Caribbean Tales - Personal Weapons - Pistols

Did Pirates Value Pistols?
Of all the weapons used by pirates, the pistol was probably their favorite. In fact pistols, were so admired that Captains used their lure in forming boarding parties. On many ships it was a standing order, that the first man to board a plunder would get first choice of any weapon. And this prize was above his share of the booty.
Pistols came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Pistol making was an art. Quite often they were made to order. Of course there was the run of the mill pistols made for cavalry soldiers and some naval personnel but these were not of the high quality that was consider a prize.
Often a ships captain would have a pistol commissioned for him as a sign of his superiority. A gunsmith would decorate the stock with silver and gold or ornate carvings. The doghead would be carved in some ornate fashion or perhaps be shaped like a lion or a unicorn or some animal from the royal crest of the owner. In many ways a pistol in the 18th century would hold the same place of honor as a car would today.
Boarding a ship under fire was quite dangerous. Being the first man of a boarding party was almost suicidal. Typically the ship being boarded would prepare several ranks to fire in "volley" as boarding was attempted. Such concentrated fire would often destroy the first wave of a boarding party. In the event that you were lucky enough to survive the volley fire, your life depended on your mates coming on board after you, while you were busy fighting outnumbered.

Types of Firing Mechanisms

The matchlock was rarely made in pistol form. The matchlock was mostly used in larger, shoulder fired weapons but a few pistols were made using this method. In most cases a matchlock had a slow burning fuse attached to a serpentine (cock or hammer). This was cocked back and small pan was filled with priming powder. A trigger released the serpentine dropping the fuse to the priming pan and firing the weapon. It worked poorly, if at all in the rain.


Early 17th Century Wheel-Lock Pistol from England

Wheel-Locks eliminated the use of a fuse of the Matchlock by inventing something similar to a fly wheel. A small wheel of pyrites or flint was attached to a spring which was wound up like a clock's spring. The serpentine now contained a small piece of metal instead of a fuse. When the trigger was pulled the spring was released, and the wheel spun around as the serpentine made contact. This produced sparks which fell into the priming pan which ignited the main charge and fired the weapon.

The Snaphance

The snaphance (also spelled snaphaunce) was an improvement over the Wheel-lock. It basically put the pyrites in the serpentine which is now referred to a Dog-head or Hammer. The dog head is still wound up but now it strikes a steel plate(frizzen), which causes sparks to fall in the priming tray, thus firing the weapon. In most case the primer pan still had a pan cover separate from the frizzen. The pan cover was opened with the pull of the trigger or manually by the firer.

The Flintlock

The Flintlock was the weapon most likely encountered in the 17th-19th century. While a few snaphaunces might have lingered, especially because of the wide use of this gun system in Scotland, it is doubtful that the Wheel-Locks would have been in use in this part of the world. The use of Wheel-Lock would have still been encountered in the South Pacific in the late 17th century, however.
The Flintlock used a doghead and frizzen similar to the Snaphaunce. The sear was enclosed in a lock plate and consisted of a tumbler which allowed the weapon to be half cocked and fully cocked. In the half cocked position the sear would drop into a deep groove which prevented the trigger from being pulled and the dog-head from dropping (a crude form of safety) . At the fully cocked position the sear dropped into a shallow groove. The sear could be pushed out of this groove by pulling the trigger. By now the frizzen and pan cover were combined into one spring loaded unit.
Before firing a pistol, the pistoleer, would pull the doghead back until it made a noticeable click. This was the half cocked position. placing the pistol on safe. Priming powder would be poured down the barrel followed by regular gun powder, wadding, and finally the shot or ball(now called the bullet). Often to expedite the loading, loads were prepared ahead of time and wrapped in paper waddings. in this case, the wadding was torn at the powder end and the the powder poured down the barrel. Afterwards the bullet and wadding would be rammed down the barrel with the ramrod. In every case a small amount of priming powder would be added to the priming pan, insuring that the touch hole to the barrel had been filled.
By pulling the doghead back another click, the pistol would be armed and ready to fire. A pull of the trigger would, most likely result in a discharge. Because the frizzen and priming pan were now one spring loaded unit, it was now possible to load a pistol beforehand and still have it go off reliably later. The frizzen could be pulled back, primer added to the pan and then the frizzen was lowered back on top of the pan. When the trigger is pulled the doghead strikes the frizzen causing sparks and pushing open the pan at the same time, thus exposing the priming powder.

Basic parts

Frizzen: A piece of metal that was struck by pyrites to produce sparks.

Doghead: What the hammer of the pistol was originally called. It was often shaped in the form of an animal with an open mouth, in which the pyrites were placed.

Ramrod or Rammer: A long hard wood pole that was in a diameter slightly smaller than the barrel. It was used to ram powder and shot down the barrel of muzzle loaders. It was often attached to the bottom of the barrel by a swivel.

Priming Pan: A small pan in which specially made priming powder was placed. The pan was just under the frizzen. The frizzen was often attached to a pan cover. When the frizzen was struck by the doghead, the pan was forced open and sparks would rain down on the powder discharging the weapon.

Touch Hole: A hole located at the bottom of a gun's barrel. In early weapons powder was poured into the touch hole and a flame was touched against the hole causing the weapon to discharge. As weapons evolved the touch hole led from the priming pan to bottom of the barrel.

Priming Powder: Powder that was ground smaller and smoother than regular gun powder. Quite often it contained more saltpeter (Sodium Nitrate) making more volatile. Often this was the powder contained in the powder horn. Cartridges made of gunpowder and shot wrapped in paper were often prepared ahead of time and carried in a special cartridge pouch.

Black or Gunpowder: Black powder which was made from saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. There were many ways that it was made and in different strengths. Suffice it to say that if one were to use the high quality powder of today's small arms in a flintlock of the 1700's the weapon could very well blow up. Black powder was weak compared to today's standards.

Ball or Shot: The bullet used in a gun.

Butt and Butt Cap: A metal cap on the bottom of a pistol's grip. On more expensive weapons, various designs were crafted in precious metals or jewels. It was often the most ornate part of a pistol with the possible exception of the lock. Once a pistol had been fired it was often turned around and used as a club. Hence a nice have butt cap would come in handy not only as a counter balance for a long barrel but also for cracking skulls.

Barrel: The business part of a pistol, usually between 4 and ten inches long.

Fore-End Cap: A cap often made of brass at the front of the wood furniture of a pistol. It was on the fore-end cap that the swivel for the rammer was often attached. It also acted as the front mount securing the barrel.

Lock: The part of the pistol which includes the frizzen, doghead and the internal parts of the gun such as the sear and trigger assembly. in short it was the part that make the gun go bang.


The Powderbox or Powderhorn was a key element to the small arms that pirates depended on. Wet powder was useless and it was the job of the powderhorn to keep gunpowder ready for action. A pirate probably didn't cary a powderhorn or box with him during combat, but relied on a good container to keep his powder dry for the preparatory moments before close combat. A pirate would load a number of pistols, perhaps a rifle, and then set to action, leaving his powder in such a case. In the case of prolonged combat, there were usually pirates designated to loading small arms to be provided to other pirates who would discharge them.

Types of Pistols.
One Shot Muzzle Loaders
The muzzle loaders were the standard pistol of the day. Muzzle loading involved shoving the powder and ball, along with paper wadding all the way down the barrel. Pistols loaded relatively easily due to the shortness of the barrel. A rifled barrel was harder to load than a smooth bore. Many people tried to find ways of making breech loaders but until the development of a self contained cartridge most breech loading weapons were marginal at best. Muzzle loaders were loaded using a rammer or ram rod which pushed powder and ball down the barrel. In some cases the rammer was attached to the pistol with a swivel so that it could not be lost. The rammer was an integral part of the gun.

Kentucky Pistol
The most common pistol of the Americas was the Kentucky Pistol. The pistol is a basic "holster pistol". Holster pistols were long barreled pistols that were carried in a saddle holster. The saddle holster hung from a horse's saddle, not from a person's belt. The common pistol holster as used today were uncommon during the 16th and 17th Century. Instead, a hook or clasp would adorn the side of the pistol opposite the lock mechanism. The pirate would then fasten his/her pistol to a belt, suspenders, or a sash using this hook or clasp. It was also quite common to pass the pistols through a belt or a simple loop of heavy material. The Kentucky pistol saw use from the early 1700s throughout the 1800s, eventually being converted to a percussion fire pistol.

French Cavalry Pistol
Similar to the Holster Pistol, such as the Kentucky Pistol above, except it has a shorter barrel and less wood furniture, making it slightly lighter. The French pistol fired a larger calibre bullet but was not as accurate as the Kentucky pistol. Used throughout the 1700s and 1800s.

17th Century English Muzzleloaders, Single Shot.

Spanish Miquelet-Lock, late 16th, Early 17th Century

17th Century German single shot muzzle loader

Multi-barrelled Pistols.
Multi-barrelled pistols were guns that had more than one barrel that could fired separately. Two firing methods were popular. In most cases two separate locks were employed, on for each barrel. The locks were arranged on one side of the gun in the case of an over/under barrel arrangement or on both sides in the case of side by side barrels. In this case both barrels would be loaded, the dogheads would be cocked and then fired either using one or two triggers. If one trigger was used a slight pull would fire the first barrel. A heavier pull would fire the second barrel. Or in some cases only one doghead would be cocked at a time and the trigger would be pulled normally. In some case two triggers were employed.
A second popular method involved one lock and two or more rotating barrels. This was known as a turnover pistol. In this case each barrel had one lock but they were fired using a single doghead. The barrels were loaded, the doghead cocked and the first barrel was discharged. Then the barrel was turned over, the doghead again cocked and the second barrel was ready for firing.
Other methods allowed for rotating taps which would place involved turning a tap and thus exposing a different barrel's touch hole to the same priming pan. Multi-shot pistols were popular but also heavy and expensive to produce and sometimes unreliable.

17th Century Italian Triple Barrel Barrels are rotated by hand, one trigger, and one doghead.

18th Century (1750) rotating over/under by Bailes of London.
Another example of an English over/under pistol

In both Pistols, frizzen and pan rotate into place along with barrel to be struck by the doghead.

Double Barreled Side by Side. Note: two triggers and two dogheads.

Late 17th Century Tap Action Pistols. The First shot is fired and then the second barrel is slid or tapped into place.

Pocket Pistol
Their name says it all. They were the "Saturday Night Special" of the 16th-18th century. Before the Deringer, they were "Gentleman's" or "Muff Pistols". Typically a smaller pistol that was easily concealed. They were favored among the gentry and women because of these traits. Men would carry them concealed in a waistcoat pocket and women would hide them in a hand muff. The overcoat pistol was slight larger version of the pocket pistol. In every case the pocket pistol was designed to be concealed. Most did not have a ramrod and so on first inspection may be thought to be a turn-out or Queen Anne Pistol.
One of the more interesting aspects common among these pistols is that the doghead was centered internally on the pistol in a fashion similar to hammers on today's pistols. (That is the action was mounted internally instead of one of the sides of the pistol.) This type of design is known as a "Box Lock" .The box lock was more difficult to manufacture than a typical side mounted flintlock and tended to be more expensive to produce. The box lock also prevented aiming straight down the barrel of a pistol or rifle and so proved impractical for anything other than extremely close range. They were loaded in the same manner as any other muzzle loading pistol, however the ram rod was not with the pistol and was concealed separately.

Pocket Pistols, also called Muff Pistols, by Bunney Of London (18th Century)

18th Century English Overcoat Pistol

18th Century Russian Overcoat Pistol (Tula)

Volley Guns
Volley pistols were similar to multi-barrelled pistols but worked differently. Where the multi-barrelled pistol was designed to fire one shot at a time, the volley pistol was designed to fire several barrels all at once. The idea was to spread out the shots in a pattern so many barrels would be attached to the same lock but at different angles on the same plain of fire. When the trigger was pulled all the barrels would fire at once. Volley pistols often had four or five barrels. They were probably only effective at very close range and were difficult to fire and load.
While Volley pistols were somewhat rare, volley rifles were more common and were predecessors to the machine gun. Volley rifles or Guns became more practical when breech loading and metallic cartridges were introduced. (Long after the Golden age of Piracy).

Pistol Carbines
Pistol carbines were long barreled pistols that could have shoulder stocks added. In every other respect they were a normal pistol. These were probably not popular among Pirates but were quite popular among poachers and highway men because of the ease that such a weapon could be concealed. In some instances, the pistols came with screw on barrels. In such cases they were known as a Poacher's Gun.

Typical Pistol Carbine

Turnout Pistol
The turn out pistol was an early form of breech loading flintlock. The barrel of the pistol unscrewed, allowing the powder and shot to be loaded into the firing chamber. Once the shot was loaded the barrel was screwed back on. This allowed safer loading because the shot and powder did not have to be tapped all the way down the barrel. The wadding could also be dismissed for the same reason. There was no cartridge with the exception of the paper cartridge but this method allowed the powder and ball to be loaded without a rammer. The barrel could also be rifled or tapered allowing for a more accurate aim. The priming pan still needed to have powder added to it. In every other respect the turnout pistol worked in the same manner as a regular flintlock pistol.

18th Century Queen Anne Turn Out Pistol

Left Handed Pistols

Some pistols were made with the lock on the left side of the gun instead of the right. These were known as left handed pistols. The design was not to make it safer or easier to fire the pistol left handed. Virtually any pistol could be fired safely with either hand. The left handed lock had more to do with drawing the pistol with the left hand. Most people tended to wield their sword or cutlass in the right hand which meant that often the left hand became the pistol hand by default. When you tuck a flintlock pistol into a belt it is safer and more comfortable to have the lock facing out. This helps prevents the lock from snagging on clothing as the pistol is drawn. It also prevents the jagged lock from pressing into your belly. If you tuck a right handed lock into a belt in a manner suitable for drawing with the left hand, the lock is pressed against the body. Putting the lock on the opposite side solved this problem.

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