Naval Development: The Age of Sail Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The period from 1500 to 1850 saw dramatic developments in naval warships.

Nature and Use

The period from 1500 to 1850 saw dramatic developments in naval warships. Although the first effective gun-armed sailing ships had appeared around 1500, these ships were little more than converted merchant ships, not designed to make the most effective use of artillery. Nonetheless, they allowed Europeans to display maritime power on a global scale for the first time, as evidenced by the creation of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Asia and the Americas, and also in parts of Africa, in the early sixteenth century. The first type of sailing ship designed around gun armament was the GalleonsGalleonsgalleon, which appeared in approximately 1550. Although galleons were still used by the Spanish as cargo carriers, warships became increasingly differentiated from merchant ships. By 1600 the principal missions of warships were fairly well defined: to seize command of the sea in order to facilitate or prevent invasion; to attack and defend maritime commerce; and also to attack onshore targets. These basic missions continued throughout the age of sail, and into the age of propulsion.Naval warfare;sailing shipsWarships;sailing shipsSailing shipsNaval warfare;sailing shipsShips and shipbuilding;sailing shipsWarships;sailing shipsSailing ships

In the sixteenth century, galleons became the principal fighting ships. They were supported in the early seventeenth century by ships known as Pinnacespinnaces, smaller vessels that were especially useful in coastal waters too shallow for galleons. Because all warships of the sailing era were constructed of wood, they were vulnerable to fire. FireshipsFireships were designed to be set on fire with the intention of crashing into enemy ships; and pinnaces often defended against fireships. Oared Oared vesselsvessels, or vessels with auxiliary oar power, increasingly played only a supporting role to sailing ships, especially in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

By the late seventeenth century, further refinements had appeared. Navies increasingly classified their warships. Ships of the highest rating came to be called ships of the Ships of the lineline, because they were considered powerful enough to fight in the line of battle, which became the characteristic fleet tactic. Ships of lesser ratings fulfilled the roles of the pinnaces and fireships. Shore attack was not forgotten; by the 1680’s vessels known as bomb Bombs;ketchesketches had been built for this purpose. The Frigatesfrigates, Sloopssloops, and Corvettescorvettes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries developed from ships of these lesser rates. These smaller ships were used as the pinnaces had been, to scout for enemy fleets, to attack and defend commerce, and to carry messages and repeat flag signals from senior commanders to subordinates.

A caravel like the one depicted here, based on a drawing attributed to Christopher Columbus, was used by explorers of Africa and Asia during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

In general, warships became more standardized and more specialized as the age of sail progressed. The distinction between warships and merchant ships became more sharply drawn, especially after the mid-seventeenth century, when the line of battle was developed. Ships grew in size, and also in number. Fleet actions were increasingly decided by shipboard artillery, leaving little scope for the boarding and hand-to-hand Hand-to-hand combat[hand to hand combat];decline ofcombat that had characterized earlier battles. Improvements in ship design, rigging, seamanship, and techniques of food preparation led to further developments in the eighteenth century. For example, large-scale fleet actions occurred in the waters of the New World as well as those of Europe. Year-round operations also became more common, whereas earlier ships had rarely gone to sea in winter. Because fleets could stay at sea longer, navies could blockade their enemies, stationing a fleet off an enemy’s port and preventing its forces from leaving.

By 1800 sailing warships were providing the great naval powers, particularly England, with weapons of tremendous power, versatility, and range. However, by the end of the 1850’s the tremendous technological developments in steam propulsion, iron working, and ordnance had rendered sail-powered wooden warships obsolete.


One Guns;navalArtillery;navalof the dominant themes in the development of sailing warships was the effort to make shipboard artillery more effective, which characterized both ship design and naval tactics. Although guns had been mounted on warships as early as the fourteenth century, they tended to be small because they had to be fitted to shoot over the bulwarks that lined the sides of the upper decks. The fitting of too many heavy guns in this manner would have endangered the stability of ships, because the guns would be placed comparatively high above the waterline. Around 1500 the major Atlantic maritime powers–England, Spain, Portugal, Scotland, and France–began to cut ports for guns to be fired through the sides of ships. These Gunportsgunports could be closed in heavy weather, so the guns could be mounted lower in the ship with less risk of their firing affecting the balance of the ship. In turn, because they were mounted lower, guns could be heavier without endangering the ship’s stability. The introduction of the gunport therefore represented an important step forward in warship firepower.

Ship Structure

Other than strengthening the hull structure to resist the forces exerted in firing the Guns;navalguns, few modifications were made to early sixteenth century warships. They tended merely to be versions of existing merchant vessels, typically Carrackscarracks and Caravelscaravels, with high forecastles–superstructures at the bow, or front, of the ship. The high Forecastlesforecastles facilitated boarding attacks, the dominant form of naval action at the time. Boarding involved sending armed parties from one’s own ship to attack the enemy’s ship. Thus the towering forecastles acted almost as medieval siege towers. At the same time forecastles and aft castles, those in the rear of the boat, could be defended as strongholds against enemy boarders. However, because of these high forecastles, few guns could be brought to bear at the bow of the ship, which was a significant limitation. Traditionally, navies had attacked in line side-by-side, a method derived from Mediterranean galley tactics. Because galleys needed to leave room for the rowers, they could carry only heavy guns at the bow. They were thus highly effective in coastal waters, even in northern Europe, because they were able to attack Bows-on maneuver[Bows on maneuver]“bows on,” a maneuver to which the sailing ship could not effectively respond.

Peter the Great, czar of Russia, made a trip to Western Europe, including a highly anticipated visit to Holland in the Dutch Republic to learn the art of shipbuilding.

(F. R. Niglutsch)
Introduction of the Galleon

To Galleonssolve the problems of Guns;navalgun placement, Portugal, England, Spain, and Denmark invented a new type of ship around 1550: the galleon. Galleons had a lower bow structure, like that of a galley (hence, perhaps, the name), so a heavier armament could be mounted in the bow. This proved effective at the Lepanto, Battle of (1571)Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The lower bow also lessened wind resistance, facilitating maneuverability. This design culminated in the so-called Race-built galleons[Race built galleons]race-built galleons, developed by the English in the 1580’s. These ships had comparatively fine lines and carried a relatively heavy gun armament. The increase in armament was important: The England;navyEnglish navy believed it would have to rely on shipboard artillery to defeat theSpain;navy Spanish, their major rivals, who carried many more soldiers on their ships. In contrast the Spanish intended to use artillery mainly to weaken their opponent before boarding, which they believed was the decisive tactic. A test of these theories came in 1588, when the Spanish Spanish Armada (1588)Armada was unable to force a boarding battle on the English fleet. Although the English had little success in sinking outright Spanish ships by gunfire, they did inflict sufficient casualties to demoralize the Spanish fleet, much of which was destroyed on its way home. The defeat of the Spanish Armada prevented Spain from invading England.

Even after the decisive defeat of the Spanish Armada, naval experts remained divided on the issue of guns versus boarding. Although wooden ships could be wrecked by gunfire, causing many casualties, they proved difficult to sink. Indeed, the English fleet nearly ran out of ammunition defeating the Spanish Armada. Therefore it is not surprising that the Netherlands;navyDutch, the foremost naval power of the early seventeenth century, continued to advocate the importance of boarding. They used this tactic to win spectacular victories against the Spanish, such as the Downs, Battle of the (1639)Battle of the Downs (1639). The Dutch, in relying so heavily on boarding tactics, may have been merely making a virtue out of necessity, initially lacking the relatively plentiful supply of artillery possessed by the English.

The bows-on Bows-on maneuver[Bows on maneuver]attacks favored by all navies from the introduction of the galleon down to the mid-seventeenth century also limited the effectiveness of shipboard artillery. For obvious hydrodynamic reasons, a ship’s hull must be longer than it is wide; but attacks with lines abreast were seen at Malta, Siege of (1565)Malta in 1565, when the Turks used ships to bombard Fort St. Elmo. In a naval battle the major use of cannons in massed formation with lines abreast was undoubtedly the Lepanto, Battle of (1571)Battle of Lepanto in 1571, although paintings of the battle show that some of the guns were mounted on the side for Broadside firepowerbroadsides. This shift occurred because, obviously, there was more space for mounting Guns;on ships[ships]guns along the ship’s side than across either its bow or stern.

Consequently, even the galleon, with its significant forward-firing armament, Guns;navalmounted most of its guns along the side, or broadside. This gun placement led to the development of a turning movement that became standard in all naval tactics. The ship fired its forward guns, then turned its side toward the enemy, in order to bring its heaviest armament to bear. That motion also permitted the ship to turn away from the enemy that part of its armament which needed to be reloaded. At that time, guns could not always be withdrawn into the ship for reloading, as crews tended to be too small to push the guns back into firing position. Instead, gunners had to climb out onto the barrel to reload, a dangerous activity under fire. Turning the rearming side of the ship away from the enemy allowed reloading with greater safety. However, with each ship turning to shoot and reload at its own pace, fleet actions tended to become disorganized melees.

Broadside Firepower and the Line of Battle

It Broadside firepowerwas the English, who continued to build ships of exceptional gun power, who started adopting broadsides with their turning tactic. The most notable of these was Sovereign of the Seas, HMS HMS Sovereign of the Seas, the first one-hundred-gun warship, launched in 1637 and measuring 1,500 tons–about double the size of the galleons of 1588. The English navy was the first to develop a style of fighting at sea that maximized the importance of broadside firepower. This new style was the Line of battle (naval warfare) line of battle, developed in the First Anglo-DutchAnglo-Dutch War, First (1652-1654)[Anglo Dutch War, First]War (1652-1654) by the English navy under the joint command of Robert Blake, RobertBlake, Robert Blake (1599-1657), George Monck, GeorgeMonck, George Monck (1608-1669), and Richard Deane, RichardDeane, Richard Deane (1610-1653). In the line of battle, also known as the line ahead, a fleet was arrayed in a single line of ships, one behind the other: the most effective arrangement for deploying broadside firepower. The ships in the line of battle no longer turned to reload their guns, because gun crews were larger, so that in-board loading became the rule. At the Battles of Gabbard Gabbard Shoals, Battle of (1653) Shoals (June 2-3, 1653) and Scheveningen, Battle of (1653) Scheveningen (July 31, 1653), the English fleet in the line of battle won lopsided victories over the Dutch, who sought to fight in the old manner. Indeed, Dutch admiral Maarten Tromp, MaartenTromp, Maarten Tromp (1598-1653) was killed in the latter battle, and the Dutch were forced to sue for peace.

By the time of the Third Anglo-Dutch Anglo-Dutch War, Third (1672-1674)[Anglo Dutch War, Third]War (1672-1674) the line of battle had been adopted by the major naval powers of the period, which included England, France, and the Netherlands. Only powerfully armed and constructed ships could hope to stand up to the type of punishment dealt out by the line of battle. Hence an increasingly sharp differentiation arose between those ships fit to fight in the line of battle and those that were not. This differentiation was defined by a rating system based on the number of guns a ship carried. By the 1670’s, first-rates carried one hundred or more guns, second-rates carried sixty to ninety guns, and so forth. Only ships of the first four rates ranked as ships of the line. A ship required multiple decks in order to carry as many as seventy to one hundred guns; in the English and French navies first-rates always had three decks. The gun batteries became heavier, as navies increasingly used cheaper cast-iron guns instead of the more expensive, if slightly more reliable, bronze guns. The use of iron guns was another technological development pioneered by England.

Ships of the line were considered powerful enough to fight in the line of battle, which became the characteristic fleet tactic.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

The huge fleets–containing as many as one hundred ships–amassed for the great sea battles of the late seventeenth century rendered command and control nearly impossible for the admirals of the period. No matter where they placed their flagships, part of their line of battle, which could stretch for 10 miles or more, would likely be out of visual range. This problem would be compounded by the vast clouds of Smoke;naval warfaresmoke given off by black powder weapons and by atmospheric conditions such as fog. Naval commanders were also hampered by inadequate signaling systems. For all these reasons, late seventeenth century lines of battle often disintegrated into melees.

Moreover, naval tactics in the age of sail suffered from the fundamental problems associated with relying on the wind for propulsion. Winds could die down or suddenly shift direction. Furthermore, the square rig–the most common rig on Western warships–did not permit ships to sail directly into the wind. Neither was sailing highly efficient with the wind directly behind.

By the eighteenth century, fleets had become easier to control. Although navies were larger, individual fleets tended to be smaller. This paradox arose because the major navies–those of England, France, and Spain–now operated over a much larger area of the globe, using multiple fleets. Smaller fleets had less difficulty maintaining the line formation. Navies also developed better signaling techniques, involving not only signal flags but also night signaling by use of lanterns. The increasing adoption of professional officer corps by eighteenth century navies brought the line of battle under better control.

However, these very improvements in the line of battle, in some ways, worked against its decisiveness. If fleets arrayed in the line of battle were relatively equal in numbers of ships and guns, it was difficult for either side to win a clear-cut victory. Such was the case, for example, at the Málaga, Battle of (1704)[Malaga]Battle of Málaga (1704) in the War of the Spanish Spanish Succession, War of the (1701-1714)Succession (1701-1714), fought between an Anglo-Dutch fleet and the French. In addition, fireships, previously an effective tool, were difficult to use against the better-controlled fleets. To regain the advantage, navies turned to the finer points of naval tactics. Much attention was paid to the relative advantages of being to windward of the enemy fleet, possessing the “wind gauge,” or having the enemy fleet to windward, possessing the “lee gauge.” Although it was easier to withdraw from the lee gauge, it was generally easier to shoot from the wind gauge, in part because the smoke from firing would blow away toward the enemy. However, because ships could heel, or incline, away from the wind, in severe weather, it might be dangerous to open the gunports on the lowest deck if firing from the windward.

The best way to win a victory between evenly matched forces was to take advantage of an enemy’s error. This proposition is well illustrated by the Battle of Quiberon Quiberon Bay, Battle of (1759)Bay (1759) during the Seven Years’ War. In that battle, an English fleet under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke (1705-1781) fought a French fleet of about equal strength. The French commander, believing the weather too rough for a sea battle, decided to bring his fleet into coastal waters, where he doubted that the English would follow for fear of wrecking their ships on unfamiliar shores. However, in its haste to gain shelter, the French fleet became disordered. Hawke, seeing this, immediately attacked. In the ensuing battle, the English sank or captured seven ships, with no losses of their own. The English fleet won not only a great tactical victory but also a strategic one, because the French fleet had been intended to escort an invasion convoy.

Superior proficiency in seamanship and gunnery also permitted a navy to win without possessing greater numbers. For example, England was able to win a string of victories during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). English sailors were more skilled, and English gun crews shot faster than all of their opponents except the Americans. Conversely, the French navy, hitherto the most formidable opponent of the English, had been weakened by the loss of experienced officers brought about as a result of the French Revolutionary Wars. The most spectacular of the English victories were those won by Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), including the Battle of Trafalgar, Battle of (1805)Trafalgar (1805), where the English fleet of twenty-seven ships attacked in a two-column formation designed to split the Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty-three ships and force a close-quarters gunnery action. The tactic was exceedingly risky and possible only for a commander who had confidence that his men could outfight the enemy. The English won decisively, capturing nearly twenty ships, the majority of which later sank, owing to the combined effects of heavy battle damage and bad weather. Although no English ships were lost, Nelson himself was killed during this battle, considered his greatest victory.

From 1700 to 1815 the greatest fleet actions were fought by ships of the line carrying between 60 and 131 guns with a maximum shot weight of 32 to 42 pounds, arranged on at least two decks. During this period, ships were still classed by rate. First-rates carried more than 100 guns and weighed up to 3,000 tons; they were generally used as flagships and as strong points in the line of battle. The most common line-of-battle ship came to be a two-decked, third-rate vessel of 74 guns and around 1,500 tons. This size offered the best compromise between firepower and sailing capability. Ships had become much larger: This third-rate ship was approximately the size of a first-rate of the seventeenth century.

Increasing Importance of Frigates

Whereas the Ships of the lineship of the line dominated fleet actions, Frigatesfrigates played a major role in scouting and in the attack and defense of commerce. Frigates carried between 30 and 50 guns firing 18- to 24-pound shot usually arranged on only one complete gun deck. Frigates were usually faster than ships of the line; they were also much smaller, generally less than 1,000 tons before 1780. However, by 1800, a number of navies, including that of the United States, had built very large frigates, such as the famous Constitution, USS USS Constitution, launched in 1797 with 44 guns and weighing 1,500 tons. The French even cut decks off ships of the line in an effort to combine the greater resistance to gunfire and heavier guns of the ship of the line with the greater speed of the frigate. These ships were called Razées razées. All navies employed smaller ships, such as sloops and corvettes, to perform roles similar to those of frigates.

Admiral Horatio Nelson’s brilliant naval strategy overwhelmed Napoleon’s forces during the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Many English officers considered French ships to be better and faster than English ships. French ships did tend to be slightly larger, but they may have been more weakly built. Furthermore, the English inaugurated most of the technical innovations of the period, including the use of copper bottoms on ship’s hulls, which reduced the loss of speed caused by marine growth, and Carronadescarronades, thin-walled cannons that fired a heavy shot to deadly effect at short range. Both of these innovations appeared during the American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783);naval warfare(1775-1783), where they played a major role in the English victory at the Les Saintes, Battle of (1782)Battle of Les Saintes (1782). This victory, however, in some ways came too late for the English, whose inability to maintain control of the seas earlier in the war had led directly to their failure to defeat the American colonists.

The French bombard Algiers during a naval battle in 1830.

(Library of Congress)

The period from 1815 to 1850 marked the swan song of the sailing warship. Wooden ships had reached unprecedented sizes, due to the system of diagonal bracing developed in 1811 by the English naval constructor Seppings, RobertSeppings, RobertRobert Seppings (1767-1840). However, the new technology of the Steam engine (ships)steam engine provided the possibility of maneuver independent of the wind and conferred a decisive tactical advantage. By the 1850’s most navies had converted their sailing ships to use steam propulsion, although sails were retained for cruising. Naval guns had become more destructive as well, with the introduction of explosive shells and heated cannonballs, known as Red-hot shot[Red hot shot]“red-hot shot,” beginning in the 1820’s. These developments in ordnance doomed the wooden warship, which was increasingly replaced by metal-hulled and metal-armored ships in the 1860’s.Naval warfare;sailing shipsShips and shipbuilding;sailing shipsWarships;sailing shipsSailing ships

Books and Articles
  • Crowdy, Terry. French Warship Crews, 1789-1805. New York: Osprey, 2005.
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Royal Navy, 1793-1815. New York: Osprey, 2007.
  • Gardiner, Robert, ed. Cogs, Caravels, and Galleons: The Sailing Ship, 1000-1650. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1992.
  • _______. The Line of Battle: The Sailing Warship, 1650-1840. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1992.
  • Hopkins, T. C. F. Confrontation at Lepanto. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2006.
  • Konstam, Angus. Lepanto, 1571. New York: Osprey, 2003.
  • _______. The Pirate Ship, 1660-1730. New York: Osprey, 2003.
  • _______. Renaissance War Galleon, 1470-1590. New York: Osprey, 2002.
  • _______. Spanish Galleon, 1530-1690. New York: Osprey, 2004.
  • _______. Tudor Warships (1): Henry VIII’s Navy. New York: Osprey, 2008.
  • Lardas, Mark. Ships of the American Revolutionary Navy. New York: Osprey, 2009.
  • Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organization, 1793-1815. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1989.
  • Rodger, N. A. M. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660-1649. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
  • Stilwell, Alexander. The Trafalgar Companion. New York: Osprey, 2005.
  • Tunstall, Brian. Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: The Evolution of Fighting Tactics, 1650-1815. Edited by Nicholas Tracy. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1990.
Films and Other Media
  • Master and Commander. Film. Twentieth Century Fox, 2003.
  • The Great Ships: Ships of the Line. Documentary. History Channel, 1996.

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