Pirate Canons

Cannons were a critical component of pirate ships. These weapons were used for a variety of purposes, from intimidating other ships into surrendering to defending against attacks from naval vessels.

According to historical accounts, pirate ships during the 17th century were often equipped with multiple cannons. The exact number of cannons varied depending on the size of the ship, but larger pirate galleons could carry up to 40 cannons or more. Small cannons were usually mounted on swivel gun mounts that could be rotated and elevated to aim at targets, while large canons were usually used by large pirate ships using gun ports.

Canon Sizes

During the Golden Age of Piracy, naval guns were not all the same size, with cannons categorized based on the weight of the cannon ball they fired rather than caliber. These included the 4-pounder, 6-pounder, 12-pounder, 18-pounder, 24-pounder, 36-pounder, and 42-pounder cannons. However, smaller pirate ships usually carried weaponry rated at six pounds or less due to space constraints and the need for cargo and crew quarters. Additionally, obtaining heavier weapons would require taking them from another ship, which was not an easy feat.

Most cannons at sea were made of brass because it was lighter and did not corrode in salt air, unlike iron. The cannonballs, on the other hand, were made of iron, not lead, which was used in pistols and muskets. A six-pound brass cannon, including its carriage, weighed around 1,200 pounds and could reach up to 1,500 yards. However, the round shot trajectory could quickly deviate, making it challenging to aim accurately at long range.

Swivel Canons

Small pirate ships lacked specialized gun decks, so cannons were kept on the open deck and protected by canvas covers.

According to historical accounts, swivel cannons were small brass or bronze cannons that were mounted on various parts of a ship’s upper deck and could be turned to fire in any direction. They were commonly used to sweep the decks clear of the enemy and to repel boarders. Equipped with two handles to aim them, swivel cannons were so dangerous and controllable, they were given the moniker ‘murderer‘. These cannons were light enough to be moved from one side of the ship to another in pre-prepared slots and could even be used in small boats. (Source:The Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms” by Admiral W. H. Smyth, 1867)

Pirate Gunners

The Master Gunner and his assistant, the Gunner’s Mate, were responsible for their maintenance as the weapons could sustain damage with every use. In fact, an improperly maintained gun posed a greater danger to the crew than the enemy.

For instance, the Ganj-i-Sawai, a great prize captured by Henry Avery, may have fallen due to the explosion of one of its own cannons, killing many of its crew.

Ganj-i-Sawai was a fearsome opponent, mounting 62 guns and carrying four to five hundred guards armed with small arms


Uses Of Canons On Pirate Ships

One of the primary uses of cannons on pirate ships was for attacking other ships. Pirates would typically approach their target ship and fire a warning shot across its bow to demand that it surrender. If the ship refused, pirates would then begin firing broadsides of cannon fire to disable the ship and force it to surrender. According to historian Marcus Rediker, pirates often used their superior firepower to intimidate other ships into surrendering without a fight: “Pirates, with their superior armament, could defeat almost any merchant ship in a direct engagement, but often simply showed their teeth, so to speak, and induced their prey to surrender without a shot being fired.

Cannons of the era were essentially long tubes made of brass, bronze, or iron, with a touch hole drilled near the closed end for igniting the charge. (Williams, 2013

In addition to attacking other ships, cannons were also used by pirates to defend against attacks from naval vessels. During the 17th century, many European nations established navies to protect their trade routes and colonies from pirates. Pirate ships were often no match for these well-equipped naval vessels, but their cannons could provide some measure of defense. Pirates would typically position their ship in a narrow channel or near a reef, where larger naval vessels would have difficulty maneuvering. They would then use their cannons to fire at the enemy ship, hoping to inflict enough damage to either disable it or force it to withdraw.

Cannons also played a role in the day-to-day operations of pirate ships. According to historian David Cordingly, pirates often fired their cannons to celebrate victories or to mark special occasions such as the election of a new captain:

“A new captain could expect to be saluted by the firing of guns, and the death of a comrade might be marked by a gun being fired over his grave.”

David Cordingly

Using Canons During Battle

The process of loading and firing a cannon was a complex and dangerous one, involving several crew members and precise steps to minimize the risk of an accidental explosion. According to Naval History and Heritage Command, crew members carefully measured and packed gunpowder into canvas bags, which were stored in a powder room. During battle, a crew member dressed in static-free clothing would pass the bags to runners, who carried them to the gun to be loaded. On navy ships, these runners were often orphaned boys known as “powder monkeys,” while pirates typically used less skilled members of their crews.

  • After the powder was loaded, a wad of cloth or other material was inserted to fill any extra space and ensure maximum pressure behind the cannon ball.
  • The cannon ball was then loaded, and the gun was aimed by the gun captain, who also called for the fuse to be lit.
  • The fuse, made of a substance called “slow match,” burned slowly and was held on the end of a long stick.
  • When it reached the touch hole, it ignited the gunpowder, propelling the cannon ball out of the barrel and causing the gun to recoil.
  • Finally, the sponger used a sponge on the end of a pole to clean out the inside of the gun, making it safe to reload.

Despite the difficulties of aiming and firing a cannon, gun crews were often able to achieve impressive accuracy.

In conclusion, cannons were a critical tool for pirates during the 17th century. These weapons were used for a variety of purposes, from attacking other ships to defending against naval vessels to marking special occasions aboard a pirate ship. While pirate ships were often no match for well-equipped naval vessels, their cannons allowed them to strike fear into the hearts of their prey and defend themselves against attack.

What kind of cannons did pirates use?

Pirates used brass canons, ranging in size and weight, including 4-pounder, 6-pounder, 12-pounder, 18-pounder, 24-pounder, 36-pounder, and 42-pounder cannons

Did pirate ships have cannons?

Absolutely. Most pirate ships carried canons, both as a weapon and a show of force.

How far would pirate cannons shoot?

The range of most pirate canons was limited to fall up to 1500 yards. However they were accurate only up to the first 500 yards and as the canon ball travelled, it would lose accuracy.

How many cannons did a pirate ship have?

The number of canons depended on the size of the ship, and could range from 2 to over 100 canons.