Age of Pirates

Pirate Encyclopedia: Pirate Guns and Cannon

The ultimate goal of most pirates was to capture ships and their cargo, therefore decisions about arms were strategic. A variety of weapons and methods of use were employed by pirates with differing histories and training. Although pirates summon to mind cutlasses, daggers, and other knives, by the 16th century most pirates commonly used small arms and naval artillery.

Pistols were the favored small arms and most pirates carried several guns at a time. Flintlock muzzle loading pistols were common and prized above other weapons of the period, however they tended to be unreliable at sea. Pistols could be fired with one hand, but all pistols were manually loaded. Many pirates wore two pistols with both half-cocked, or partially loaded, and some versions had more than one barrel.

Other small arms used by pirates include the Blunderbuss; large, long guns that originated in Germany and whose name meant "thunder guns". Blunderbusses were from 14 to 30 inches long and fired small pellets. Similar to the modern shotgun, they exploded a large amount of shot into a small area.

Long Arms or muskets were also used. Muskets were four to five feet in length and both unwieldy and inaccurate. Both hands were required to support and fire a musket. Pirates preferred long arms on land and found them effective when sacking a city or battling on shore. Muskets were not as effective in close combat situations.

By the end of the 16th century, cannon had become a common defense at sea. English ships sailed with up to 100 cannons aboard on three deck levels. Pirates soon adopted this formidable defense which proved effective in attacking a ship to board or to defend pirate ships from attack. Most captains avoided use of the cannon, if possible, to keep the prize ship intact. They were commonly used to fire warning shots with the intention of scaring victims into submission without a fight. Cannons were often referred to as "pounders" for good reason. Six pounders up to thirty-two pounders referred to the size of shot that a cannon could fire, with the largest being a sixty-eight pound ball.

Artillery rounds most common included bar and chain shot or canister, case and grapeshot. Bar and chain shot consisted of more than one ball or bar connected together so that when fired, the shot flew through the air with destructive force. Chain shot could wrap around a main mast or deliver a one, two damaging blow that could sink a ship. Canister, cluster and grapeshot used multiple objects to fire, and the concentrated fire could wreak havoc. One of the most damaging forms of ammunition was created when a cloth bag was filled with shot and fired. The bag would burn and release a shower of sharp shards, which caused severe wounds. Equally if not more destructive were known as granado shells. These early forms of hand grenades were made from two ounce iron or wood balls that were filled with gun powder and had a touch hole and fuse. The shell was then lit and thrown on the deck of the victim ship. To date, fifteen such grenades have been recovered from the "Whydah."

Swivel guns or patarero were another weapon used by pirates. Swivel guns were small arms mounted on the ship's rail that could turn freely in all directions. Freedom of movement not only allowed the guns to be turned toward changing targets but to be turned for easy reloading. Swivel guns were often loaded before an engagement and then mounted on the rail. Swivel guns were one of the most effective methods pirates used to ward off invaders from the ship.

While pirates still carried a cutlass or dagger, most were fond of small arms and naval artillery for the simple reason that such weapons provided maximum defense and could cause major damage. Blunderbusses and pistols are remembered along with the cutlass and marlinespike as favored weapons of pirates during the heyday of piracy on the open seas.

Copyright 2006 CleverMedia
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