Essential Question: Why does the U.S. Coast Guard call their ships “cutters”?

Have you ever wondered why the Coast Guard calls their ships “cutters”?  Much like how the U.S. Navy uses the prefix USS (meaning United States Ship), why doesn’t the U.S. Coast Guard call their vessels “US Coast Guard Ship”? Why are they called USCGC (United States Coast Guard Cutter)?  Well, the short answer is that the term cutter comes from the days of the Revenue Marine/Revenue Cutter Service that would eventually become the U.S. Coast Guard.

First of all, we need to define the term “cutter”, because the word itself refers to several types of vessels. According to John Rogers (1984), the term cutter probably comes from the Middle English word kittere, meaning “a sharp boat”.  The 3 basic definitions are:

  1. A fast, small ocean-going vessel, usually a government type (i.e. Coast Guard and earlier the Revenue Service) for patrolling and police duties.  (18th century).
  2. A single-masted sailboat, fore-and-aft rigged, the mast of which is located farther aft than that of a sloop, and which usually is rigged for two or more headsails. (mid-19th century).
  3. A ship’s pulling boat, of eight oars or more, also rigged for sail; usually lug rigged. (probably earlier than 18th century).

(p. 54)

For the sake of brevity, let’s just focus on the first definition since it’s all we’re really concerned about.  According to the USCG historian’s office, “the term cutter came to define any vessel of Great Britain’s Royal Customs Service, and the term was adopted by the U.S. Treasury Department at the creation of what would become the Revenue Marine.”  It’s also worth noting that, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy classified a cutter as a small, unrated ship, mounting 8-12 guns. More specifically, the cutter appeared around 1740 and was a small vessel with a bowsprit and a single mast. The mast was rigged with two jibs or a jib and staysail, a square yard and topsail, and a gaff mainsail with a boom. Cutters were particularly fast when sailing upwind and were initially used for carrying dispatches, but later developed into minor warships (O’Neill, 2003, p. 53).

The Revenue Cutter Service

Revenue Cutter Massachusetts

Following the American Revolution, Congress disbanded the Continental Navy, and the newly-born United States needed a source of income.  It was decided that this would come in the form of import tariffs. John Galluzzo writes that “President Washington asked for a ‘system of cutters’ to chase smugglers and assist in revenue collection.” (as cited in Beard, 2004, p. 34)  Thus, on 4 August 1790, Congress, with the urging of the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue Marine (later to be called the Revenue Cutter Service).

The first ten cutters of the Revenue Marine were:

1) Vigilant

Launched in March of 1791, Vigilant may have been the first cutter hull to enter the water.  She was built in New York for service in New York waters. Her first master was Patrick Dennis.  She was sold in November 1798.

2) Active

Active launched on 9 April 1791 in Baltimore, Maryland.  She patrolled the waters of the Chesapeake under the command of Master Simon Gross.  She was sold in 1800.

3) General Green

General Green was launched on 7 July 1791 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She was assigned to the Pennsylvania station under the command of Master James Montegomery.  She was sold in December 1797.

4) Massachusetts

Massachusetts was launched on 15 July 1791.  She was built in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Her first master was John Foster Williams. She was sold on 9 October 1792.

5) Scammel

Scammel was launched on 24 August 1791.  She was built in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Her first master was Hopley Yeaton. She was sold on 16 August 1798.

6) Argus

Argus was launched sometime in 1791.  She was built in New London, Connecticut.  Her first master was Jonathan Maltbie. She was sold in 1804.

7) Virginia

Virginia was launched sometime in 1791.  She was built in Norfolk, Virginia.  Her first master was Richard Taylor. She was sold in 1798.

8) Diligence

Diligence was launched sometime in June or July of 1792.  She was built in Washington, North Carolina. Her first master was William Cook.  She was sold in 1798.

9) South Carolina

South Carolina was launched in 1792.  She was built in Charleston, South Carolina for service in South Carolina and nearby waters.  Her first master was Robert Cochrane. She was sold on 5 June 1798.

10) Eagle

The first Eagle was launched sometime in 1793.  She was built in Savannah, Georgia for service in Georgia’s waters.  Her first master was John Howell. She was sold on 14 September 1799.

Earlier vessels did exist on an ad hoc basis in the Revenue Marine, but these were not true seagoing vessels and are not officially recognized by the USCG as part of the Revenue Marine.  Unfortunately, most of the documentation regarding the original ten cutters was lost when the British burned Washington D.C. during the War of 1812.

In a November 1886 article for Harper’s Monthly titled “Our Coast Guard (29 years before it would be officially called the USCG), U.S. Revenue Marine officer, Lieutenant Worth G. Ross wrote that Alexander Hamilton submitted to Congress:

a proposition for ten boats to be distributed along the seaboard as follows: two for the coast of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, one for Long Island Sound, one for New York, one for the Bay of Delaware, two for the Chesapeake and neighboring waters, and one each for North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.  They were to measure from thirty-six to forty feet in length of keel, and an estimated cost of $1000 each, manned by two officers and six marines, and armed with swivels.

Ross further noted that they were, “an unpretending fleet of small, sharp-built, single-masted, light draught sailing vessels; in fact, they were not much larger than yawls of the present day.”  Now, if we are going by the earlier second definition of a traditional cutter, you may note that the previous depiction of the Massachusetts shows a vessel with more than one mast, as opposed to a single-masted ship. Indeed, these vessels are probably more accurately classified as schooners if the pictures are any indication of their appearance.  I guess “Revenue Schooner Service” just didn’t have the same ring to it.

The Modern U.S. Coast Guard

USCG National Security Cutter Bertholf (WMSL-750)

So that’s basically the idea behind the origins of the Coast Guard cutter.  A discussion on the history of the Revenue Cutter Service is for another time.  In the modern day, the USCG classifies any vessel over 65 feet in length as a cutter. Anything smaller is a boat.

Currently, the USCG operates more than 240 cutters. The smallest cutters are the 87-foot Marine Protector-class patrol boats. There are numerous other classes and sizes of cutters in between. The largest cutter (at the time of writing) is technically the 420-foot medium icebreaker, Healy. The Polar Security Cutter program is currently underway to replace the aging icebreaker fleet and will construct icebreakers that are 460 feet in length (VT Halter Marine, 2018).  Barring the icebreakers, the largest cutters are the 418-foot National Security Cutters (AKA Legend-class). These are replacing the older 378-foot Hamilton-class high endurance cutters. Many of the current cutters coming into service are holdovers from the now-defunct Integrated Deepwater System program. In any case, the USCG has been gradually acquiring new assets to replace many of its older and antiquated ships, boats, and aircraft previously in service. So, now you know.


Beard, T. (2004). “1790-1915: The Others Might Live”. In T. Beard, J. Hanson & P.C. Scotti (Eds.), The Coast Guard (pp. 32-37). Seattle, WA: Foundation for Coast Guard History Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc.

O’Neill, R. (Ed.). (2003). Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World. Running Press.

Rogers, J.G. (1984). Origins of Sea Terms. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum.

Ross, W.G. (1886). “Our Coast Guard: A Brief History of the United States Revenue Marine Service.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 73.438. Retrieved from

VT Halter Marine. (2018). Polar Security Cutter. Retrieved from