Gardiner, Robert. The Sailing Frigate: A History in Ship Models.

Barnsley, Yorkshire, 2012.

It’s unfortunate for modern naval historians — and for fans of Napoleonic-era maritime adventure fiction, like me — that none of the nearly three hundred frigates built by the Royal Navy alone during this period have survived. The only remaining warships that operated under sail are a couple of much larger vessels, like Nelson’s Victory.

But the frigate, like the modern naval destroyer, was the dream command of every young officer who hoped to distinguish himself. They weren’t large enough for a place in the line of battle, so nearly all their engagements against the enemy — French, Spanish, Dutch, or American — were single-ship actions. And that’s where the personal glory was.

But in the planning of a new ship’s construction, especially when changes were being introduced from earlier designs, an exact, highly detailed model was generally constructed, most to 1/48th scale — and many of those have survived. Since they were commissioned by the Admiralty, and were therefore government property, most of them are now on display in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, though a few others may be found in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

Gardiner, a noted historian on the naval wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, has brought together a large number of high-quality color photos of these models of frigates, beginning with the very first prototype designed and built to the specifications of Lord Torrington in the 1680s — a Fifth Rate of low profile (and therefore harder for the enemy to hit) mounting twenty guns on a single deck, though 32-36 guns became the standard by the 1780s.

Each chapter traces the subsequent stages in the evolution of the ship-type: The “Establishment” period in the first half of the 18th century, the appearance of the “true frigate” by the time of the American Revolution (many of them smaller and more nimble Sixth Rates), and the heavy frigate designed for a different sort of war against the French. The latter pushed the limits of what could be considered a “frigate,” with as many as 38 guns — including a main battery of 28 twelve-pounders, which would terrify most individual enemy vessels. But even they were often no match for the 44-gun frigates built by the new United States and which saw service in the War of 1812.

Throughout the book, Gardiner offers close-up studies of the details of construction, from the basics of hull design to stern development (from square to round to elliptical), ship’s boats (some of them of considerable size), the use of sweeps, coppering the bottom, the adaptation of captured French vessels, and the introduction of the carronade.

A final chapter tells of the last generation of frigates ordered about 1830, nearly all which were soon modified as “screw frigates” to use steam as their secondary means of propulsion. Then, of course, came the ironclad warship, which was a completely different animal, requiring somewhat different skills and training. They were superior war machines, certainly, but the romance of the lean and hungry sailing frigate was gone for good. An excellent book, highly recommended for fans of Hornblower, Jack Aubrey, and Richard Bolitho.

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Published in: on 9 April 2016 at 5:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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