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A razee or razée /rəˈz/[1] is a sailing ship that has been cut down (razeed) to reduce the number of decks. The word is derived from the French vaisseau rasé, meaning a razed (in the sense of shaved down) ship.[2]

Sixteenth century

Sir Richard Grenville's Gallant Defence of the Revenge

The Queen's ships built in England by Sir John Hawkins and his shipbuilders, Richard Chapman, Peter Pett and Mathew Baker from 1570 were of a "race-built" design.[3] The description derived from their "raced" or razed fore-and aft-castles, which, combined with their greater length in relation to their beam, gave them a purposeful, sleek look. Their builders described them as having "the head of a cod and the tail of a mackerel".[3] In 1570 Hawkins began a partnership with Richard Chapman to build or rebuild warships for the Queen's Navy Board at Deptford Dockyard. The prototype of these new style galleons was the 295-ton Foresight in 1570, built by Chapman. Her success was followed in 1573 by the 360-ton Dreadnought (built by Matthew Baker) and 350-ton Swiftsure (built by Peter Pett). In 1577 the 464-ton Revenge was built, together with the smaller (132-ton) Scout. Following Hawkins's appointment as Treasurer of the Navy in 1578, further vessels along similar lines emerged during the next decade. All these ships were to do sterling service during the fight against the Spanish Armada.

Seventeenth century

Sovereign of the Seas, 1637, by J Payne

During the transition from galleons to more frigate like warships (1600 – 1650) there was a general awareness that the reduction in topweight afforded by the removal of upperworks made ships better sailers; Rear Admiral Sir William Symonds noted after the launch of Sovereign of the Seas that she was "cut down" and made a safe and fast ship. In 1651 Sovereign of the Seas was again made more manoeuvrable by reducing the number of cannon. Ships were razeed not only by navies but also by piratesCharles Johnson's A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates[4] describes George Lowther refitting Gambia Castle in 1721:

This did not reduce the number of gun decks, but had the effect of making the razee ship much handier, since the forecastle and aftcastle no longer created windage, top weight was reduced, and the ship was made lighter overall.

Eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Razee HMS Indefatigable (right) fights Virginie, 1796, by John Fairburn

In the Royal Navy, the operation was typically performed on a smaller two-deck ship of the line, resulting in a large frigate. The rationale for this apparent reduction in strength was that the smaller ships-of-the-line could no longer be used safely in fleet actions as the overall size of ships increased. The resulting razeed ship could be classed as a frigate and was stronger than the usual run of frigates.

In similar fashion, three-decked ships of the line were sometimes razed, either to become flush-decked (with the quarterdeck and forecastle removed) or cut down to become two-deckers.

Three 64-gun ships were cut down (razeed) in 1794 into 44-gun frigates. The most successful was HMS Indefatigable which was commanded by Sir Edward Pellew.

Towards the close of the Napoleonic Wars, three elderly 74-gun ships were razeed into 58-gun fourth rates (not losing a complete deck, so remaining a two-decker, but having the quarterdeck removed). Two more followed immediately post-war, although the second never completed conversion.

Another eleven more-recent 74s were razeed in 1826-1845, in this case being fully reduced to 50-gun heavy frigates; three others were scheduled for similar conversion, but this was never completed.

French razée warships (Revolutionary War conversions)

In the French navy, a number of 74-gun two-deckers were similarly razeed into 54-gun ships:

  • Diadème (renamed Brutus in September 1792 and razeed between December 1793 and May 1794)
  • Hercule of 1778 (razeed between February and June 1794, then renamed Hydre in May 1795)
  • (renamed Protecteur
  • Argonaute of 1781 (razeed between December 1793 and March 1794, then renamed Flibustier in June 1794)
  • Illustre of 1781 (razeed between August 1793 and February 1794, renamed Mucius Scevola in January 1794, name shortened to Scevola in February 1794)
  • Brave of 1781 (razeed between April 1793 and January 1794, without change of name)
  • Borée of 1785 (renamed Ça Ira in April 1794, then again Agricola in June 1794 and razeed between April and July 1794)
  • Agamemnon of 1812

United States razee warship

Late nineteenth century

USS Cumberland before conversion
USS Cumberland as a Razee

In the United States Navy, several of the final generation of sailing frigates launched in the 1840s were cut down to become large sloops-of-war. Advances in metallurgy and artillery in the 1850s allowed the casting of guns that fired substantially heavier shot than had previously been in use, as well as exploding shells. Thus, when the decision was made to rearm these frigates with heavier but fewer guns, the reduction in crew size allowed the ships to be razeed. Their sail plan and size made them superb sailers. Although these ships carried a heavier broadside as 20 gun sloops-of-war than they did as 40 gun frigates, they were rerated as nominally smaller sloops-of-war because they mounted fewer guns. Such ships include USS Macedonian and USS Cumberland.


  1. OED
  2. Razee at Dictionary.com
  3. 3.0 3.1 Herman, Arthur (2004). To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-053424-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, Charles Johnson, 1724. (Modern paperback by The Lyons Press, 2002, ISBN 1-58574-558-8)