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HMS Galatea built in 1794 was a Fifth-Rate Sailing Frigate of the Royal Navy. Painting by: Thomas Whitcombe (1760-1824)

A Fifth-Rate in the Rating System of the Royal Navy used to categorise sailing warships in particular a Sailing Frigate and was the penultimate class of warships in a hierarchical system of six "ratings" based on size and firepower.

These were the frigates, the Navy’s ‘glamour ships’. With their main armament on a single gundeck, they were the fast scouts of the battle fleet, when not operating in an independent cruising role, searching out enemy merchant ships, privateers or enemy fleets. Developed from early-18th century prototypes, the Fifth Rates of Admiral Lord Nelson’s time had a variety of armaments and gun arrangements, from 32–40 guns. Captured enemy frigates were also used in service, and many of the best British-built ships were copied or adapted from French designs. Their tonnage ranged from 700 to 1450 tons, with crews of about 300 men.[1]


The rating system in the Royal Navy as originally devised had just four rates, but early in the reign of Charles I the original fourth rate (derived from the "Small Ships" category under his father, James I) was divided into new classifications of fourth, fifth, and sixth rates. While a fourth-rate was defined as a ship of the line, fifth and the smaller sixth-rates were never included among ships-of-the-line. Nevertheless, during the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century, fifth rates often found themselves involved among the battle fleet in major actions. Structurally, these were two-deckers with a complete battery on the lower deck, and fewer guns on the upper deck (below the forecastle and quarter decks, usually with no guns in the waist on this deck).

The fifth rates at the start of the 18th century were small two-deckers, generally either 40-gun ships with a full battery on two decks, or "demi-batterie" ships, carrying a few heavy guns on their lower deck (which often used the rest of the lower deck for row ports) and a full battery of lesser guns on the upper deck. However, the latter were gradually phased out, as the low freeboard (the height of the lower deck gunport sills above the waterline) meant that it was often impossible to open the lower deck gunports in rough weather. The 40-gun (or later 44-gun) fifth rates continued to be built until the later half of the 18th century (a large group were built during the American War of Independence). From mid-century, a new fifth-rate type was introduced: the classic frigate, with no gun ports on the lower deck, and the main battery of from 26 to 30 guns disposed solely on the upper deck, although smaller guns were mounted on the quarterdeck and forecastle.

Fifth-rate ships served as fast scouts or independent cruisers and included a variety of gun arrangements. The fifth rates of the 1750s generally carried a main battery of twenty-six 12-pounders on the upper deck, with six 6-pounders on the quarterdeck and forecastle (a few carried extra 6-pounders on the quarterdeck) to give a total rating of 32-guns. Larger fifth rates introduced during the late 1770s carried a main battery of twenty-six or twenty-eight 18-pounders, also with smaller guns (6-pounders or 9-pounders) on the quarterdeck and forecastle. Tonnage ranged from 700 to 1450 tons, with crews of 215 to 294 men.

To be posted aboard a fifth-rate ship was considered an attractive assignment. Fifth rates were often assigned to interdict enemy shipping, offering the prospect of prize money for the crew.

Fifth-rate frigates were considered useful for their combination of manoeuvrability and firepower, which, in theory, would allow them to outmanoeuvre an enemy of greater force and run down one of lesser force. It was for this reason that frigates of this sort were commonly used in patrol and to disrupt enemy shipping lanes much as heavy cruisers would later in history.

1688 to 1817 Ship Rate Classification, Guns and Decks

Rating systems based on guns included:[2]

Rate—Year 1688 1697 1714 1721 1760 1782 1801 Gun Decks Ref
First-Rate 90 — 100 94 — 100 100 100 100 100 100 — 120 three [3]
Second-Rate 64 — 90 90 — 96 90 90 90 90 and 98 90 and 98 three [4]
Third-Rate 56 — 70 64 — 80 70 and 80 70 and 80 64 — 80 64 — 80 64 — 80 two [5]
Fourth-Rate 36 — 62 44 — 64 50 and 60 50 and 60 50 — 60 50 — 62 50 — 60 two [6]
Fifth-Rate 28 — 38 26 — 44 30 and 40 30 and 40 30 — 44 30 — 44 30 — 44 one [7]
Sixth-Rate 4 — 18 10 — 24 10 and 20 20 and 24 20 — 30 20 — 28 20 — 28 one [8]


  1. "Rated Navy ships in the 17th to 19th centuries". London, England.: Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved 24 May 2020.
  2. Rodger, N.A.M. (2004). "Rates of Ships". The command of the ocean : a naval history of Britain 1649-1815. London: Allen Lane. pp. xxvi–xxvii. ISBN 9780713994117.
  3. Rodger. pp.xxvi-xxvii.
  4. Rodger. pp.xxvi-xxvii.
  5. Rodger. pp.xxvi-xxvii.
  6. Rodger. pp.xxvi-xxvii.
  7. Rodger. pp.xxvi-xxvii.
  8. Rodger. pp.xxvi-xxvii.