Warships were classified by the number of guns they carried. The largest ships, known as men-of-war, carried between sixty-four to more than 100 cannon on two or three decks. The seventy-four was the most common man-of-war in the British navy. The Americans never built ships this large during the Revolutionary War.
Frigates carried twenty-four to forty-four guns on one gun deck. Frigates were quick and lethal. They were used for scouting and commerce raiding. Both the British and Americans employed frigates. The British used them to hunt American ships, merchant vessels, privateers, and the United States Navy. The Americans used them to harry British trade and battle British frigates.
Smaller ships of fewer than twenty-four guns were used for a variety of purposes, from carrying messages to supporting the work of the frigates. These ships could be quite effective against poorly armed merchantmen. The American Revolution was unusual in that both sides employed fleets of small ships on the inland waters of Lake Champlain.
Fleet actions between the great naval powers involved both sides trying to maximize the firepower of their men-of-war by bringing as many guns as possible to bear on the enemy ships. This meant that the two fleets would form up against each other in lines. Commanders tried to maneuver their fleets so they could sail across the opposing line, know as “crossing the T,” and bring their guns to bear on their enemy's more vulnerable bows or sterns.