Monday, September 1, 2014

A Pirate’s Personal Armament

Although pirates usually did their best to rob people by simply scaring them witless, part of the performance was always carrying a stack of weapons. In fact, many pirates collected weapons. And the variety of things carried by pirates as weapons is vast and varied.

To begin with, there was the classic pirate sword. Often called a “hanger” because it was an ever-present item at a pirate’s side. It was fashionable for gentlemen to carry swords, and in fact special swords had been designed just for the purpose of hanging prettily at the side of a suit of dress clothes.

These swords were perfectly useless, of course. A pirate’s less so. The proper sword for a pirate was short, so it was easy to draw on a crowded deck. It was a heavy blade, not elegant in appearance but capable of dealing a heavy chopping blow. If the deck was too crowded even for this, a brass knuckle-guard turned the sword into a punching weapon. And if the deck during the fight was too crowded even to punch, a solid brass knob on the end was handy for pounding on the enemy’s skull.

In an era before pistols came with holsters, pirates were famous for carrying as many of them as possible. Blackbeard was famous for wearing six pistols in a bandolier across his chest, (the original six shooter) and another pirate trick was to tie braces of pistols to either end of a length of ribbon. The ribbon could then be slung around the pirate’s neck, so the pistols dangled in front, easy to grab and shoot. They also didn’t have to be treated specially after they were fired. Simply dropping the empty gun meant that it would fall back into place, and not be a trip-hazard, rolling around on the deck.

Pirates also favored the blunderbuss. This was an old-fashioned type of shotgun. The weapon looked like an oversized pistol, but instead of firing a single 62 caliber round ball it fired a large number of much smaller sized shot. Even more important, it was large and imposing. Pirates would much rather scare their prey, after all. Like the modern shotgun, the blunderbuss was accurate only over a short range.

Though they were not usually considered  pirate weapons, pirates also used flintlock rifles and muskets. These weapons were carried up the masts, where a marksman would brace himself and fire onto the deck of the enemy ship from a distance. Picking off an officer or helmsmen could make all the difference when chasing a fleeing ship.

Pirates also used grenades. These were round iron vessels with an opening on one side that was tubular, like the neck of a bottle. The grenade could be filled in advance with a mixture of gunpowder and roundshot, and plugged with fuse. The fuse would be lit, and the grenade thrown onto an enemy ship, or into a crowd of enemy combatants. And if roundshot was in short supply, nails, rocks or bits of broken pottery could be pressed into service.

Pirates also filled the grenade with tar, which burned with a dense smoke, creating a smoke bomb, in order to cause panic and confusion.

They also went the low-tech way, and stuffed burning rags into glass bottles full of lamp oil or liquor, creating a Molotov cocktail. This wasn’t used much, however, since it was impossible to rob a ship that was on fire, and the risk of fire spreading to the pirates’ own ship was enormous.

In close-quarter fighting, knives might be pressed into use. Of course every pirate carried a knife. They were common seamen’s tools, and the same blade would be used to cut up food at meals. The knife wasn’t an impressive weapon, but it could get the job done.

Another weapon, which many people have never heard of, was a marlin spike. This was another sailor’s tool. These ranged in size from about 8 inches long to huge tools nearly three feet in length. The marlinspike was simply a spike, a length of metal pointed on one end and blunted on the other.

What was its intended use? Well, working with rope formed a great part of any sailor’s work, and the marlinspike was used to help untie knots, to unravel rope, or to poke openings in the weave of a rope so that it could be spliced. In fact, the marlinspike was such an important item on a sailing ship that today the skills of using rope on a ship is called “marlinspike seamanship.”

The marlin spike is a weapon mostly because it was sharp and handy. It is featured in songs and stories where a sudden, passionate fight breaks out on shipboard. The most famous reference to pirates is in the song “The Derelict,” (Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest, Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.)

The mate was fixed by the bos'n's pike
The bos'n' brained with a marlin spike 

The tool was used for stabbing, and of course this was most effectively used on soft tissue, especially the eyes or the throat. But, as the song notes, it was also sturdy enough to be driven through the soft bone of the temple and into the brain. A marlin spike would make a great, authentic addition to a pirate costume.

Another weapon of opportunity was the belaying pin. What was a belaying pin? “Belay means “stop.”  On a sailing ship, belaying pins were devices set along the railings where ropes were tied off. The pins were removable, which made it easier to loose the ropes in a hurry.

Like any other weapon of opportunity, it was simple to pick up a belaying pin and crack someone over the head with it, a trope that Hollywood has wrung a lot of mileage out of. Given the large number of other weapons available, it seems unlikely that a belaying pin would be used very often for pirate mayhem.  

However, in actual pirate trials, Captain William Kidd was convicted of murdering a man by hitting him in the head with a bucket, and another pirate murdered a shipmate by smashing his head with a trough used for feeding the ship’s chickens. So anything’s possible.

1 comment: