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The classification of ships is usually based mostly on the configuration of their rigging. To be called a ship the vessel must be square-rigged and must have three full masts with at least three stages of sails - course, topsail and t'gallant. Any other vessel not meeting these criteria is a boat and is known by its class name such as sloop, brig, xebec and etc.

Creating one list that defines the different types of ships is difficult since over the four or five centuries of the age of sail, the definitions of different classes of ships changed. Some classes went out of use and new classes came into use. The rating system for large warships described below, for example, only came into being relatively late, being used by the British Royal Navy from the late 1700s through the 1800s.

1st Rate: 
A Ship-Of-The-Line, the largest ship on the water at the time. Carries 100 great guns or more. Used by the established navies of the day. HMS Victory is a 1st rate. A great prize, but probably never used by a pirate since they required large crews, approx 800, and were expensive to operate.

2nd Rate: 
90-98 gun ship of the line, next largest.

3rd Rate: 
64-80 gun ship of the line.

4th Rate: 
40-60 gun ship of the line.

5th Rate: 
36 gun ship, as long as a first rate, but fewer cannons.

6th Rate: 
28-30 gun ship, also long and low. The HMS Surprise of "Master and Commander" fame was rated a 6th rate light frigate.


In pirate games we play such as Sid Meier's Pirates! or Pirates of the Caribbean & etc, the ships Brigantine, Schooner, Sloop, Galleon, Frigate, Brig, Barque and possibly Man-O-War are widely used. But I wanted to mention other ships that you might not be familiar with, but did really exist in the Pirate Era.

Most Used by Pirates:

Brigantine -  the choice of many pirate crews, able to mount 10 cannon and carry 100 crew. The brigantine was originally a small ship carrying both sails and oars. It was a favorite of Mediterranean pirates from whence it got its name. Italian word brigantino meant brigand's ship. Later the ship referred to a two-masted sailing ship with much greater sailing power.

Schooner - a fast ship with a shallow draft, capable of up to 11 knots, could carry up to 75 crew and mounted 8 cannon and 4 swivel guns. The Schooner has a narrow hull, two masts and is less than 100 tons. She is generally rigged with two large sails suspended from spars reaching from the top of the mast toward the stern. Other sails sometimes were added, including a large headsail attached to the bowsprit. She had a shallow draft which allowed her to remain in shallow coves waiting for her prey. The Schooner is very fast and large enough to carry a plentiful crew. It was a favorite among both pirates and smugglers. This ship was used for 300 years and was more commonly used in the United States than elsewhere.

Sloop - another fast ship, capable of up to 11 knots, could carry up to 75 crew and mounted 14 cannon. Used commonly by pirates. The Sloop was fast, agile and had a shallow draft. Her size could be as large as 100 tons. She was generally rigged with a large mainsail which was attached to a spar above, to the mast on its foremost edge and to a long boom below. She could sport additional sails both square and lateen-rigged. She was used mainly in the Caribbean and Atlantic. Today's sailing Yacht is essentially a sloop. Jack Lafitte back in the day used this ship frequently.

More Ships To Mention:

Galleon - favored ship of the Spanish during the 16th through 18th centuries, 100-150 feet long, 40-50 feet wide, carrying about 600 tons, although some were bigger. Generally, three masted and square rigged with a lateen sail on the mizzenmast and two to three gun decks. Galleons are large, heavy ships, broad in the beam and usually characterized by high, multi-deck fore and aft castles.

Frigate - name used for a variety of ships from small oared boats to three masted sailing ships, formalized by the English in the late 17th century to mean a vessel smaller than a ship of the line, carrying 24-38 guns on a single deck with three fully rigged masts, their speed made them better suited to convoy duty and hunting pirates. This ship came in a wide range from 4th to 6th. Would be considered to be the largest ship a pirate would have.

Brig - a two masted ship, square rigged on both masts, in the 18th century it would have been roughly the same as a Brigantine, but the two ship types showed more variance in the 19th century. They took their name from the fact that they were a favored type of vessel for pirates or brigands. In earlier years brigantine referred to any small two-masted vessel that could be both sailed and rowed. Later the definition was more rigidly applied to certain rigging configurations. A brigantine is square-rigged on her foremast and upper mainmast, but her main sheet is actually rigged fore-and-aft on a gaff boom. A brig is square-rigged on both masts. Carried around 10 guns.

Barque aka Bark - small ship with three masts, firstt two square rigged, the last mast being fore and aft rigged. Through the 1400s, 1500s and 1600s barque was usually applied to smaller coastal merchant vessels. In the 1700s the Royal Navy used the term generally to apply to vessels that did not fit into its other classifications. In the 1800s came to refer to a three masted vessel with a particular rigging configuration - square-rigged on the fore and main masts and fore-and-aft rigged on the mizzen.

Ships You Might Not Know About:

Bertone - a broad, round sailing ship with three square rigged masts, able to carry about 60 crew, used in the Mediterranean in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Camara - narrow boats used in first century BC and earlier, holding 25-30 men.

Caramusal - 16th to 19th century Turkish merchant ship, similar to a galleon, carrying four sails and a cargo capacity of up to 900 tons.

Caravel - 14th to 17th century cargo ship, the Mediterranean version was lateen rigged on two masts, while the Spanish and Portuguese versions were three masted with the first two masts square rigged and the mizzen lateen rigged

Carrack - 16th to 17th century vessel, three masted with the first two square rigged and the mizzen lateen rigged, carrying up to 1,200 tons of cargo, larger than a caravel with higher forecastles and aftcastles, used by the Spanish and Portuguese in their long voyages to the East Indies.

Corvette - Light and fast, corvettes were lightly armed with 10 guns, though some did carry more. But they made more than made up for their lack of armament with their speed. Not known whether pirates used them, commonly given to privateers because of their speed. Also sometimes referred to as a "sloop-of-war".

Dau - identical to Mtepe, early predecessor of Dhow.

Dhow - 150 to 200 ton merchant with a single lateen sail used by Arab pirates in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Dutch Flute - early 17th century ship, cheap to build, with large cargo hold, easy prey for pirates.

Fellucca - a narrow ship of Arab origin, using a lateen sail or oars, deeper water versions would have had up to two masts and a deck.

Flyboat - 16th to 19th century Dutch vessel, flat bottomed, one to two masts square rigged, carrying up to 600 tons of cargo.

Fluyt - A Dutch class of large merchant cargo ships. Their chief notable design characteristic is a pear-shaped hull cross section, narrower at the main deck level, but broadening out considerably down to the waterline. One theory on the reason for this is that taxes on merchant ships in certain countries were based on the area of the main deck. The the pear shape reduces the main deck area while maximizing cargo space. Fluyts were common in European waters and, given the presence of Dutch colonies in the new world and the trading activities of the Dutch East India Company, would have been no strangers in the waters patrolled by Caribbean pirates.

Fuste - possibly developed from the Tartan it was a fast ship using both sail and oars, a favorite of the Barbary and Salï pirates.

Galleass - similar to a Xebec, two to three lateen rigged masts, about 150 feet long, 25 feet wide with a single bank of oars, favored by the Genoese and Venetians in 16th and 17th centuries. Six in the Spanish Armada of 1588.

Galley - any number of types of vessels used around the world, generally referring to ships with single or multiple banks of oars, originated in the Mediterranean, they were not rough water ships due to their length and low sides. The ship of choice for pirates of the Mediterranean. Galleys rely on banks of long oars, sometimes as many as two or three decks of rowers, as their primary means of propulsion. Although most galleys would have shipped at least one mast with sails as a backup. In smooth water conditions galleys actually tend to be faster and more maneuverable than sailing ships which makes them far superior in areas like the Mediterranean Sea. However they do not fare well in the rougher waters of the Atlantic or English Channel. Caribbean waters are somewhat more suited to galleys, but only somewhat. Sailing ships were still the vessel of choice there.

Gallivat - 18th century ship propelled by 40-80 oarsmen and 1-2 sails, used by the Angrian pirates in the Indian Ocean.

Grab - 18th century Indian Ocean vessel, 150-300 ton, two masts, with long overhanging prow and oars, form of galley.

Hemiola - 4th to 1st century BC vessel, galley with two banks of oars, name derives from the fact that the top bank of oars behind the mast could be swiftly removes (thus one and a half banks of oars),
Merchant - commercial vessel of the late 17th and early 18th century, not as big as an East Indiaman, this ship mounts 16 cannon.
Naval Sloop - bigger and more heavily armed than a standard sloop, this ship would have been the equal of any pirate manned sloop.
Naval Snow - comparable to a brigantine would have had a crew of 80 and mounted 8 cannon.

Man-O-War aka "Ship Of The Line"- These ships were the "heavy-guns" of the fleet. They resembled galleons in design, but had heavy fire-power with an average of 65 guns. It was not uncommon to have over 100 guns. They were around 1,000 tons and had 3 masts. Only the three major sea-powers of the time (Spain, England, and France) had many of these kind of ships.

Merchantmen aka "Pink" - In the Atlantic the word pink was used to describe any small ship with a narrow stern. They were generally square-rigged and used as merchantmen and sometimes as warships. They were a favorite target of the pirates of the Caribbean. These ships were built for carrying large amounts of heavy cargo, and were well built. Some merchantmen carried cannons, other did not, those that did carried large guns, and plenty of them. May be similar in size to a frigate, but certainly easier to take.

Galeota - predecessor of the Xebec used one large lateen sail and oars, common in the Mediterranean.

Xebec - three masted, square rigged on foremast, and lateen on main and mizzen, shallow draft, frequently used by 18th and 19th century corsairs in the Mediterranean.

Gig big rowboat.

really big rowboat.

very small rowboat.

Fireship - floating molotov cocktail, might be made from any class of vessel. 


Pirate Ships & Their Captains:

Henry Avery aka Long Ben and/or Capt. Bridgeman
Fancy - 46 gun merchant; 150 men

Sam Bellamy
Mary Anne - 8 gun sloop
Whydah - 28 guns; an ex-slave ship

Stede Bonnet
Revenge - 10 gun sloop; 70 men; purchased sloop himself which was extremely rare for a pirate!

William Kidd
Adventure Galley - 34 gun galley; 150 men
Adventure Prize - replaced Adventure Galley

George Lowther
Delivery - 16 guns; 50 men; taken from mutiny
Ranger - 10 gun sloop

Bartholomew Roberts aka Black Bart
Fortune - 26 guns
Good Fortune - brigantine
Royal Fortune - 42 gun frigate-type; 200+ men
Ranger - 16 guns
Little Ranger - 10 guns; used as a store ship
Rover - 10 guns
Sea King - 30 gun brigantine

Edward Teach aka Blackbeard
Queen Anne's Revenge - 36-40 gun guineaman; 280+ men
Adventure - 8-10 gun sloop
Revenge - 10-12 gun sloop

Charles Vane 
Ranger - 6 gun sloop; 60 men

Jack Rackham aka Calico Jack, Anne Bonney and Mary Reade
The William

Captain John Gow
The Revenge

Thomas Tew
Liberty and the Amity

William Moody
The Rising Sun

Samuel Burgess
Jacob, Neptune & Margaret

Edward England
Fancy, Pearl & Victory

Ignatius Pell
Royal James


Elizabethan Pirates

Elizabethan Pirates were lawful pirates who were authorized by their own government and sovereign to attack the treasure ships of enemy nations. The English government issued "Letters of Marque" to famous Elizabethan Pirates which licensed those sailors to plunder enemy ships.. The "Letters of Marque" prevented privateers from being charged with piracy, which was an offense punishable by death.

Sir Francis Drake
The Pelican, renamed the Golden Hind

Sir Walter Raleigh
The Falcon. Donated "The Ark Royal" to the Navy.

Sir Richard Hawkins
The Dainty, the Swallow

Sir Martin Frobisher
The Gabriel

Sir Humphrey Gilbert
Anne Ager, The Raleigh, The Swallow & the Squirrel

Sir John Hawkins
The Victory

Sir Richard Grenville
The Revenge, Tiger, Roebuck, Lion, Elizabeth & DorothyJohn Hawkins