Sixth rate was the designation used by the Royal Navy for small warships mounting between 20 and 24 carriage-mounted guns on a single deck, sometimes with smaller guns on the upper works and sometimes without. It thus encompassed ships with up to 30 guns in all. In the first half of the 18th century the main battery guns were 6-pounders, but by mid-century these were supplanted by 9-pounders.
Sixth-rate ships typically had a crew of about 150-240 men, and measured between 450 and 550 tons. A 28-gun ship would have about 19 officers; commissioned officers would include the captain, and two lieutenants; warrant officers would include the master, ship's surgeon, and purser. The other quarterdeck officers were the chaplain and a Royal Marines lieutenant. The ship also carried the standing warrant officers, the gunner, the bosun and the carpenter, and two master's mates, four midshipmen, an assistant surgeon, and a captain's clerk. The rest of the men were the crew, or the 'lower deck'. They slept in hammocks and ate their simple meals at tables, sitting on wooden benches. A sixth rate carried about 23 marines, while in a strong crew the bulk of the rest were experienced seamen rated 'able' or 'ordinary'. In a weaker crew there would be a large proportion of 'landsmen', adults who were unused to the sea.
The larger sixth rates were those of 28 guns (including four smaller guns mounted on the quarterdeck) and were classed as frigates. The smaller sixth rates with between 20 and 24 guns, still all ship-rigged and sometimes flush-decked vessels, were known as "post ships" because, being rated, they were still large enough to have a post-captain in command, instead of a lieutenant or commander.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the by now elderly sixth-rate frigates were found to be too small for the duties expected of a fifth-rate frigate, and were phased out without replacement, although a few lasted in auxiliary roles until after 1815. However, a fresh batch of twelve 22-gun post ships were built.
In later years sixth-rate frigates were sometimes called "jackass frigates", as they were really not quite big enough for proper frigate duties.
The fictional HMS Surprise was a sixth rate. She was the frigate captained by Jack Aubrey and was based on the actual historical frigate, formerly the French Unité, which was captured and renamed by the Royal Navy in 1796. She plays a prominent role in many of Patrick O'Brian's popular novels, collectively known as the Aubrey–Maturin series, and was portrayed in the 2003 film Master and Commander.
In the novel Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon the title characters set sail for Sumatra in 1761 to view the Venus transit in the sixth-rate ship The Seahorse.
- Rating system of the Royal Navy - for ships smaller than sixth rate
- Lavery, Brian (1989). Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press. p. 328. ISBN 0-87021-258-3.
- Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean, a Naval History of Britain 1649-1815, London (2004). ISBN 0-7139-9411-8
- Bennett, G. The Battle of Trafalgar, Barnsley (2004). ISBN 1-84415-107-7
- Winfield, Rif, British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1603-1714, Barnsley (2009) ISBN 978-1-84832-040-6; British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1714-1792, Barnsley (2007) ISBN 978-1-84415-700-6; British Warships in the Age of Sail: 1793-1817, (2nd edition) Barnsley (2008). ISBN 978-1-84415-717-4.
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