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[Tutorial] Small ships-of-war

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Tutorial - Small ships-of-war

This tutorial is complete

PART I General information, different locations

There is a lot of possible confusion coming to you when you decide to build a “smaller” sailing ship – smaller meaning that the MOC would be smaller than a frigate.

The most common types of sailing ships that could be used as ships of war in the 18th and 19th century were brigs, sloops, schooners and ketches. While this tutorial will focus on describing those types of ships there will be given additional information on ships like brigantines and snows.

The first thing we have to understand is that there is a big difference between a normal brig, schooner and ketch and their official names as ships of war. In the rating system of the Royal Navy that was used between 1782 and 1876 every ship was called a “sloop-of-war” that was not a “rated vessel” (meaning that it would be lighter armed than a post-ship frigate with 20 to 24 guns). Technically that meant that schooners, brigs, cutters and bomb-ketches that would be used in the Royal Navy as combat-ships were called sloops-of-war. Those ships would not be used in official fleet deployments and manoeuvres. A ship of the size of a sloop-of-war did simply not carry enough weapons to fight a ship-of-the-line or even a frigate. The heavier calibres on such ships would make it impossible for a sloop-of-war to come into weapons range before being blown to pieces by a broadside. Sloops-of-War therefore performed support and supply duties, delivered dispatches, patrolled coasts and escorted convoys.

Apart from the official rating system that would use different armaments for distinguishing, the differences between those ships can be seen mostly on their number and sizes of masts and their rigging.


Brig von HMSCentaur auf Flickr

A brig is usually classified as a ship with two masts. The mainmast is the higher one and carries a for-‘n-aft gaff rig sail being called spanker. The mainmast also carries square-rigged sails, traditionally three to four sails (the royals came into use on brigs during the early 19th century) – the average length for a brig would be between 25 and 55 meters and their average beam could vary between 7 and 12 meters. Some brigs feature one or multiple raked masts. Raked masts help the ship staying into the wind and therefore pointing.


Schooner von HMSCentaur auf Flickr

A schooner is a type of vessel that has been in use since the early 18th century. It features at least two masts while the fore mast may only be as high as all the following masts or smaller. A schooner will feature fore-‘n-aft sails on all masts, featuring the main mast always behind a fore mast.

Schooners were developed mainly in Northern America and were often used for commercial runs until the American Revolutionary War. This explains why there are so many different designs – some schooners can feature up to four masts and their hull size varies accordingly. However, the most common type that can be found until today and that was also used during our popular Napoleonic Wars is the two-mast schooner. But keep in mind that there are schooners out there that have no bowsprits, feature staysails or may have no headsails. Many schooners (but not all!) feature multiple raked masts. The taller a schooner gets, however, the less practical raking the masts becomes. It tends to move the centre of the ship and makes them less stable during difficult and stormy weather conditions. The two things that define a schooner in the end are still fore-‘n-aft sails that are rigged on masts that feature a smaller or equally tall fore mast.


Ketch von HMSCentaur auf Flickr

A ketch is a sailing vessel hat features exactly two masts that are normally rigged with fore-‘n-aft sails and can feature topsails and multiple jibs as well. The main mast is always the one nearer to the bow and is taller than the mizzen mast. The ketch is not to be confused with a yawl. Yawls have their mizzen mast positioned much nearer to the stern outside the waterline. The mizzen mast of a ketch is usually much taller than the mizzen mast of a yawl (being mostly around 50 % of the size of the main mast of the yawl).

Ketches are stable and well suited for rough seas and their rigging can be handled by very small crews. Ketches of the 18th and 19th centuries were often used for special duties such as fresh water transportation, medical transport, arctic exploration and most prominently as bomb ketches, featuring between one and three mortars that could be used for harbour and shore bombardment while staying out of the range of shore batteries. Their relatively short waterline would make them a weak opponent in a short-range fight, though, because they could only carry few conventional cannons.

Edited by Horry

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PART II Different internal structures and functions

Most ships classified as sloops-of-war share many common features regarding the main hull.

Like most European ships of that era they are built around a keel. The keel runs from the stern to the bow and acts as the “spine” of the ship. From there, the frame is constructed, forming the “rips” of the ship. The planks are then placed upon the frame and make up the outer hull. Vessels of that size usually have only one lower deck above the bilge. On bigger ships like brigs there might be one or multiple steerages, especially in the stern and the bow sections.


Keel layout von HMSCentaur auf Flickr

Many ships of the time have their lower deck painted white in order to be able to identify leaks in the gun-powder hold and to be able to make the most of the little light there is down below.

The lower deck is mostly fully walk through and often has gun ports that are opened when the ship is made ready for combat. When the decks are cleared, the walls that compartmentalize the captain’s quarters and/or the officers’ quarters are normally removed in order to gain access to the guns that are stored in those compartments. Some ships that are equipped for transporting many goods have a larger well deck. This is the part of the lower deck that is uncovered It is the main loading access of the ship and can be covered with blankets or cover panels. The masts go all the way through the ship and are placed on the keel.

Brigs are very manoeuvrable and fast when sailing with broad reach or running with the wind. However, as they are relatively heavy for their sailing area they have poor sailing qualities when being close hauled or tacking. They were very popular among pirates due to their good armament and big cargo holds.

Schooners are versatile ships that make great coast runners. Due to their slim draught they were often used for coastal and patrols and made good troop carriers for rivers. Needing not much crew to be handled, they can be equipped with a multitude of different riggings making them an ideal small multi-purpose vessel. Their sleek hull makes them a relatively weak target as a broadside from 18 pounders can easily go all the way through a schooner. The best option when attacking a bigger opponent with a schooner would be to use the good sailing qualities in order to stay at the stern of the enemy, shooting broadsides at the rudder and the weak aft compartments.

Ketches are very stable constructions. They are often quite beamy in comparison to other sloops-of-war. This makes them slower but more stable ships that can take some hits and maintain some speed in very stormy conditions. This is also a soft spot as the stress of the undulations is absorbed by the bigger frame-parts, therefore requiring a new caulking more often.


Schooner Diagram von HMSCentaur auf Flickr

Many Ketches would have a specialised lower deck with a big cargo hold, transport-areas and only a small steerage for the crew. As they required a very small crew, all the space could be reserved for those special tasks. Bomb ketches for example would have no real lower deck but a reinforced structure so the mortars would not damage the planking. Most ketches did not have more than four gun ports as their waterline would be relatively high, making gun ports dangerous during stormy conditions. Thus, most of their cannons would be placed on the weather deck.


Bomb Ketch diagram von HMSCentaur auf Flickr

For further information on the structure of ships, you can have a look at my tutorial on frigates.

Edited by Horry

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PART III Different equipment & functions

While many smaller ships of war seem to be much alike at a first glance, their equipment and functions can be quite diverse.

The brig is THE classical historic pirates’ ship. Brigs are fast, manoeuvrable and provide much cargo space but can still sail on many rivers and most lakes. They are ideally suited for coast raids and hiding up a river where bigger frigates could not follow.

For that reason many brigs could be seen having large well decks. Well decks are those parts of the weather deck that have a removable cover. They were normally used for loading and unloading the ship. Smaller brigs also used to have their galleys there so the smoke and smell could be exhausted more easily.

Needing a relatively large crew to be operated, brigs would also be the ship of choice for navies. Those ships would have an appropriate crew to counter any boarding attack. As brigs would only be useful for close combat and lake-based battles due to their relatively weak hull compared to frigates, they typically would carry relatively small calibres of guns. Later brigs often carried carronades and swivel guns only. However, the same numbers of crews that made brigs attractive for navies made them poor cargo runners in comparison to schooners as the trading companies would prefer smaller (and thus cheaper) crews. Brigs would often carry 12 pounders and carronades, sometimes even 24 pounders. Their crew compliment would be around 130.

Schooners would normally not be engaged in bigger naval battles. Their weak hull and their sleek design would let them not carry many guns. The typical calibre for a schooner would be 3 pounder cannons. However, their versatile rigging qualities and the small amount of men needed to operate the ship made schooners an ideal cargo runner. Schooners would often have either bigger well decks or housings for precious cargo. They could be refitted to be anything from a blockade runner that manoeuvred bigger blockade-vessels out to fishing-ships and coastal patrols for smugglers. Speaking of smugglers: Schooners tended to be the vessel of choice for those people that wanted to avoid making contact with authorities.

Later schooners that would be equipped with small carronades and a primitive hull-plating could be used in small flotillas to hunt down pirating brigs as they normally outmatched their speed. Schooners saw their golden age in the United States where they were ideal for reaching companies that were not located directly at the coast. A schooner would be normally operated by a crew of 25 to 40 persons.

In a naval battle, a ketch would normally play a supporting role. Their stable manner of construction allowed for some hit to be taken and thus they would be used much more often than schooners. They could be equipped to carry fresh water to blockading armadas and often had the capability to carry dozens of living animals. A well-known purpose would also be the bomb-ketch. Those vessels had huge mortars that could bombard the enemy over great distances. Some later ketches even carried primitive rockets (although those were more meant for psychological warfare and remained in a somewhat experimental state). The typical armament of ketches would be 12 pounders and carronades. A ketch needed 35 to 50 sailors to be operated. Ketches would also be quite popular among scientists who could use the extra space and stability of the ketch for their expeditions.

Edited by Horry

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