In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sailing Warships

  • Introduction
  • Transitional Warships
  • Frigates
  • Sloops, Corvettes, and Brigs
  • Mortar Vessels and Gunboats
  • Fireships
  • Privateers
  • Navies on the North American Great Lakes
  • Naval Architecture
  • Building Ships: Technical Analysis
  • Timber Supply
  • Infrastructure
  • Armament
  • Ship Lists
  • Ship Biographies
  • Tactics
  • Iconography
  • Preserved and Replica Sailing Warships
  • Journals and Electronic Resources

Military History Sailing Warships
Andrew Lambert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0184


Purpose-built sailing warships, designed and constructed specifically for war rather than modified from existing commercial vessels, were used for more than three hundred years. Over time they evolved from relatively simple craft with limited capabilities and low endurance into highly sophisticated world-girdling vessels setting vast, complex sailing rigs and working through mass-produced rigging blocks, armed with standardized cannons, firing solid shot and exploding shells. This process of constant evolution was driven by international rivalries, strategic requirement, and the experience of numerous wars. Sailing warships dominated the imperial conflicts of 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. After three hundred years as a dominant weapon system, the emergence of paddle wheel steam warships in the 1830s, armed with shell-firing cannons, called into question the future of the large sailing warship. They remained dominant in fleet warfare and oceanic cruising until the 1850s, when the installation of steam machinery driving a submerged screw propeller enabled wooden warships to combine strategic mobility under sail with tactical agility under steam. Within a decade, not only had the wooden screw steam warship rendered the sailing warship obsolete, but also it had been, in turn, overtaken by iron-hulled armored warships. Studies of sailing warships, as opposed to the wars and battles in which they were used, have been dominated by design and technical histories, which could undervalue the importance of political, economic, cultural, and strategic issues, while works in the latter fields tend to assume that the sailing warships underwent little technical development and that those of different nations were effectively identical. Initial interest in the early 1900s, when many of the remaining sailing warships were disposed of, focused on a few iconic vessels, the technology of construction, and the compilation of ship lists. Interest renewed after 1947, when the Trafalgar veteran French 74 Duguay-Trouin, which became HMS Implacable in November 1805, was scuttled. Part of the ship, the stern galleries, and the figurehead were saved and are on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Research in this field began with older studies of naval design penned by contemporary naval architects, anxious to establish their professional status, record their successes, or teach the rising generation. This information was used by naval historians seeking accurate details of ships engaged in battle to ascertain the strength the opposing forces; this led to the compilation of lists, which became increasingly detailed as historian asked more searching questions.

The Ship of the Line

The three-hundred-and-fifty-year era when sailing warships dominated the ocean witnessed a steady increase in their capabilities, capabilities that enhanced the strategic impact of naval power in war, especially when European conflicts reached out to America, Africa, and Asia. The sailing warship, a complex system, evolved in a strikingly Darwinian manner. From start to finish, sailing warships were built of wood, powered by canvas sails hung from two or three masts, and armed with muzzle-loading cannons of bronze and iron. Each one was a unique compromise between firepower, seaworthiness, tactical agility, speed endurance, and the available materials. Although paper plans were in use in the 16th century, shipbuilders could only follow them as far as the timber allowed. Furthermore each power that had the technical capability built ships configured to serve their own specific purposes, which could be local or global, and the maritime realities of their coasts. Dutch warships needed a shallower draught of water than that of their English rivals to enter their shallow harbors and operate in shoal water off the coast.

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