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A contemporary diagram illustrating a first and a third-rate ship.

The rating system of the Royal Navy and its predecessors was used by that navy between the beginning of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century to categorise sailing warships, initially classing them according to their assigned complement of men, and later according to the number of their carriage-mounted guns.


Origins & description

The first movement towards a rating system may be seen in the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century, when the largest carracks in the Navy (such as Mary Rose, the Henri Grâce à Dieu and Grace Dieu) were denoted "Great Ships". This was only on the basis of their roughly-estimated size and not on their weight, crew or number of guns. When these carracks developed into galleons later in the 16th century, "Great Ship" was used to formally delineate the Navy's largest ships from all the rest.

The formal system of dividing up the Navy's combatant warships into a number or groups or "Rates", however, only originated in the very early part of the Stuart Era, with the first lists of such categorisation appearing around 1604. At this time the combatant ships of the "Navy Royal" (the term Royal Navy was only introduced after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660) were divided up according to the number of men required to man them at sea (i.e the size of the crew) into four groups - (A) Royal Ships (the largest ships in the previous "Great Ships" grouping), (B) Great Ships (the rest of the ships in the previous "Great Ships" grouping), (C) Middling Ships and (D) Small Ships.

By the early years of King Charles I's reign, these four groups had been renamed to a numerical sequence. The Royal Ships were now graded as First Rank, the Great Ships as Second Rank, the Middling Ships as Third Rank, and the Small Ships as Fourth Rank. Soon afterwards, the structure was again modified, with the term Rank now being replaced by Rate, and the former Small Ships now being sub-divided into Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Rates.

The earliest rating was based not on the number of guns, but on the established complement (number of men). This first classıficatıon took place ın 1626, and was substantially altered in late 1653 as the complements of individual shıps were raised. From about 1660 the classification moved from one based on the number of men to one based on the number of carriage guns a ship carried.

Samuel Pepys, then Secretary to the Admiralty, revised the structure in 1677 and laid it down as a "solemn, universal and unalterable" classification. The Rating of a ship was of administrative and military use. The number and weight of guns determined the size of crew needed, and hence the amount of pay and rations needed. It also indicated whether a ship was powerful enough to stand in the line of battle. Pepys's original classification was updated by further definitions in 1714, 1721, 1760, 1782, 1801 and 1817 (the last being the most severe, as it provided for including in the count of guns the carronades that had previously been excluded). On the whole the trend was for each rate to have a greater number of guns. For instance, Pepys allowed a First Rate 90–100 guns, but on the 1801 scheme a First Rate had 100–120. A Sixth Rate's range went from 4–18 to 20–28 (after 1714 any ship with fewer than 20 guns was unrated).

A First to Third Rate ship was regarded as a "ship-of-the-line". The First and Second Rates were three-deckers, that is, they had three continuous decks of guns (on the lower deck, middle deck and upper deck), as well as smaller weapons on the quarterdeck, forecastle and poop. The notable exception to this rule being ships such as the Santisima Trinidad of Spain, which had 120 guns and four gun decks. Third Rates, those of 80 guns, were likewise three-deckers from the 1690s until the early 1750s, but both before this period and subsequent to it, 80-gun ships were built as two-deckers. All the other Third Rates, with 74 guns or less, were likewise two-deckers, with just two continuous decks of guns (on the lower deck and upper deck), as well as smaller weapons on the quarterdeck, forecastle and (if they had one) poop.

The smaller Fourth Rates, of about 50 or 60 guns on two decks, were ships-of-the-line until 1756, when it was felt that such 50-gun ships were now too small for pitched battles. The larger Fourth Rates of 60 guns continued to be counted as ships-of-the-line, but few new ships of this rate were added, the 60-gun Fourth Rate being superseded over the next few decades by the 64-gun Third Rate. The Navy did retain some Fourth Rates for convoy escort, or as flagships on far-flung stations; it also converted some East Indiamen to that role.

The smaller two deckers originally blurred the distinction between a Fourth Rate and a Fifth Rate. At the low end of the Fourth Rate one might find the two-decker 50-gun ships from ca.1756. The high end of the Fifth Rate would include two-deckers of 40- or 44-guns (from 1690) or even the demi-batterie 32-gun and 36-gun ships of the 1690-1730 period. The Fifth Rates at the start of the 18th century were generally "demi-batterie" ships, carrying a few heavy guns on their lower deck (which often used the rest of the lower deck for row ports) and a full battery of lesser guns on the upper deck. However, these were gradually phased out, as the low freeboard (i.e., the height of the lower deck gunport sills above the waterline) meant that in rough weather it was often impossible to open the lower deck gunports.

Fifth and Sixth Rates were never included among ships-of-the-line. The middle of the 18th century saw the introduction of a new Fifth Rate type - the classic frigate, with no ports on the lower deck, and the main battery disposed solely on the upper deck.

Sixth Rate ships were generally useful as convoy escorts, for blockade duties and the carrying of dispatches; their small size made them less suited for the general cruising tasks the Fifth Rate frigates did so well. Essentially there were two groups of Sixth Rates. The larger category comprised the Sixth Rate frigates of 28 guns, carrying a main battery of twenty-four 9-pounder guns, as well as four smaller guns on their superstructures. The second comprised the "Post-ships" of between 20 and 24 guns. These were too small to be formally counted as frigates (although colloquially often grouped with them), but still required a post-captain (i.e. an officer holding the substantive rank of Captain) as their commander.

The rating system did not handle vessels smaller than the Sixth Rate. The remainder were simply "unrated". The larger of the unrated vessels were generally called sloops; but be warned that nomenclature is quite confusing for unrated vessels, especially when dealing with the finer points of "ship sloop", "brig sloop", "sloop-of-war" or even "corvette" (the last a French term that the British Navy did not use until the 1840s). Technically the category of "sloop-of-war" included any unrated combatant vessel - in theory, the term even extended to bomb vessels and fireships. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy increased the number of sloops in service by some 400% as it found these small vessels useful for escorting convoys, combating privateers, and themselves taking prizes.

The number of guns and the Rate

The rated number of guns often differed from the number a vessel actually carried. The guns that determined a ship's rating were the carriage-mounted cannons, long-barreled, muzzle-loading guns that moved on 'trucks' — wooden wheels. The count did not include smaller (and basically anti-personnel) weapons such as swivel-mounted guns ("swivels"), which fired half-pound projectiles, or small arms.

For instance, HMS Cynthia was rated for 18 guns but during construction her rating was reduced to 16 guns (6-pounders), and she also carried 14 half-pound swivels.

Vessels might also carry other guns that did not contribute to the rating. Examples of such weapons would include mortars, howitzers or boat guns, the boat guns being small guns intended for mounting on the bow of a vessel's boats to provide fire support during landings, cutting out expeditions, and the like. From 1778, however, the most important exception was the carronade.

The late 1770s saw the introduction of the carronade, which was a short-barreled and relatively short-range gun, half the weight of equivalent long guns, and which was generally mounted on a slide rather than on trucks. The new carronades were generally housed on a vessel's upperworks — quarterdeck and forecastle — some as additions to its existing ordnance and some as replacements. When the carronades replaced or were in lieu of carriage-mounted cannon they generally counted in arriving at the rating, but not all were, and so may or may not have been included in the count of guns, though rated vessels might carry up to twelve 18-, 24- or 32-pounder carronades.

For instance, HMS Armada was rated as a Third Rate of 74 guns. She carried 28 32-pounder cannon on her gundeck, 28 18-pounder cannon on her upperdeck, four 12-pounder cannon and 10 32-pounder carronades on her quarterdeck, two 12-pounder cannon and two 32-pounder carronades on her forecastle, and six 18-pounder carronades on her poop deck. In all, this 74-gun vessel carried 80 guns: 62 cannons and 18 carronades.

When carronades became part (or in some cases all) of a ship's main armament, they had to be included in the count of guns.

For instance, Bonne Citoyenne was a 20-gun corvette of the French Navy that the British captured and recommissioned in the Royal navy as the 20-gun Sixth Rate sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenne. She carried two 9-pounder cannon, and 18 32-pounder carronades.

By the Napoleonic Wars there was no exact correlation between formal gun rating and the actual number of long guns or carronades any individual vessel might carry. In 1817 the Royal Navy introduced a new system of classification that counted all the carronades in the vessel's rating. The rating system was again modified later based more on the size of the crew.

Rating system as in force in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars

Type Rate Guns Gun decks Men Approximate Burthen in tons* In Commission 1794 In Commission 1814
Ship of the line (but see footnote) 1st Rate 100 to 120 3 850 to 875 2,500 5 7
2nd Rate 90 to 98 3 700 to 750 about 2,200 9 5
3rd Rate 64 to 80 2 500 to 650 1,750 71 87
4th Rate 48 to 60 2 320 to 420 about 1,000 8 8
Frigate (but see footnote) 5th Rate 32 to 44 1 or 2 200 to 300 700 to 1,450 78 123
6th Rate 28 1 200 450 to 550 22 nil
Post ship 6th Rate 20 to 24 1 or 2 140 to 160 340 to 450 10 25
Sloop-of-war Unrated 16 to 18 1 90 to 125 380 76 360
Gun-brig or Cutter 6 to 14 1 5 to 25 < 220
  • From 1756 on, the Royal Navy no longer classified smaller two-deckers of the Fourth Rate (primarily the 50-gun ships) as ships of the line. It generally classified them, like all smaller warships used primarily in the role of escort and patrol ("convoys and cruising") vessels, as "cruisers", a term that covered everything from the smaller two-deckers down to the small gun-brigs and cutters. The larger Fifth Rate, generally two-decked ships of 40 or 44 guns (and thus technically not "frigates", although 40-gun frigates were also built during the Napoleonic War), also fell into this category
  • *The ton in this instance is defined as 35 cubic feet (0.99 m3) of water and is not a unit of mass. The (burthen) tonnage of a ships was calculated using the formula "k" x "b" x ½"b"/94, where "k" was the keel length and "b" the maximum breadth of the vessel. Therefore, one should not change a displacement in "tons" into a displacement in "tonnes". However, 35 cubic feet (0.99 m3) of seawater does have a mass of very approximately one imperial (long) ton (2240 pounds), as used in Britain. Note also: that the ton for merchant ships is defined as 100 cu ft (2.8 m3) of water (the register ton).

Other classifications

Rating was not the only system of classification used. Throughout the Age of Sail the definition of the term "ship" required it to be a vessel being square-rigged on three masts. Sailing vessels with only two masts or a single mast were technically not 'ships', and in the sailing era would never have been described as such. Vessels with fewer than three masts were unrated sloops, generally two-masted vessels rigged as snows or ketches (in the first half of the 18th century), or brigs in succeeding eras. However some sloops were three-masted or ship-rigged, and these were known as ship sloops.

Vessels were also sometimes classified according to the substantial rank of her commanding officer. For instance, when the commanding officer of a gun-brig or even a cutter was a lieutenant with the status of master-and-commander, the custom was to recategorise the vessel as a sloop.

For instance, when Pitt Burnaby Greene, the commanding officer of Bonne Citoyenne in 1811, received his promotion to Post captain, the Navy reclassed the sloop as a Post ship.

Practices in other navies

Although the rating system described in this article was only used by the Royal Navy, other major navies used similar means of grading their warships. For example, the French Navy used a system of five rates ("rangs") which had a similar purpose. British authors might still use "first-rate" when referring to the largest ships of other nations or "third-rate" to speak of a French seventy-four. By the end of the 18th century, the rating system had mostly fallen out of common use, ships of the line usually being characterized directly by their nominal number of guns, the numbers even being used as the name of the type, as in "a squadron of three seventy-fours".

Other uses

The term first-rate has passed into general usage, as an adjective used to mean something of the best or highest quality available. Second-rate and Third-rate are also used as adjectives to mean that something is of inferior quality. This is ironic as the Third Rates formed the vast majority of the battlefleet, as the three-decker First Rates and Second Rates were too expensive to use as much more than a flagship for the Admiral commanding a fleet; while less powerful than the three-deckers, the Third Rate was the essential element of the fighting fleet.

See also

Type system of the Royal Navy - a somewhat analogous modern day system used by the Royal Navy to classify and rate escort vessels.


  • Bennett, G. The Battle of Trafalgar, Barnsley (2004). ISBN 1-84415-107-7
  • Military Heritage did a feature on frigates and included the British Rating System (John D. Gresham, Military Heritage, February 2002, Volume 3, No.4, pp. 12 to 17 and p. 87).
  • Rodger, N. A. M. The Command of the Ocean: a Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, London (2004). ISBN 0-713-99411-8
  • 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.

External links



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