Ship of the Line

Ships of the Line were the most powerful sailing battleships afloat. They remained at the top until the advent of steam in the late 19th century. The ships of the line were classified according to the number of guns, their displacement, and the number of men that sailed in her. The line of battle was a battle formation of a single line of ships attacking the enemy ship formations and could fire the largest number of heavy guns because of the line formation. The ship size or rating could not compensate for fighting spirit or courage and often a smaller more determined ship could defeat a larger battleship that was not as hungry. In 1797 Nelson’s 74-gun ship the Captain took on the Spanish San Nicolas and the San Josef and came alongside, boarding both of them and capturing them both.


The rating of Sailing Battleships or a Ship of the Line was commensurate with the number of guns that the ship carried.
A First Rate with 3 decks carried 100 guns or more. After Trafalgar in 1805 the largest ever built was the Spanish Santissima Trinidad which had 136 guns.
Second Rates had between eighty four and one hundred guns.
Third Rates carried from seventy to eighty four guns.
Fourth Rates ships of the line had fifty to seventy guns.
Around the French wars in 1800 the Third Rate with seventy four guns was the standard ship of the line. To fire these guns and maintain the ship, a crew of about 450 men were needed. To load the cannons, a powder charge was rammed in and held by a felt wad. Then the round cannon ball was put in and this was fixed with another wad before the gun was fired.

A tumble-home or an inward sloping of the sides prevented the weight of the upper gun decks from making the ship top-heavy and capsizing. In Nelson’s Victory the heaviest guns (32-pounders) were carried on the lower gun deck , the middle gun deck had 24-pounders , and the upper gun deck had 12-pounders. Wooden Battleships of the line rarely sank each other. They were too solid for that usually. Usually , masts or spars were knocked down, and then the ship would be boarded and captured by hand to hand fighting.

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