Did Pirate Ships Have Cannons?

The central activity of pirate life–what motivated and financed it–was robbing merchant vessels on the high seas. Of course, no sea captain worth his command would hand over his cargo without the threat of violence. So, pirates needed to arm themselves to persuade such reluctant killjoys to change their minds.

Pirate ships from the Golden Age of Piracy did have cannons. They also used other weapons, including cutlasses, daggers, pistols, muskets, and the threat of violence implied in flying the pirate flag. Before the modern era, pirates carried swords and axes and used their ships as battering rams.  

This article will describe the cannons typically found on pirate ships and list other weapons pirates used.

How Pirates Came To Use Cannons

Pirates have existed throughout history in all seagoing cultures. However, when most people think of pirates today, they picture the dreaded sea brigands of the Golden Age of Piracy–roughly the mid- 17th to mid-18th centuries. [1]

The sheer numbers of people who took to piracy in this era and their widespread infamy have since been immortalized in accounts real, exaggerated, and fictional. Over the years, their portrayal in adventure books and movies has been lapped up by the masses, firmly linking the idea of piracy with the pirates of the Golden Age.

Fortunately for Golden Age pirates, they arrived at just the right moment in history to gain access to heavy weapons such as shipboard cannons.

A Brief Outline of Cannons in Naval Warfare 

Among the many factors that facilitated colonial expansion and piracy, the development of advanced shipbuilding technologies was paramount.

Sailing ships had begun to get bigger and bigger in the early modern era. By the 16th century, a typical carrack would often be 115 ft (35 m) long and weigh up to 1,750 tons (over 1600 tonnes). [2]

These new boats could be loaded with huge contingents of men and arms, and their capacious holds stuffed with large volumes of goods. Such features enabled various European nations to exploit their colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, most lucratively in the Atlantic slave trade.

However, valuable property needed to be guarded, especially at sea, where pirates or rival nations might attack a vessel and seize its cargo. As traffic in goods grew, there was a naval arms race, with each country trying to outdo the other in developing bigger and better-designed vessels, as well as heavy arms to defend their fleets.

Cannons had been used on ships as early as the 14th century. These were merely anti-personnel weapons, glorified guns mounted on a ship’s rails that were not particularly useful in targeting enemy vessels. But the new large ships were not simply longer and heavier; they were also deeper. 

A carrack could be 17 ft (5 m) deep. Greater depth opened up opportunities for such boats to be fitted with cannons below deck, making them more stable and allowing them to be outfitted with ever larger artillery. In 1501, gunports were first cut into the sides of a ship’s hull, capitalizing on these advances. [3]  

Within a few decades, ships were being outfitted with dozens of cannons. The British warship, the Mary Rose, for instance, had as many as 91 cannons on board.

The Cannons Golden Age Pirates Used

Taking advantage of the developments of their day, pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy did use cannons. 

Unlike naval vessels, merchant ships of the day were not heavily armed. Often, the threat of cannon fire and a watery grave advertised by a pirate ship’s flag would be enough to persuade a captain to surrender.

Operating without violence unless absolutely necessary helped pirate captains avoid risking damage to their ship and crew.

Although pirates preferred to avoid naval gunships altogether, there would also have been instances where they had to go head-to-head with or at least evade them. Such vessels would, of course, be outfitted with superior firepower to pirates’ own ships.

Cannons of the day were usually made of bronze or iron. Bronze cannons were cast, meaning their barrels had fewer parts. On the other hand, iron cannons were wrought. Made of a greater number of smaller pieces, they could be unreliable and were likely to explode, causing injury.

While their superior reliability made bronze cannons highly coveted, they also tended to be larger. And too many heavy weapons on a pirate ship would slow it down, making it harder to outrun targets and evade pursuers.

The cannons on a pirate ship were acquired like everything else in their possession, including their own vessel, by looting and plundering.  So, they could be of assorted shapes, sizes, and types. Still, for practical reasons, pirate cannons were usually limited in size.

Although far larger guns existed at the time, the cannons pirates used most often fired balls between 7.7 or 12.1 lbs (3.5 or 5.5 kg) in weight. Cannonballs were fired by ramming them down the gun’s barrel, loading its breech with powder, and setting it alight. [4]  

Pirates were also known to improvise their ammunition. They would often replace cannonballs with hollow versions stuffed with gunpowder that would explode on impact. They sometimes fired heated cannonballs or chain shots to damage enemy ships and dirty bombs that would maim enemy crews.

Pirates were also known to use smaller cannons on the main decks of their ships. These had greater maneuverability and could be used to target crew at closer quarters without damaging vessels. 

Other Weapons Pirates Used

Often the cannon was a weapon of last resort for a pirate captain. Pirates preferred to capture ships undamaged so that its cargo might be taken intact. Often they would also sell the vessel at the next opportunity.

Against powerful naval gunships, evasion was the more thoughtful strategy, and it was a foolhardy or desperate captain who would engage a vessel outfitted with superior weapons.

For all these reasons, pirates did not rely on cannons alone. They used many other weapons besides cannons, including bladed weapons like daggers, knives, and cutlasses. They also used matchlock and flintlock pistols and muskets that were easily procurable at the time.

Finally, the greatest weapon a pirate crew possessed was their fearsome reputation. Often, raising their flag was enough to persuade ship captains to surrender.

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