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Intimidation was a pirate's best weapon.
Most pirates were armed to the teeth. To survive battles in close quarters, pirates had to be walking arsenals with weapons that were easily carried and wielded in close quarters. Pistols took time to reload, so some pirates carried more than one in braces or loops attached to a sling across the shoulder. Flintock pistols were particularly deadly at point blank range. They had a flint in the hammer for striking a spark to ignite the charge.
Blackbeard carried six pistols in addition to a sword, cutlass, and musket.
The long, slightly curved sword usually had a very decorative blade and was used in duels, while the cutlass was a crude version of a sword with a thick blade and massive brass guard. One good slash could sever the opponent's head or arm. Some pirates also used a dirk, a stout dagger held in the opposite hand by a swordsman in duel, and a stiletto, a small, concealed slender-blade dagger tucked into their waisteband.
One of the most popular weapons was the blunderbuss. At close range, these fierce, large-barreled pistols would decimate enemies by scattering shot, glass, nails or any other loose projectiles its bearer could find. They could main or kill six to eight people with one shot!
Also very disorienting was lime, a caustic powder carried in leather pouches and thrown into the faces of opponents to blind them.
Some tools doubled as weapons. The boarding axe was used to help pirates climb the side of ships or make short work of advancing opponents. This long, stout hatchet was often used for chopping ropes and riggings and could leave gruesome wounds in combat.
Hand weapons are frightening. But one of a merchant sailor's worst fears was the cannon. A versatile weapon, it could be loaded with many different kinds of shot designed to achieve a variety of devastating results.
Cannon balls weighed up to 32 lbs. and packed enough power to reduce planking to shreds. Early cannons fortified land installations, castles, and forts. The wheeled carriage made it possible to board cannon onto ships; these first cannon were stored below deck and brought up for combat.
The carriages allowed for recoil and prevented the cannon from falling off the deck. In the early 16th century, European shipwrights began mounting cannon below deck from bow to stern for a full broadside attack. Around 1560, more expensive bronze began to replace wrought iron cannon, which were susceptible to salt water corrosion and iron balls sticking in the barrels.
Pirates particularly liked using cannon and black gunpowder because the noise of the discharge and the barrage or smoke panicked and confused victims. It also didn't hurt that gunpowder increased the range of projectiles fired from cannon.
Gunpowder was an iffy material. Although some types were fairly safe aboard, others were much more volatile. Powder kegs in ships' holds rolled with the ocean. Escaping dust rose and hung thick in the air. And any flame dropped into the hold could cause an explosion that would destroy the ship. (Kegs were eventually hung in slings so they moved with the ship to reduce the dust.)
Captured ships were sometimes loaded down with combustible materials, set on fire, and pointed at victims. The victims' preoccupation allowed for unobstructed attack or escape. Pirates also packed saltpeter, limestone, plant resin and decayed meat into earthenware jars, inserted a fuse, and lit it. These were hurled into the hatch of the opposing ship to raise the crew from below deck.
Chain shot (two cannon balls connected with a chain) worked like a mace, cutting down masts and turning the ship into a sitting duck.
Grape shot (miniature bullet-sized cannon balls) was packed into a cannon barrel to clear the deck of crew without causing excess damage to the ship.
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