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In the Royal Navy, the rate of a ship was its place in a system of classification developed in the late seventeenth century. There were six rates, distinguished principally by the number of guns carried by the ship. The rate of a ship did not imply anything about its quality; there were excellent sixth-rates (HMS Surprise is a prime example) and poor first-rates. The Navy also included many unrated (smaller) ships, brigs and lesser vessels, but only a rated ship would be commanded by a post captain.

The following were the chief characteristics of each rate, according to the standards of about 1815. The length given is that of the upper gundeck, excluding projections such as the bowsprit and the stern gallery; the tonnage is a conventional figure of the period based on complex mathematical calculations derived from the ship's dimensions.

  • First rate Three-decker, 100-120 guns, 2100-2600 tons, 186-205ft
  • Second rate Three-decker, 90-98 guns, 1900-2150 tons, 177-196ft
  • Third rate Two-decker, 74-80 guns, 1350-1850 tons, 168-192ft. (There was also a declining group of 64-gun ships with a gundeck length of about 160ft)
  • Fourth rate Two-decker, 50-60 guns, 1050-1200 tons, 146-154ft
  • Fifth rate Single-decker, 32-40 guns, 660-1050 tons, 127-159ft
  • Sixth rate Single-decker, 22-28 guns, 500-600 tons, 117-130ft

First and second rates were generally used as flagships and rarely made long voyages; HMS Victory, in her chase across the Atlantic (spring 1805), was exceptional in this respect. Second rates, with their smaller guns and rather short hulls which impaired their sailing quality, were generally unpopular with admirals. In the third rate, the 74 was the principal line of battle ship. Fourth-rates were becoming obsolete, since they were no longer considered powerful enough to stand in the line of battle, although some 50-gunners such as Leander and Leopard still made a considerable figure in the wars of the period; Jack Aubrey served on the former at the Battle of the Nile and commanded the latter in Desolation Island. The fifth rate comprised almost all frigates, HMS Surprise being a somewhat archaic exception. Sixth rates, being generally too small to qualify as frigates, were referred to simply as post ships.

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