In the 18th and the earlier part of the 19th centuries, a sloop-of-war was a small sailing warship (also known as one of the escort types) with a single gun deck that carried anything up to eighteen cannon. As the rating system covered all vessels with 20 guns and above, this meant that the term sloop-of-war actually encompassed all the unrated combat vessels including the very small gun-brigs and cutters. In technical terms, even the more specialised bomb vessel were classed as sloops-of-war, and in practice these were actually employed in the sloop role when not carrying out their specialized functions.
In later years the type evolved; in World War II sloops were specialized convoy-defence vessels, with anti-aircraft and anti-submarine capability.
A sloop-of-war was quite different from a civilian or mercantile sloop
, which was a general term for a single masted vessel rigged like what we would today call a gaff cutter
(but usually without the square topsails then carried by cutter-rigged vessels), though some sloops of that type did serve in the 18th century British Royal Navy
, particularly on the Great Lakes
of North America.
In the first half of the 18th century, most naval sloops were two-masted vessels, usually carrying a ketch or a snow rig. A ketch had main and mizzen masts but no foremast, while a snow had a foremast and a main mast but no mizzen.
The first three-masted (i.e. "ship rigged") sloops appeared during the 1740s, and from the mid-1750s most new sloops were built with a three-masted (ship) rig.
In the 1770s the two-masted sloop re-appeared in a new guise as the brig sloop
. The successor to the former snow sloops, brig sloops had two masts while ship sloops
continued to have three (since a brig
is a two-masted, square-rigged vessel and a ship is a square-rigger with three or more masts, though invariably only three in that period).
The Royal Navy also made extensive use of the Bermuda sloop, both as a cruiser against French privateers, slavers, and smugglers, and also as its standard advice vessels, carrying communications, vital persons and materials, and performing reconnaissance duties for the fleets.
A sloop-of-war was smaller than a sailing frigate
and outside the rating system
. In general, a sloop-of-war would be under the command of a master and commander
rather than a post captain
, although in day-to-day use at sea the commanding officer of any naval vessels would be addressed as "captain". Until 1794 the master and commander
strictly speaking held the permanent rank of lieutenant, and reverted to that rank when he gave up command of the sloop-of-war; in 1794 the rank of commander was created.
A ship sloop was generally the equivalent of the smaller corvette
of the French Navy (although the French term also covered ships up to 24 guns, which were classed as 'post ships' within the Sixth Rate of the British Navy). The name corvette
was subsequently also applied to British vessels, but not until the 1830s.
In the second half of the 19th century, successive generations of naval guns became larger and with the advent of steam-powered sloops, both paddle and screw, by the 1880s even the most powerful warships had fewer than a dozen large calibre guns.
In the Royal Navy, the sloop evolved into an unrated vessel with a single gun deck and three masts, two square rigged and the aftermost fore-and-aft rigged (corvettes had three masts, all of which were square-rigged). Steam sloops had a transverse division of their lateral coal bunkers in order that the lower division could be emptied first, to maintain a level of protection afforded by the coal in the upper bunker division along the waterline.
During the First World War
, the sloop rating was revived by the British Royal Navy
for small warships not intended for fleet deployments. Examples include the Flower classes
of "convoy sloops", those designed for convoy
escort, and the Hunt classes
of "minesweeping sloops", those intended for minesweeping
The Royal Navy continued to build vessels rated as sloops during the interwar years. These sloops were small warships intended for colonial "gunboat diplomacy" deployments, surveying duties and to act during wartime as convoy escorts. As they were not intended to deploy with the fleet, sloops had a maximum speed of less than . A number of such sloops, for example the Grimsby and Kingfisher classes, were built in the interwar years. Fleet minesweepers such as the Algerine class were rated as "minesweeping sloops". The Royal Navy officially dropped the term sloop in 1937, although the term remained in widespread and general use.
World War II
During the Second World War
, 37 ships of the Black Swan class
were built for convoy escort duties. However, the warship-standards construction and sophisticated armaments of the sloop of that time did not lend themselves to mass production, and the sloop was supplanted by the corvette
, and later the frigate
, as the primary escort vessel of the Royal Navy. Built to mercantile standards and with (initially) simple armaments, these vessels, notably the Flower
classes, were produced in large numbers for the Battle of the Atlantic
. In 1948 the Royal Navy reclassified its remaining sloops and corvettes as frigates (even though the term sloop had been officially defunct for nine years).
- Perhaps the most famous sloop was the HMS Resolution, in which Captain James Cook made his second and third Pacific voyages. Cook called the Resolution "the ship of my choice", and "the fittest for service of any I have seen."
- HMS Beagle, a brig-sloop, is famous as the ship in which Charles Darwin sailed around the world between 1831 and 1836.
- In 1804 Commodore Sir Samuel Hood, commissioned Diamond Rock, a small island south of Fort-de-France in Martinique, as HM Sloop-of-War Fort Diamond, following his establishment of a fortified garrison on the rock.
- In 1805, HMS Pickle brought back news of the British victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
- In 1805 Lord Cochrane commanded HMS Speedy, a brig-sloop of 14 guns, through a series of famous exploits in the Mediterranean. The Speedy served as the inspiration for the fictional Jack Aubrey's first command, the Sophie.
- In 1813, HMS Racoon was dispatched to Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River during the War of 1812 to seize the post, which as it turned out had already been sold to the North-West Company; the fort was renamed by the ship's Captain Black as Fort George.
- In 1949, HMS Amethyst, a Black Swan class sloop of the Royal Navy became involved in an international incident when she became trapped in the Yangtze River by Communist Chinese shore batteries. She made a famous escape on 30 July 1949, later turned into a feature film Yangtse Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst.
- 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
- Royal Navy Sloops from battleships-cruisers.co.uk - history and pictures from 1873 to 1943.