Did Pirates Use Shields?

Anyone who has seen a pirate movie or television show knows pirates were fond of using swords. At the same time, most films that cover battles fought with swords also include people protecting themselves from sword attacks with shields. So, if the pirates used swords, did they also use shields?

Pirates did use shields—at least, the pirates of antiquity did. By the Golden Age of Piracy, however, shields had become antiquated, which meant pirates rarely used them alongside swords. Instead, firearms and gunpowder became more commonly used, and shields could not stop these weapons.

This article will examine why pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy did not use shields. It will also answer other questions readers might have, such as which weapons pirates of this period used and why they continued to use swords despite the advent of firearms.

Why Pirates During the Golden Age of Piracy Did Not Use Shields

During the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates’ most common weapons were not swords, as many pirate television shows and movies portray, but handguns and firearms. 

The first firearms emerged in 1364; by 1380, they were common across Europe. [1] The Golden Age of Piracy started nearly two centuries later, in the 1650s, and lasted until the 1720s and 1730s, [2] by which firearms and gunpowder weapons were widespread and very popular.

At this time, shields could not stop bullets and other gunpowder weapons like powder flasks. Similarly, body armor was more or less out of favor—if the pirate a person was facing had a gunpowder weapon, it would do nothing to stop him. Worse, the weight of the armor would only slow them down.

Additionally, fighting with weapons in both hands took the kind of skill that many pirates did not have. If they had a sword or pistol in one hand, they would have to be very skilled and coordinated to protect themselves with a shield in their other hand at the same time. Few pirates had that formal training, and using both hands without training and coordination would lead to a quicker defeat. 

That said, there are always exceptions to the rule. While European pirates did not use shields very often, the Ottoman Barbary pirates did make use of shields. As their primary weapon was the spear rather than the sword or pistol, it was much easier for them to fight with a combination of shield and spear.

This preference arose because fighting with a spear rather than a sword/pistol requires more coordination, leaving them time to familiarize themselves with shields.

So, why did pirates continue to use swords if pistols and other gunpowder-based weapons made shields and armor obsolete?

Why Pirates Used Swords

Gunpowder-based weapons were indeed far superior to swords in attacking power. However, while pirates stopped using shields due to their ineffectiveness in protecting against these weapons, they did not completely abandon the use of swords during the Golden Age of Piracy. 

There were two primary reasons for this – showmanship and convenience. 

One of the greatest weapons in a pirate’s arsenal was his reputation. Many merchant ships would surrender rather than attempt to fight off pirates, especially well-known ones like Bartholomew Rogers (Black Bart) and Blackbeard. Part of this reputation was cultivating a fearsome appearance – and having skill with a sword added to this image. 

Though guns and gunpowder-based weapons were popular around Europe, swords were still the more visually arresting weapons. Pirates showing skill with a sword looked a terrible sight compared to one that held only a pistol—which was part of why these weapons remained popular during the Golden Age of Piracy. 

The other reason for the continued use of swords was convenience. The biggest challenge with gunpowder-based weapons was that they ran out of ammunition and were prone to accidents. 

The most common pistols of the era, flintlock pistols, could fire as many as 3-4 rounds per minute. However, this meant an increased risk of accidental shots that could harm the shooter as much as the intended target. [3] Additionally, gunpowder and ammunition for these pistols were hard to come by, and pirates could quickly run out of it if they couldn’t find any in the ships they attacked.

In cases where a pirate misfired a firearm or ammunition was challenging to acquire, a sword was a convenient alternative. It allowed them to continue to fight and reduced the need for them to surrender and the risk of death.

Weapons Used by Pirates

Pirates used numerous weapons during the Golden Age of Piracy, including:


Cannons were fired from a ship and were often attached to the vessel. They were cumbersome, and the largest cannons could fire cannonballs that weighed up to 68 pounds (30.84 kg). [4]

However, despite what many pirate television shows and movies indicate, pirates rarely used cannons against enemy ships. Pirates would attack ships to capture them, not sink them, and the damage done by cannons and cannonballs would almost always result in the boat sinking or being beyond repair.


As discussed above, firearms were a favorite among pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy. Flintlock pistols and rifles were the latest technology, and matchlocks were still popular. The best-known pirate to fight with pistols was Blackbeard, who is said to have carried six of them with him. [5]

Other handheld firearms used included the musket and the arquebus. 

Other Gunpowder Weapons

Pirates used a host of other gunpowder-based weapons, including:

  • Grenadoes or powder flasks. These were essentially forerunners to modern grenades.
  • Stinkpots. These powder flasks also contained a substance with a strong odor, like sulfur, and were designed to incapacitate the crew on enemy ships.

Hand Weapons

Aside from swords, pirates also used numerous other hand weapons. These included boarding axes, which they used to climb onto an enemy ship, cut ropes, and fight enemy crewmembers. They also used knives, daggers, and other similar-edged weapons. 

Other pirate hand weapons include belaying pins, which could double as a club when used in a fight with an enemy crewmember. They also used the fearsome marlinspike—spikes made of wood or metal that they could wield as offensive weapons in a battle. If no firearms were in reach—pirates would fight with anything they could get their hands on! 

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