Pirates made use of a wide variety of weapons during the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, a period between the mid 17th century and early 18th century. During this time, outlaws on the high seas targeted valuable cargoes and vulnerable settlements while wielding cutlasses, throwing stink-pots and firing an assortment of gunpowder weaponry.
Though maritime piracy has been documented since at least the 14th century BC, the pirates that have proven the most influential on the popular imagination are those that came to prominence during the so-called Golden Age. These violent criminals, slavers and state-sanctioned thieves exploited the expansion of imperial commerce to make their fortunes.
Here are 10 pirate weapons used during the Golden Age of piracy.
1. Boarding axe
Boarding enemy vessels was a common tactic in naval warfare between the 17th and 19th centuries. The one-handed boarding axe was a practical tool as well as a weapon, which might have been used by a specialist team of ‘boarders’. Its spike could be fixed into the side of a ship and used to climb aboard like an ice axe, or to drag smouldering debris across the deck and into the sea.
Its blade, meanwhile, was useful for cutting rope (especially enemy rigging) as well as anti-boarding nets. Its flattened handle functioned as a pry bar. This could be used to gain access beyond closed doors and lever loose planks.
Pirates’ use of the short, broad sabre known as the cutlass is well documented. The crews of the English pirate William Fly, Scottish pirate William Kidd and the Barbadian ‘Gentleman Pirate’ Stede Bonnet all made use of the cutlass. The cutlass was a 17th-century weapon which featured a single sharp edge and a protective handguard.
Lists of what parties of armed sailors carried often include cutlasses, as well as other weapons. They were versatile blades that lent themselves to being used as a tool on land, similar to the machete which, consequently, is known as a ‘cutlass’ in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Pirates made use of the musket, a name given to a variety of handheld long guns between the 16th and 19th centuries. Muskets fired a lead ball which was rammed down from the muzzle onto gunpowder, which was exploded with a slow match. The flintlock musket of the late 17th century replaced the matchlock musket and introduced the mechanism of a trigger.
When pulled, the trigger dragged a piece of flint against a steel frizzen to create a shower of sparks that would light the gunpowder. Because muskets took some time to reload, armed seamen would often carry prepared charges which bundled together the gunpowder and ammunition.
The blunderbuss was a muzzle-loading gun common among pirates. It was a short gun with a large bore and a heavy kick. It could be loaded with a single “slug” projectile or many smaller balls.
Pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy often made use of the flintlock pistol, a weapon that could easily be used with one hand. It had to be reloaded with each shot, but carrying multiple weapons could compensate for the limited firepower. Blackbeard supposedly carried six pistols around his torso.
Pirates could use cannon to disable and intimidate vessels they intended to capture. Pirate ships were typically suited to speed. They often didn’t have the firepower to take on a fully crewed naval warship, and generally preferred to avoid them. A small number of cannons, capable of firing cannonballs between 3.5 and 5.5 kilograms, would probably have been enough for most pirate vessels.
7. Chain shot
Solid cannonballs could inflict massive damage, but there were alternative forms of ammunition available. Hollow cannonballs could be filled with explosives, canisters filled with “grapeshot” could maim sailors and shred sails, and a type of ammunition called chain shot could be used to break up rigging and destroy masts. Chain shot was formed from two cannonballs being chained together.
8. Grappling hook
A grappling hook was a device with claws attached to a length of rope which could be used to draw in the rigging of an opponent’s ship so that it could be boarded. One 1626 textbook advises sailors to “Boord him on his wether quarter, lash fast your graplins,” while a grappling iron is repurposed as an anchor in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe.
A pirate crew may have had a stockpile of grenades. These might have been made from glass bottles filled with metal fragments or lead shot as well as gunpowder. When thrown at an opponent or the deck of a targeted vessel, a slow-burning match placed inside the neck of the bottle or fastened outside would cause the deadly projectile to combust.
A variation of the grenade was the stinkpot. These were stuffed with intoxicating substances like sulphur. When exploded, the chemicals produced a noxious cloud that was intended to cause panic and confusion. Daniel Defoe described a ‘stink-pot’ in his 1720 novel Captain Singleton:
“One of our gunners made a stink-pot, as we called it, being a composition which only smokes, but does not flame or burn; but withal the smoke of it is so thick, and the smell of it so intolerably nauseous, that it is not to be suffered.”