|SUPER FRIGATES - AMERICA'S HIGH TECH WEAPONS OF THE 1790's
by Steve McQuillan
The year is 1812 and the United States is at war. Like the war
of our recent past, the subject of conversation around the world was American
military technology. The focus of attention at that time, however,
was on America's forty-four gun "super" frigates. During the first
eight months of 1812 these American 44 gun frigates had, in battles fought
on the high seas with frigates of the English navy, overcome those English
frigates in each of the three ship to ship actions fought between them.
To understand the scope of this accomplishment and why it caught even the
attention of the Emperor Bonaparte, a brief understanding of naval power
in 1812 is required.
The British navy in 1812 was made up of 191 ships of the line, 245 frigates of 50 guns
or more and numerous other smaller warships giving it over 860 ships altogether. (Another 56
ships were in the process of construction including three 120 gun ships of the line). The
English navy time and again during the preceding twenty years had humbled the navies of
France, Spain, Denmark, Turkey, Algeria, Russia and Holland. In the twenty years preceding
1812 the ships of his majesty's navy had fought in over 200 single ship to ship engagements
and lost in but five. The last time an English ship had lost a ship to ship action had been
seven years earlier when in 1805 the French Milan had bested the HMS Cleopatra. One
consequence of this seemingly unending line of victories was that by 1812 over 170 ships on
the English roll were ships captured during combat. (This total included 96 French, 39 Danish
and 18 Spanish ships) English naval victories had come to be expected by captains and sailors
of not only of the Brtish navy but those of the ships which they fought. That attitude was
rudely shaken in 1812 when the HMS Guerre (38) was destroyed by the USS Constitution (44), the
HMS Macedon (49) captured by the USS United States (44) and the HMS Java (44) taken by the USS
The navy of the United States in 1812 consisted of some 50 ships. A congressional
committee in early 1812 had determined that a fleet of 12 ships of the line and 20 frigates
would be large enough to protect the U.S. because of how thinly spread the English fleet was
stretched blockading France. Ships of the line were reserved for the major military and
economic powers, however, and something Congress decided the United States could not afford. *see note1
The largest ships in the U.S. fleet in 1812 were the 44 gun frigates, the
Constitution, United States and President. Launched between 1798 and 1800 these three ships
were built principally to protect U.S. commerce from the Barbary pirates. Because of the
threat presented by the Barbary states, the United States' Congress voted in 1794 to build
four 44 gun and two 38 gun frigates. (That number was decided on the fact that the Portuguese
had adequately blockaded the Barbary states with three ships of the line)
Those six ships were:
* The fourth 44 gun frigate was modified by Josia Fox into
the 38 gun Chesapeake.
When construction on the frigates began it had been estimated the 44 gun frigates
would cost $100,000 each and require only 18 months to build. Construction costs ran far
overbudget (the eventual cost paid for each frigate was more than England spent in the
construction of her 74 gun ships of the line) and was much slower than anticipated.
Congressional support for the building program from the very beginning ebbed and flowed with
the tide of the dispute with the Barbary pirates. The anti Federalists in Congress seized
every favorable turn in the dispute with Algeria as an excuse to delay or cancel the building
In 1795 a peace treaty was reached with the Barbary pirates bringing to a halt all
construction on these six ships. *see note2 What now saved the U.S. fleet was the dispute with France
dubbed the Quasi-War. In 1797, Congress voted to finish the USS United States, Constitution
and Constellation in response to repeated attacks by French privateers on U.S. merchantman and
deteriorating relations with France. *see note3 Though the 38 gun frigates would distinguish themselves
in ship to ship action versus French ships in the Quasi-war and later against ships of the
Barbary pirates, the 44 gun frigates would not see ship to ship action until 1812. Not even
then were they fully appreciated for the truly great ships that they were. A generation after
they were built these ships could still outsail and outfight anything in their class.
Once the political decision to build the ships was made, the next task was to
determine who would build them. The man eventually selected to design the frigates was Joshua
Humphreys. Humphreys was a partner in a Philadelphia ship building firm and had established a
reputation as one of America's finest shipwrights. Also to play an instrumental role in the
design of the American ships was Josia Fox. Secretary of War, Henry Knox had found Fox doing
a study of American timber and how it compared with European wood for ship building purposes.
Both Fox and Humphreys would work together well at first but eventually develop such distaste
for one another that they would each prepare and submit separate designs. The design
eventually selected, though largely Humphreys’ original design, did reflect Fox's influence as
Bringing to mind Germany's pocket battleships Graf Spee, Lutzow and Admiral Scheer, it was Humphreys' intent
to make his frigates capable of outrunning anything that they couldn't outgun. Even after a
meddling Congress inisisted that Knox place strict limits on the size of the ships they were
the largest ships which had by then
ever been built in America. Humphreys eventual design provided for an overall length for his
three super frigates of 204 feet with a width of 43.5 feet. This design made them
approximately 50 feet longer and a few feet wider than most British frigates of the day.
Humphreys believed (and was later proved correct) that these dimensions would give his ships
greater speed and also provide them with a more stable gun platform for combat. The greater
length and width also allowed Humphreys to break with traditional frigate design by
incorporating two separate gun decks. Though it was customary for frigates to have a single
deck full of guns and an upper deck armed only with bow and stern long gun chasers, making
the ships longer and wider, enough room was provided for a second row of guns over the first.
The frigates of the United States Navy were not only different in design but also in
the materials from which they were constructed. Oak was the wood of choice by most navies of
the world. Oak was one of the few types of wood found capable of withstanding not only the
elements of nature but also the pounding of cannonballs which a ship of war could be expected
to encounter. European navies relied principally on white oak for both the frames and the
walls of their ships. *see note4 Largely because of the work of Josia Fox the wood chosen by the U.S.
to build the frames for its frigates was live oak which he correctly believed would last much
longer than white oak. White oak and yellow pine were chosen for the decks. White oak was
also selected for the strakes - the horizontal planking running along the sides of the ship.
These planks varied in thickness from four inches at the bottom of the ship to seven to ten
inches thick along the wales (from the water line to the gun deck).
The construction of each frigate required some 3,000 trees to be cut down. Each had
to be cut by hand and each tree cut in such a manner as to insure that useful pieces could be
cut out of the wood when it arrived at the mill. This proved an exceedingly difficult task.
Not only was the wood so dense as to make the task of cutting a slow and arduous one but an
even greater problem was the fact that the live oak grew principally in a few southern swamps
where disease took the lives of many of those who were sent to cut. The project was, in fact,
delayed at some length while additional cutters, including Humpreys son, were located and sent
south to replace those who had become sick or died.
The ribs or frames of live oak formed the skeleton of each frigate. Humphreys design
called for frames as heavy as those as utilized on a ship of the line and spaced at intervals
of as little as every 1 1/2 inches. With the frames bolted to the keel by copper bolts
(copper bolts and sheathing, incidently, supplied by Paul Revere) and covered by the strakes,
the sides of the frigates were almost a solid wall of oak, 15-20 inches thick.
To power these ships Humphreys designed a ship that carried almost as much sail as a
ship of the line. Held aloft on a mast of white pine towering 185 feet into the air (and
bound with 4 miles of rope) the 44 gun frigates carried approximately 42, 000 square feet of
sail. Most critics felt that the ships were over sailed and would be difficult to handle. It
was not until the War of 1812 that the frigates were able to prove their agility. Capable of
sailing at 12-14 knots they proved faster than anything in their class.
Those ships which Humphreys ship could not outrun he intended to out gun. Humphreys
original design for his super frigates called for them to each carry 44 guns. As it turned
out, each eventually carried more and heavier guns than he ever intended. Unfortunately,
Congress had seen fit to assign captains for each of the frigates while the ships were being
built. These captains knew that their ships were destined to fight and insisted on crowding
onto them as much cannon as possible. The Constitution, for example, had on her 60 long guns
at the time that she was launched. It was hardly unusual for ships to carry as few guns as
they were rated for and, in fact, during the period from 1812-1815 only two U.S. and two
British ships did. This overloading of guns, however, did cause the ships to sail slower than
Humphreys had intended but he was unable to convince any of their captains to remove any guns.
Each of the three American "super" frigates were armed with 30 long 24 pound guns. Up
to 9 feet 6 inches long, and resting on a wooden carraige with small wooden wheels, each of
these guns weighed 5,544 pounds and could shoot a cannonball weighing 24 pounds up to 2,150
yards (maximum distance). Though able to shoot the same distance the long 18 pound gun which
the British used weighed only 4,704 pounds. The English Navy considered that the 24 pounder
was too heavy and cumbersome for rapid and repeated use during combat and opted to use the
long 18 on almost all of their frigates. The English felt that if they could get off five 18
pound shots for every three 24 pound shots then they would cause more damage faster. The
British were to learn the hard way how wrong this belief was. In the fight between the HMS
Macedon and the USS United States, for example, the United States got off 66 shots per gun as
compared to 36 of the Macedon. In one of those ironic twists of fate Captain Carden of the
HMS Macedon hd told Captain Steven Decatur of the USS United States while the two were dining
together before the war that the 24 pounders were too heavy and too slow and in any fight
between them, which they both hoped would never occur, that the higher rate of English fire
would cripple Decatur's ship.
In addition to its 30 long 24 pounders both the USS President and United States
carried 20 forty-two pound caronades while the USS Constitution carried 20 thirty-two pound
caronades. The caronade was a shorter, lighter gun compared to a long gun of the same weight
but threw a much heavier ball for a much shorter distance. Interestingly, though most damage
during ship to ship actions would ordinarily come from the caronades as the ships got in
close, most navies chose to rate their ships solely on the number of long guns they carried at
the time of their launching. Thus the United States was rated a 44 though she usually carried
50 long guns plus 20 forty-two pound caronades.
One significant disadvantage the United States' ships did have in its armament was the
inferior quality of the metal in its guns and shot. American foundries were so poor that
captains often reported guns blowing up and shots breaking in half or even disintegrating
after being fired. Even if the shots did stay intact the shots were continually underweight.
This was offset at least somewhat by two advantages that U.S. gun crews had over their English
counterparts. The guns on U.S. ships were equipped with sights while the British had declined
the use of them in order to encourage both speed of fire and their use at closer range. The
second advantage came out of the use by the United States of a new powder cartridge made out
of thin sheets of lead. Unlike the British who used flannel bags of powder, the U.S. gun
crews were not required to swab out their guns after each use to extinguish any embers left in
the gun. Obviously this allowed U.S. guns to shoot at a higher rate of fire.
The number and caliber of the guns the U.S. placed on her "super" frigates was the
principle excuse given by the English to explain their losses to these ships in 1812.
Certainly the super frigates of the U.S. Navy were different than most frigates of the day but
the English criticism that the American frigates were nothing more than disguised ships of the
line was unfounded. One only needs to make a brief comparison of these frigates with ships of
the line to see that there really was no comparison. Weighing between 2,000-4,000 tons and
carrying between 74 and 130 guns, the American frigates were obviously not in size or in the
number of guns that they carried, ships of the line. Neither did the fact that they had two
decks nor the fact that they carried 24 pound guns as compared to the English 18 pounders
sufficient to warrant the claim by the English that the ships were in reality disguised ships
of the line. It was ignored by the English press of the time that there were, in fact, three
rated forty-our gun frigates in the English navy (Cornwallis, Endymon and Indefatigable) each
of which carried 24 pounder guns.
The life blood of any great sailing ship was her crew. In this category the U.S.
frigates were also superior to those of the English navy. While the ships of His Majesty's
Navy spent long periods at sea (giving them a great advantage over their French adversaries)
sailors of the U.S. fleet normally had just as much maritime experience as their English
counterparts. American sailors, however, received better training in the use of their guns
than did English sailors. Use of live ammunition for training was frowned on by English
captains whose ships would be required to stay at sea for long extended periods of time far
from home and resupply. The U.S. fleet practiced liberally with live ammunition and put this
experience to great effect during the war.
The three U.S. super frigates were each designed to be manned by approximately 400
men. Because of the extra guns crowded on after launching they would during the war actually
muster between 400 and 490 men. This was a number greater than most frigates in the English
Navy but far fewer than the 750-1,000 men that even the smallest ship of the line would carry.
Nor could the number of men on the U.S. ships explain the disparate results in the combats
between their frigates in 1812. The following chart indicates the number of men on board each
of the frigates during the actions in 1812 and the casualties sustained.
The cheapest shot taken by critics of the American successes was that one to the
effect that up to half of the crews on each of these American frigates were Englishmen. This
assertion by one English author, though without any basis in fact, was generally accepted for
decades in England after the war. In truth, American ships were manned by American crews.
The pay for U.S. sailors was better than their English counterparts and at $10 to $17
dollars per month was as much or more than a skilled artisan on shore could earn. Crew
quarters were roomier than on English ships and the food generally better. Remarkably for the
time and unique to the United States Navy, sailors could look over their ships before
enlisting. Terms of enlistment were for one year duration as opposed to the indefinite
duration English sailors signed on (or were impressed) for. Though discipline was stern
generally it was not as stern as on English ships of war and desertions from American ships
American crews would prove to the world in 1812 that they and their ships were as good
as any navy in the world. That the American navy in the Persian Gulf proved to be a
technological marvel manned by professionals skilled at their craft came to most of the world
as no surprise. That the American navy of 1812 was manned and equipped as such came as a
shock to the world and announced America's entry onto the stage of world politics.
Note 1: After the Constitution's victory over the Guerre, Congress authorized the construction of
three ships of the line and six more frigates. These ships of the line were the Washington
(74), the Independence (74) and the Franklin (74). All were completed in 1815 but did not see
service during the War of 1812.
Note 2:The inclusion of a clause to that effect in the Naval Act of 1794 had been the only way
George Washington had been able to obtain Congressional approval for the building of the
Note 3:The USS President was completed later in 1800.
Note 4: White oak after decades of European warfare was becoming more and more
difficult to find. By 1813 Great Britain was, in fact, required to
order the construction of six new large frigates to be built of fir.
The use of fir had previously been widely criticized because of the fact
that fir, when struck by a cannonball, would badly splinter causing as
many if not more casualties than the cannonball itself. One of the
ironies of the British construction program in 1813 was the fact that one
of the English jokes about the U.S. frigates shared in the years before
the War of 1812 was that the U.S. ships were built of fir. After
the ship to ship actions of 1812 and a review by the English Navy of the
U.S. casualty lists, the English Navy re-evaluated its earlier position
regarding the use of fir. That the small number of U.S. casualties
had more to do with the fact that the guns of the English frigates only
rarely struck the U.S. ships was something which they failed to consider.
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