In North America, Howe is best known for his service during the American Revolutionary War, when he acted as a naval commander and a peace commissioner with the American rebels; he also conducted a successful relief during the Great Siege of Gibraltar in the later stages of the War.
Howe was born in Albemarle Street, London, the second son of Emanuel Howe, 2nd Viscount Howe, who died as governor of Barbados in March 1735, and of Charlotte, a daughter of Baroness von Kielmansegg, afterwards Countess of Darlington, the half-sister of King George I.
After education at Eton College, Richard Howe entered the navy in the fourth-rate HMS Pearl in July 1739. He then transferred to the fourth-rate HMS Severn, one of the squadron sent into the south seas with Admiral George Anson in 1740. The Severn sailed to Cape Horn and then, after encountering storms, returned home in Spring 1742. Howe next served in the West Indies aboard the third-rate HMS Burford and was present when she was severely damaged in the unsuccessful attack on La Guaira in February 1743 during the War of the Austrian Succession. He transferred to the third-rate HMS Suffolk, flagship of Admiral Sir Charles Knowles, Commander-in-Chief in the West Indies, in March 1743 and then to the fifth-rate HMS Eltham in July 1743, before being promoted to midshipman on 8 October 1743 and returning to HMS Suffolk later that month. Promoted to lieutenant on 25 May 1744, he joined the bomb vessel HMS Comet and then transferred to the first-rate HMS Royal George, flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon, in August 1745.
Promoted to commander on 5 November 1745, Howe was commanding officer of the sloop HMS Baltimore in the North Sea during the Jacobite rising of 1745 and was severely wounded in the head while cooperating with a frigate in an engagement with two French privateers. Promoted to post-captain on 10 April 1746, he was given command of the sixth-rate HMS Triton and took part in convoy duties off Lisbon. He transferred to the command of the fourth-rate HMS Ripon in Summer 1747 and sailed to the West Indies before becoming Flag Captain to Admiral Sir Charles Knowles, Commander-in-Chief, Jamaica, in the third-rate HMS Cornwall in October 1748. He was given command of the fifth-rate HMS Glory off the coast of West Africa in March 1751 and then transferred to the command of the sixth-rate HMS Dolphin in the Mediterranean Fleet in June 1752.