First-rate
Encyclopedia
First rate was the designation used by the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 for its largest ships of the line
Ship of the line
A ship of the line was a type of naval warship constructed from the 17th through the mid-19th century to take part in the naval tactic known as the line of battle, in which two columns of opposing warships would manoeuvre to bring the greatest weight of broadside guns to bear...

. While the size and establishment of guns and men changed over the 250 years that the rating system held sway, from the early years of the eighteenth century the first rates comprised those ships mounting 100 guns or more on three gundecks.

In the Nelsonic period, a first rate carried over 800 crew and displaced
Displacement (ship)
A ship's displacement is its weight at any given time, generally expressed in metric tons or long tons. The term is often used to mean the ship's weight when it is loaded to its maximum capacity. A number of synonymous terms exist for this maximum weight, such as loaded displacement, full load...

 in excess of 2000 long ton.

Rating

When the original rating system evolved during the first part of the seventeenth century, first rates were ships with a complement of at least 300 men (it was not until after 1660 that the number of carriage guns became the deciding criterion). Early first rates had as few as 60 guns, but by the mid-1660s first rates generally carried between 90 and 100 guns. By the early years of the Eighteenth Century it became 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
Carronade
The carronade was a short smoothbore, cast iron cannon, developed for the Royal Navy by the Carron Company, an ironworks in Falkirk, Scotland, UK. It was used from the 1770s to the 1850s. Its main function was to serve as a powerful, short-range anti-ship and anti-crew weapon...

 in the later 1770s, first rates (like other warships) could mount a number of these on their quarterdecks and forecastles to augment their short-range firepower, but these were not included in the ship's rating until 1817 except where they replace carriage-mounted guns.

Although very powerful, 17th and 18th century first rates 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. With later ships built with more freeboard (the height above the waterline of the sill of the lowest port), these problems were 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 admiral
Admiral
Admiral is the rank, or part of the name of the ranks, of the highest naval officers. It is usually considered a full admiral and above vice admiral and below admiral of the fleet . It is usually abbreviated to "Adm" or "ADM"...

s' flagship
Flagship
A flagship is a vessel used by the commanding officer of a group of naval ships, reflecting the custom of its commander, characteristically a flag officer, flying a distinguishing flag...

s. First rates were typically kept out of commission ("in Ordinary
Reserve fleet
A reserve fleet is a collection of naval vessels of all types that are fully equipped for service but are not currently needed, and thus partially or fully decommissioned. A reserve fleet is informally said to be "in mothballs" or "mothballed"; an equivalent expression in unofficial modern U.S....

") 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
Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar was a sea battle fought between the British Royal Navy and the combined fleets of the French Navy and Spanish Navy, during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic Wars ....

, HMS Victory
HMS Victory
HMS Victory is a 104-gun first-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, laid down in 1759 and launched in 1765. She is most famous as Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805....

 had been in service for 40 years, although a proportion of these years were spent in Ordinary.

These being the most powerful ships of the navy, it was common to compare them with the navies of other nations, and 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.

Ships

Because of 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
Rating system of the Royal Navy
The rating system of the Royal Navy and its predecessors was used by the British Royal Navy between the beginning of the 17th century and the middle of the 19th century to categorise sailing warships, initially classing them according to their assigned complement of men, and later according to the...

 held sway, only a relatively small number of first rates saw service.

Only one first rate has survived to the present. HMS Victory
HMS Victory
HMS Victory is a 104-gun first-rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, laid down in 1759 and launched in 1765. She is most famous as Lord Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805....

, Vice-Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar
Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar was a sea battle fought between the British Royal Navy and the combined fleets of the French Navy and Spanish Navy, during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic Wars ....

, is preserved at HMNB Portsmouth
HMNB Portsmouth
Her Majesty's Naval Base Portsmouth is one of three operating bases in the United Kingdom for the British Royal Navy...

 as an active warship 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
War of 1812
The War of 1812 was a military conflict fought between the forces of the United States of America and those of the British Empire. The Americans declared war in 1812 for several reasons, including trade restrictions because of Britain's ongoing war with France, impressment of American merchant...

, survives intact in shallow water near shore in Kingston, Ontario
Kingston, Ontario
Kingston, Ontario is a Canadian city located in Eastern Ontario where the St. Lawrence River flows out of Lake Ontario. Originally a First Nations settlement called "Katarowki," , growing European exploration in the 17th Century made it an important trading post...

 and is a popular diving attraction. Two other famous first rates were , which was broken up in 1841, and , 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 Sant√≠sima Trinidad which, following a rebuilding in 1802, carried 140 guns.

Other usage

The term "first-rate" has passed into general usage as an adjective used to mean "exceptionally good", although this was in no way its meaning in naval classification.
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