The History of Pirate Weapons

 
Pirates used a variety of weapons. The world of Hollywood often portrays pirates using fancy, some time unique weapons. The serrated sword of Dog in Cutthroat Island, and the silver inlaid handled flintlock pistol of Jack Sparrow come instantly to mind.


The possibility that a pirate would decorate his blade or pistol is a reality. Pirates, after all, had an streak of individualism running through them so there is no reason not to suspect that a pirate would put identifying marks on weapons that belonged to him.


Often the marks would be nothing more that a hash mark but it is conceivable that pirates, like American Indians, decorated the stocks of rifles or butts of pistols with stones, inlaid metals or what have you. We also know that gunsmiths would create decorative yet functional weapons for a fee. Many such works are museum quality works today. This is especially true of dueling pistols.


However, it must also be assumed that a pirate, like any person who relied on his weapon for survival first and foremost wanted a weapon that was sturdy, efficient, and functional. This page explores the aspects of weapons that existed during the Golden Age of Piracy. Some of the weapons are fanciful and probably would have never have been used by the run of the mill pirate. Others are the workhorses of maritime warfare.


Pirate Knives, Swords & Axes

Knives, swords and axes were common among mariners. Even today many mariners carry pocket knives and most ships will carry hatchets and even axes which are used for a variety of uses aboard ship. On ships of war, fighting men will often carry some type of fighting knife; anything from a bayonet to the ever popular K-bar.


Knives, swords and axes for the most part were common tools needed to accomplish everyday tasks. Even the much talked about boarding axe was used to cut fouled lines, and clear away broken timber.


Of course some knives were fighting knives, often referred to as daggers. Such knives were designed to stab and kill. They were often double edged with a very sharp tapering blade. This differed from utility knives which tended to be sharp on only one edge and posses and less pointed blade.


This section looks at the variety of bladed tools and weapons typically found on a pirate ship.


Pirate Knives


Gully Knives

A gully is simply a big knife. It was not usually a fighting knife but could be used as such in a pinch. Some gully's were folding pocket knives but for the most part they were similar to the knife you would find in your kitchen. (The folding knives were smaller.) In any case, the gully was another tool that was commonplace among sailors and were quite often used in mutinies simply because nothing else could be had. Today, the gully would be replaced by such knives as a Buck knife or Swiss Army pocket knife.


The gully was better suited for hacking than stabbing and typically only one side of the blade contained an edge. (In some instances part of the top side of the blade also has an edge) It had numerous legitimate uses on board a ship, being everything from the sailors eating utensil to his main tool for cutting fouled rigging and such.


Boucan Knives


Other knives of a more offensive nature were common among sailing vessels in the Caribbean. The most common of these was a "Boucan" knife. The boucan was the knife used by Buccaneers. They came in all sizes and shapes and appear to be nothing more than a cut down cutlass. The knives were originally used when the buccaneers hunted wild pig and oxen on the Islands around Santa Domingo and Jamaica. These knives were still primarily a utility knife but could be used effectively in combat. The were primarily designed to hack or slash an opponent as opposed to stabbing.


Modeled after and/or made from broken cutlasses, the boucan knives were originally long bladed knives used on wild game when hunting. Of course they also made handy self defense weapons. The knives would be used in cutting the animal apart and preparing the meat for smoking or barbecuing (what the native islanders called "boucan"). A cutlass proves unwieldy when cutting apart animals and smaller knives would not have had a strong enough blade to hack through bone and sinew.


Billhook

The billhook was is a popular work knife used for everything from cutting vegetation to carving up meat. Surprisingly, this large knife was considered essential for the the preparation of food and just general chopping. Of course a knife that cleave open a sea turtle's shell could just as easily split a head. The billhook was part of a soldier's kit and thus soldiers stationed on ships would carry these nasty implements. Pirates would also have such knives aboard ship.


Dagger

A dagger is one of many kinds of fighting knives (dirks, main gauche, stiletto, poignard, etc). Daggers were designed to be thrust at an opponent. They were not very effective when it came to slashing, although typically both sides of the blade have an edge. Unlike the Gully, daggers have hilts or cross bars which prevent the hand from slipping forward on to the blade and helps to protect the hand in the event of another blade sliding down the dagger's blade.


Daggers were an instrumental part of fencing in that they were used to parry an attack and keep one's opponent off guard. Many daggers were specially designed to break an opponents blade. These were called parrying daggers or blade breakers.


The dagger was not, as often shown in movies, simply a poor back-up in case one's sword was dropped or broken. It was an integral part of fencing. In many cases, the sword was used to make an opening or to push an opponent off balance, then with the opponent exposed, the dagger would be thrust for the kill. This is why the sword was often parried or blocked with the dagger, thus keeping the more deadly cutlass ready for a counter blow.


Rarely would two men lock blades together with their faces inches apart as depicted in the movies. If one were to get that close, a dagger would most certainly have come into play.


Swords

Despite the Hollywood swashbucklers the sword probably ranks as the third most important weapon in the pirate arsenal. The sword was a weapon of great psychological intimidation. An trained swordsman had an enormous advantage over a novice. Swords took a certain amount of skill to use effectively and the unskilled swordsman knew he stood little chance to a skilled swordsman. Often a show of skill was enough to make an unskilled fighter turn and run. In order to become effective with a sword, one had to be taught swordsmanship and then practice it for several hours a day for years on end. A true swordsman would probably practice daily.


Despite all of the practice, the swordsman at sea would have to adapt his skill to a new fighting environment. A Swordsman on the seas had to learn to fight in a close, confined space while being mindful of several other sword fights occurring all around him. In order to make the most of his knowledge he would need to control the situation and force his opponent to fight his battle.


Typically the sword fighters were not paired off into a duel. It was more of a mad dash to a point, hacking at who ever blocked the path, while trying to avoid being hacked. Both the pirate and the merchant would prefer to stab or hack a man in the back that facing him head on. This meant that the pirates would not be fighting duels but fighting in teams of two or three, trying to get advantage on a weaker foe. The merchants would also try to do the same thing or draw the pirates into tighter spaces where they would have to fight face to face. When this happened, the ability of the swordsman would come into play and the man who was a novice with a blade was at a grave disadvantage.


To further complicate the sword fight, the swordsman had to be ready to fight against, pole-arms, boarding axe, etc. The chaos of a battle aboard ship was ever changing and unpredictable.


Cutlass

This was the Pirates favorite sword. A cutlass was a short bladed (compared to other swords) singled edged sword. The blade was usually slightly curved and only sharpened on the outer blade. In appearance the Cutlass resembles a sabre, only the blade is slightly heavier and shorter. The reason the cutlass had a shorter, heavier blade is because of what it was called upon to do. Besides having to run through your foe, the cutlass was also called upon to cut through heavy marlin lines, break down heavy oaken doors, and so on. A regular sword may not have always been up to the task.



Furthermore, the slightly shorter blade was not seen as a disadvantage when fighting aboard a ship, because there was rarely enough room to swing a cat let along a longer sword. The shorter blade allowed the blade to be sturdier without adding weight to the overall sword.


When fighting, the general rule was to hack at one's opponent such as was done in sabre duels. Thrusting or stabbing, was done with rapiers or swords. Thrusting took longer, and if you were not careful your blade could get stuck. Hacking meant that you could just as easily immobilize your opponent by chopping off his hand rather that stabbing him in the gut. This also explained the design of the blade. Curving the blade made it more easy to control while hacking, and the added thickness insured that it would cleave through bone and muscle. Of course curving the blade made the cutlass slightly less effective as a thrusting weapon.


Hangers



Probably the second most popular sword used was the hanger. Both military and civilian (hunting) hangers were produced. The hanger was a small sword with a blade between around inches (64 cm). Hangers had light blades and were primarily used for self defense. Often they had a shell guard to protect the hand. They were less rugged than a cutlass and often carried as a status symbol by gentleman and officers.



Weapons Continued