Russian Ship Types and Classifications – Age of Sail

Russian squadron visits Spithead August 1827

The Russian sailing navy at the height of its power and efficiency: during a state visit to Britain the Russian squadron at Spithead mans the yards in honour of the Duchess of Clarence, 8 August 1827. Drawn with meticulous attention to detail by Henry Moses, all the Russian ships are identified. From left to right, they are: Sisoi Velikii (74); Iezekiil’ (74); Tsar’ Konstantin (74); Merkurii (44); Kniaz Vladimir (74); Gangut (84), then the British royal yacht Royal Sovereign under sail; Aleksandr Nevskii (74); Azov (74); Sviatoi Andrei (74). Elements of this squadron were to fight with distinction a couple of months later at Navarino.

The sterns of four Russian ships of the line built between 1700 and 1763 show in detail the elaborate style of decorative wood carving still in vogue in Russia during the first half of the eighteenth century at a time when the sterns and quarter galleries of other European capital ships were becoming simpler and more utilitarian in the interest of economy and efficiency in battle. As warship design became more functional and less concerned with vulgar (and expensive) display under Catherine II, this level of decoration declined in the Russian navy as it had done so earlier in other European navies: top left, Goto Predestinatsiya 1700; top right, Ingermanland 1715; below left, Slava Rossii 1733; below right, Sviatoi Evstafii Plakida 1763.

This includes major seagoing warships present. Shallow-draught vessels intended solely for inshore and amphibious warfare and naval auxiliaries are not included. Coverage of the larger oared and rowing frigates has been included here on account of their size and firepower and their seagoing capabilities. The same reasoning applies to bomb vessels which were designed to accompany the battle fleets at sea. The categories covered below are all types familiar to the most casual students of sailing warships and our remarks are largely confined to elements of their construction and utilization unique to Russian conditions and in some degree of variance with normal practice elsewhere.

Line of battle ships

During the formative years of naval development, Russians followed British usage and formally divided their capital ships into four, and later three, Rates.

Unlike the British, no attempt was made to assign rates to cruising ships. The following official Rates were in effect prior to the reign of Catherine II:

Inventory of 1727

First Rate 90–100 guns

Second Rate 80–88

Third Rate 66

Fourth Rate 54

Establishment of 1732

First Rate 70–100

Second Rate 66

Third Rate 54

Establishment of 1750

First Rate 80–100

Second Rate 66

Third Rate 54

It should be noted that these ratings were formal categories and never achieved general circulation in the Russian naval circles of the period. Formal establishments of ships after 1750 describe capital ships solely in terms of the number of guns that they were rated as carrying. The sole exception to this practice was that ships carrying 100 guns or more were always referred to colloquially as First Rates within the fleet. Note also that `ships of the line’ will also be found referenced variously throughout the text as `line of battle ships`, `line ships` and `capital ships` solely in the interests of avoiding rhetorical tedium. Ships of the line shared certain basic features with several lesser warship types such as frigates, ship sloops and corvettes. These types were all collectively referred to as `ships` or `ship-rigged vessels` and had three square-rigged masts and from one to three continuous gun decks. The feature that distinguishes ships of the line from frigates and the like was their having been designed to `stand in the line` and withstand the firepower of any and all enemy warships. Some ships of the line were effectively rendered obsolete as ships being built in Russia and elsewhere became larger and more powerfully armed. In the British Royal Navy, these ships, such as 50s and 64s, were usually relegated to colonial service where they could be usefully employed as flagships and prestige ships. Russia lacked significant colonies throughout most of this period and dealt with their older ships of the line by converting them to floating batteries for stationary defence or employing them as troop transports or hospital ships. Many ships designated as frigates were in fact more powerful than some smaller ships of the line, but they were never intended to operate as `line ships`. No detailed discussion of capital ship evolution is possible at this point, but the following production table for all Russian purpose-built line of battle ships completed between 1700 and 1860 reflects the overall production of the Russian Navy as well as highlighting the differences in emphasis between the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, with the Black Sea fleet leaning more heavily on larger capital ships, and the Baltic possessing a more balanced mix of types:

*This total includes Sea of Azov ships for all categories and treats them as components of the Black Sea fleet.


Russian frigates were more functionally specialized than those found in Western navies. Readers accustomed to thinking in terms of Fifth Rates and Sixth Rates or 9pdr frigates, 12pdr frigates, 18pdr frigates and the like will need to familiarize themselves here with terms appearing in the body of the text, such as `battle frigates’, `heavy frigates’, `training frigates’, `small frigates’, `rowing frigates’, and even `newly invented frigates` (Novoizobretennye Fregaty). While it is true that standard 12- and 18pdr frigates of the type built in Western European navies were also built in moderate numbers throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Russia, they were steadily eclipsed after 1785 by much heavier 24pdr ships of a type not found elsewhere in significant numbers until the post-Napoleonic period.’

Part of the explanation for the Russian predilection for specialized frigate categories lies in the very different and variable operating environments experienced by their regional navies in both the Baltic and the Black Sea. Not only were there differences between the operational demands and expectations placed on cruising vessels in inland sea environments in general, with fewer opportunities for engaging in the traditional scouting, raiding and commerce protection functions of frigates operating in oceanic environments, and greater opportunity for inshore operations of an amphibious nature, there were also significant differences between the requirements imposed by the very different Baltic and the Black Sea environments, both natural and political.

It should be borne in mind that the categories presented below do not necessarily represent formally established categories. They do, however, reflect clearly defined lines of development in the Russian navy, and are being described here for the sake of clarity of communication in the pages that follow. Numerical totals for the frigate category are subject to considerable interpretation and the figures given below should be treated as informed approximations, especially with respect to the smaller and older categories. Many ships classed as frigates by Russia were too small to merit this classification by Royal Navy standards, but most of the ships included here were designed for cruising and scouting purposes, regardless of their size or armament. A total of 274 ships fall within the frigate category, 190 in the Baltic, 78 in the Black Sea, and 6 in the Caspian.

Battle frigates

A term briefly in vogue in the Black Sea to describe ships falling below the level of line of battle ships, but intended to participate in the line of battle against similar Turkish ships. In practice, this term quickly gave way to the following term:

Heavy frigates

A term applied to large and heavily armed 24-, 30- and 36pdr frigates found in significant numbers in both the Baltic and the Black Sea fleets. These larger ships were more numerous in both theatres than the smaller standard 18pdr frigates; but their respective popularity in the Baltic and the Black Seas arose from rather different tactical requirements and emphases. In the Black Sea, where the type was first introduced, heavy frigates were not regarded as traditional cruisers suited for scouting and raiding, but were rather the direct descendants of the previously described battle frigates and were intended to supplement the line of battle against similar Turkish ships. In the Baltic, on the other hand, heavy frigates were quite ironically the direct design descendants of the captured Swedish heavy frigate Venus, specifically designed by af Chapman to take its place in the line of battle, and captured by the Russians during the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-91. Russian heavy frigates built along the lines of the Venus were utilized in traditional frigate roles and not as battle line adjuncts as was the case with the Black Sea heavies.

During the period between 1770 and 1860, a total of 85 heavy and battle frigates joined the two Russian fleets, almost all of them armed with 24pdr cannon and ranging between 141 ft and 174 ft in length.

Standard frigates

These were similar to frigates found elsewhere in terms of size and capabilities. The same distinction between the older cruising vessels having two fully or partially armed gun decks and the later `true’ or `classic’ frigates of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War periods, with unarmed lower decks and improved speed and handling characteristics, was found in the Russian Navy as elsewhere. The difference for Russia was that the design transformation that occurred in the 1750s for the navies of France, Spain and Great Britain apparently did not make its way to Russia until the Vos’moi class of 12pdr frigates entered service in the late 1770s in the then Sea of Azov flotilla and the Briachislav class of 18pdr frigates in the mid-1780s for the Baltic. The inspiration for the first Russian 18pdr frigates of the Briachislav class in 1784 probably came from ideas absorbed by Russian students returning from Great Britain in the early 1780s, quite possibly with the plans for the British Arethusa class frigates in hand – their armament and dimensions were suspiciously similar. As indicated above, these `true frigates’ were built in smaller numbers proportionally than in other navies where there was an ongoing requirement for large numbers of cruising vessels in scouting and commerce protection (and commerce destruction of course). Russian frigates had smaller areas to patrol in their confined inner seas and very little in the way of merchant ships requiring escort in the navy of a country lacking any significant investment in overseas trade, and so they were never required in the numbers found in the Atlantic navies.

Between 1773 and 1860, only 36 standard or `classic’ frigates armed with 18pdr guns and ranging between 121 ft and 150 ft in length were completed for both the Baltic and Black Sea fleets, less than half the number of 24pdr heavy frigates completed for the two regional fleets during the same general period. In the interests of completeness, it should also be noted that a total of 60 earlier cruising ships, all bearing the multifunctional name of `frigate’ were also completed for service in the Baltic between 1705 and 1785, including 18 obsolescent 12pdr ships of the Pavel type constructed between 1773 and 1785, just prior to the introduction of true frigate types.

Small frigates

A descriptive term rather than a formal category, these ships were intermediate in size and power between standard frigate types and corvettes and sloops. In the British Royal Navy, the vessels constructed after 1770 would probably have been rated as ship sloops. Between 1702 and 1761, 17 small ships classed as frigates and ranging between 65 ft and 94 ft in length were completed in the Baltic. Between 1762 and 1845, an additional 38 small frigates of the more classic type with a single gun deck, but ranging between 90 ft and 130 ft were completed, 19 in the Baltic, 13 in the Black Sea and 6 in the Caspian. Armament varied widely in this category, with small frigates carrying between 8 and 32 guns of as little as 6pdr calibre to as much as 30pdr (when rebuilt as `newly invented frigates’; see below).

Training frigates These purpose-built ships were limited to the Baltic fleet. They would normally have been rated as sloops or corvettes in most Western navies and are included in the totals given above for the larger `small frigate’ category. These ships were not intended to act as naval combatants, but rather as fully equipped peacetime training ships for young naval recruits. Fourteen ships were formally designated as training frigates during the age of sail.

`Newly invented frigates` (Novoizobretennye Fregaty) The phrase `newly invented’ does not transfer well from Russian to English and might more readily be rendered as `rebuilt` or `redesigned’. The frigate designation is probably not entirely appropriate for this small collection of short-lived Black Sea ships, five of which originally fell within the category of purpose built shallow draught frigates, while the others were comprised of a hotch-potch of converted pinks, cutters and merchantmen that were rebuilt as `frigates’. The purpose-built frigates chosen for the conversion programme were originally shallow-draught ships built in shipyards along the Don River and armed with 12pdrs and generally resembled conventional deep-water frigates. These highly specialized warships were found to be incapable of dealing with more heavily gunned Turkish ships in the opening phases of the Russo-Turkish War of 1788-90 in the Liman. In order to derive some value from their construction when their deficiencies became apparent, they were rebuilt in 1788 with reinforced hulls and enormously powerful (for their size) 30pdr batteries bored out hurriedly from available guns of lesser calibre. The concept of adding very heavy guns to shallow draught vessels in order to use their enhanced combination of firepower and manoeuverability to compensate for the Russian lack of line of battle ships in the Liman was the result of the fruitful and co-operative relationship that grew up between Samuel Bentham, a British mechanical engineer and later Inspector General of the Royal Navy, and the formidably talented Prince Potemkin. The resulting vessels resembled later nineteenth-century ships armed with gunnades and they proved an effective short-term solution for the Black Sea fleet, although they sacrificed a good deal of their scouting and cruising capabilities in their search for greater short-range firepower, becoming de facto coastal defence ships. A total of twelve `newly invented frigates’ of all types were converted in 1788 to meet the demands of the Russo-Turkish War. They were all disposed of in the early 1790s as newer, more carefully thought-out heavy frigate types began entering service in the Black Sea; but they set the tone for future generations of heavily armed Black Sea frigates with their deliberate substitution of heavy ordnance for more conventional cruiser qualities.

Oared or rowing frigates The shallow coastal waters of the northern Baltic mandated the construction by both Swedes and Russians of large fleets of small rowing vessels similar in function to Western gunboats. These small craft could not operate in deepwater environments, but they could do serious damage to larger sailing ships becalmed in the shallow-water environments of the northern Baltic and made helpless by the vagaries of the Baltic winds. Rowing frigates provided something of a link between the traditional deep-water sailing navy and the gunboat squadrons. They were as large and well armed as true frigates, but were at the same time shallow-draft vessels unsuitable for deep-water use and with sweeps capable of facilitating movement during calms and of manoeuvring successfully against smaller and more agile gunboats. Twenty-six of these handsome and unusual ships were completed between 1773 and 1823, ranging between 130 ft and 144 ft in length. The early ships carried 24pdrs and the final rowing frigates carried 36pdrs, an unprecedented armament for a frigate.

Corvettes and ship sloops

To English-speaking readers, corvette is simply the name used by the French for the British ship sloop and both designations refer (in this time period at least) to three-masted ships similar in layout to frigates but smaller and with fewer and lighter cannon. Both terms were in use in the Russian sailing navy, but they had separate and distinct meanings, although both types were alike in being three-masted ships of generally similar size and armaments.

Corvettes were purely combat ships with sharper lines than corresponding sloops. They were operationally attached to battle groups and employed as scouts, avisos and cruising ships. Corvettes were more popular in the Black Sea where they took on many of the functions reserved to frigates in the Baltic in the absence of adequate numbers of standard frigate types. A total of 15 corvettes entered service in the Black Sea after 1800 as opposed to only 3 for the Baltic and 4 for the Caspian.

Russian ship sloops were broader of beam and better suited for carrying cargo and supplies than corvettes. They retained the capability for assuming scouting and cruising functions if called upon, but were generally employed as armed store ships. After the Napoleonic Wars ended, ship sloops came into their own when they were found to be ideally suited for hydrographic survey work, foreign exploration and global circumnavigation. No sloops are found in the Russian Baltic or Black Sea fleets in the eighteenth century (unless one includes the `small frigates’), although three were built in Kamchatka. Between 1804 and 1818, 21 ship sloops were built for the Baltic and one lone sloop joined the Black Sea fleet in 1823. Ship sloops were not built in quantity in the Black Sea fleet because the closing of the Bosporus to Russian warships negated their potential for long-range service.

Snows and brigs

Snows and brigs were close cousins. Both had two large square-rigged masts; but the snow in its final incarnation in the second half of the eighteenth century also carried a small, short third mast called a trysail mast immediately abaft the main mast carrying a spanker that could be operated independently of the main mast’s sails. The trysail mast was not readily apparent to the uninformed observer due to its close proximity to the main mast and snows were sometimes referred to as `two- and-a-half mast’ ships. Russian snows built in the first quarter of the eighteenth century were originally based upon Dutch designs and were equipped with sweeps for inshore operations. Illustrations indicate that the rig of at least three early snows, two Lizets and the similar Munker (My Heart), all designed by Peter I and named after his daughter Elizabeth, carried traditional three-masted ship rig with a fully developed mizzen mast in place of the trysail. Other contemporary snows, such as Adler of 1705, are shown with more traditional snow rig. This may indicate Peter’s personal preference for three-masted ships, whatever their size, or it may reflect a variability in the rigging of early snows that would indicate that the designation may have had more to do, at this time, with hull design, size and intended employment than with a particular rig. Russian snows were popular in both the Baltic and Sea of Azov during the first quarter of the eighteenth century, but are not found thereafter. Their decline in popularity in later years mirrors a similar phenomenon in the Royal Navy during the same period and one wonders if there was a connection here, as in other areas, with the Russian employment of large numbers of British shipwrights and officers. A total of 22 snows were completed between 1700 and 1711, 16 in the Baltic and 6 in the Sea of Azov. One final snow was completed for the Baltic in 1723, almost as an afterthought.

Brigs did not begin to appear in the Russian navy until the very close of the eighteenth century, but they became extremely popular during the first half of the nineteenth, gradually edging out the slightly larger corvettes and ship sloops in both the Baltic and Black Sea. The development of the brig as the primary low-end ship best suited for inshore patrol, routine escort and scouting activities parallels a similar process in the British Royal Navy from about 1780 on. To quote Robert Gardiner from Warships of the Napoleonic Era, three-masted sloops were `more seaworthy, more habitable, longer ranged and better armed than the old two-masted type, and the ship rig must have conferred some advantages in battle – three masts would have made them less vulnerable to damage aloft than two. But the one quality the new-style sloops did not possess was speed.’ Besides having an important edge in speed, brigs required smaller crews as a result of having only two masts to the ship sloop’s three. The downside of the two-mast arrangement was a greater vulnerability in battle since the loss of a single mast was of more importance in a two-masted vessel than it was in a ship with three masts.

The nineteenth century saw a flowering of the type, with 37 being built for the Baltic, 26 for the Black Sea, 19 for the Caspian and six for Okhotsk. With few exceptions, brigs were between 90 ft and 105 ft in length and armed with all carronade batteries.

Cutters and schooners

Both cutters and schooners are small ships with largely fore- and-aft rigs, one or two masts, and a very light armament sufficient only for overwhelming the smallest of opponents. The two types developed in the later part of the eighteenth century as highly manoeuverable ships capable of patrolling close inshore and interdicting smugglers and pirates and the like. As a largely self-sufficient nation without much in the way of trade or foreign commerce, Russia in the eighteenth century had relatively little use for vessels of this type. After 1800, and particularly after 1820 as Russian naval horizons expanded, particularly in the areas of coastal surveying and exploration, cutters and schooners found an increasing role in naval affairs. Both types came within the same general size range, although schooners were probably a bit larger on the average. Between 1790 and 1860, the Baltic fleet acquired 27 two-masted schooners ranging between 35 ft and 105 ft, while the Black Sea fleet acquired 24 between 1772 and 1849 ranging between 75 ft and 119 ft. For reasons not immediately apparent, one- masted cutters were decidedly more popular in the Baltic, where there were a total of 42 vessels acquired between 1786 and 1826 as against only four for the Black Sea fleet and two for Okhotsk. Cutters in Russian service were as heterogeneous a group as schooners, with lengths varying between 51 ft and 99 ft and armament between 12 and 32 guns. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Russians stopped building cutters with the accession of Nicholas I, apparently preferring the slightly larger two-masted schooner.

Luggers and tenders

Luggers and tenders were classified as light warships by the Russians and are included in this section for this reason.

Bomb vessels

Russian naval operations were frequently conducted in support of amphibious objectives and bomb ships, both purpose-built and improvised, were built in some numbers for both major fleets and for the Caspian flotilla. Although designed for shore bombardment, these ships were deep draught vessels, designed to accompany and work with battle fleets at sea, and not for the close-in, shallow water work of prams and gunboats. In appearance, they were clumsy-looking vessels, with heavily reinforced decks to bear the weight of their heavy ordnance.

Seven bombs were built in the closing years of the seventeenth century for the Sea of Azov. The Baltic fleet acquired a total of 18 purpose-built bombs, two converted ships and two ships purchased abroad for a total of 22. The Black Sea built nine, converted eleven and purchased five abroad. Bombs were quite reasonably also found in the Caspian flotilla, where amphibious operations were common, and four ships were launched in 1808.


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