An Introduction to Ships of the American Revolution

By Lee Bienkowski

Anatomy of an 18th Century Ship 101

The hulls of most Eighteenth Century ships were constructed of planks laid edge to edge and fastened to a frame. The spine of the vessel was the keel, a long, square beam which ran from the bow to the stern at the bottom of the hull. Extending upward from the front of the keel was the stem, the foremost portion of the hull to which the figurehead was fixed. At the opposite end of the keel was the sternpost to which the rudder was fastened.1 Rising from the keel on either side were the ribs which formed the basic shape of the hull. Although there were subtle differences in hull shape between ships due to nationality, function and the personal preferences of the shipwright, the basic hull form was similar for all vessels built in the period of the American Revolution.

The bottom of a ship had to be rounded to float and to make room for cargo and provisions. From the waterline, the sides rose almost vertical, and then toward the top, began to curve inward before becoming vertical again at the top. The inward curvature was called "tumble home" and was important in gun-bearing vessels to keep the weight of the guns closer to the more stable center of the ship.2 The front of the hull, or bow, could be narrow in a ship designed for speed or rounded in a vessel designed to carry large amounts of cargo. Below the waterline, the stern was very narrow, but above spread rapidly to provide living quarters for the ship's officers.

Spars were long wooden poles of differing diameters. Generally a ship carried two main kinds of spars—yards which supported sails, and masts which supported yards. A typical Eighteenth Century ship had three masts—the foremast in front, the mainmast which was the tallest mast in the ship, and the mizzen, a much shorter mast near the stern. Each mast could be composed of as many as three parts—mast, topmast, and topgallant mast. Another heavy spar was the bowsprit, which thrust forward from the bow at about a 30 degree angle. Attached to the far end of the bowsprit was the jibboom which extended the spar still further.

There were two main types of sails in ships of the American Revolution—square sails and fore-and-aft sails. The top of each square sail was supported by a yard. There could be as many as four yards on a mast. On the main mast, the lowest yard was called the mainyard, the next one up was the maintopsail yard, followed by the main topgallant sail yard, and finally the main royal yard. Nomenclature on the foremast was virtually the same except replacing the word "main" with the word "fore". The mizzen, however, was different. The primary sail supported by the mizzen mast was called the "spanker" or "driver". It was a fore-and-aft sail, meaning that when set, its main orientation was parallel to the keel rather than perpendicular. The driver was supported above by a spar called the gaff which was fastened to the rear portion of the mizzen and rose at about a 45 degree angle. The bottom was secured to the boom which was parallel to the deck. The mizzen could carry all fore-and-aft sails or a mixture of fore-and-aft and square sails. Other fore-and-aft sails commonly found on 18th Century ships were called headsails, which were set on lines extending from the foremast to the bowsprit or jibboom. The outer headsails were the jib and flying jib, and the inner one was the fore topmast staysail.3

Rigging also came in two basic categories—standing and running. Standing rigging supported the masts, and was not intended to be moved. Running rigging worked the sails and the yards. The main types of standing rigging were the shrouds which supported the masts on either side, the stays which ran forward from the mast, and the backstays which ran backwards. There was a greater variety of running rigging. Braces were used to swivel the yards in the horizontal plane. Lifts moved the ends of the yard in the vertical plane, while halyards moved the yard up and down the mast. Sails were controlled by bowlines (fixed to the lower corners), leechlines (running down the outer edges), and buntlines (running down the mid-section). 4 A line leading from the corner of a sail to the deck or another yard was called a sheet.

A Birdwatcher's Guide to 18th Century Ships

Ships can be classified based on anatomy or function. The following definitions are divided based on whether they define a physical type of ship or a function.

Types of Ships

Barque (Bark): A three-masted vessel with square sails on the fore and main masts and an entirely fore-and-aft rigged mizzen.5

Brig: A two-masted vessel with square sails on both masts.6

Brigantine: A two-masted vessel with square sails on the foremast and a fore-and-aft rigged mainmast.7

Cutter: A single-masted vessel carrying fore-and-aft sails. The hull was deeper-drafted and narrower than a sloop, and the mast is further aft. It generally carried more sail area than a sloop.8

Gondola: A flat-bottomed craft with a single mast rigged for square sails. These vessels were designed to be rowed or sailed, and they carried a small number of guns.9

Ketch: A type of two-masted vessel with square sails on the mainmast and fore-and-aft sails on the mizzen.10

Lugger: This type of vessel can carry one or more masts. These masts are rigged with the distinctive "lug" sail, a quadrilateral sail fastened to a yard which is slung obliquely in a fore-and-aft position.11

Row-Galley: A round-bottomed, two-masted craft, somewhat larger than a gondola. These were also designed to be rowed or sailed. The rig was fore-and-aft, and the armament could include as many as ten long guns.12

Schooner: A fore-and-aft rigged vessel with either two or three masts.13

Ship: A three-masted vessel with square sails on all three masts.

Sloop: A one-masted vessel carrying a large fore-and-aft mainsail and one headsail. These vessels generally had a shallower draft and broader beam than a cutter.14

Xebec: A shallow-drafted, three-masted vessel with the foremast raking strongly over the bow and an over-hanging stern. The foremast is always fore-and-aft rigged while the main and mizzen can be square or fore-and-aft rigged.15

Ship Functions

Frigate: A man-of-war which in the Continental Navy carried either 28 or 32 guns.16 The distinguishing characteristic of the frigate was that it carried its main armament on a single deck.

Letter-of-Marque: A privately owned ship licensed like a privateer, but whose main function was to carry cargo. Unlike a privateer, a letter-of-marque only captured enemy ships if they came her way in the course of her normal business.17

Man-of-War: A state or government-owned ship whose principal function is to fight. These ranged in size from 4-gun cutters to the 74-gun ship of the line America, and were mainly employed in fighting enemy men-of-war, protecting shipping and preying on enemy shipping.

Merchantman: A vessel whose primary purpose is to carry cargo.

Packet: A vessel making regular voyages between the same ports with mail and passengers.18

Privateer: A privately owned ship that was licensed by a state government or Continental Congress to capture enemy vessels. The principal goal of the privateer was to cruise in search of and capture ships and their cargoes for the enrichment of the owners and ships' companies.19

Ship of the Line: A ship with two or more complete decks of guns large enough (generally 64 guns or more) to stand in a fleet against an enemy fleet.

Sloop-of-War: A three-masted man-of-war smaller than a frigate. It generally carried between 14 and 20 guns on a single deck.


  1. Lavery, Brian, 1991, Building the Wooden Walls. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. p. 81.
  2. Harland, John, 1985, Seamanship in the Age of Sail. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. p. 44.
  3. Coggins, Jack, 1969, Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA. p. 137.
  4. Ibid. p. 138.
  5. Bradford, Gershom, 1952, The Mariner's Dictionary. Weathervane Books, New York. p. 17.
  6. Landstrom, Bjorn, 1961, The Ship. Doubleday & Company, New York. p. 176.
  7. Uden, Grant, and Richard Cooper, 1980, A Dictionary of British Ships and Seamen. Kestrel Books, Harmondsworth, England. p. 62.
  8. Bradford, pp. 66-7.
  9. Coggins, p. 52.
  10. Fowler, William M. Jr., 1976, Rebels Under Sail. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. p. 189.
  11. Bradford, pp. 159-60.
  12. Coggins, p. 52.
  13. Bradford, pp 225-5.
  14. Ibid. p. 245.
  15. Uden and Cooper, p. 570.
  16. Gardiner, Robert, ed., 1996, Navies and the American Revolution 1775-1783. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. p. 64.
  17. Bradford, p. 151.
  18. Ibid. pp. 187-8.
  19. Ibid. p. 202.

Copyright © 1998 Lee Bienkowski. All rights reserved.