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"Were I to die at this moment, want of frigates would be found stamped on my heart."

Admiral Lord Nelson 1798

Basic Information

Initially meaning "any warship built for speed and manouverability" the term frigate eventually settled down during the Age of Sail to mean any purpose built warship with only one complete deck of guns (there was generally a lower size limit as well and/or requirements for a quaterdeck and forecastle or similar things). A frigate also needed to be "ship rigged" … although occasional examples could be found with one or more of the three masts carrying a rig that was other than square1.

The Royal Navy considered frigates to be ships of either the fifth or sixth rates (respectively either 44-30 guns, 215-300 crew or 20-28 guns, 150-240 men), anything smaller that was still ship-rigged being a "ship-sloop" (the French called ships equivalent to a sixth rate a corvette).

The frigate was generally an admiral's choice for any non-fleet duty such as scouting, escort duty, commerce raiding and the like - and a plum posting for any captain as his rovings stood him a far better chance of prize money than he would have had attached to the fleet. In fleet actions frigates generally enjoyed a sort of priviledged status, traditionally immune to attacks from a ship of the line unless they fired first (away from fleet actions, the frigate had to rely on better sailing qualities to avoid being attacked), as a result they served as signal repeaters and rescue ships - or interfered with the enemy's frigates instead. As suggested in the flavour quotes, it was rare for any admiral to consider that he had anywhere enough frigates (albiet often for the very good reason that he didn't) - an opinion wholeheartedly endorsed by the men who hoped to command and crew them.

Later models of frigate - especially the American designs - were much more heavily built and armed and were more like single decked ships of the line than more traditional builds. These came as a rude shock to various European powers and - often unofficially - were eventually considered to be equivalent to a fourth-rate for planning purposes. These super-frigates also spawned the razee - generally a smaller third rate ship of the line with her upperworks cut down to make her faster and more manouverable whilst mainitaining the rigging, heavier hull and lower deck guns of a much bigger ship.

Once the Age of Steam began, the term frigate was retained for single decked steamships and ironclads until broadside fighting was more or less abandoned. It then remained in abeyance until WW2 wherein it was revived by the British as a name for a class of escort vessel smaller than a destroyer but bigger than a corvette - an equivalent to the US Navy's "Destroyer, Escort" classes. In the modern era a frigate (usually) remains smaller than a destroyer, and is often still an anti-submarine warship, but is also frequently a capable multi-purpose warship.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • For a solo PC, a captaincy of a frigate presents excellent opportunites. More generally, writers tend to enjoy keeping age of sail maritime heroes in frigates for as long as possible since frigate operations would tend to be a lot more interesting than fleet work.
  • Note that even in period, public perceptions often didn't allow for the fact that a frigate did not necessarily equal a frigate - upsetting if you happened to be the captain of a sixth rate and have the misfortune to survive being taken by a heavy American.
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