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What Is a Brig?

Larry Ray Palmer
Larry Ray Palmer

The term brig has two definitions based in nautical language. In the first meaning, brig refers to a double masted sailing ship with square-rigged masts. The second definition of the term refers to a military prison under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy (USN), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), or the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). The two definitions are tied together in that the use of the word brig to describe a military prison dates back to the use of a brig sailing ship as a prison ship.

This sailing vessel is easily distinguished from other ships by the presence of two masts and a unique rigging. Other comparably sized sailing ships typically have a three-mast system. The brigantine sailing vessel is a related ship, but the rigging of the brigantine differs from the dual square-masted rigging of brigs. The brig uses several smaller sails, while the brigantine uses a square mast on the fore mast and fore-and-aft triangular shaped rigging on the main mast.

A brig might refer to a double masted sailing ship with square-rigged masts.
A brig might refer to a double masted sailing ship with square-rigged masts.

The dual square-mast rigging of these sailing vessels gives them certain advantages over the brigantine ships. The use of numerous sails provides faster reaction times to facilitate better handling. Due to the smaller size of the sails, the brig's rigging can be handled by a much smaller crew than that of the brigantine. The typical ship can effectively operate with a crew of 12 to 16 members. Even with the smaller crew size in comparison to other ships, however, the brig's crew is considered large for the size of the ship.

A uniquely designed ship, this vessel is designed for both sailing and rowing. This design made the ship quite useful for military prison operations because prisoners could be forced to work at rowing the vessel. It also made these ships a useful part of the cargo shipping industry because traders could maneuver the ships into places that traditional sailing ships could not effectively reach.

In military usage, these ships were sometimes outfitted as warships. Brigs sometimes carried between 10 and 18 guns, making them a deadly adversary against larger sailing rigs that could not outmaneuver the smaller craft. Due to the ship's precise handling and speed, the brig fell into favor with pirates outside of the Americas and the Caribbean. These ships continued to see use in military and cargo operations until the mid 1800s, when gaff sail ships and steam powered boats began to replace the craft.

Discussion Comments


A brig is actually a very beautiful ship to look at, and they were once considered one of the most advanced sail ships in the world in terms of speed and maneuverability.

Of course, now we have ships run by motors and we don't use so many sails, but it would have been really amazing to go on a brig ship.

You can still do this in places, as there are quite a few still in operation, or which have been restored. They are generally just used as a tourist attraction now though, of course.


@umbra21 - I've heard that particular captains, usually pirate captains, would make very uncomfortable brigs and then use it as a punishment more than a prison.

So, for example, a cage in which the person can't straighten up, or with a floor made of slates so that they can't stand properly.

But, I think in reality, the brig was usually just a makeshift room. I don't imagine there was enough call for a specific place to be used as a prison that a ship would always build a room just for that purpose. Space on ships is at a premium, and that would be a waste of it.


I've never heard of a brig referring to a particular kind of ship. I always thought it just referred to a prison on a ship.

Of course, not many modern ships would have need of a prison on board, but mutiny would have been more common back when the captain was allowed to have complete control over his crew.

He wouldn't have always been interested in their rights or well being, so the threat of being overcome by a mutinous crew was a real one.

Not to mention that war and piracy would have led to a fair amount of potential prisoners as well. Even back in the old days, people would sometimes be captured in order to be ransomed off.

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    • A brig might refer to a double masted sailing ship with square-rigged masts.
      By: Alan Reed
      A brig might refer to a double masted sailing ship with square-rigged masts.