Is a pirate without a sword a pirate? During the Golden Age of Piracy (the 1650s–1730s), pirates used everything from the blade to the pistol. Ransacking a coastal village or boarding a merchant ship unarmed may mean inevitable failure for a weaponless pirate. Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Black Bart all sailed the high seas armed to the teeth, wielding fear as a weapon. In other words, a pirate’s choice of tool played an important role in their ability to maintain a powerful presence on land and sea. These are the historical pirate weapons that aided many a reign of terror.
Cannons and Cannonballs
No pirate would be, well, a pirate without a ship to their name. The Golden Age saw a vast number of famous ships set sail in search of treasure. Pirate ships with cannons brewed up the most dread when seen on the horizon. These ships were fearsome in appearance and had the firepower necessary to maintain naval dominance.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge was one such vessel. As the flagship for the infamous pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, the ship carried up to 40 cannons in its prime. They ranged in size and weight and were as unique as Blackbeard himself.
Years later, these cannons also helped divers and explorers find Blackbeard’s ship. Their make and model proved to underwater explorers that the wreckage of the Queen Anne’s Revenge had been found. In 1996, divers discovered Blackbeard’s infamous flagship off the coast of North Carolina. Over the years, 31 cannons, all belonging to the ship, have been found.
The non-conformity of the cannons gave further evidence to researchers that the shipwreck belonged to a pirate. A pirate’s ship often contained additions not found on the original ship. Queen Anne’s Revenge began life as a slave ship before Blackbeard usurped it in the West Indies. From there, the pirate’s crew set about adorning the vessel with all the tools necessary to wreak havoc on the open seas. The heaviest of the cannons recovered thus far weighed 300 pounds.
Blackbeard’s cannons would have used different types of ammunition. The classic cannonball did little damage with little accuracy. Instead, pirates used gravel, musket balls, and nails to damage enemy crews. For damaging ships, a so-called ball and chain shot proved effective. Two cannonballs connected by a chain could immensely damage a ship’s rigging.
Pistols and Fire Power
The classic image of a pirate with a flintlock pistol defines piracy’s Golden Age. With a gun in hand, the fearsome buccaneer commands a striking presence. While dangerous in the right hands, these weapons proved to be more cautionary than game-changing.
Most pistols fired only one shot, and reloading proved troublesome and lengthy. In other words, during battle, firing a pistol meant making the shot count. Most pirates carried more than one flintlock pistol into battle. Blackbeard carried up to six, and Black Bart carried four. Along with a sword, the flintlock pistol, though cumbersome in many ways, turned the tide in close-quarters battle.
The blunderbuss proved to be a weapon of mass destruction up close. An anti-personnel armament, pirates crammed whatever ammunition into it they could find. This included nails, smaller musket balls, and even glass. Most comparable to a modern shotgun, the blunderbuss proved to be a fearsome weapon to behold.
Multi-barreled pistols appear straight out of a cartoon. Four (or more!) barrels pointing in different directions gave the impression of being a high-damage dealer. Yet, these designs were only helpful in close-quarter combat and were not popular.
Pistols of the time used a matchlock trigger, igniting gunpowder, and creating the velocity necessary to launch ammunition. Being at sea made using gunpowder difficult. If the powder happened to get wet, it wouldn’t fire. Alas, firing a pistol at sea proved as difficult as loading one. Advancement in pistol technology saw the introduction of the flintlock. While not free from misfires, the flintlock proved more trustworthy.
For long-range battles, the musket proved tried and true. Accurate at a distance, the musket allowed battles to begin before boarding. Though effective, muskets were less popular with pirates who preferred an up close and personal attack style. Regardless, as far as historical pirate weapons go, a pistol, musket, or blunderbuss is never far from a pirate’s hand.
Swords, Axes, and Daggers
Boarding a rival ship required quick, decisive action. Nothing worked better than a blade for immediate effect. Melee weapons proved to be the most important weapon a pirate could own. Types of pirate swords reflected the pirates themselves. Some even wielded a pirate axe! During the Golden Age of Piracy, life and death often came down to who had the quicker hand.
The iconic cutlass is the definitive pirate weapon used by the likes of William Kidd and Stede Bonnet. The cutlass proved a popular weapon for its simplicity and ease of use. Short and broad, the blade fit on a pirate’s hip and made hopping between ships an easy feat. In close-quarter combat, the cutlass proved vital. Not only could a pirate use the cutlass to defend themselves (or attack), its usefulness outside of battle made it an all-around worthy tool. Cutting wood, rope, and canvas, its lightweight utility meant that it would remain popular long after the Golden Age of Piracy.
The boarding axe aided pirates in close combat and scaling the sides of ships and made locked doors unproblematic for a pirate. Boarding pikes fell into the same category. Like a spear, a boarding pike could impale unlucky combatants or keep swordsmen at bay.
Whether sword, axe, or pike, a pirate’s preferred method of battle often involved being face-to-face. While an exotic axe may strike fear into an enemy, the tried and true cutlass earned its reputation as a pirate’s best friend.
Raise your weapons!
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Adventure awaits, matey. See you soon!