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Pirate Adventure Source Ch. 03


The favorite weapon of pirates was the cutlass. The cutlass was a short bladed, curved sword, sharpened on only one edge. A cutlass was shorter than a sword and worked well in the close quarters combat of pirate era fights. Also, a cutlass cold be carried in the teeth as a pirate climbed or swung into a prey ship. In fact, the pirate cutlass was so effective that it was eventually used by most navies of the world during the pirate era.

A pirate would also usually carry a dagger. A pirate dagger was basically a smaller cutlass. It was carried by most pirates because of its small size and many uses. A dagger was used as a working tool, cutting line or sail. The pirate would also use his dagger to cut food. The dagger also served as a last means of defense in a fight.

Pirates also frequently carried (usually flintlock) pistols. Of course, the pistol was a much more deadly weapon than the cutlass, providing the pistol fired. In the wet conditions of a pirate raid, a flintlock pistol frequently failed to fire.

Axes were another pirate weapon. An axe could be used by a pirate to help climb the side of a ship and also to cut through rigging lines. An axe was handy for opening closed doors and hatches while boarding. The axe could be used as a deadly, close-in fighting tool as well.

Despite depictions in the movies, pirates did not normally use swords a great deal. The sword has more reach than a cutlass, but is not so maneuverable in close quarters fighting. Also, a sword normally requires a scabbard and requires time to draw.

A bow or crossbow would mainly be used by a pirate to pick off personal from the decks of the victims ship before boarding. Once a fight had started, a bow or crossbow would not be of too much use on the rolling, pitching yawing deck of a sailing ship.

A pirate might use a musket, much as he would a bow or crossbow. A musket was used by the pirates more as a long range sniping weapon rather than a boarding one. The preferred musket was a type called a marksman's musket. It was a longer musket with grooving inside the barrel. A pirate sharpshooter could use a marksman's musket to shoot the helmsman of another ship.


Originally cannon were cast from bronze. However, iron or steel is much stronger than bronze and the iron materials soon replaced bronze.

The ship's cannon of the classical pirate period were large, heavy objects. They had to be long to allow the slow burning gunpowder to build up force to provide range for the cannonballs. The early cannons were not of very good quality iron and had to be heavy to be strong enough to hold the charge of the gunpowder when it burned.

In order to handle the recoil of a cannon, the typical ship's cannon was mounted on a wheeled platform to allow the cannon to recoil back after it was fired. The recoil was limited by lines.

The wheeled platforms could turn a cannon that broke its restraining lines into a deadly force aboard the ship from which it was fired. The phrase 'loose cannon' survives to this day.

Pirates did not fight ship to ship battles if they could avoid it. There was usually no profit in fighting a heavily armed opponent and pirates went after unarmed or lightly armed prey. However, it was necessary for a pirate ship to have enough cannon so that a lightly armed merchant ship wold have no chance in a ship to ship battle. Thus, the lightly armed merchant ship would surrender, rather than fight a hopeless battle.

Cannon could also be used to shoot down the rigging of a prey ship and thus end attempted flight.

Another problem with a pirate using cannon on a prey ship was the danger of sinking the prey ship. A sunken ship usually yields no treasure. Also, in many cases, the prey ship was in itself treasure for the pirates. The pirates would take a prey ship as booty and arm it for pirate forays against larger, better armed ships.

Of course, a pirate ship might have to fight a warship in order to escape being captured. Thus, the pirates had cannon and could use the weapons well.

A cannonball would not likely sink a ship. However, a cannonball could splinter wood and inflict serious injuries on the crew.

A cannonball was sometimes heated to red heat before it was fired. The heated cannonball could start a fire aboard a wooden ship. Since a ship's cannon were muzzle loaders, it may be something of a mystery as to how a red hot cannonball could be loaded into a muzzle loading cannon without setting off the gunpowder in the cannon. Actually, the answer is quite simple. Water soaked rags were used between the red hot cannonball and the gunpowder. The gunpowder was lit from a touch hole at the back of the gunpowder charge and the damp powder in the front of the charge was lit by the blast of the dry gunpowder.

During the period of wooden sailing ships, cannon were mainly fired through gun ports in the side of a wooden sailing ship. Thus, a ship had to be side on to a target in order for at least the main ship's cannons to be effective. In some cases, a ship would have a light cannon in the bow. However, the bow cannon was not much of a weapon compared to the side firing cannons.

The guns of the 15th and 16th centuries can be broadly grouped into four classes:
Cannon: This was of larger caliber and medium length and range. Its two principal subtypes are:
Whole-Cannon, a 7 inch bore with a length of 12 feet, firing a 50 pound ball.
Demi-cannon, a 6 inch bore with a length of 10 to 12 feet, firing a 36 pound ball.
Culverin: This was of smaller caliber relative to its length and therefore of greater range. It was subdivided into:
Long-Culverin, a 4.75 inch bore with a length of 16 feet, firing a 12 to 15 pound ball.
Culverin, a 5.5 inch bore with a length of 11 to 13 feet, firing an 18 to 24 pound ball.
Demi-culverin, a 4.5 inch bore with a length of 10 to 12 feet, firing a 10 to 12 pound ball.
Saker, a 3.5 inch bore with a length of 9 feet, firing a 6 to 8 pound ball.
Minion, a 3 inch bore with a length of 8 feet, firing a 5 to 6 pound ball.
Falcon, a 2.75 inch bore with a length of 6 feet, firing a 3 to 4 pound ball.
Falconet, a 2 inch bore with a length of 4 feet, firing a 1 to 2 pound ball.
Rabinette, a 1.75 inch bore with a length of 3 feet.

Perier: (includes cannon-perier), this was a short-barreled gun firing a medium-sized stone shot for a comparatively short distance. A typical example would have been an 8-in. gun, only 5 ft long, firing a 24-lb stone shot to a maximum range of some 1,600 yards, as compared to about 2,500 yards of the culverin and 1,700 yards of the demi-cannon.

Mortar: This was an even shorter gun, the original type of which was a conical bore, resembling an apothecary's mortar. Ship-borne mortars of this date fired quantities of small pieces of iron or stone or bullets, either loose or made up in linen or leather bags, their target being would-be boarders on the enemy's deck.

The culverin type of gun was preferred for arming ships during the 16th century rather than the heavy and comparatively unwieldy cannon and demi-cannon. The steady improvement in the quality and power of gunpowder and quicker combustion, together with the increasing accuracy in the manufacture of the guns themselves, permitted smaller charges to be used and the length of the culverin to be reduced. At the same time naval guns were mounted on the low wooden carriages running on small, solid, wooden wheels or trucks which they were to retain thereafter, in place of the two or four-wheeled, higher carriages or, sometimes, timber scaffolds on which they were mounted in the early Tudor ships.

The development in the 16th century by the English and Dutch of the galleon, with sides pierced for gunports, brought about a new form of naval warfare, relying upon comparatively long-range broadside fire instead of boarding. The effectiveness of broadside fire was first notably demonstrated in the defeat by the English fleet of the Spanish Armada.

The first sails were what are called square sails. They were simply a square piece of cloth, usually supported at the top. A square sail permitted only sailing before the wind. Moving into a head wind was accomplished by the use of oars.

The lateen sail is a triangular sail that was of decisive importance to medieval navigation. The lateen sail allows a ship to sail into the wind.

The secret to the lateen sail is that it can act as an airfoil. The wind does not need to come from behind the sail and push on the lateen sail. The wind can come from the side and create forward thrust by the same kind of airfoil lift that allows an airplane to fly.

The gaff rig was a sort of compromise between the square sail and the lateen sail. The gaff rig was of trapezoidal shape and once was a standard rig on schooners. The gaff rig is now obsolete, although still used in class racing.

Modern sail boats use a variety of sails that were not used in pirate days. Since they are not relevant, sails such as the spinnaker or genoa will not be discussed.
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