What Type of Weapons Did Pirates Use?

Historically, a significant aspect of the pirate’s job has been to convince reluctant ship captains to part with their valuable cargo. But, of course, arms usually helped sway the argument their way. So, pirates have always carried weapons as a matter of practical recourse.

The weapons pirates used included sabers, cutlasses, muskets, pistols, grenades, cannons, and iconic flags intended to intimidate opponents into surrendering. Before the modern era, pirates carried swords, axes, spears, and clubs and used their ships to batter other vessels into submission.

This article will cover some of the most common weapons and strategies pirates have used to overpower their victims through the ages.

Weapons From the Golden Age of Piracy

The Golden Age of Piracy lasted from roughly 1650-1720. During this era, large numbers of pirates consistently and lucratively targeted merchant ships. 

In executing their heists, pirates of the era had access to the same weapons that most soldiers of their time did. They used matchlock and flintlock muskets at a distance and pistols at close range. [1] 

Of course, they also used long and short-bladed weapons – such as swords, axes, knives, and daggers – and blunt instruments – like clubs – in hand-to-hand combat, as pirates before them had always done.

The swords most commonly associated with pirates of this era are the cutlass and the saber. 

Several of the pirates’ weapons were improvised from everyday tools. For instance, the belaying pins used to secure rope doubled up as clubs, boarding axes – usually used to cut ropes – worked just as well in battle, and marlin spikes made for handy daggers.

Most pirate ships of the time were outfitted with several cannons, which could be used to fire at enemies from a greater distance. Because speed was of the essence – in both pursuing their prey and evading their pursuers – the cannons on pirate vessels tended to be relatively modest in size and limited in number

Too many large cannons would add to the weight of a pirate ship and slow it down. Smaller guns also offered greater maneuverability and could be used to target enemy crews without damaging vessels. 

Perhaps, the pirate’s greatest weapon was their fearsome reputation. The exploits of the most successful pirate captains of the day were so well-publicized that, often, merely the sight of a well-known pirate’s flag was enough to persuade a ship’s captain to throw in the towel

Common Pirate Strategies

Pirate strategies have always been closer to guerrilla fighters’ tactics than those of soldiers in traditional armies and navies. To get the job done, they relied on speed and the element of surprise. Most importantly, pirates preferred not to use violence unless absolutely necessary. [2]

To begin with, pirate ships wouldn’t have been able to hold their own against the advanced gunships of their time. These vessels would have been fitted with dozens of cannons, often larger and more powerful than the pirate’s own weapons. Larger guns also had a greater range, making it extremely risky to confront such opponents.

Most pirate captains would prefer not to come face to face with such formidable foes. In the event of an encounter, evasion or subterfuge was their best bet.

In comparison, merchant vessels would have been easy prey. They generally carried fewer men to make room for more cargo. And, sometimes, these small crews weren’t even adequately armed.

However, pirates had good reason not to use excessive force against merchant ships. Capturing a vessel intact offered them the best chance of appropriating its cargo. Often, the ship itself could be sold for money

Finally, besides the monetary benefits of capturing a vessel without damaging it, battles also posed risks to a pirate captain and crew

For these reasons, the element of surprise was key to a successful pirate raid. 

A vital aspect of this strategy was obtaining swifter ships that could outrun other vessels. Pirates would also often retrofit vessels after acquiring them, optimizing them for speed. 

Another tactic was to fly under a different flag, allowing the pirate ship to get closer to its intended target before revealing its true identity. By the time the captain of the opposing ship became aware of the danger his vessel was in, it would be too late.

Ideally, pirates preferred that captains surrender without putting up a fight. Were a crew to resist, the pirates could fire a few cannonballs close to the ship as a threat. If a captain still resisted, the pirates would have no option but to pursue his craft, board it, and engage his crew in battle.

Pirate Weapons From Before and After the Golden Age of Piracy

Although piracy has diminished significantly in recent decades, there are still a few pirate strongholds left. 

Today, pirates have access to even more dangerous weapons than the pirates of the Golden Age did. They can source automatic weapons, torpedoes, small motorized craft, and even communication and night vision gear on the black market for arms and military equipment.

However, pirates had very different gear and tactics before the modern era. 

Although known to use flaming arrows, early pirates would not have had access to gunpowder, rifles, and pistols. They would mostly have been restricted to using knives, swords, bows and arrows, axes, and spears.  

Some of the most successful pirates of the early medieval world, the Vikings, primarily relied on swords and axes to get the job done. [3]  However, their strategies had much in common with the pirates of the Golden Age. Like their successors, the Vikings too relied on speed and surprise to execute raids successfully.

Viking vessels were shallow-hulled and swift. They could navigate up rivers and shallow coastlines to catch their victims off-guard. They also often had oars to help them move faster when there was no wind. [4]

Like the Golden Age pirates, another critical weapon in the Vikings’ armory was their fearsome reputation. Their terrified victims often willingly paid the Vikings a ransom to leave them alone. 

Whatever the age, the pirates’ ultimate goal was to board their intended targets to gain access to their cargo. They usually did this by outrunning other vessels and using tools like grappling hooks to climb onto them. 

Often, the ships themselves were used as a weapon to batter an enemy into submission. After all, this was the norm in naval warfare before guns and cannons became widely available and was a common tactic used by both pirates and navies. 

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