First - an over view - start to end - of what we're going to talk about. Here's an early version (think 17th century)
Quite a change, but interestingly, while sometimes even the name has changed, much of the mission of the frigate is unchanged.
The frigate was the workhorse of the sailing navy. As such, the ships designated frigates were used as fast scouts, messengers, and agile fighting ships capable of taking on larger, more ponderous vessels, often with more guns and longer range. They were heavily armed (relative to their size) and capable of remaining at sea for long periods. While "ship-to-ship" gun battles have pretty much disappeared from the operations of most of the world's navies - they use missiles which give them a "stand off" capability rather than slugging it out toe to toe, as it were - the modern frigates do fight, they do act as the "eyes" of the fleet from time to time (though planes often so a faster job of it!) and they are superior now for protecting capital ships (like carriers) which don't have the agility to defend themselves. The early frigates were built in the early 17th century to defend merchant shipping from pirates. Their guns were carried on a lower deck, out of the weather, and with their considerable weight, adding to the stability of the vessel. These vessels were ship-rigged meaning they carried three masts with square sails on all of them, triangular shaped jibs forward, and a trapazoid-shaped "driver" with a gaff on the after, or mizzen, mast. The ships evolved, adding more guns and more sails (still only three masts, though) but retaining the original 4:1 length to beam (width) ratio. This design gave them a superior turn speed. By early 19th century, frigates carried many guns - 38+ if English and 44+ if American. And they were beautiful to behold.
|USS Constitution engaging HMS Java|
|Modern replica of l'Hermione (France)|
By time of the American Civil War, steam propulsion was added, but they kept the sails as the ships could not carry enough wood or later, coal, to sustain a long cruise.
The last ship built for the U.S. Navy that was solely wind driven was the sloop of war USS Constellation, currently a museum ship moored in Baltimore MD.
|USS Constellation in Baltimore|
They were bigger - now taking the place of the light cruisers of WWII. And pretty soon, the destroyers began to disappear, phased out of active service.
Here is one of my favorite images. USS Constitution, the oldest frigate in the Navy, under her own sail power, being escorted by the then-newest frigate in the Navy while the Navy flight team, the Blue Angels, passed overhead. The occasion was Constitution's 200th birthday!
So, progress continued - everyone thought they had a better idea, a better "mousetrap" if you will, and the design continued to evolve. In my opinion (as a former destroyerman) not always for the better. Guns were replaced with missiles, part of the the mission was replaced by aircraft, and the original concept of design specification disappeared. Even the name evolved, although there are still frigates sailing the oceans of the world. Here is what the true modern day frigate looks like:
And remember when I mentioned the original purpose was to defend against pirates? Guess what's being used off the coast of Somalia these days? Yep! Frigates!
And then came someone's bright idea, the Littoral Combat Ship. It has been a dismal failure, unable to fulfill the mission - or even keep running. But billions were spent on it, so keep using it! Big advantage, they tell me, is that it carries a much smaller crew. Ok, fine!
So, now you know. And perhaps the real meaning of frigate is now clear!
I will leave you with that hope. And wish you all, until next time,