The formal system of dividing up the Navy's combatant warships into six groups of "Rates", however, only originated in the very early part of the Stuart Era, with the first lists of such categorisation appearing around 1604. At this time the combatant ships of the "Navy Royal" (the term Royal Navy was only introduced after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660) were divided up according to the number of men required to man them at sea (i.e the size of the crew) into four groups - (A) Royal Ships (the largest ships in the previous "Great Ships" grouping), (B) Great Ships (the rest of the ships in the previous "Great Ships" grouping), (C) Middling Ships and (D) Small Ships.
By the early years of King Charles I's reign, these four groups had been renamed to a numerical sequence. The Royal Ships were now graded as First Rank, the Great Ships as Second Rank, the Middling Ships as Third Rank, and the Small Ships as Fourth Rank. By mid-century the structure had again been modified, with the term Rank now being replaced by Rate, and the former Small Ships now being sub-divided into Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Rates.
The structure was revised in 1677 by Samuel Pepys, then Secretary to the Admiralty, who laid it down as a "solemn, universal and unalterable" classification. The Rating of a ship was of administrative and military use. The number and weight of guns determined the size of crew needed, and hence the amount of pay and rations needed. It also indicated whether a ship was powerful enough to stand in the line of battle. Pepys's original classification was updated by further definitions in 1714, 1721, 1760, 1782, 1801 and 1817 (the last being the most severe, as it provided for including in the count of guns the carronades which had previously been excluded). On the whole the trend was for each rate to have a greater number of guns. For instance, Pepys allowed a First Rate 90–100 guns, but on the 1801 scheme a First Rate had 100–120. A Sixth Rate's range went from 4–18 to 20–28 (after 1714 any ship with fewer than 20 guns was unrated).
A First to Third Rate ship was regarded as a "ship-of-the-line". The First and Second Rates were three-deckers, that is, they had three continuous decks of guns (on the lower deck, middle deck and upper deck), as well as smaller weapons on the quarterdeck, forecastle and poop. The largest of the Third Rates, those of 80 guns, were likewise three-deckers from the 1690s until the early 1750s, but both before this period and subsequent to it, 80-gun ships were built as two-deckers. All the other Third Rates, with 74 guns or less, were likewise two-deckers, with just two continuous decks of guns (on the lower deck and upper deck), as well as smaller weapons on the quarterdeck, forecastle and (if they had one) poop.
The smaller Fourth Rates, of about 50 or 60 guns on two decks, were ships-of-the-line until 1756, when it was felt that such 50-gun ships were now too small for pitched battles. The larger Fourth Rates of 60 guns continued to be counted as ships-of-the-line, but few new ships of this rate were added, the 60-gun Fourth Rate being superseded over the next few decades by the 64-gun Third Rate.
The rated number of guns often differed from the number actually carried, particularly before the 1817 revisions. Cannon (large, smooth-bored, muzzle-loading guns) were counted towards the rating, but not carronades (short guns which were half the weight of equivalent long guns) except where such carronades replaced 'long' cannon, although rated vessels could carry up to twelve 24- or 32-pounder carronades. During the Napoleonic Wars there was no exact correlation between formal gun rating and actual number of long guns or carronades carried by any individual vessel. In 1817 a new system of classification was introduced in which carronades were all counted in the vessel's rating.
Rating was not the only system of classification used. Throughout the Age of Sail the definition of the term "ship" required it to be a vessel being square-rigged on three masts. Sailing vessels with only two masts or a single mast were technically not 'ships', and in the sailing era would never have been described as such. Vessels with fewer than three masts were unrated sloops, generally two-masted vessels rigged as snows or ketches (in the first half of the 18th century), or brigs in succeeding eras. However some sloops were three-masted or ship-rigged, and these were known as ship sloops. Vessels were also sometimes classified according to the substantial rank of her commanding officer. For instance, if a gun-brig or even a cutter were assigned a lieutenant with the status of master-and-commander as her commanding officer, she would be recategorised as a sloop.
Although the rating system described in this article was only used by the Royal Navy, other major navies used similar means of grading their warships. For example, the French Navy used a system of five rates ("rangs") which had a similar purpose. British authors might still use "first-rate" when referring to the largest ships of other nations or "third-rate" to speak of a French seventy-four. By the end of the 18th century, the rating system had mostly fallen out of common use, ships of the line usually being characterized directly by their nominal number of guns, the numbers even being used as the name of the type, as in "a squadron of three seventy-fours".
Fifth and Sixth Rates were never included among ships-of-the-line. The Fifth Rates at the start of the 18th century were generally "demi-batterie" ships, carrying a few heavy guns on their lower deck (which often used the rest of the lower deck for row ports) and a full battery of lesser guns on the upper deck. However, these were gradually phased out, as the low freeboard (the height of the lower deck gunport sills above the waterline) meant that it was often impossible to open the lower deck gunports in rough weather. From mid-century, a new Fifth Rate type was introduced - the classic frigate, with no ports on the lower deck, and the main battery disposed solely on the upper deck.
Sixth Rate ships were generally useful as convoy escorts, for blockade duties and the carrying of dispatches; their small size made them less suited for the general cruising tasks the Fifth Rate frigates did so well. Essentially there were two groups of Sixth Rates. The larger category comprised the Sixth Rate frigates of 28 guns, carrying a main battery of twenty-four 9-pounder guns, as well as four smaller guns on their superstructures. The second comprised the "post-ships" of between 20 and 24 guns, too small to be formally counted as frigates (although colloquially often grouped with them), but still requiring a post-captain (i.e. an officer holding the substantive rank of Captain) to take command.
The rating system did not handle vessels smaller than the Sixth Rate, the remainder simply being "unrated". The larger of the unrated vessels were generally called sloops; but be warned that nomenclature is quite confusing for unrated vessels, especially when dealing with the finer points of "ship sloop", "brig sloop", "sloop-of-war" or even "corvette" (the last a French term which was not used by the British Navy until the 1840s). Technically any unrated combatant vessel was included in the category of "sloop-of-war" - in theory, the term even extended to bomb vessels and fireships.
|Type||Rate||Guns||Gun decks||Men||Approximate Displacement in tons*||In Commission 1794||In Commission 1814|
|Ship of the line||1st Rate||100 to 120||3||850 to 875||2,500||5||7|
|2nd Rate||90 to 98||3||700 to 750||about 2,200||9||5|
|3rd Rate||64 to 80||2||500 to 650||1,750||71||87|
|4th Rate||48 to 60||2||320 to 420||about 1,000||8||8|
|Frigate||5th Rate||32 to 44||1 or 2||200 to 300||700 to 1,450||78||123|
|6th Rate||20 to 28||1||140 to 200||450 to 550||32||25|
|Sloop-of-war||Unrated||16 to 18||1||90 to 125||380||76||360|
|Gun-brig or Cutter||6 to 14||1||5 to 25||< 220|
There were a variety of exceptions to the above. The guns which were included in the count that determined a ship's rating were only the carriage-mounted cannon, i.e. those guns which moved on 'trucks' (wooden wheels); smaller (and basically anti-personnel) weapons such as swivels were not included. With the introduction of the carronade in the late 1770s (carronades were generally mounted on slides rather than on trucks), the new carronades were generally mounted on the upperworks (quarterdeck and forecastle) as additional to a warship's existing ordnance, and were not included in the count of guns except where they were mounted in lieu of carriage-mounted cannon. Only later were carronades extended to become part of (or in some cases all of) a ship's main armament, in which case they had to be included in the count of guns. In February 1817, the Royal Navy introduced a new rating system which included all the carronades in the count.
The rating system was again modified later based more on the size of the crew.
The term first-rate has passed into general usage, as an adjective used to mean something of the best or highest quality available. Second-rate and Third-rate are also used as adjectives to mean that something is of inferior quality. This is ironic as the Third Rates formed the vast majority of the battlefleet, as the three-decker First Rates and Second Rates were too expensive to use as much more than a flagship for the Admiral commanding a fleet; while less powerful than the three-deckers, the Third Rate was the essential element of the fighting fleet.