Ship Of The Line – A Complete Guide

Key Point: A ship of the line is a large and heavily armed naval warship that played a central role in naval warfare during the Age of Sail.

In this article, we will discuss the ship of the line. What it is and how it was used. And why these powerful warships eventually stopped being used. Now, before we move on, let’s define what a ship of the line was. So that you can get a clearer picture of what we will be talking about.

So … What was the ship of the line?

A ship of the line was a type of naval warship that was used during the age of sail. These large and heavily armed vessels were designed to engage in battles with enemy ships and were typically armed with a large number of guns arranged in a series of decks. The name “ship of the line” comes from the fact that these ships were often arranged in a line of battle during a naval engagement, with each ship firing its guns at the enemy in turn.

That was the short definition. Now, let’s move on to a more detailed description. I am starting with the origin of the ship.

Origin Of The Ship of The Line

The origin of the ship of the line can be traced back to the development of naval cannons and the changing naval warfare. prior to the introduction of cannons ships mostly fought with boarding actions. Where they used weapons such as cutlasses to take out the crew and hopefully seize control of the ship.

But as the cannon technology advanced the focus shifted to long-range engagements. So, navies started packing a lot of guns on ships thus having to make them bigger and bigger. That happened rather slowly. According to this book:

“the first generation of real gun-armed warships only came with the invention of the gunport around 1500. That allowed a heavy gun to be mounted low in the ship without raising the center of gravity, but it could be protected from enemy gunfire and rough seas by closing the ports”

The first actual ship of the line was the English “Sovereign of the Seas,” launched in 1637. These early ships of the line were heavily armored, with thick wooden sides that could withstand enemy fire. They were designed to carry a large number of heavy guns. Which were typically mounted on two or three decks. These guns were arranged in a line on each side of the ship. This allowed the ship to deliver a devastating broadside attack against enemy ships.

The Average Size Of Ships Of The Line

Ships of the line varied in size depending on factors like naval strategy, the number of guns they could hold, and shipbuilding technology. Generally, a ship of the line was any ship that had more than 50 guns and was designed to battle in a naval line of battle.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the most common size of a ship of the line was the “third-rate” ship. What were those you ask? They were ships that carried between 64 and 80 guns. And were actually considered the backbone of the fleet since they had a good balance between balance and maneuverability.

As time (and technology) moved on, larger and more heavily armed ships of the line were developed. The so-called “first-rate” ship was the largest and most heavily armed.

It had up to 120 guns spread over three decks. As you can imagine, these ships were expensive to build and maintain. This means they were usually reserved for the most powerful navies. Like the British Royal navy.

Speaking of which, in the mid-18th century, the British Royal Navy introduced the “74-gun ship,”. This became the standard ship of the line for many navies. The 74-gun ship was smaller and more maneuverable than the larger first-rate ships, but still packed a punch with its formidable armament and was effective in battle.

Crew Size

Crew sizes ranged from around 200 to 800 men at the peak of “ship of the line” use. The crew on these ships was typically made up of a mix of sailors, marines, officers, and specialists such as carpenters and surgeons.

On larger ships, the crew was organized into different departments or divisions. Such as the gun crews, the sail handlers, and the officers. Each department had its own chain of command and responsibilities.

Life aboard a ship of the line was often difficult and dangerous, and the crew faced many challenges such as disease, injury, and combat. To keep morale up and ensure discipline, the ship’s officers relied on a combination of rewards and punishments, and a strict code of conduct was enforced.

Ship Of The Line Tactics – How Were They Used?

The name “ship of the line” comes from the main naval tactic used in this era. The “line battle tactic”. Here is what I mean by that.

This was a tactic in which a fleet of ships would form a line, sailing in close formation to engage the enemy. The aim of the line of battle was to bring the maximum amount of firepower to bear. While at the same time minimizing the risk of being overwhelmed by the enemy’s firepower.

Each ship on the line had a designated position in the line. The position was determined by the ship’s size, speed, and firepower. The larger and more heavily armed ships were positioned in the center of the line, where they could bring their guns to bear on the enemy’s most powerful ships. Smaller ships were positioned on the flanks of the line, where they could engage the enemy’s weaker or more vulnerable ships.

During a battle, the ships of the line would fire broadsides at the enemy, with each ship firing its guns simultaneously. The goal was to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy’s hull and rigging, while also trying to kill or injure as many of the enemy crew as possible.

You can see the common naval tactics used during the age of sail in this short video below.

Tactics used by the ships of the line

So, given how big and powerful these ships were. Why did they stop being effective in the 19th century? Well here is why …

The Downfall Of The Ship Of The Line

If I had to name one reason why ships of the line became useless, it would be … ironclads. More or less. Let me explain. As the 19th century moved on the navies of the world figured out you could actually power ships with steam engines instead of wind. Who knew? The massive power of properly used steam engines made ships stronger and allowed them to be made from other materials.

Namely iron. These ships were more maneuverable, faster, and more fortified. They carried stronger guns capable of firing from greater ranges. This made the ship of the line obsolete. The ships were made of wood and were no match against ironclads that could hit them from greater distances before the wooden ships came close.

Hence the navies discovered very early on that it made no sense to invest huge sums of money into maintaining these ships. So, as cool as they were they had to go.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two. And if you wish to continue learning I suggest taking a look at mortars and how they were used as a naval weapon, right here. They were also a weapon used during the Age of Sail.

Take care!

Sources: The Ship of the Line (A History in Ship Models)