Picture of Blackbeard with several pirate weapons

7 Important Pirate Weapons From the Golden Age of Piracy

In the annals of maritime history, the allure of pirate lore has always been accompanied by a fascination with their formidable arsenal of pirate weapons. Let’s delve into the world of pirate weaponry, unearthing the secrets behind cutlasses that could parry with precision, flintlock pistols that struck terror into the hearts of victims, and cannons that roared with explosive power. 

Gunpowder Weapons

Though it might seem quaint now, gunpowder revolutionized warfare. When Europeans discovered how to make gunpowder, they shifted from bows and arrows to the more deadly arquebuses and cannons. By the time of the Golden Age of Piracy, gunpowder weapons had gone through several rounds of evolution.

Though pirates loved their cannons, they didn’t have space to lug around hefty arquebuses. Luckily for them, far more accurate and compact firearms had become widely available thanks to the invention of the flintlock mechanism. Now, rather than having to use a slow burning match to ignite their gunpowder, friction did the work. When someone took a shot with a flintlock pistol or musket, a piece known as the “hammer” struck a piece of flint. This caused sparks, igniting the gunpowder and… boom! 

Pirates took full advantage of this new technology. 

Flintlock Musket

When it came to the musket, pirates just had to have it. And there’s good reason it was a common weapon among pirate screws. When assaulting other ships on the high seas, the ability to accurately shoot over long distances is vital. And muskets were nothing if not accurate. 

Related: 13 Best Pirate Books for Swashbuckling History Lovers

This accuracy came from the musket’s long, smooth bore barrel. Though this long barrel meant the user had to hold it with two hands, it also meant that muskets fired accurately up to 100 yards. As the user could only take a single shot before having to reload, pour more gunpowder, and reset the flintlock mechanism, accuracy was a good thing.

Flintlock Pistols

Unlike muskets, pistols were not very accurate. In fact, one could only count on hitting their target within 10 yards. But pirates loved them anyway. 

Where the flintlock pistol lacked accuracy, it made up for in portability. Pirates could load their pistols, strap them in their belt, and fire them with one hand. Plus, pirates could carry multiple pistols at one. Some pictures of the era show Blackbeard with six pistols strapped to himself!

Though they weren’t very accurate, these pistols could do some serious damage. The projectiles they shot were pretty large (about 2 times bigger than today’s pistol ammo). During close quarters combat, this gave pistols a seriously menacing reputation.

But even if a pirate managed to expend all his rounds during an assault, the pistol had a secondary use: as a bludgeon. Most pistols during the Golden Age of Piracy had a metal cap (usually brass) on the butt end. This allowed pirates to hold the pistol by its muzzle and start swinging. 


Cannons were by far the most devastating of all pirate weapons. And little wonder! These behemoths were used to fire a variety of projectiles at a pirate’s target. The most common, though, was the cannonball.

The sheer size and speed of cannonballs made them the perfect weapon for attacking both enemy ships and shore fortifications. Made from iron, cannonballs could easily bust through the hull of an enemy ship and do serious damage to (if not destroy) sections of stone forts. 

To give some context, archaeologists have recovered 24 cannons from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard’s sunken ship. These cannons range in size from half-pounders to six-pounds. But, that isn’t a measure of how heavy the cannons are – it’s how heavy the cannonballs they fire are! 

Cannons were versatile weapons for pirate ships and pirates used other kinds of ammunition. The types of cannon shot you could find aboard a pirate ship included:

Bundle shot

This consisted of small metal bars tied together in bundles. Pirates then loaded these bundles into the cannons. Upon firing, the ropes holding the metal bards together broke apart, and the metal ammunition scattered in the air. Bundle shot was used at close range in order to inflict maximum damage on opposing crews.

Hot iron shot

Called “hot shot” by sailors, this shot type was used to ignite opposing ships. The iron cannonballs were heated until they reached somewhere between 1,470 and 1,650 °F (800 and 900 °C). They were then loaded into the cannon and fired at opposing ships in the hopes of catching them on fire. But pirate crews had to be careful – these cannonballs were so hot they could warp the inside of the cannon, causing it to explode!

Canister shot

Used primarily as a way to target enemy crews (rather than their ships), pirates created canister shot by filling a thin-walled container with shards of scrap iron, barbed wire, broken glass bottles, and anything else pointy pirate crews had on hand. When pirates fired the canister, it broke apart and all the metal and glass it contained flew straight at the enemy. Pirates could also load a canister in the same shot as a cannonball, giving them a real 2-for-1 punch. 


Similar to canister shot, pirates created grapeshot by filling a bag or metal container with lead balls or small iron balls. Upon firing, the container broke apart and the projectiles within went flying. 

Pirates often used this to clear men off the decks of opposing ships or to damage the sails of another ship so it became easier prey.

Chain shot 

Chain shot was pretty brutal. It consisted of two cannonballs of a smaller caliber tied together with a metal chain. When fired, chain shot went spinning, cutting down anything in its path.

Typically, pirates used chain shot as a way to disable the masts of opposing vessels, but it wasn’t uncommon for chain shot to take off the limbs of the other crew members.

Pirate Swords

During the Golden Age of Piracy, pirates loved few weapons more than swords. But, while they might not have had the swashbuckling adventures of film, these weapons played a key role in piracy.

Let’s take a look at a few pirate swords that dominated this era.


Image of a cutlass. Cutlasses were one of the most important weapons.

Among all the pirate weapons we’ve discussed, most pirates preferred the cutlass.

The cutlass was a short sword with a slightly curved blade. It also had a single edge that pointed away from its user. These short, single edged weapons were highly effective in close quarters combat, which pirates often took part in.

When a pirate crew boarded another ship, all the combatants were pretty close to one-another. Having an effective, but smaller sword was a big advantage. 

The cutlass also had a knuckle guard that wrapped around the user’s hand. This served as protection, but could also be used like brass knuckles. 

On top of these advantages in a fight, the cutlass was also easier to master than other swords of the era. This made it attractive to pirates recruits who had no formal training in swordcraft, but nonetheless needed to take part in their crew’s raids.


Rapier in a museum. Rapiers were one of the most important weapons.

The rapier differed from a cutlass in a lot of ways. 

The rapier had a long, straight blade and was a double edge weapon. This design made it a thrusting, rather than stabbing, weapon. If you’re trying to picture pirates using a rapier, think about the sword duel in Princess Bride and you’ve got it. 

Swordsmen needed more training to fight effectively with a rapier, which required knowledge of particular techniques.

Typically, this was a gentleman’s sword carried by military officers and members of the nobility. But, it’s possible some early pirates used this weapon as well.


So, yeah, technically a knife might not be a sword, but pirates loved their knives. Usually, pirates carried a small knife with them and used it to deadly effect when boarding another ship. 

Pirates also called these weapons “daggers.” 

Boarding Pike

Boarding pike in a museum. Boarding pikes were one of the most important weapons.

They might not look like much, but boarding pikes were some of the most effective pirate weapons. 

Coming in at five to eight feet long, these giant spears were a great way to repel boarders. If another crew tried to take over a pirate ship, pikes could effectively repel boarders. Plus, since they were so long they could take out an enemy before their sword ever got close.

Sources on Pirate Weapons

  1. Jay Hemmings, “Going Off Half-Cocked: The Invention of the Flintlock Musket,” warhistoryonline.com
  2. Jamaica Rose and Michael MacLeod, The Book of Pirates: A Guide to Plundering, Pillaging and Other Pursuits (Gibbs Smith: Layton, UT, 2010): 87
  3. Ibid
  4. “Ammunition,” thewayofthepirates.com
  5. Melissa Petruzzello, “Pirate School: 5 Things You Can Shoot from a Cannon,” britannica.com
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Liam O’Donnell, Pirate Gear: Cannons, Sword, and the Jolly Roger (Capstone Press: Mankato, MN, 2007): 18
  9. Petruzzello, “Pirate School: 5 Things You Can Shoot from a Cannon,” britannica.com
  10. Rose and MacLeod, The Book of Pirates, 77
  11. O’Donnell, Pirate Gear, 20
  12. Rose and MacLeod, The Book of Pirates, 77
  13. “Other Swords,” pirates.hegewisch.net
  14. O’Donnell, Pirate Gear, 20
  15. Rose and MacLeod, The Book of Pirates, 85

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