Pirates and Their Weapons: Through the Ages
Few weapons can compare to the sense of terror a sailor would feel 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 that they didn't feel they could defeat, although their weapons and tools were always stocked, set, cleaned, and ready to pillage a ship. A lot 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 greatest 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. Part of why they rarely ever used them was because they were quite 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.
Pirates were more apt to use swivel guns, which were very similar to cannons, except they were much easier to move, and much more practical to use. Not to say 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. Depending on their needs, the men loaded many different items in a cannon, not just cannonballs.
Types of Cannonballs
Round cannonballs, which we often think of when we think of cannons, usually weighed 12 pounds or 5.4 kilograms. There were some 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, masts, and kill or maim the men on the other ship.
The grapeshot cannonballs consisted of small iron balls that were loaded into a canvas bag 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 very bloody battle.
Many pirates chose to use 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, which was specifically designed to kill sailors on the decks of enemy vessels.
Chain shot was another kind of cannonball, which was two balls held together by a chain. When shot out of a cannon, they smashed masts and sails, 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 ended up being 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, the sturdy they are, but also the more deadly they were, since they could be used in a crowded area, and was more for up close and personal fights. Buccaneers invented the first cutlass who used it to butcher meat.
Another common 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 cut the rigging on a ship accidentally.
Knives Used by Pirates
Much like shorter swords, knives were also more useful 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 it in hand to hand combat when needed.
Daggers, specifically designed as a weapon, were more common during combat, due to their sharp points. They would be used to thrust at the opponent to stab them or to 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 a sword since you could use it 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, which was 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 to flintlock was very long, so a pirate would often have many prepared and ready to shoot before they would enter 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, place a lead ball into a wadding material, then shove 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 shoot. Due to its unreliability, it has been rarely 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 far reaches.
A blunderbuss was another very common pirate firearm commonly recognized as an early form of the shotgun we use today, although onboard, it was often much shorter than the ones we see today. 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. Although guns on board or, more specifically, gunpowder was very dangerous to store on a ship. In 1669, the infamous pirate Henry Morgan blew up an entire store of gunpowder with a single gun, by accident. It damaged but did not sink the ship.
Pistols and axes were favorite weapons for raiding. Pistols were used to shoot, and axes were used 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 easily 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. Although their hand grenades were not like the ones, you see to the right. Usually, they would find an old wine bottle, fill it with gunpowder, and set fire to foul-smelling sulfur, which would serve not only as a harmful explosive boom but also as 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 the ship, 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 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 way 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 were able to sneak up behind a merchant ship completely undetected by climbing aboard these little boats.
The most feared weapon was never used to do actual harm, but once seen, would cause fear in any merchant sailor. They are known as the Jolly Rogers. Jolly Rogers comes from the French word Jolie Rouge, which meant "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 a picture 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