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The word Frigate doesn't really have much meaning on its own, as it could apply to any ship that agreed to its qualifications. It was formerly a term for any ship that was lightly armed, full-masted, and had quick maneuverability, and primarily intended for interception duty and patrol work while holding on to some degree of firepower, in comparison to multi-decked ships of the line which were meant to perform fleet actions. However, advancements in ballistics, engineering and nautical science eventually resulted in the construction of vessels (through chance or design) which had an armament and constitution well in excess of these requirements, and frigates were well considered medium- to heavy-strength naval assets at the close of the Napoleonic Wars in the mid 1810s CE.

Like the galleon, the frigate has its origins in a variant of Mediterranean galley called a galleass. Whereas the galleon was primarily a galleass built taller and higher for sea combat and with a full rig of sails, the frigate was based off a lighter variant of the galleass known in Italian as a fregata (literally, "sneaker" or "raider"). The fregata or "frigate galley" was slightly taller than most galleys of its day, yet had broadside guns, a more extensive sailplan (early modern western galleys used the triangular lateen more extensively than the square rig), and could be rowed if needed should the ship be becalmed or in a crisis, ie battle.

Even so, it was not until the mid-18th century when the frigate fully evolved from its mediaeval origins as the classic tall ship with the French warship Medée in the 1740s CE. This was a ship with a less pronounced profile (because boarding and melee actions were no longer seen as important as naval gunnery), but packed a more advanced sailplan and was dedicated primarily to the task of waging war. In addition, severely damaged galleons and ships of the line could sometimes be "repaired" and became a variant of frigate known as a razée (French for "cut down", "razed" or "shaved") because a multideck vessel could be renovated, losing all but its lowest gun deck (assuming it was still intact), and the resulting warship would be lighter, yet perhaps larger and stronger than other frigates.

The height of frigate construction came in the 19th century with the emergence of USS Constitution, one of the first warships ever to be fully designed in the United States. One of six frigates commissioned by the fledgling United States under the designation of heavy frigate, Constitution was very revolutionary for her time, as the United States had intended to build a war vessel that was heavily armed and strong, yet fast enough to outrun the stronger but slower armed vessels hosted by European navies of its time. Although today's frigates now are metal-hulled vessels, they exmplify the traits asked of Constitution — they are mostly used for escort purposes for merchant ships entering contested waters, yet enjoy an immense payload of firepower when the need should arise.

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