Category Archives: Naval Architecture

French frigates: “confessedly weaker, are oftener in port…”

We often encounter references to the high esteem the British navy had for French men o’ war. In novels they are reputed to be faster and handier than their British counterparts and highly valued by the British navy and coveted commands.

Like most other stories, this can be traced with some certainty to John Masefield’s notoriously uninformed “Sea Life in Nelson’s Time.”

The French treated shipbuilding as an imaginative art. The very finest brains in the kingdom were exercised in the planning and creation of ships of beautiful model. Admirable workmen, and the best talents of France, produced, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a number of sailing men-of-war which were more beautifully proportioned, faster on every point of sailing, stronger, and with larger batteries, than the ships built in this country at that time. A French 80-gun ship at the close of the eighteenth century was bigger, more roomy, faster, and a finer ship in every way, than our 98-gun ships. Our own men-of-war were so badly designed and proportioned that they were said to have been built by the mile, and cut off as required. They were very cramped between-decks, yet they were nearly always pierced for more guns than they could conveniently fight. They were very crank ships, and so “weak“ that they could not fight their lower-deck guns in anything like weather. They were slow at all points of sailing, and slack in stays. In heavy weather they sometimes rolled their masts out, or sprung them by violent pitching.

As we have to ask ourselves with any other statement made by Masefield, is this true?
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Introducing the Carronade

68-pounder carronade on HMS Victory

68-pounder carronade on HMS Victory


Warfare through the ages has been driven by the measure-countermeasure struggle between armor and armament.

Sometimes a breakthrough significantly shifts the balance one way or the other and changes warfare at least temporarily. Castles and armor dominated for a while but were driven into obsolescence by gunpowder. In our own era we’ve seen the tank reign supreme (World War II), have it’s death proclaimed with the advent of the man-portable guided missile and shaped charge (the Sagger missile during the Yom Kippur War) and then reemerge to dominate the battlefield thanks to the high velocity smoothbore cannon, reactive armor, and other advances in armor (the M1 Abrams).

The same saga played itself out at sea where naval architects had to deal in the assorted trade offs of weight distribution, handling, and the tensile strength of their basic construction material, wood.

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Filed under Age of Sail, Alan Lewrie Novels, Naval Architecture, Naval Fiction, Naval Gunnery, Naval Weapons

The Razees

Ship design during the Age of Sail was characterized by a constant struggle to achieve an optimum balance between speed and firepower. As technology and the art of shipbuilding advanced the size of ships increased.

Under the standard rating system for men o’war, ships of the line came in four rates. 1st rates carrying 100-120 guns, 2d rates carrying 90-98 guns, 3rd rates carrying 64-80 guns, and 4th rates carrying 48-60 guns. By the latter half of the 19th century it was obvious that 4th rates and those 3rd rates carrying fewer than 74 guns could no longer hold a place in the line of battle. To compound their weakness as line of battle ships they were too slow to be used as frigates.

Navies were confronted with the dilemma of how to best use these ships as scrapping them before their useful life cycle was ended wasn’t a good option. The solution was to convert them as razees.

A razee was simply a larger warship with a deck removed, or razed, to convert it to a large frigate. The resulting ship would have the strength of construction to carry larger guns and take more punishment than other ships in its class. As a bonus, their increased length made them fast sailers.

This process will be familiar to anyone who wrestled in high school or college. A razee is the guy at the low end of a weight class who could shed 7-10 pounds in a week so he could wrestle at a couple of classes lower than his natural weight.

Take, for instance, Sir Edward Pellew’s famous HMS Indefatigable. Indefatigable started life as a 64-gun 3rd rate that was obsolete upon its launch in 1784. A fact that was recognized by the fact that this new ship was never commissioned. In 1794, Indefatigable was razeed into a 44-gun frigate converting a useless ship of the line into a frigate that could outsail anything it could not outfight.

As technology progressed, razees became more extreme. HMS Majestic was a 74-gun 3rd rate that was razeed into a 58-gun frigate. The US Navy razeed the USS Macedonian, the former 38-gun frigate HMS Macedonian, into a 20-gun sloop. The 50-gun USS Cumberland was razeed into a 24-gun sloop. In these latter two cases not only did the longer hull length and heavier construction overmatch other ships in their class, improvements in technology enabled them to carry the same weight of broadside as they had as larger ships.

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