Flintlock pistol, a favoured weapon of 18th-century pirates

Piracy is as old as sailing the seas itself, and it is far from the charming, romanticised adventures we see on the silver screen. Pirate life was nasty, brutal and often short, and the word ‘parley’ probably rarely featured in a pirate’s vocabulary.

One of the things which made real pirates a fearsome predator on the high seas was the weapons they used. In addition to the cannons firing out gravel, nails, musket balls, cannon balls and chain shots; muskets, blunderbusses and pistols were the popular weapons of choice and could cause a whole lot of chaos.


The musket was a large and heavy gun, measuring up to six feet long. It was initially used to hunt boar on islands the ships stopped at, but could also shoot an enemy off the deck from 300 yards away. Buccaneers tended to be really good shots, and muskets were one of the earliest types of small arms developed for sniping purposes.


Pirates would often make use of the blunderbuss. This short, wide-bore shotgun flared at the muzzle and could devastate the opponent at short range. The wide mouth of the blunderbuss made it easier to load in a hurry. The blunderbuss would be loaded with a handful of pistol balls, and when fired would cause carnage over a wide area, but what it had in deadliness it lost in accuracy. The blunderbuss also had a massive recoil and had to be fired from the hip. Otherwise, it could break the shoulder or collarbone.

Blunderbuss, weapon used by pirates

Flintlock pistol

The flintlock pistol was a popular weapon of choice by pirates, desirable for its lightweight and small size. This meant it was ideal for boarding enemy ships, and pirates could carry more than one. This was also due to the fact it would need reloading after one shot. Apparently, Blackbeard carried six with him at once.

The flintlock pistol was developed in the 1600s and became the primary means of duelling. The concept was simple: gunpowder was stuffed into the barrel, a lead ball, usually wrapped in some fabric was put in after. A metal rod was used to jam the ball and powder as back as possible, and the hammer pulled back half-way and left there until the gun was ready to fire. At the top of the hammer, a piece of flint was held in place by a vice, and when the trigger was pulled the hammer would release, and the flint would strike a metal plate, create a spark, and light the powder in the barrel. This would then project the lead ball from the barrel at high speed. Moisture or water was the greatest threat to flintlocks, as the wet powder would not light.

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Dueling pistols

Duelling pistols also used the flintlock mechanism and using them was pretty simple; stand to face the person who you are duelling at a predetermined distance, taking careful aim with the pistol, and firing, hoping your bullet can hit and cause enough damage that they cannot fire back. Many types were made, but they had a longer barrel in common, which gave the lead shot a longer and straighter launch, allowing for better accuracy than the usual flintlock pistol.

Duelling was a right of upper classes, so more common to see in privateers than actual pirates. In the 18th and 19th centuries, pistols were used, along with swords, as the method to seek satisfaction from any wrong doings. The pistols were also seen as a status symbol, and the more attractive and decorated your pistol, the more distinguished you were considered to be.

Non-firing weapons

It wasn’t just muskets and pistols that pirates used to get their loot, as grenades were extensively used too. Basically a spherical hollow iron-cast ball, about five inches in diameter loaded with five ounces of gunpowder, the grenade has a wooden fuse that lasted about six seconds before it exploded. Pirates and buccaneers would throw these on board an enemy vessel just before boarding it, creating chaos and devastation.

All the weapons mentioned above were one-shot weapons, so the mainstay of boarding action was the cutlass. This sabre was used for slashing and thrusting and its short length meant it would not be a hindrance to the user on a crowded deck amongst the fighting. Other edged weapons that pirates used included a dagger, dirk or axe.

Cutlass, weapon used by pirates

Images by Uploadalt, EJ Witek