Frigate: Favored by Navies

From the 15th century to present day, the frigate has played an important role for navies around the world.

These powerful warships were originally built for speed and maneuverability and have transformed over time into essential naval vessels.

The First Incarnation of the Frigate

The origins of the word frigate are uncertain, but it is thought to have originated from the Latin word “aphractus,” used for an open vessel with no lower deck. The term frigate can be tracked back to the Eighty Years War, which lasted from 1568-1648. During the war, privateers called Dunkirkers attacked the Dutch shipping using small, maneuverable sailing vessels that were called frigates. The Dunkirkers were very successful in their efforts to block Dutch shipping, and much of this success was credited to their use of frigates. This success inspired other navies to adopt similar vessels with some modifications overtime. This first incarnation of the frigate lasted until the early 19th century and had some notable moments:

  • Fifth-Rate Classification: In the early stages of development, the frigate continued to see modifications in size and style. By the late 18th century, the Royal Navy sought to include the frigate in its rating system. The Royal Navy classified the frigate as fifth-rate, a rating used for scouts and cruisers and a variety of gun arrangements. Frigates fit nicely in this rating given their maneuverability and use to patrol and disrupt enemy shipping lanes.
  • Armament Evolution: Given their position as naval vessels used in times of war, the armament of the frigate was an important consideration for the navies that employed them. In 1778, a new naval gun was produced that was revolutionary for smaller naval vessels such as the frigate. The gun was called the carronade and was produced by the Carron Iron Company of Scotland. The gun was light, quick to reload, and could be operated by a smaller crew. Its weight allowed it to be mounted on a frigate, greatly increasing the vessel’s firepower.
  • In America, Bigger is Better: While the first super-heavy frigates were built for the Swedish navy, they were most readily adopted by the United States Navy. The U.S. Navy’s first major ships were frigates. Given their size and firepower, they posed a serious threat to enemies. In the War of 1812, the British Royal Navy ordered its own frigates not to engage the larger American frigates unless they had a two-to-one advantage. Eventually the British adapted their fleet to be able to match the power of the super frigates used by the Americans.

The Second Incarnation of the Frigate

The modern frigate first came to be during World War II. The construction standards for the vessel also allowed it to be manufactured by yards that didn’t normally handle warship construction.

Unlike the original frigate, these frigates were not known for their speed as they were initially not deployed with the fleet. The vessels were eventually produced for fleet use but speed was still not a focus.

Modern Day Frigate

The frigate remains in use is an important element of many navies fleet today.  They serve a variety of uses, included:

  • Guided-Missiles: Small ships were made effective for anti-aircraft warfare with the introduction of the surface-to-air missile, including the frigate. Most modern frigates include offensive or defensive missiles.
  • Anti-Submarine: Some frigates remain specialized for anti-submarine warfare, including sonar equipment, specialized weapons, and a landing deck or hangar for helicopters.
  • Air Defense: Developments in fighter jets and ballistic missiles allow modern-day frigates to serve a role in air defense.

Naval advancements remain important to any country with a navy fleet, which means we can anticipate continued developments, refinements, and incarnations of the frigate.