A Complete Guide To The Brig

Key Point: A Brig warship featured two masts with square rigging on the foremast and fore-and-aft rigging on the mainmast. Dimensions ranged from 80 to 120 feet in length, varying based on the specific era and purpose of the Brig.

In this article, we will cover the Brig. A naval warship used during the Age of Sail to great effect. We will touch on how the Brig was used, how big it was and what exactly was it that made it so effective. Now, as always let’s start at the beginning. What is a Brig? Let’s define a Brig before we move on.

So … what was the Brig?

A Brig was a type of two-masted, square-rigged warship that was popular during the Age of Sail. It was small, maneuverable, and armed with 10 to 18 guns, making it ideal for naval engagements, reconnaissance, and raiding. With a crew of around 100 men, the brig was known for its speed and agility and was often used to chase down other vessels or escort larger ships in a fleet.

That was the key takeaway of the entire article. Now, let’s move into detail, starting with its origins.

Origins Of The Brig

The Brig’s origin can be traced back to the 18th century. It was designed as a small, fast, and maneuverable ship that could be used for various purposes. This included privateering, naval engagements, and escorting larger ships.

The Brig was particularly popular among pirates and privateers, who used it for commerce raiding. It was in fact the French Navy that first adopted the Brig as a naval warship. The French Brig-Corvette, designed by the French naval architect Pierre-Alexandre-Laurent Forfait, was smaller and more maneuverable than other naval warships at the time.

This made it well-suited for reconnaissance and other strategic purposes. The British Royal Navy was quick to copy their arch-rival, and the Brig became a popular ship for naval warfare, privateering, and escorting larger ships.

That was the history part. Now, let’s talk about the dimensions and the speed of the brig.

The Size Of The Brig

The dimensions of an average Brig during the Age of Sail were around 80 to 110 feet in length, 20 to 30 feet in width, and with a draft of 10 to 14 feet. Its two masts were usually around 70 to 80 feet tall, and its sails had a total area of around 2,000 to 3,000 square feet.

And The Speed?

On average, a Brig could reach speeds of around 8 to 10 knots (or roughly 15 to 20 kilometers per hour). But it could also go faster depending on the wind conditions and the expertise of the crew. This made the brig an ideal vessel for chasing down other ships or evading capture.

Now, let’s discuss the weapons used by the Brig and how navies deployed the Brig in battle.

Weapons And Tactics

The Brig was typically armed with around 10 to 18 guns mounted on its deck.

The guns were a mixture of long guns and carronades.

Long guns: long-range guns
Carronades: Short-range guns mostly anti-infantry weapon

Tactics Used

The Brig would try to outmaneuver its opponent. This meant getting into a favorable position where it could fire its guns and inflict maximum damage. The crew would also use other tactics, such as boarding the enemy ship and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. The success of these tactics often depended on the skill of the captain and crew, as well as the size and strength of the opposing ship.

Let’s take a closer look at the popular tactic of boarding another ship.

How The Brig Performed The Boarding?

The Brig’s goal was often to board the enemy ship and engage in hand-to-hand combat. To do this, the Brig would try maneuvering itself alongside the enemy ship. Once in position, the Brig’s crew would throw grappling hooks or fire grappling guns to attach to the enemy ship. This allowed them to pull the two ships together.

The crew would then rush onto the enemy ship, With cutlasses, pistols, and other weapons in hand, to battle with the enemy crew. The goal was to overwhelm the enemy and gain control of the ship. This was a dangerous and risky maneuver, leaving the brig vulnerable to attack from other nearby ships. But, if successful, it resulted in a valuable prize for the Brigs crew.

Now, given how effective the ship was, why did it disappear from navies around the world? Let’s find out.

The Drawbacks And Downfall Of The Brig

Let’s start this segment with the Brig’s drawbacks.

The Brig had some notable drawbacks that eventually led to its decline in popularity. One of the main ones was its small size and limited cargo capacity. This made it less suitable for long-distance voyages or carrying large amounts of goods.

Also, the Brig was vulnerable to attacks from larger ships, which could outgun and overpower it. This became a bigger and bigger issue since guns have gotten better and better and could take out smaller ships from a greater distance. Its smaller size also meant it had less crew and fewer resources to withstand the rigors of long journeys or prolonged battles.

So as naval technology and tactics evolved, the Brig became less relevant. Larger, more heavily armed ships, such as frigates and ships of the line, came to dominate naval warfare. These ships had better and larger guns and more crew. The Brig’s speed and maneuverability, while impressive, could not compensate for its limitations in other areas.

For all these reasons by the mid-19th century, the Brig had largely disappeared from use in naval warfare.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. I suggest continuing to learn about naval weapons from history by taking a look at my article on gunboats, right here.

Take care!


“The Oxford Handbook of Maritime Archaeology” edited by Alexis Catsambis, Ben Ford, and Donny Hamilton