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Pirate weapons

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Pirate weapons

Then the Real Fight Began

Painting by Howard Pyle (circa 1900)

Pirate weapons:

Pirates of the "Golden Age of Piracy," which lasted roughly from 1700-1725, employed a variety of weapons to carry out their high-seas thievery. These weapons were not unique to pirates, but were also common on merchant and naval vessels at the time. Most pirates preferred not to fight, but when a fight was called for, the pirates were ready! Here are some of their favorite weapons.

Cannons:

The most dangerous pirate ships were those with several mounted cannons - ideally, at least ten. Large pirate ships, such as Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge or Bartholomew Roberts' Royal Fortune had as many as 40 cannons on board, making them a match for any Royal Navy warship of the time. Cannons were very useful but somewhat tricky to use and required the attentions of a master gunner. They could be loaded with large cannon balls to damage hulls, grapeshot or canister shot to clear decks of enemy sailors or soldiers, or chain shot (two small cannonballs chained together) to damage enemy masts and rigging. In a pinch, just about anything could be (and was) loaded into a cannon and fired: nails, bits of glass, rocks, scrap metal, etc.

Hand weapons:

Pirates tended to favor lightweight, quick weapons which could be used in close quarters after boarding. Belaying pins are small "bats" used to help secure ropes, but they also make fine clubs. Boarding axes were used to cut ropes and wreak havoc in rigging: they also made for lethal hand-to-hand weapons. Marlinspikes were spikes made of hardened wood or metal and were about the size of a railroad spike. They had a variety of uses on board a ship but also made handy daggers or even clubs in a pinch. Most pirates also carried sturdy knives and daggers. The hand-held weapon most commonly associated with pirates is the saber: a short, stout sword, often with a curved blade. Sabers made for excellent hand weapons and also had their uses on board when not in battle.

Firearms:

Firearms such as rifles and pistols were popular among pirates, but of limited use as loading them took time. Matchlock and Flintlock rifles were used during sea battles, but not as often in close quarters. Pistols were much more popular: Blackbeard himself wore several pistols in a sash, which helped him intimidate his foes. The firearms of the era were not terribly accurate at any distance but packed a wallop at close range.

Other Weapons:

Grenadoes were essentially pirate hand-grenades. Also called powder flasks, they were hollow balls of glass or metal which were filled with gunpowder and then fitted with a fuse. Pirates lit the fuse and threw the grenade at their enemies, often with devastating effect. Stink pots were, as the name suggests, pots or bottles filled with some stinking substance: these were thrown onto the decks of enemy ships in the hope that the fumes would incapacitate the enemies, causing them to vomit and retch.

Reputation:

Perhaps a pirate's greatest weapon was his reputation. If the sailors on a merchant ship saw a pirate flag that they could identify as, say, Bartholomew Roberts', they would often immediately surrender instead of putting up a fight (whereas they might run from or fight a lesser pirate). Some pirates actively cultivated their image. Blackbeard was the most famous example: he dressed the part, with a fearsome jacket and boots, pistols and swords about his body, and smoking wicks in his long black hair and beard that made him look like a demon: many sailors believed he was, in fact, a fiend from Hell!

Most pirates preferred not to fight: fighting meant lost crew members, damaged ships and perhaps even a sunken prize. Often, if a victim ship put up a fight, pirates would be harsh to the survivors, but if it surrendered peacefully, they would not harm the crew (and could even be quite friendly). This was the reputation that most pirates wanted. They wanted their victims to know that if they handed over the loot, they would be spared.

Sources:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996

Defoe, Daniel (Captain Charles Johnson). A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009

Konstam, Angus. The Pirate Ship 1660-1730. New York: Osprey, 2003.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Mariner Books, 2008.

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