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Coast Guard History

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a "Cutter"?

The Revenue Marine and the Revenue Cutter Service , as it was known variously throughout the late 18th and the 19th centuries, referred to its ships as cutters.  The term is English in origin and refers to a specific type of vessel, namely, "a small, decked ship with one mast and bowsprit, with a gaff mainsail on a boom, a square yard and topsail, and two jibs or a jib and a staysail." (Peter Kemp, editor, The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea; London: Oxford University Press, 1976; pp. 221-222.)   The Royal Navy's definition of a cutter was a small warship capable of carrying 8 to 12 cannons.*** 

By general usage, 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.  Since that time, no matter what the vessel type, the service has referred to its largest vessels as cutters (today a cutter is any Coast Guard vessel over 65-feet in length).  

Coast Guard Cutter Classifications & Designations:

The Revenue Cutter Service designated its cutters and craft based on classes.  From about 1890 through the formation of the Coast Guard in 1915, the largest cutters were referred to as vessels of the 'First Class."  The smaller coastal cutters and larger tugs were vessels of the "Second Class," and the smaller tugs and cutters were designated as vessels of the "Third Class."  Finally, the small harbor craft were referred to as "Launches."

In 1915, the newly-formed Coast Guard began referring to all of its larger cutters as "Cruising Cutters."  At that time, most of the smaller vessels fell under the classification of "Harbor Cutter" and the smallest craft were known as a "Launches."  This changed in 1920 when the Coast Guard divided the "Cruising Cutter" designation into "Cruising Cutters" for the largest sea-going cutters and "Inshore Patrol Cutters" for those that were primarily coastal vessels.

In 1925, the designation changed once again.  Now the largest cutters were known as "Cruising Cutters, First Class," while the coastal cutters were "Cruising Cutters, Second Class."  With Prohibition enforcement becoming a major mission, the Coast Guard began adding numerous smaller patrol craft and these were grouped together under the classification of "Patrol Boats."  The service also acquired a large number of Navy destroyers to augment the fleet and these were known as, simply, "Coast Guard Destroyers."

In February, 1942 the Coast Guard adopted the Navy's ship classification system whereby a vessel was designated with a two-letter abbreviation based on the type of ship and its hull number.  Thus, the large, sea-going cruising cutters of the first class became gunboats, or "PG."  To differentiate them from their Navy counterparts, all Coast Guard cutters were given the prefix "W" at that same time.  No one knows for sure why the Navy and Coast Guard picked the letter "W" to designate a Coast Guard vessel although rumors abound.  One rather bureaucratic argument is that "W" was used during the 1930s as the routing symbol on Treasury Department correspondence to designate the Coast Guard.*  Another is that it stands for "weather patrol," one of the major tasks assigned to the Coast Guard.**  Still another notes that by international agreement regarding radio communications the United States was able to use the letters "A", "K", "N" or "W" and since "W" was unused at that time, it was chosen to designate a Coast Guard cutter.***  Finally one officer noted that "W" was chosen since it was unused and was also the first letter of the last name of the officer who attended the meeting when the designation was chosen!****  Or it may be as simple as the fact that "W" was an unused letter on the Navy's designation alphabet and was arbitrarily assigned to designate a Coast Guard cutter.  In any case, the practice stuck and each cutter still bears the "W."  

The service also began assigning an exclusive hull number to each cutter and craft at this time.  Prior to 1941, the Coast Guard and its predecessors never assigned hull numbers to its larger cutters or tenders, it simply referred to them only by their names.  Some were assigned builders' numbers prior to their construction but that number was never used to designate a cutter that was in commission.  The number was dropped after the cutter entered service.  There is an exception to this practice, however.  During the 1920s, patrol boats and the destroyers loaned to the Coast Guard by the Navy did receive hull numbers.  Those hull numbers were preceded by the letters "CG."  The destroyers kept their names as well and so were the first and only Coast Guard named-vessels, up to that time, that also had hull numbers.

After the end of the war and the Coast Guard's transfer back to the control of the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard continued to use the Navy's system.  The large, sea-going cutters were classified primarily as "WPG," "WDE", and "WAVP" (Coast Guard gunboats; Coast Guard destroyer escorts; and Coast Guard seaplane tenders).  This changed in 1965 when the service adopted its own designation system and these large cutters were then grouped together into one class that was referred to as Coast Guard High Endurance Cutters or "WHEC."  The coastal cutters once known as "Cruising cutters, Second Class" and then "WPC" (Coast Guard patrol craft) under the Navy system were now Coast Guard Medium Endurance Cutters, or "WMEC."  Patrol boats continued to be referred to by their Coast Guard/Navy designation, i.e. "WPB. "  These designations refer to the cutters' capabilities in regards to the length of time they may spend on patrol without replenishment.

Regardless of their changing designations, the cutters in the fleet have always been capable of handling a multitude of missions, sail in any weather, and persevere through any crisis the nation has had.  Most have been long-lived as well.

*Robert Scheina.  Coast Guard Cutters & Craft, 1946-1990.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990, p. 169 (caption).

**HMC James T. Flynn, Jr., USNR (Ret.), "US Coast Guard 'W' Numbers: Where did they come from and where are they going?", p. 4; unpublished paper, USCG Historian's Office files.  Chief Flynn notes in the Navy's 1943 ONI-54 pamphlets that "Coast Guard types are prefixed by the letter 'G' . . . Scheina mentions this use of the letter 'G' prefix by the Navy and he further explains that the letter 'W' used by the Coast Guard can be traced back into the 1930s.  He also states that the Navy followed suit later in the war (using the W prefix for Coast Guard) when the letter 'G' was needed as a prefix for vessels transferred to Greece.", ibid., pp. 3-4.  

***BMC Joseph Noecker, USCG (Ret.) in an email to the Historian's Office, noted: ". . .cutters in the British man-of-war designations had 8 to 12 guns/cannon. . . Hull numbers [were] one way of calling a ship via radio.  Much the same as an aircrafts' tail number is used today.  By international agreement all U.S. radio call signs begin with A, K, N or W.  Army (and later Air Force) used A, Navy and private aircraft use N.  That, among other reasonings, may have been the reason for the W."

****Tom Miles noted that VADM Robert Scarborough once related that while serving as the aide to then-Fifth District commander RADM [Russell E.] Wood that Wood told him he attended the meeting when this issue was decided and it ". . .Seems that 'W' clearly was not being used and (since it) was the first letter of his last name it seemed only logical (to him) that it be proposed.  Thus he did so!  Apparently no conferee disagreed so the deed was accomplished!"

Last Modified 9/15/2016