first rate



First-rate was the designation used by the Royal Navy for its largest ships of the line, those mounting 100 guns or more on three gundecks.

First-rate vessels carried over 800 crew and displaced in excess of 2,000 tons.


In the original rating system from the 1670s, first-rates were ships of exactly 100 guns, but as time passed, ships were built with more guns, and they too were called first-rates.

In addition to the rated number of guns (which were generally the heaviest calibre available), first-rates could mount a number of carronades to augment their short-range firepower.

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.

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.

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 as first-rates, even though only the Royal Navy used the formal six-step rating system.


Only two first-rate ships survive. The most famous (and only fully-restored) first-rate ship is HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. 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 , which was broken up in 1841, and , which was broken up in 1825. Both these ships had 100 guns. The Santísima Trinidad held 120 guns.




  • 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

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