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Originally one of five principal types of merchant ship hulls in the days before sailing ships were identified by their rig. During the 18th century the word began to mean a three-masted vessel, square rigged on each mast, then evolved into describing a class of warship which was part of all navies. They were normally armed with from 24 to 44 guns carried on a single gun-deck. In navies where ships had a rate according to the number of guns they carried, they were fifth- or sixth-rate ships, and thus not expected to lie in the line of battle. Possessing superior sailing qualities to the larger ships of the line, they were used with the fleet as lookouts and, in battle, as repeating ships to fly the admiral's signals so that other ships in the line, which might be blanketed from the admiral by the smoke of gunfire, could read his signals. Alternatively, frigates worked independently of the fleet, cruising in search of privateers or as escort ships for convoys, in which case they were generally given the generic name of cruisers.

There was a convention in the days of sailing navies that larger ships did not engage frigates during fleet battles unless the latter opened fire first, though it was not unknown for frigates occasionally to engage ships of the line. This convention only applied in fixed battle and did not hold good if a frigate were met at sea unaccompanied by a fleet.

During the Napoleonic Wars with France (1793–1815) a class of 44-gun frigates, rated as fourth rates, was introduced in Britain, carrying guns on two decks. In the Royal Navy they had little success as a class, being both too small to lie in the battle line and inferior in sailing qualities to the single-decked frigates. The Americans, on the other hand, had considerable success with theirs, USS Constitution gaining victories over HMS Guerrière and HMS Java, and the USS United States taking HMS Macedonian. The frigates built of fir for the British Navy towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars were known as square-tucked frigates because of the shape of their tuck.

During the Second World War (1939–45) the term frigate was revived for a class of medium-speed anti-submarine vessels used on convoy escort work which, in size, were between corvettes and destroyer escorts (called ‘patrol frigates’ in the US Navy). Since then it has become the generic term for smaller warships in all navies with an anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, aircraft-direction, or general purpose capability.

See also donkey frigate; galley frigate; warfare at sea.

See also donkey frigate; galley frigate; warfare at sea.

Subjects: Maritime History — Warfare and Defence.

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