“Fifth rate” is a Royal Navy term for the largest of the single-deck frigates, square-rigged ships that carry some 44 guns, usually no heavier than 12-pounders. Originally a French design – but quickly adopted by the other European powers – the frigate is used for pursuit, convoy protection, commerce raiding and reconnaissance work. The design’s excellent sailing characteristics and good handling, especially in inshore waters, make it a useful addition to any blockading fleet. The frigate’s ability to operate far away from a home port also makes it a useful cruiser, carrying the fight to the enemy in unexpected waters.
Frigates can have the advantage over larger, two-deck ships in rough waters. A frigate captain rarely has to worry about his gun deck taking on water, and can therefore fight in conditions that leave bigger ships at a disadvantage. However, fifth rates are not powerful enough to face battleships. They have the speed and handling to stay out of trouble; they do not have the strength of construction to survive a pounding! Against sloops, brigs and merchantmen, however, they are deadly. This makes them excellent postings for officers hungry for prize money and glory.
Frigates captains made splendid role models for fictional heroes: Thomas, Lord Cochrane earned a fortune in prize money, gained the nickname “le loup des mers” (sea-wolf) and was the inspiration for fictional heroes Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey.