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HMS Victory in 1884

First Rate was the designation used by the Royal Navy for its largest ships of the line. While the size and establishment of guns and men altered over the 250 years that the Rating system held sway, from the early Georgian period the First Rate comprised those ships mounting 100 guns or more on three gundecks.[1]

In the Nelsonic period, First Rate vessels carried over 800 crew and displaced in excess of 2,000 tons.

Contents

Rating

When the original rating system evolved during the first part of the seventeenth century, First Rates were ships with a complement of at least 300 men (it was not until after 1660 that the number of carriage guns became the deciding criterion). Early First Rates had as few as 60 guns, but by the mid-1660s First Rates generally had between 90 and 100 guns. In the Eighteenth Cenury it became accepted that 100 guns was the standard criterion for a First Rate (while 90 guns, later 98 guns, became the standard ordnance for a Second Rate). Towards the close of the century, ships were built with more than 100 guns, and they too were classed as First Rates.

In addition to the rated number of carriage-mounted guns (which included the heaviest calibre available mounted on their lower decks, with smaller guns on the decks above), First Rates also carried a number of anti-personnel guns, initially swivel-mounted weapons. From the invention of the slide-mounted carronade in the later 1770s, First Rates (like other warships) could mount a number of these on their quarterdecks and forecastles to augment their short-range firepower, but these were not included in the ship's Rating until 1817.

Although very powerful, First Rates tended to be slow and unhandy. For stability, the lowest gundeck had to be very close to the water, and in anything but calm water the gunports had to be kept closed, rendering the entire deck useless. With later ships built with more freeboard (the height above the waterline of the sill of the lowest port), this problem was gradually overcome.

Ships of this size were also extremely expensive to operate. As a result, the few First Rates (the Royal Navy had only five in 1794) were typically reserved as commanding admirals' flagships. First Rates were typically kept unmanned in port, ("In Ordinary"), during peacetime and only activated ("commissioned") during times of conflict. This had the added advantage of preserving them from the wear and tear that smaller ships experienced in spending long periods at sea. These periods spent in ordinary could considerably extend a First Rate's lifespan; for instance, by the time she fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory had been in service for 40 years.

These being the most powerful ships of the navy, it was common to compare them with the navies of other nations, and frequently one sees the largest ships of those navies being referred to as First Rates. Other nations of course had their own rating systems, notably the French Navy with its system of five formal rates or rangs.

Ships

Because of their unique importance as prestige warships, only a small number of First Rates could be built and maintained at any one time. Thus over the 250 years (approximately) that the Rating system of the Royal Navy held sway, only a relatively small number of First Rates saw service.

Only one First Rate ship survives. HMS Victory, Vice-Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, is preserved at HMNB Portsmouth as an active warship in commission. The hull of the 112-gun HMS St Lawrence, which was built and operated entirely in fresh water during the War of 1812, survives intact in shallow water near shore in Kingston, Ontario and is a popular diving attraction. Two other famous First Rate ships were HMS Royal Sovereign, which was broken up in 1841, and HMS Britannia, which was broken up in 1825. Both these ships had 100 guns. Later First Rates such as the Caledonia and its several sisters had 120 guns. Other navies, notably those of France and Spain, also had similar ships with more than 100 guns, the most heavily-armed being the Spanish Santísima Trinidad which held over 130 guns.

Notes

  1. ^ Bennett "The Battle of Trafalgar", p. 19

Bibliography

  • Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean, a Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, London (2004). ISBN 0-713-99411-8.
  • Bennett, G. The Battle of Trafalgar, Barnsley (2004). ISBN 1-84415-107-7.
  • Winfield, Rif, British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1603-1714, Barnsley (2009) ISBN 978-1-84832-040-6; British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1714-1792, Barnsley (2007) ISBN 978-1-84415-700-6; British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1793-1817, (2nd edition) Barnsley (2008). ISBN 978-1-84415-717-4.
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