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Caribbean Tales - Personal Weapons - Rifles

The Blunderbuss was much like the Musketoon in that it was a close range, devastation inducing tool. The blunderbuss is perhaps a more popularly known name for the same kind of large shot rifle. In most cases a blunderbuss is considered the same type of rifle as the musketoon, with the distinction more to be made in the history of firearms than the type of weapons considered.
The blunderbuss was never used in large numbers, probably due to the way war was waged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Such a small compact weapon had no real place on the battlefields of Europe. Where the blunderbuss excelled was in the line of personal security.
However, the battlefield of Europe had little in common with the tactics of a boarding party on the high seas. The blunderbuss was more like a hand held cannon than a rifle. The name blunderbuss is probably derived from the German donnerbusche which means thunder gun.
It ranged in size from 14 to about 30 inches. Some blunderbusses were actually large bore pistols but most had at least a small shoulder stock. (Muskets of the time tended to be much longer, ranging around 60 inches long.) They were in use as a weapon as early as 1530 until at least 1840 when the Royal Mail coach service received an order for several flintlock blunderbusses. The blunderbuss was a large calibre weapon with a bore around 1 1/2 to 2 inches. It fired several small pellets, as with today's shot guns.
The purpose of the blunderbuss was to deliver a large amount of fire over a large area in an instant. For this reason, it was thought the barrel of the gun should be funnel shaped at the end to help spread the shot. In actuality this design did little to improve the scatter of the shot, but it did make the blunderbuss a unique looking weapon.
Many blunderbusses had short stocks and were not designed to be fired from the shoulder like a musket. The purpose of the stock was to allow the weapon to braced against the hip or squeezed between the forearm and side of the body in order to help steady the enormous kick of the gun. The weapon usually had no sights so it would have been little use to even attempt to shoulder fire the gun. Some of the longer models could have been fired from the shoulder but due to the recoil, and short range it would have probably been wiser to brace the gun in some other manner.
At close range the weapon would have been quite deadly. The spread from the gun could quite easily be as much as a few feet about ten to twenty feet from the muzzle, perhaps as much as six to ten feet at a range of thirty or forty feet. However, the gun would have done little good at a distance much more than this.
But one must also realize that on a Sloop or Man-O-War of the time this would have been more than an adequate range. The main down fall of the blunderbuss would have been its one shot capability and the fact that most men would need both hands in order to fire it. This means that after the first shot the weapon would be no more than a club, and a lousy club at that. It would have been quite difficult to wield a cutlass in the right hand while hold a blunderbuss in the left.
Some blunderbusses were fitted with a folding bayonet which ran along the top of the barrel, however this too was really ineffective. The blunderbuss' short length was a major deficiency when it came to using the weapon with a bayonet. Bayonets were attached to weapons in order for the rifle to be used as a pike. Rifles at best were a poor substitute for the pike, and attempting to use a blunderbuss as a pike was suicide.
Where the blunderbuss excelled was in its ability to repel boarders and the sheer psychological effect of its mighty roar, and its ability to scatter shot all over the deck. There is no record of any pirate captain that favored the use of a blunderbuss surely any captain who worried of mutiny, would have enjoyed the security offered by the blunderbuss in the closed quarters of his cabin. Furthermore, sure any man who was going to lead a boarding party would have preferred the mighty blast from a blunderbuss into his enemy before having to resort to his cutlass.

17th Century Wheellock Blunderbuss

18th Century Blunderbuss Pistol from England

18th Century German Blunderbuss

18th Century French Blunderbuss

18th Century Spanish Blunderbuss

18th Century 29 inch, English Coach Gun (Blunderbuss)

Muskets or Long Arms
The Musket, a general term used for single shot rifles, was one of the first attempts at small arms with some accuracy. The Musket eventually became the model for the rifle, though, in the days of pirates, the Musket was only slightly more accurate than the blunderbuss.
The Royal Navy musket was a modified Brown Bess musket. It's barrel was between 36 and 38 inches. It was a simpler weapon so that it would stand up to the corrosion of the salt water and the demands of life at sea. The ramrod was made of steel and stored under the stock of the weapon.
The lock used on the sea musket was a variation from the normal one available on the Brown Bess. The lock plate is flat and has less decoration. It is a flintlock. The lead ball it used was a .75 calibre, but the bore was actually bigger. The muskets also came in two barrel lengths, 3 feet 1 inch and 2 feet 2 inches, both could take a bayonet, and the effective range was around 100 yards.
In the Royal Navy the weapon was purchased by the Ordinance board from private contractors, with only a few specifications which caused a wide variation in weapons. They also came in two variation of barrels, the bright sea service which was usually used by the Marines and the black sea service, which was used for operations where the glint off the barrel would be a bad thing. Both types of weapons were sent to each ship.
The ammunition was pre-made, with both the ball and powder combined in a cartridge. It was wrapped in either greased or waxed paper. The powder used in these cartridges was not as powerful as that which was used in the great guns.
The Musket ball was smaller and designed to shoot straighter, but ultimately could be counted on less to cause the kind of damage that a blunderbuss or musketoon could cause at close range. The thinking was that a musket could kill a single person, most commonly by sailors in the rigging shooting down on the decks at the officers of other vessels or other marines in the rigging with muskets, whereas a blunderbuss would cause havoc for many in smaller doses. Still, be it Musket, Musketoon, or Blunderbuss, a pirate probably only owned one of the varieties of rifle.
The Musket is often overlooked in piracy but among the "Brothers of the Coast" or Buccaneers, the Musket was a prized possession. The Spaniards believed the Bucans to be the best musket shots in the world and they may very well have been right. Because they outranged pistols, muskets were valuable in the initial boarding attempts as well as in repelling boarders. They were also valuable when the pirates journeyed on land to sack towns or raid Spanish gold trains. Their biggest drawback was their size. A musket required the pirate to use both hands, while a pistol only required one. Also muskets were more difficult and time consuming to reload when compared to pistols. And when a melee ensued onboard ship, it was always more effective to wield a cutlass and dagger because these never ran out of ammunition.

Matchlock Musket. Early French Matchlock from around 1660-1690, typical of the period.

1600s Fowler
A 54 calibre English Fowler from the mid 1600s. One of the earliest Flintlocks. Fowlers are hunting guns. Both this Fowler and the Matchlock above were being used around the same time.

French Musket
Early French Long Musket from 1700-1720. The muzzle measure 69 calibres (69/100 of an inch) The size of the bullet would've been around 65 calibres, with the difference in diameter being made up with the patch.

English Brown Bess
Known as the Land Pattern Long Musket. This was the standard issue British Musket from the 1720s until the beginning of the 1800s. Smooth bore and firing a 75 calibre musket ball. That is a 3/4 inch solid ball of lead.

Sea Service Brown Bess
The British knew the handicap of the long barrelled musket onboard ships and created a shortened barrelled version of the Land Pattern service Musket. The new musket was the "Sea Pattern Musket". Shorter than the Land Pattern and missing swivels for the sling and bayonet attachemnts, it was designed specifically for boarding ships or repelling boarders. It was not designed for use on land.

French Trading Gun
This is a French pattern musket that would have been plentiful throughout the Americas around the beginning of the 1700s. It was a plain musket sold in trading stores.

Spanish Musket from the early 1700s
A typical military issue Spanish Musket from the early 1700s. It fired a 70 calibre ball.

Kentucky Rifle, mid 1700s.
A "Kentucky Rifle" made in Bethlehem Pennsylvania. German Gunsmiths settled throughout Pennsylvania and brought the German school of musketry to the Colonies. Almost all of these rifles or muskets were made in Pennsylvania but are often called "Kentucky Long Rifles" or Kentucky Muskets. The name comes from where they were going to and not where they were made. Many settlers heading to the new open lands in Kentucky would stop in Pennsylvania and buy the new rifle at a trading post before heading to Virginia and through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky.


The Musketoon of 1758 had a brass barrel and the standard flintlock firing mechanism. This rifle was single shot, loaded and packed from the mouth of the barrel. This weapon was less accurate than a musket, but far more effective at close range. In truth it was something of a small cannon in terms of how it was employed. It is doubtful that a pirate would carry more than one rifle, if any, unlike the rest of the weaponry.


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.

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