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Scale model of the Achille, a typical French seventy-four of the Téméraire class at the beginning of the 19th century.
|Operators:|| French Navy|
|Type:||ship of the line|
|Displacement:||1 630 tonnes|
|Length:||161 Feet (52 m)|
|Beam:||46 Feet (14 m)|
|Draught:||23 Feet (7 m)|
28 x 36 or 32 pdr (16 or 14 kg)
The "Seventy-four" was a type of two-decked sailing ship of the line nominally carrying 74 guns. Originally developed by the French Navy in the mid-18th century, the design proved to be a good balance between firepower and sailing qualities, and was adopted by the British Royal Navy (where the ships were classed as third-rates), as well as other navies. Seventy-fours were a mainstay of the world's fleets into the early decades of the 19th century, when they were supplanted by improved construction techniques allowing larger vessels and by the introduction of steam power.
First 74-gun designs
The classic 74-gun ship was invented by the French as they rebuilt their navy during the early years of the reign of Louis XV. The new ship type was a very large two-decker big enough to carry the largest common type of gun (36-pounders) on the lower gun deck, something only three-deckers had done earlier. This great firepower was combined with very good sailing qualities compared to both the taller three-deckers and the shorter old-style 70-gun two-deckers, making the 74 the perfect combination of the two. A downside to the 74 was that it was a relatively expensive ship to build and man compared to the older type of two-decker.
The 74-gun ship normally carried twenty-eight 32- or 36-pound guns on the lower gun deck, thirty 18-pounders on the upper gun deck, and sixteen 9-pounders on the upper works. A limited number of seventy-fours were built for 24-pounders instead of 18-pounders, but this was not common due to the increased cost and also tended to overload the hull. Crew size was around 500 to 750 men depending on circumstances and nationality, British ships tending to have smaller crews than comparable Continental ones. The waterline length of a seventy-four could be up to 180 feet.
Given the construction techniques of the day, the seventy-four approached the limits of what was possible. Such long hulls made from wood had a tendency to flex and sag over time, this could to a certain extent be countered by increased maintenance but this was of course costly. This limited the success of the even bigger two-deck 80-gun ships that were built in small numbers after the seventy-four had been introduced. Three-deckers did not have the same problem due to their additional deck giving more rigidity.
The Royal Navy captured a number of the early French 74-gun ships during the War of the Austrian Succession (for example, Invincible, captured at the first battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747) and the Seven Years' War and were greatly impressed by them compared to their own smallish 70-gun ships. As a result they started building them in great numbers from about 1760, as did most other European navies. Navies that were restricted by shallow waters, such as the Dutch and Scandinavian navies, at least early on tended to avoid the 74-gun ship to a certain degree due to its size and draught, preferring smaller two-deckers instead. Even so, the seventy-four was a standard feature in all European navies around 1800. Only a handful of 74-gun ships were commissioned into the United States Navy; the US Navy's early sea power concentrated on their powerfully built frigates.
The type fell into disuse after the Napoleonic Wars, when improved building techniques made it possible to build even bigger two-deckers of 84 or even 90 guns without sacrificing hull rigidity.
The last seventy-four, the French Trafalgar veteran Duguay-Trouin, was scuttled in 1949. Her stern ornamentation is on display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. In addition, dozens of ship models exist, produced as part of constructing the real ships, and thus believed accurate both externally and internally.
- A Seventy-Four Gun Ship Scaled Model - A highly detailed scaled model of a Seventy-Four Gun Ship.
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- Jean Boudriot, transl. David Roberts, The Seventy-Four Gun Ship (Naval Institute Press, 1986) originally Le Vaisseau de 74 Canons, 1973. Four remarkable volumes document every aspect of the French 74, from shipyard construction techniques to handling under sail. Many large diagrams and drawings.