Pirate   Personal   Weapons

In reality, ‘pirates’ as represented in the period reflected in the pages of this website probably used an astounding variety of personal weapons - and pirates from period accounts seem to have been in the habit of wearing such a wide variety of weapons ‘abroad’ or ashore in their own environment to enhance their reputation and ‘impress the natives’. It would not have been uncommon in Port Royal before 1692 and in New Providence in 1710 to see a horde of well-armed pirates roving about. Navy uniforms didn’t begin to appear until the late 1740’s and then were only specified for ‘officers’ : in the same sense, weapons would be carried by personal preference or simply by picking up what was available …

Attacking a prize, in 72% of pirate attacks in the Atlantic Ocean or Caribbean Sea between 1715 and 1720, just the sight of a single ship flying a pirate flag and visibly crammed with a crowd of desperate-looking men bristling with personal weapons was enough to make a merchant ship heave-to and surrender. The psychological effect of a pirate ship on an already outnumbered merchant crew combined with loud shouts, beating drums and blaring trumpets must have made such an approach by pirates a fearsome aspect to behold. The old 17th Century proverb that “We triumph without Glory when we conquer without Danger” meant absolutely nothing to pirates, who preferred to remove all possibilities of danger and ‘persuade’ their prey to surrender at once without showing any fight. But : from period accounts, pirates in extreme circumstances would and did fight and to do so they required weapons at least on a par with the personal weapons held by their enemy!

 In ‘The Golden Age of Pirates’, most pirate crews were made up of English-speaking nationals (from England or the American Colonies) so preference is given here in the illustrations to ‘English’ weaponry, though in the same way as cannons (see The Gunner) a host of French, Dutch and Spanish weapons would have been readily available or ‘captured’ from prizes and put into use by pirates. No discrimination about personal weapons seems to have been in force aboard a pirate ship, but several pirate ‘Articles’ state that it was each seaman’s responsibility to keep his ‘piece, pistol and hanger’ in good condition upon pain of some form of punishment. Aboard ship, weapons would have been somewhat of an encumbrance in most cases and it’s likely that pirates were content to wear a knife of some kind for ship-board purposes and use in eating food. ‘Improvised weapons’ could also see belaying-pins and mauls, capstan-bars and ‘sweeps’ (oars) used as handy weapons in an unexpected fight and one merchant-ship captain successfully saw off a pirate ‘boarding party’ by smashing several bottles and spreading the broken glass on deck to cut their bare feet as they jumped aboard!

Any attempt to list all these possible weapons would take more time and space than is available here - but a generalisation of weapons into certain categories here is possible …


Edged Weapons

A ship itself would have been equipped with various tools to which pirates could apply to a ‘man-killing’ purpose : notably the ‘boarding axe’ which despite the name was more often used for clearing and cutting away rigging and removing timber obstructions in the ship was damaged in a storm. However in the hands of a pirate during a boarding action, the axe would have been a useful and formidable psychological and close-combat weapon if necessary. Some ships also carried ‘pikes’, a long-hafted tool having a spear-head which could be used to prevent an enemy climbing into the ship by the crew and if a ship had any, these were often stored in a rack around the base of a mast.

Edged weapons worn in a belt by seamen or pirates are usually known by the term ‘cutlass’ or ‘hanger’. Swords of all kinds could have been used by pirates but a short, sharp sword fitted with a good hand-guard of some kind would be very serviceable in a fight and also easily carried in cramped conditions aboard ship or in a boat. The cutlass has three possible origins - one of which goes back to the medieval era but another is a short thick blade used to cut sugar-cane in the West Indies plantations which would have been readily available from the first quarter of the 17th Century, shipped out from manufacturers in Europe in great quantities for use by plantation workers and later, African slaves.

Some of the infantry and junior officers in European armies often carried a ‘hanger’ : a short, curved blade around two feet long which seems to have been more commonly used by them for camp duties such as cutting firewood. These were fitted with a wooden or later cast brass grip, a simple iron or steel ‘basket-hilt’ but later or more ornate variations had ivory or bone grips inside a cast brass guard. Longer swords would have been available but rarer : in reality, a mixture of edged weapons was probably used by pirates - but an axe or a stout blade designed for ‘hacking or slashing’ would be more useful in any ‘boarding action’ or general melee in a tavern ashore than a longer blade made for fencing, thrusting or piercing. Most of the ‘Pirate Captains’ illustrated by Captain Johnson in his book shown them holding a stout rather than a ‘fancy’ blade.


A typical ‘cutlass’ and a short ‘hanger’ circa 1700. Both blades were more commonly worn from a waist-belt rather than a shoulder-sling or a ‘baldric’ by seamen or pirates during ‘The Golden Age of Pirates’ and are ideally suited to ‘hacking and slashing’.  (The items shown are reproductions made by the author using original blades based on museum items )


‘Daggers’ - as their name suggests - were primarily fighting weapons intended for stabbing a victim : as such they were long in the blade and sharp in the point, often referred to in a maritime sense as ‘dirks’. Many examples of these are available for scrutiny in museums around the world : even some ‘workaday’ common examples were fitted with ivory grips and other embellishments. Smaller ‘edged weapons’ fall into the category of facility - seamen always carried a small but serviceable knife to deal with shipboard necessities such as splicing rigging and similar repairs : the cutting-edge was always kept sharp but it was not unusual that such knives often had no ‘point’ - these knives were also used in eating food. Pocket clasp-knives with a folding-blade (sometimes referred to a ‘gully’ ) would be seen, sold by dockside pedlars or in chandlers shops for around a penny each.


A typical ivory-handled Royal Navy ‘Dirk’ circa 1750-1770 : these blades were worn as formal ‘badges of rank’ by Midshipmen and Warrant Officers and this one shows gilt on the cast-brass guard : but in practicality the usefulness of such weapons in a ‘boarding action’ would be very limited against a man armed with a broadsword or cutlass and such men also probably sought a cutlass and pistol instead for serious work. Pirates would carry a similar weapon for intended close-action use against ‘human targets’. Though not as robustly-made, note the similarity between this dirk and the far later design of the Fairbarn-Sykes ‘Commando-Knife’. This dirk is needle-pointed and razor-sharp.


Carrying edged weapons would not be done in any ‘civilised’ port (such as Bristol, London, Corunna, Cadiz or Calais) as the authorities would arrest anyone who was openly carrying a sword without good reason and not visibly seen or heard to be a ‘gentleman’ or a military or naval officer. In the same way, any ‘common seaman’ wearing fancy or expensive clothing could be arrested on suspicion that he had stolen them ; though he had not openly broken any laws, a former pirate was arrested in Chatham for exactly this reason - finding gold and silver coins sewn into his clothes, upon further investigation into his activities he ended his days on the gallows!


As in all things pirate, some practice is required - but some are more adept than others ! Here Bosun Mitchell advisers Emyr Emyrs Dafis & Samuel O'Brian



These were all ‘muzzle-loaders’ using gunpowder for ignition and propellant and by the year 1700 the flintlock had largely superceded the matchlock and the wheel-lock ignition mechanisms, but the flintlock mechanism itself still fell into different categories :  ‘snaphaunce’ or ‘boxlock’ and the more obvious version most commonly seen. Flintlocks in the late 17th Century were often referred to as ‘firelocks’ to discriminate them from ‘matchlocks’.

 The ‘dog’  catch fitted to the lock-plate as a rudimentary safety-measure in the form of a ‘safety-catch’ had largely disappeared by 1700 but later re-appeared as a sliding safety-bolt on more expensive non-military arms fitted with ‘detented’ locks towards the end of the century.

Pirate feature films rarely show pirates or even Royal Navy seamen carrying any form of cartridge box, ammunition pouch, powder-flask or similar - but one of these would be required to replenish each shot from a firearm. From 1700, many military muskets were fitted for a socket-bayonet but in ‘The Golden Age of Pirates’ these were a relatively new weapon introduced for military use and apart from Marines aboard Navy ships and regular infantry within European overseas colonies, bayonets appear not to have been regularly employed aboard ship.

Early ‘boucaniers’ (a French term later anglicized into ‘bucanneers’) were said to be notable shots with a long-barrelled flintlock musket when out hunting - a fact probably reflected in their relative shortages of both powder and ball, where each shot had to be successful - and incorporated this facility into the ‘battle-tactics’ by shooting from small boats at long-range into offshore prizes, especially at any gun-crews. This is a feat that shouldn’t be under-rated in terms of difficulty : performing such a task in those conditions requires great skill in both handling and aiming and of course, reloading. It is possible by their very nature that as paper was probably not readily available, these men used thin leather from their animal kills to wrap the lead bullet and loaded from a powder-horn instead of the ‘military fashion’ of using pre-made paper cartridges from a cartridge box. This is one method by which the long-barrelled musket could have been made far more accurate. ‘Trade muskets’ of different designs but effectually having the same performance were supplied from Europe to colonial settlers or militia and military arms and their variations could also have been acquired by different means. A problem here for any Quartermaster or Artificer is the calibre - many of these arms came in different internal bore sizes and without bullet-moulds, each man would need to have been capable of making the correctly-sized bullets to fit his gun. Too big and the bullet won’t fit into the bore : too small, and the bullet has too much ‘windage’ and hence would be very inaccurate when fired. By 1715, European nations gradually introduced standardisation into their military ordnance ; but each nation settled on their own particular calibre. Ballistically, the performance of each musket was very similar over the same range - but it meant that a captured English bullet would not fit into a French or Dutch musket without being melted and re-cast (hammering bullets on an anvil to make them fit gives a less satisfactory result and would be very time-consuming). But - a carpenter with average skill could reasonably quickly make a simple hardwood bullet-mould to fit a musket, and in at least two cases this is recorded as being done by pirates and privateers. Muskets are useful in firing small-arms at one ship from another at ranges below 100 yards : bullets ‘whizzing’ around the heads of the crew of a prize - especially fired in ‘volley’ and even if they didn’t find a human target - would affect their opposition or indeed, prevent any concerted opposition at all as was a tactic used by the ‘King of the Bucanneers’ Sir Henry Morgan. Muskets are sometimes referred to in period accounts as ‘fusils’ or ‘fuzees’  from  fucile’, the French word for ‘flint’.


A circa 1680 long-barrelled English ‘snaphaunce’ flintlock musket of a calibre of 12 bore. A bullet from this robustly-made and powerful weapon packs a very hefty punch and in the hands of author was effective on a man-sized target at 100 yards.


A ‘Trade Musket’ of average quality, made in Europe for the colonial market. Simple, light and cheap but robust and very effective using either shot or ball. The barrel length of this musket is 40 inches, of .61 calibre. Some versions of these muskets were of a higher quality and were also carved in relief or decorated, intended for use as ‘gifts’ from traders to local tribal chiefs.


A short-barrelled ‘Musketoon’, calibre .71 : based on the British infantry musket, the basic design of which changed little from 1690 to 1830. The dark ‘buff leather’ sling is typical for naval use to leave the hands free - the buckle is typical for the period 1690-1710 - and a small leather pocket has been fitted by the user to the butt to carry spare flints and a ‘turnscrew’. The musketoon has been fitted with basic ‘safety features’ such as a hammer-stall and a ‘flashguard’ and by necessity a cartridge box or ammunition pouch of some form would be carried with this arm for reloading purposes (see later).                 ( Italian reproduction - but excellent quality ! )


The same problem concerning calibre probably also existed with pistols. Pistols were especially favoured by pirates as a close-range weapon. Worn as a pair in a belt or hanging around the neck on a cord or a silk ribbon, they do give a certain sinister aspect to a seaman. Pirates often seem to have worn several pistols in action : a psychologically disturbing threat at least, as used in conjunction with other psychological threats by ‘Blackbeard’ who is said to have worn at least five pistols in action - but pistols at sea (as with any flintlock) would be subject to a varying degree of ‘misfire’ or ‘hang fire’ so carrying a spare pistol or two would not go amiss in combat. Pistols came in a variety of shapes and sizes, but robustly made military arms would have been preferable aboard ship to a more lightweight privately-owned arm (though these were often highly decorated by the maker and would suit many a pirate’s personal taste) as military arms were constructed from the start to withstand ‘bad-handling’ and sometimes had exchangeable parts in the instance of breakages.


The overall ‘sturdy’ design of these pistols would have been very common during ‘The Golden Age of Pirates’ ; (top) an original ‘Dragoon’ pistol circa 1740, calibre .615 made for military use : (lower) a pair of reproduction ‘Sea Service’ pistols as made for use by The Royal Navy. These pistols were often fitted with ‘hooks’ (on the unseen side here) for attachment to a seaman’s belt. Apart from small lock improvements the basic design of these pistols made for the Royal Navy changed very little from 1685 through to 1812. Pistols were usually discharged at ‘human targets’ between ranges of zero inches up to around fifty yards : ‘duelling’ or ‘target practice’ using flintlock pistols came far later in the century.


(Top) An original ‘boxlock’ flintlock pocket-pistol calibre .41 of the “Queen Anne style”, circa 1700. The mechanism of the lock is contained inside the brass casting. No ‘ramrod’ is fitted to the pistol as the barrel unscrews and is removed when for loading and such a pistol is intended for ‘point-blank’ use. This same design was made in larger versions. (Below) A flintlock pistol calibre .61 circa 1730 made by a reputable English sporting gun-maker for a ‘gentleman’ or an officer. It is the same basic design as military arms but is of a far higher quality of workmanship and also includes engraving, relief carving and inlaid décor. It is more reliable, far handier and a lot lighter than a military arm - but of course, far more expensive to acquire !


Pistols - especially navy or military pistols - were often fitted with a brass or iron ‘buttplate’ for use in reversing the arm after discharging it in combat or if it failed to explode by holding it by the barrel and using it as a small club! Some variations on pistols intended for ‘close-action’ saw them fitted with ‘bayonet’ type blades and were made in double-barrel or even multi-barrelled versions ; a pair of brass-barrelled ‘blunderbuss’ pistols were reputedly carried by one navy captain in 1720, but all these variations would have been rarities before the mid-18th Century. It might be noted here that the pirate who first sighted a prize was often rewarded by having first choice of the captured pistols aboard the prize, if taken.

A variation on both these is the short-barrelled ‘musketoon’ or the ‘Blunderbuss’.  The musketoon is essentially a shorter version of the infantry musket but the blunderbuss is virtually an 18th Century version of a modern ‘sawn-off shotgun’ : the swelled portion of the muzzle was designed not to ‘spread the shot’ as is commonly thought, but to facilitate being loaded with buckshot, broken glass or crockery (even small coins and chopped-up nails) crammed down into the bore. Upon a subsequent discharge, this weapon would have devastating effect at close range and merely the threat from one of these would be sufficient to pacify a group of men.


A brass-barrelled flintlock ‘blunderbuss’ Musketoon, barrel cast circa 1715. These were often discharged by holding the butt tucked beneath the right arm and the ‘blast’ from one could see a flame stretching several feet !


Hand-grenades - from grenada, the Spanish term for a pomegranate, the empty shells of which grenades were said to have originated from - were used by pirates. A common form recovered in maritime archaeology (notably the Whydah) is a small fist-sized ceramic jar but both tin and cast-iron cases were also known. Filled with gunpowder and fitted with a short-fuse, they could be thrown by pirates from deck or aloft to explode and cause painful burns and confusion through noise and smoke. Two variations on purpose-built grenades was to fit short-fuses into glass bottles filled with gunpowder and also into bottles or pots containing inflammable material such as tar and tallow mixed with sulphur ; these ‘weapons’ were often known for obvious reasons as ‘stink-pots’ and would give off downwind a cloud of choking and blinding fumes.


A ‘homemade’ cartridge box (top) a block of hardwood fitted with a simple leather flap to be worn around the waist. The wooden block is bored out to carry several pre-made paper cartridges as in going on a raid ashore and expecting a fight, each pirate would have worn some sort of ammunition pouch and/or simple powder flask made from an ox horn (bottom) to replenish his musket or pistol. The cartridge box has a simple handmade ‘brush and pricker’ attached to it to facilitate keeping the flintlock action clear of fouling. The ‘powder measure’ attached to the powder horn is to load a charge into the gun without placing the top of the horn near the muzzle of the gun - one dormant spark in the barrel after firing and bang goes your horn and the fingers holding it !  The items above weigh about three pounds when laden.          (Reproductions made by the author based on museum items).


It should be noted that the efficiency and reliability of all firearms depended on dry weather, good flints and the availability of strong gunpowder. Even ashore in good conditions in the hands of a ‘common soldier’, a flintlock musket might misfire 50% of the time. In the hands of a veteran soldier having knowledge, skill and experience the rate of misfires could fall by a high degree but even then, a flintlock arm can never guarantee to spark and give fire. Gunpowder itself had been under scrutiny several times by England, Holland, France and Spain and came in different ‘grades’ but even the ratio of the constituents in the mix of gunpowder of saltpetre, carbon and sulphur for use in small-arms in the year 1700 had not been uniformly decided.

Pirates captured aboard their ships by the Royal Navy or a pirate-hunting privateer commonly divested themselves of all weapons and claimed they were ‘forced prisoners’ - but not all of them did so.  It is recorded that a common tactic of pirates was to announce in the face of any serious attack on them that they had barrels of gunpowder opened in the hold and any attempt to take or capture them or their ship would result in them deliberately blowing themselves to ‘the Devil’. Two occasions at least are recorded where things went wrong for a pirate crew and a pirate was ordered below to carry out this threat ; but on the first occasion, the man was ‘persuaded’ not to do so by two ‘guests’ hiding below - and in the second the pirate concerned was overpowered by pirate prisoners before he could go through with it !

‘Lock, stock and barrel’, ‘going off at half-cock’, ‘flash in the pan’ and ‘misfired’ are just four of the terms involved with flintlock use that are still used in our modern vocabulary.


The photographs in this section are from original items in the authors’ collection unless stated. Visitors, beginners or novices to ‘piracy’ should note that the use of any weapon is potentially dangerous and training should be sought prior to acquisition and use in historical re-enactment. Re-enactment swords and edged weapons are of a specific design to permit such use : all firearms require licensing and special permission for any use in a UK historical display.

The author about to demonstrate the firing of a Nock seven-barrelled volley-gun : the gun discharges all barrels simultaneously when the trigger is pulled with a
terrific  detonation and subsequent recoil !  Although made for Naval service very late in the 18th Century this weapon through it’s unpopularity with seamen and Captains saw very little ‘active service’ ….


 (See also ‘The Gunner’ for Cannons and Naval Artillery) - Soon

All text & photos © Copyright of Richard Rutherford-Moore except two "training photos" © Copyright of John Webster


Main Menu