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Pirates and Their Weapons: Through the Ages


Few weapons can compare to the sense of terror when seeing a pirate ship sailing in the distance. Much of the fear was due to stories they heard about ruthless pirates. Due to the great fear instilled by the mere sight of a pirate ship, most major thefts had little or no actual battle due to the complete submission of the merchant ships once the pirates landed. They'd rather let the pirates take what they wanted and keep their lives.

Nonetheless, the pirates always arrived prepared for battle. They would never take on a ship they didn't feel they could defeat, although their weapons and tools were always stocked, set, cleaned, and ready to pillage a ship. Much of what we know about pirate weaponry is due to Blackbeard's wreckage of the Queen Anne's Revenge, which held many significant artifacts.

Cannons: The Most Powerful Weapon

Cannons were mainly used to frighten their victims and were rarely actually discharged due to their impracticality. It took five to six men two to five minutes to load one cannonball. Although it took only one person to fire it, reloading was very taxing, especially on a rocking ship. Their most significant benefit was that a cannon could be shot up to one mile or 1.5 kilometers away, although they were used more commonly at a closer range to frighten enemy ships. They rarely ever used them was because they were especially dangerous to load and clean due to being out in the open and in easy view. They also feared that a stray spark could cause it to ignite too soon. By the seventeenth century, most ships had them.

Swivel Guns

Pirates were more apt to use swivel guns, which were very similar to cannons, except they were much easier to move and more practical to use. They did not use cannons when they felt it was necessary, but it was rare since a regular cannon was the weight of a modern car. Moving it was a chore that needed at least five men plus a system of ropes and levers. The men loaded many different items in a cannon depending on their needs, not just cannonballs.

Types of Cannonballs

Round cannonballs usually weighed 12 pounds or 5.4 kilograms. Some were as small as five pounds and others as massive as 24 pounds. Hollywood represents cannons as having the ability to sink ships, although they rarely had that kind of power. Cannonballs would usually be used to destroy the rigging and masts and kill or maim the men on the other ship.

The grapeshot cannonballs consisted of small iron balls loaded into a canvas bag and then shot from the cannon. These would cause more damage over a vast distance ripping through sails and even men. In 1722, the infamous pirate Bartholomew Roberts was killed by grapeshot during a bloody battle.

Many pirates used a metal container filled with small iron balls, stones, glass, and nails. The concept was similar to grapeshot cannonballs. Still, it was much easier to get a hold of in a short period, specifically designed to kill sailors on the decks of enemy vessels.

Chain shot was another kind of cannonball, two balls held together by a chain. They smashed masts and sails when shot out of a cannon, turning the masts into splinters! These fragments were known to kill the men aboard as they flew through the air.

Knives and Swords

Cutlasses and Other Swords

When most people think of a pirate's sword, one would think of a single-edged cutlass, also known as the "sword of the sea." Cutlasses were not initially used as weapons but were used to cut the heavy rope on board. These were handy weapons for those who were not very familiar with sword fighting. A cutlass is known for having a sturdy curved blade that is so sharp it can cut through bone. The shorter and broader they are, the sturdier, but also more deadly since they were used in crowded areas, in up close and personal fights. Buccaneers invented the first cutlass and used it to butcher meat.

Another typical sword used by pirates was a heavy broadsword. These were also used in hand-to-hand combat. Shorter swords such as these were better used on ships because longer swords were more apt to accidentally cut the rigging on a ship.

Knives Used by Pirates

Much like shorter swords, knives were also more helpful on ships. Most pirates carried more than one blade at all times. During combat, the men often dropped knives, and they needed to grab a spare.

They did use knives that would fold much like today's pocket knives. These were called gullies. They were carried more for a tool on the ship, but during a tight spot, a pirate or other sailor would use them in hand-to-hand combat when needed.

Daggers, specifically designed as a weapon, were more common during combat due to their sharp points. Pirates would use them to thrust at the opponent to stab them or block a sword attack. These were more useful than swords since they were easy to hide in belts and pockets. Daggers were a lot easier to use than swords since you could use them anywhere on the ship, where swords could cause damage to the vessel.

Another kind of knife commonly used was a boucan knife. The buccaneer of the Caribbeans also designed these. You can see what one looked like to the right here.

Firearms and Axes


During the Golden Age of Piracy, between 1660 to 1740, the flintlock was the most common firearm used. It had a short barrel, which could easily be stuffed inside a belt or hidden in a coat. Firearms were easy to carry and therefore used frequently.

The preparation to use flintlock was very long, so a pirate would often have many prepared and ready to shoot before entering the battle. The preparation usually took at least 30 seconds from an experienced shooter. It included adding a measured amount of gunpowder into the barrel, placing a lead ball into a wadding material, then shoving both within the flintlock. Once pressed down, they would add a little more gunpowder, which would allow for a tight seal. When shot, it would release a blue smoke. Sometimes the damp sea air would moisten the powder, and the pistol would not fire. Due to its unreliability, it has rarely been the primary weapon used in a battle.


Muskets were very similar to flintlock pistols in that they also only held one shot. So after use, pirates would either drop them or begin to use them as clubs. One of the more common muskets was the Marksman's musket. At a further distance, they used long guns since they could shoot further than most firearms used at that time. But due to its unreliability aim, it was not always accurate at the far reaches.


A blunderbuss was another standard pirate firearm commonly recognized as an early form of the shotgun we use today. However, onboard, it was often much shorter than today's ones. It is known for having a flare at the muzzle.


Handguns were far more frequently used than cannons since few knew how to use a cannon safely. Gunpowder was hazardous to store on a ship. In 1669, the infamous pirate Henry Morgan blew up an entire gunpowder store with a single gun by accident. It damaged but did not sink the ship.


Pistols and axes were favorite weapons for raiding. Pirates used pistols to shoot and axes to cut down rigging, making sails fall. Not only that, but they could also use axes to help climb up the sides of larger vessels. These boarding axes quickly cut a thick rope, which would destroy the sailing ability of a large ship. Although broad axes were the most common, during the actual battle, they preferred a battle-ax, which was a medium-sized ax that was much easier to handle.

Things That Go Boom

Pirates often used grenades. However, their hand grenades were not like those used today. Usually, they would find an old wine bottle, fill it with gunpowder, and set fire to foul-smelling sulfur, which would serve as a harmful explosive boom and a stink bomb. They would often use stink bombs. Usually, they made these by smashing a clay jar filled with burning sulfur and rotten fish guts. They would usually throw this over on a merchant ship before stepping foot on board the vessel so that way, the crew members would be too sick to fight.

Arrows, Barbs, Hooks, and Other Sharp Objects

Vikings, who were also pirates, commonly used bows and arrows during battle. They were very skilled at using bows and arrows. Supposedly, they could catch an arrow in midair and throw it back at their enemy.


Sharp objects were often common amongst other pirates, as well. French corsairs used barefoot barbs. These were little scraps of metal with spikes out of each end so that way, no matter where it landed, there would be one sharp end pointing up. These worked well since most sailors would walk on deck barefoot because shoes could cause them to slip on deck. Stepping on one of these would cause a severe injury that would cripple them and their foot.

Grappling Hooks

Grappling hooks were another weapon that pirates used. Instead of causing injury, they would often throw these onto the decks of merchants. Once it hit, it would dig into the deck, and they would pull the two ships together so that the pirates could jump from their ship to the merchant ship where they could get their loot.


They also used marlinspikes. Marlinspikes look similar to an ice pick but were used to anchor the boat or secure lines on the mast. In a tight battle, they were often picked up to be used as swords if they did not have a sword.

Other Things to Add Fear

Some of the best weapons were not weapons at all. One of their best weapons was the small boats they kept on their ships. They could sneak up behind a merchant ship completely undetected by climbing aboard these little boats.

Jolly Rogers

The most feared weapon never did any harm, but it would cause fear in any merchant sailor who saw it. They are known as the Jolly Rogers. Jolly Rogers comes from the French word Jolie Rouge, which means "pretty red." These flags received their name since a pirate ship was supposed to symbolize bloodshed. They would raise these flags to say, "Yo, this is a pirate ship, and we want your loot!" Once seen, merchants would try their best to flee. A jolly roger often would have pictures of skeletons, daggers, bleeding hearts, or any other frightening image that the ship could imagine. It was unique to each pirate ship.

Although pirates often had many seafaring weapons, they notoriously used many of their tools and modified a lot of land weapons to be useful on the sea. Pirate's weapons were more about striking fear than being used.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Angela Michelle Schultz


Avinesh Prahladi from Chandigarh on October 31, 2013:

I must say that the Marlinspike is one of the smallest and the most deadly pirate weapons. I really appreciate the effort that you have put in this hub.

Thanks !!!!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on April 24, 2012:

At least a year and a half ago, but I wrote it longer than that ago.

valerie_smith on April 23, 2012:

when did you submit this?

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on September 29, 2011:

You might be right. But in my studies I had often heard this. I imagine there bows are not as fast as ours, but the likelihood of being able to do that is probably very unlikely.