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HMS Chatham, a British Type 22 frigate.

The term frigate has been used for warships of many sizes and roles. In the eighteenth century, the term referred to ships that were as long as a ship of the line, carrying a full rig of sails on three masts, but were faster and with lighter armament and were used for patrolling and escort. In the nineteenth century, the armored frigate was a type of ironclad warship, and for a time it was the most powerful type of vessel afloat.

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

The age of sail


File:La Rieuse.jpg
La Rieuse, a 30-gun oar frigate (1674-1698)
Sailing frigate and its rigging

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

By the seventeenth 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 HMS 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 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.

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 eighteenth century. The French-built Medee 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 previously been the upper gun deck on similarly sized, two-decked ships earlier. The lower "gun" deck thus 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.

L'Astrolabe, of Dumont d'Urville.

Royal Navy frigates of the late eighteenth 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, Royal Navy 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 poor 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).

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-nineteenth 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.

Modern frigates

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


Modern frigates are only related to earlier frigates by name. The term "frigate" passed out of use in the mid nineteenth century and 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

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 defense platform, negating the need for such specialized AAW frigates, and form the core of many modern navies.

Anti-submarine warfare frigates

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some frigates are specialized 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 specialized 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 specialized 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 utilized 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 on board radar, helicopters can also be used to reconnoiter 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

Surcouf, a French La Fayette-class frigate
F220 Hamburg, a German Sachsen-class frigate

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 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 6800 tons. The 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. James Henderson, Frigates Sloops & Brigs (London: Pen & Sword Books, 2005, ISBN 978-1844153015).
  2. N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean—a Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London, UK: Allen Lane, 2004, ISBN 978-0713994117).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gardiner, Robert. Frigates of the Napoleonic Wars. Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2006. ISBN 1591142830
  • Gresham, John D. The swift and sure steeds of the fighting sail fleet were its dashing frigates. Military Heritage 3(4) (2002): 12-17, 87.
  • Henderson, James. Frigates Sloops and Brigs. London: Pen & Sword Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1848845268
  • Magoun, Alexander F. The Frigate Constitution And Other Historic Ships. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing LLC., 2007. ISBN 1432627481
  • Marriot, Leo. Royal Navy Frigates 1945-1983. Hinckley, UK: Ian Allan, 1983. ISBN 0711013225
  • Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean—a Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. Gardners Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0713994117

External links

All links retrieved May 13, 2017.

Warship types of the 19th & 20th Centuries
Aircraft Carrier | Battleship | Battlecruiser | Cruiser | Destroyer | Frigate | Ironclad | Monitor | Submarine


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