacement speed, is a common rule of thumb based on the speed/length ratio of a displacement hull, used to provide the approximate speed potential (i.e. maximum speed possible) of the hull.
              ..... Click the link for more information.
              broadside is the side of a ship; the battery of cannon on one side of a warship; or their simultaneous (or near simultaneous) fire in naval warfare.

              In older naval warfare

              Broadsides were quite different during older naval warfare, in the age of sail.
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