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First rate was the designation used by the Royal Navy for its largest ships of the line. The size and establishment of guns and men changed during the 250 years that the rating system held sway. From the early years of the 18th century, the first rates comprised those ships mounting 80 guns or more on three gundecks.
By end of the 18th century, a first rate could carry more than 850 crew and had a measurement (burthen) tonnage of some 2,000 tons.
When the original rating system evolved during the first part of the 17th century, first rates were ships with a complement of at least 300 men (it was not until after 1660 that the number of carriage-mounted guns became the deciding criterion). Early first rates had as few as 60 guns, but by the mid-1660s they generally carried between 90 and 100 guns. By the early years of the 18th century, it had become accepted that 100 guns was the standard criterion for a first rate in wartime (while 90 guns, later 98 guns, became the standard wartime ordnance for a second rate). (In peacetime, all ships of the line carried a reduced complement of guns.) Towards the close of the century, ships were built with more than 100 guns, and they too were classed as first rates.
In addition to the rated number of carriage-mounted guns (which included the heaviest calibre available mounted on their lower decks, with smaller guns on the decks above), first rates also carried a number of anti-personnel guns, initially swivel-mounted weapons. From the invention of the slide-mounted carronade in the later 1770s, first rates (like other warships), could mount a number of these weapons on their quarterdecks and forecastles to augment their short-range firepower, but they were not included in the ship's rating until 1817 except where they replaced carriage-mounted guns.
Although very powerful, first rates of the 17th and 18th centuries tended to be slow and unhandy. For stability, the lowest gundeck had to be very close to the water, and in anything but calm water the gunports had to be kept closed, rendering the entire deck useless. Ships were subsequently built with more freeboard (the height above the waterline of the sill of the lowest port); these problems were then gradually overcome.
Ships of this size were also extremely expensive to operate. As a result, the few first rates (the Royal Navy had only five completed in 1794), were typically reserved as commanding admirals' flagships. First rates were typically kept out of commission ("in Ordinary") during peacetime and only activated ("commissioned") during times of conflict. This had the added advantage of preserving them from the wear and tear that smaller ships experienced in spending long periods at sea. Spending time in ordinary could considerably extend a first rate's lifespan; for instance, by the time she fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory had been in service for 40 years, although a portion of this time was spent in Ordinary.
With first rates being the most powerful ships of the navy, it was common to compare them with the navies of other nations; frequently one sees the largest ships of those navies being referred to as first rates. Other nations had their own rating systems, notably the French Navy with its system of five formal rates or rangs.
Due to their unique importance as prestige warships, only a small number of first rates could be built and maintained at any one time. Thus over the 250 years (approximately) that the rating system of the Royal Navy was used, only a relatively small number of these ships saw service.
Only one first rate has survived to the present. HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, is preserved at HMNB Portsmouth and is in commission. The hull of the 112-gun HMS St Lawrence, which was built and operated entirely in fresh water during the War of 1812, survives intact in shallow water near shore in Kingston, Ontario and is a popular diving attraction. Two other noted first rates were HMS Royal Sovereign, which was broken up in 1841, and HMS Britannia, which was broken up in 1825. Both these ships had 100 guns. Later first rates such as the Caledonia and its several sisters had 120 guns. Other navies, notably those of France and Spain, also had similar ships with more than 100 guns, the most heavily armed being the Spanish Santísima Trinidad which, following a rebuilding in 1802, carried 140 guns.
The term "first-rate" has passed into general English usage as an adjective used to mean "exceptionally good", deriving from the original ships as powerful and prestigious ships.
- Bennett The Battle of Trafalgar, p. 19
- Winfield, First Rate
- Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean, a Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, London (2004). ISBN 0-7139-9411-8.
- Bennett, G. The Battle of Trafalgar, Barnsley (2004). ISBN 1-84415-107-7.
- Winfield, Rif, British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1603-1714, Barnsley (2009) ISBN 978-1-84832-040-6; British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1714-1792, Barnsley (2007) ISBN 978-1-84415-700-6; British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1793-1817, (2nd edition) Barnsley (2008). ISBN 978-1-84415-717-4; British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1817-1863, Barnsley (2014). ISBN 978-1-84832-169-4; First Rate, Barnsley (2010) ISBN 978-1-84832-071-0.