Pirate weapons

Ever seen one of those classic Errol Flynn movies, like Captain Blood, where he and Basil Rathbone duel to the death? Or maybe Princess Bride (“I am not left handed”) or Will and Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean?

Sorry, but it wasn’t really like that. Real pirates were usually hopeless at swordfights – and too impatient. They relied on overwhelming numbers, fear, and a lot of shouting. But here you can read about some of the weapons they did use, and the other weapons you’ll read about in Swashbuckler!


The cutlass is a broad slashing sword, sometimes curved, and with a heavy handguard and round knuckleguard, so it couldn’t be easily knocked out of your hand.

The problem with any kind of long sword in a shipboard fight is that you don’t have much room to move. So sailors and pirates preferred a short, heavy weapon. They were no good for the kind of duels you see in movies or read about in Swashbuckler. Instead, you just tried to clobber your opponent as hard as you could.

Early pirates didn’t actually use cutlasses at all – they were more likely to cut down a sabre to the right size. But the Knights of Malta, influenced by fighting Barbary pirates with curved scimitars, developed their own form of cutlass. Then in 1798, the Royal Navy introduced the first serious naval cutlass (and it’s those later cutlasses that we see most often in movies.)

Cutlasses were used in the Navy right up until the First World War.


A good dagger or knife wasn’t just a weapon: you used it to cut your food, trim ropes, gut fish, and a hundred other daily tasks. But your dagger was always at your side, for in sea battles or on land, it was quick and easy to use.

As a Mediterranean pirate crew drew its members from all over North Africa and Europe, many different styles of dagger were used, from the curved blades of the Arabs, to fancy decorated knives, to sharp Scots dirks.


Firearms weren’t all that great in the 18th century. Loading a gun took several minutes, then you fired it – once – and had to reload. By the time you got it organised, you could be in trouble. They weren’t very accurate, either, and didn’t have a very long range. At sea, firearms were even less use, because the damp air and sea water often got into the gunpowder and then it wouldn’t fire. The Barbary corsairs even used bows and arrows instead of guns, because you could fire more shots in a short amount of time.

So guns were usually used for one lethal volley as the pirates got ready to board another ship, and then cast aside in favour of axes or blades.

A blunderbuss (like the one below) was a short, wide-barrelled gun, somewhere between a pistol and a musket. A blunderbuss was good for close combat like boarding (or keeping pirates off your ship), because it scattered shot in a broad area.
Muskets were used more and more as the century wore on, because new developments in technology meant they kept getting more accurate and easier to load. But a musket has a very long barrel, and is not easy to handle. In the Navy and in some pirate ships, special sharpshooters or musketeers would climb up the mast and shoot from there down onto the enemy ship’s deck. The platforms they stood on were called the “fighting tops”.

Flintlock pistols, or handguns, were as hard to load as any other firearm, but they were also very sensitive and sometimes fired when their owner didn’t mean to. The great advantage of a pistol was that it could be tucked into a belt or pocket, and once it had been fired its handle could be used as a short baton for whacking people.

If all else failed, you could just conk somebody on the head with a belaying pin.

Boarding axes

Boarding axes were like long-handled tomahawks, useful for slashing your way through ropes and timber, or to use like a grappling iron to help you climb up the side of a ship.

Short sword

A short sword (or “fighting sword”) was made for Navy officers and it had a shorter blade than those carried by officers in the Army (usually about 60 centimetres long). Later short swords were curved, but originally they had straight blades with one cutting edge and a sharp point.

That’s a short sword in Lily’s hand on the cover of Ocean Without End.


When the Mermaid‘s crew presents Lily with her own sword, they choose a scimitar: the legendary North African sword with a long curved blade. Hussein Reis and his crew also bear scimitars.

Cannon and carronades

Many pirate crews were not as expert as firing cannon as their Navy counterparts, mostly because they didn’t bother practicing. If a ship fired upon them too intensely, they just sailed off.

But cannon-fire was an important part of battles at sea. Pirates used their cannon to warn (or scare) other ships into stopping. But unlike a naval sea battle, where the idea is to smash each other’s ship until one of you gives up, pirates didn’t want to damage their prey. So they used cannon only if they needed to.

A carronade is a powerful squat-barrelled cannon. A chaser is a small bronze cannon mounted in the bow of a ship, aimed to fire forward (cannon in the gunports fire sideways).



  1. Jemma gave it to her so she could lead the raid

  2. lilly swann from the ocean without end had a Scimitar she got given by the boys of the mermaid from Jemma i remember that chapter it was good cause Lilly thought she had done something wrong but all it was was Jemma giving her a sword called a scimitar it is the best sword ever

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