Thursday, February 7, 2013

Those Funny-Looking Pirate Pistols

As I was watching a pirate era movie with a friend, she kept commenting on the odd guns that pirates used. It’s true, the pistols in pirate movies look very little like a modern gun. But their strange appearance is a true example of form following function.

Firearms from the Golden Age of Piracy worked using a mechanism called a “flintlock,” This followed the “matchlock” and was the highest form of firearm technology for over a hundred years.

Matchlocks had set off the powder charge in a musket with a simple burning fuse, the “match.” Before going into battle, the match was lit, and as long as it burned the gun could be fired by pulling the trigger mechanism, which brought the slow-burning match into contact with black powder. (an example of a matchlock can be seen in Disney’s animated movie Pocahontas. I especially like the part where John Smith blows on the burning match to make it flare.)

Obviously, carrying around a device with a burning fuse attached had its limitations. I have never seen an example of a matchlock pistol. The need to keep a match burning precluded the design of a hand weapon. Only with the rise of flintlocks could a pocket-sized gun be conceived.

All black powder weapons carry the same sort of load. A measured amount of black powder is put into the barrel of the gun. This could be drizzled in from a powder horn, or inserted via a pre-measured “cartridge” of powder wrapped in paper. Pre-made cartridges looked much like packages of the candy  “Smarties” only wrapped in cigarette paper, not cellophane.

After the load of powder came the ball, or shot. Since the machining tolerances of the time were not close  – gun barrels were handmade and hand tempered, and shot was frequently hand-cast by the shooter (using primitive two-part molds and lead or pewter heated in the fireplace,) the round shot for the pistol would not fit snugly into the barrel. To get around this, the ball was wrapped in a piece of cloth called the “patch” which ensured a properly snug fit. All of this was pushed down the barrel using a ramrod. Conveniently, both muskets and pistols from the time carried a ramrod under the barrel.

Now we come to the funny-looking part of the gun. The “lock” was the firing mechanism, consisting of the trigger, the hammer, the flash pan, and the frizzen. This was attached to the right-hand side.

The flash pan held a small amount of powder, and was filled after the barrel was loaded. This powder met the load in the barrel through a small opening called the touch hole. When the powder in the pan caught fire, the touch hole carried that fire into the barrel, setting off the main charge. The gun was, literally, “fired” in that fire was put to the powder, causing an explosion.

The frizzen was the ingenious thing. One half of it was a cover for the flash pan, protecting the powder from getting wet of simply falling out. The other half rose in at a right angle to form a vertical strike plate.

The hammer contained a screw-operated holder for a piece of flint. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer fell and hit the flint against the steel strike plate. Flint hitting steel made a spark, and the force of the hammer also opened the frizzen pan, dropping that spark into the flash pan’s powder.

The flash powder ignited with a “fissst” sound,  producing a cloud of white smoke the size of a grapefruit. A split second later, the pistol’s main charge went off with a “pang!” throwing a round lead shot of approximately 55 caliber, and creating a cloud of white smoke the size of an end table. A small stream of smoke shot out the touch hole. Pistols were never reloaded during a fight. It took too long. To make up for this, the manufacturer thoughtfully capped the pistol’s butt  with metal, providing better functionality when it was used as a club.

Flintlock technology was simple enough that the weapons could be repaired in the field, and the weapons saw service into the Civil War. In Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Johnny Depp carries a genuine three hundred year old flintlock pistol, still capable of killing someone.

Handle with care. 


  1. When you were talking about the matchlock, I was thinking, "Oh, like the guns in Pocahontas!" and then you mentioned the exact scene I was thinking of. *fist bump*

    1. I'm glad that worked for you! I've always loved that scene. (Engineering geek... fistbump back!)

  2. yes, they are funny pistols and it is mean for fun as was movie.

  3. COOL! One of the best handgun I have is a M&P Pistol. I have it with me for a decade.