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177x ships - British vs US design, what are the differences?

Mike Y

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Slowly starting a pleasuring preparation for the next build, which would be in that period.

Looks like internet is not a good source for that...


Main question is - how different was the design of British warships (taking famous Swan class as an example), versus similar sized and armed ships in US, like Confederacy?  Main point of interest is not a gun setup or things like that (they are pretty well documented for each ship), but more the internal structure, layout of rooms inside the ship, etc. 

Can I assume that they were very similar (because, probably, shipbuilding expertise was already quite globalized at that times)? Or they were different, and it's better to study US ship construction separately?

The only book I have is Hahn, "Ships of the American Revolution"... And it kind of ignores that question, assuming it's not a big deal. Which makes sense, since Hahn was more of an artist, and cared about "historical correctness" only to certain extent.


Would appreciate any hints, links, experience!


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I've got just a few observations... 


The Americans tended to towards taller masting carrying more sail.  Probably because they could and had a good supply of tall trees.  England actually had to start importing timber for many things around that time frame.


The Americans also preferred the bigger is better theory in frigates (possibly other types also) as they started building them longer than the British.


Layout of the decks was pretty similar but there were minor variations such as sail room, slops room, etc. locations.

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While the arrangement of spaces would be similar, each ship would be unique as there was no standard in the Colonies. With very few exceptions, the American ship builders were not experienced with war ships - they built merchant and fishing vessels.


As to framing, very few had any knowledge of the British Establishment, and not many had been trained in British yards. Many were self taught - learned the skills in a yard but little formal training. Each had institutional knowledge to guide him, not written rules.

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I can understand the wood supply issue that Mark has pointed out.  But you can't simply add more sail to a design without changing something else.  Ballast, hull form, draught?  It would be interesting to see a side by side comparison of ships of the same time and size... something I've never taken the time to do.  Does anyone know of a reference that does this?


Good question, Mike Y

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In thinking about the timber for masts, the British had been using New England (particularly Maine) trees for masts and spars for many years - see The Kings Broad Arrow for some good information.


As to a side by side comparison, I have not seen any good comparisons.  Below are a brief comparison of the British fifth Rate HMS Lark of 32 guns and the Continental Navy Frigate Randolph of 32 guns.  have not done any digging yet for mast and rigging details - doubtful there is much for the Randolph unless in a painting somewhere.


Class & type:   British Richmond-class fifth-rate frigate HMS Lark

Built in 1761-62

Tons burthen: 680 61⁄94 bm

Length:            127 ft 2 in (38.76 m) (gundeck)

                       108 ft 0.375 in (32.92793 m) (keel)

Beam:              34 ft 5 in (10.49 m)

Depth of hold:            12 ft 0.5 in (3.670 m)

Sail plan:         Full-rigged ship

Complement:   210 officers and men


32 guns comprising

    Upperdeck: 26 × 12-pounder guns

    Quarterdeck: 4 × 6-pounder guns

    Forecastle: 2 × 6-pounder guns


Type:   Continental Navy Frigate Randolph

Built in 1776 by Wharton & Humphreys (Philadelphia)

Designed by Joshua Humphreys

Length:            132 ft 9 in (40.46 m)

Beam:               34 ft 6 in (10.52 m)

Draft: 18 ft (5.5 m)

Depth:             10 ft 6 in (3.20 m)

Armament:      26 x 12 pdrs; 10 x 6 pdrs

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A general difference is that the United States, at her founding, had an unlimited timber supply. As a result, we didn't have to scarf a whole bunch of little timbers together, like the British did, to make a larger piece.  For example, we didn't have to make 'anchor-stock' type wales on our ships, like the British did. We just used long straight timbers. If the British had had a similarly nice piece of timber available to make their wales in the same easy way, they would have instead used it for something more important.


The first Sloop of War Wasp, for example, built in the Washington Navy Yard in 1806, had a 100 foot keel. It was made of only two pieces scarfed together, one of which was an 84 foot long straight stick of hickory! She also had choice bits of walnut, locust and cedar in her upper frame.

Edited by uss frolick
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Those are good points, Bart.  I guess I was thinking more of folks like Joshua Humphreys.  In his youth, he was a ship carpenter’s apprentice in Philadelphia, and after the death of the master, Humphreys was given control of the ship yard. His later creation of his own ship yard made him well-known in the colonies as a naval architect, and he was commissioned by the U. S. government in 1776 to build ships in Philadelphia and prepare them for the Revolutionary War.  As I recollect, he did not visit Britain prior to the start of the 1800's, if at all.


Many of the New England ship builders actually had closer ties to French influence (Canadian influence) and Irish than strict British practice.  In fact, when you look at ship yards such as Portsmouth NH while the builders had British ancestry, they had been in New Hampshire since the mid 1600's - whatever influence came from Britain would have been long since diluted by the local maritime environment and nature of the fisheries and mercantile activities from those regions. See (for example) Preble's History of the United States Navy-yard, Portsmouth, N. H. (1892). 


In the Historical Society records for this region, the early permanent settlers of this part of Maine were from Massachusetts - and had been there for many years. The records on ship builders I have seen so far are for locally trained folks - they started building their own boats for fishing (patterned after the French, Portuguese, Spanish and British vessels in the  Newfoundland/Bay of Fundy fisheries) but to their own preference.  These evolved into privateers and merchant vessels in response to market pressures (for lack of a better phrase).  While there were similarities to boats built in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, they also had some unique characteristics that set them apart.

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Interesting commentary, gentlemen.  I would imagine that the British kept a close eye on ship design in Europe for obvious reasons.  To my eye, British ships were generally more purpose built, more efficient looking (lovers of French and Spanish vessels please hold your fire).  We Americans seemed to gravitate toward the British designs.  I would imagine that those interested in architecture would have similar discussions relating to British vs. European cathedrals.


Fascinating stuff!

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Howard Chappelle discussed this question in a couple of his books. "The History of the American Sailing Navy" and "The History of American Sailing Ships" both cover it.  The one thing that the British made note of during this period was the light construction of the many privateers that were captured and their lines taken off.  However this probably did not carry over to the construction of merchant or naval vessels as the privateers and blockade runners were built very light to increase speed.  I think it is fairly safe to assume that in most respects American built ships were different from their British counterparts only in detail.

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I'm making some very broad statements here, hopefully on point.  Ship designs were probably more heavily influenced by naval startegy and national policy as much as anything.  French ships were typically lighter built, because this made them fast which was needed to support their doctrine of ships putting to see for a specific purpose and otherwise moored in harbour.  The downside was that they were not built for endurance.  The opposite was the evolved British strategy of having ships continually at sea supporting the strategy of blockade or on distant station, which required stronger ships built for endurance.  For both these countries this had to fit within an extended window of hostilities.  In that context, the war of 1812 was pretty condensed with Americans essentially following a localized commerce raiding strategy and building highly effective ships for that strategic purpose.  Britain responded by building similar sized ships on a limited basis to counter that specific threat, but maintained its underlying commitment to it long standing approach to ship design which worked well both before and after .  Bottom line, every ship is a compromize of cost (building and operating), firepower, sailing quality, speed and endurance amongst others. Ships were probably much less influenced by the skills or training of the individual shipwrights than by the direction of the individual Admiralties in support of military strategy and national policy. 

Edited by Beef Wellington
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Well put, Jason, and there is the essence of the issue - at the time in question (177x), there was no true American "Admiralty" to make those decisions - they issued general requirements to purchase "Sloops" or "Schooners", then for some "Frigates".  Individual colonies then also had vessels built, but to no set mold or designs.  The first effort at a standard design criteria wasn't until the first 6 frigates were ordered in the 1790's - and even those, whilst built based on the model and preliminary draughts by Humphreys, varied dramatically in final product, influenced by the builders personal vision and the Naval Captain (assigned to each as superintendent during construction).  Add to that the subscription built vessels (such as the Essex) which were totally designed and built based on the local contract - then sold to the Federal government when completed. 


The concept of a standardized naval construction program - plans, materials, methods and so on - was much slower to take root in America, partly a result of our desire for "States Rights" during the earliest days of the Republic, and also a general mistrust of central government. 

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