Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Pirates Personal Weapons

During what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Piracy, the early 18th century, or "the Pirates of the Caribbean time", pirates were often armed.  This is not surprising as they are criminals who take things by force.  It may be, in fact, silly to think of them without weapons, as their weapons have become a part of their costume, so to speak.  This is a short study of the common personal weapons that pirates most often used.  Please understand that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Clearly weapons such as hammers, marlinspikes, whips, flails, and garottes could and I'm sure did come into play.  Yet, those were not the common weapons of pirates, but rather the weapons of convenience.  Knives, swords, axes, and guns were the common weapons of the time.

The most common weapon was the knife because it was also a tool of both hunters and sailors, which is where Buccaneers came from.  Knives were also commonly used because they're small and easy to carry concealed -or- between your teeth whilst climbing up the side of a ship that you're about to attack.  Quick and quiet, knives made the best weapons for taking a ship in the dead of the night.  Versatile, as they can be thrown, used to puncture or slash, plus lightweight and easy to carry.  It is easy to see how the knife was clearly a pirate favorite.

(More pics of this great knife can be seen at


Pirates also used swords.  The most common type of sword used by Pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy was the cutlass.  Their short, heavy blades sharpened only on one edge made excellent machetes and shipboard tools, as well as weapons.  The reason for this design was the use of the weapon; dual-edge swords can cut on both the forward swing and the back-swing.  There is much less control on the back-swing and an accident could mean damage to the sails and sheets of the ship.  It was true that some sailors and pirates used rapiers.  This was rare however, because the rapier is primarily a thrusting weapon and it takes great skill to master.  The rapier is the weapon of a duelist, not a murderous thug.

Boarding Axes

One of the most common weapons, or tools, found on ships of this period is the ax.  Most sailors probably thought of the ax as more of a tool, like a fireman's ax, than a weapon.  No matter,  as the ax makes an effective boarding weapon whether you choose to attack your enemy directly or damage their ship. Many of the French buccaneers used a small hand ax, not unlike the tomahawk, as an offhanded weapon.  Additionally, every ship of the period should have AT LEAST 1 ax to cut away storm-damaged pieces of rigging and to cut wood for repair pieces.

Belaying Pins or Clubs

Surprising as this may be to hear, murder is not always the goal when taking a ship.  Sometimes, especially if the crew are just poor merchant sailors, there is no reason for a great deal of bloodshed. If just beating down and frightening the crew will get you what you want, why go further?  Also, it was not uncommon for pirates to recruit new members from the crews of taken ships; it's not real likely that you are gonna get someone to join with you if you just shot one of their friends and ran a sword through another.  So, without further delay, I present to you the belaying pin.

The belaying pin is a piece of hard wood or brass 18" - 24" long in a pin or baton shape that fits into a set of parallel holes, one above the other, in the rails or around the masts.  It is a tool on board a sailing vessel of this period that performs the same duty as the modern cleat; it serves as a place to "make fast" or tie off lines from the running rigging (that's the part of the rigging that moves).  As each sail could have as many as 6 running rigging lines coming from it and each line needs a place to be tied off, you begin to see how there are many pins along the rails on both sides of a ship with 15 or more sails, as most vessels with 3 masts could easily have.


From the Fifteenth century and the arrival of the Spanish in the Caribbean, pistols became the premier personal weapon.  They were highly prized by pirates.  In some ship's articles, it was agreed upon by the entire crew that the lookout who spotted a ship that ended up as a prize got the choice of the pistols found aboard. Unfortunately, despite their incredible popularity both in history and in fiction, pistols of this time period are neither accurate, nor reliable.  This is especially the case when mixed with the humidity of the Caribbean region.  Simply put, black powder weapons absolutely require dry powder to fire properly and it is incredibly difficult to keep powder dry in a place where the air is saturated with water.  

Of course as the centuries roll by, black powder becomes more stable and the mechanisms of the pistols become better as well.  Even so, pistol shots at close range still failed nearly a third of the time.  Again, we must consider the pirate and remember his goal is usually thievery.  Pistols, especially a number of them, are intimidating all on their own.  A pirate might be able to convince common people to help him just by intimidation without ever having to threaten them directly.  How comfortable would you be around a terrorist covered in weapons, which is roughly the equivalent of how people of the 18th Century viewed pirates at that time.

Long Rifles

Long rifles, although they are black powder weapons, were much more stable.  Used both by pirates and marines, these were the assault weapons of the period.  When fixed with a bayonet, the barrel of the gun is plugged, but the weapon retains functionality as a boarding pike.  In the period, some of the French buccaneers were renowned hunters and their accuracy with a long rifle, whether killing a boar or a man, was the stuff of legend.

It is interesting to note that although the British and French were known to use long rifles from the rigging (or more accurately from the fighting tops), the Spanish never did -- their Admiralty believed that the risk of fire in the rigging far outweighed the benefits of guns.  Even as late as the 1700's, the Spanish used bows and crossbows in their fighting tops.


If the long rifle was the assault weapon of the period, then the blunderbuss is like an AK-47 with undermounted grenade launcher.  This weapon was 100% intimidation; 3 - 5 people standing in its explosive path would become the blood red paint that covered the people behind them.  It was a terror weapon.  It was used both to intimidate and to end boarding actions.  If there were 4 of these side by side, they would clear a deck.  Blunderbuss, when you absolutely want to make it clear that you are in charge and you are not afraid to redecorate in arterial red to prove it.

You can see more of this glorious piece at the following site.

Pirate D&D and a Question About Ball Bearings

I have been running a pirate game for nearly 6 months now.  We have bounced from system to system, but found nothing that really makes everyone happy.  The announcement of 5e D&D has spurred my group into wanting to switch to this system.  Unfortunately, the system is far from complete and I know much will need to be modified in order to make it work out for us.  Let me give you some examples of what we are working with now.

Given the lack of character classes in the free release of 5e, we were forced to search afield for something we could home-rule together.  We grabbed classes from here, because what else can you do when you have 2 witch doctors, 2 swashbucklers, 4 pirates, and an assassin?  We're also using pieces and parts from A Mighty Fortress, which I have had for years, as well as things from other systems.  This blog will be about the trials and tribulations of trying to run a game with a Pirates of the Caribbean feel.  I will share with you what we have tried and what we thinks works, as well as other thoughts, musings, and occasional pet peeves.

Ball Bearings

SO here's the first one.  On page 48 of the 5e rules, there is a section that discusses metal ball bearings.  1000 metal ball bearings can be purchased for 1 gp.  What is the use of these obviously technological tidbits that makes them SO common in a fantasy world.  In our world, steel ball bearings did not exist until the late 1800's.  The soft lead balls used for ammo in the 1700's would just crush underfoot, they wouldn't stay round thus no trip hazard.  Serious technology is behind the ball bearing.  Why is it so common in D&D?  Maybe I'm just crazy for wanting a little realism with my fantasy.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Pirate Birthday Adventure -- You're never too old.

Last weekend my nephew turned 22.  He loves pirates and his wife, who was making him an excellent pirate outfit for his present wanted to have a pirate surprise party.  She wanted to have a scavenger hunt type thing and so my incredibly talented friends and family pulled together to pull off an amazing pirate adventure.

Here's the letter that started it all off, written by yours truly:

Unto My Most Adventurous Nephew,

From A Most Eccentric and Unknown Uncle Who Has Watched Your Ways

Concerning A Coming of Age, A Rite of Passage, and A Quest In Need of Finishing

I have little time left to me on this spinning ball of mud and I will waste little of it explaining myself. I am kin to you, but you were never told of me. I am kept locked away now by the wasting of body and mind. We will never meet, you and I, yet I believe that you are the one to finish the quest that I have devoted my life to. They called my meticulous work MAD, but you will prove them wrong! At least I think you're the one. But wait; I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let me give you some background.

An age ago when pirates sailed did Jose Gaspar take up the “sweet trade”. He took many rich prizes along the Gulf Coast, raiding shipping and settlements alike. His brig, La Florablanca, was known and feared by all. In his later years, Gaspar began to hoard his treasure, wanting not to split it with the crew. Finally though when La Florablanca rode so low in the water that the gunports could no be opened for fear of sinking the brig, the crew handed Gaspar the “black spot” and demanded a split of the booty.

Gaspar did not stay a pirate captain into his 60's by being a fool. So he put into Tampa Bay near the mouth of the Hillsborough River at the dying of day. The order was to disembark all crew and treasure into the boats. They'd count and split the treasure onshore; the plan was to sail away again at dawn. Unfortunately, there was so much treasure to be loaded and moved ashore that the process took all night. Before the split could happen, a ship could be seen entering Tampa Bay by the morning light. Gaspar eyed her through his spyglass and saw she flew the colors of Britain. She seemed low in the water, as well as poorly-handled by a too-small crew. All the signs of merchantman come to trade at the small nearby settlement.

Gaspar put it to his crew – “Look there what comes our way, hombres – a fat English merchant. Who wants to make this pile even bigger!” The crew took little convincing. They knew the now empty La Florablanca would quickly catch and dispatch this merchant. They were blinded by greed and that was their undoing.

As many now know, that fat British merchantman was no merchantman at all. It was all a rouse and when La Florablanca pulled into range, the ship cut down the British ensign and flew the Stars and Stripes. At the same time, 57 cannons unleashed Hell upon the deck of La Floriblanca. Captain Gaspar watched from the quarterdeck as the grapeshot from the U.S.S. Enterprise decimated his crew 8 times over. The fight was over before the first boarding hook let fly from the American war ship.

What happened next is the stuff of legend. Gaspar ran from the quarterdeck to the fo’c’sle. He wrapped himself in the anchor chain of his beloved Floriblanca and screamed at the top of his lungs:

Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's

Still brandishing his cutlass over his head, he then leaped into the foam and was never seen again. Those few men that survived the U.S.S. Enterprise's attack upon La Floriblanca were rounded up and taken to New Orleans. There they were tried as pirates and hung within the tide marks, as naval law demands.

Yet, we need to go back to that beach. Once the crew decided to attack the “British merchantman”, they had another vote to select 8 men to stay behind and guard the treasure. For the most part, the men chosen were ones that the crew, as a whole, trusted. Now it just so happens that 2 of those men were long time friends of Gaspar, having come with him originally from Spain: Juan Lorenzo ne Roja de Seville, ship's surgeon and Diego Salazar de Cadiz, ship's cook.

Once the fight began and the fate of La Florablanca so quickly sealed, these 8 desperadoes took what treasure each could carry and made their good their escapes before full dawn could betray them on the beach. Diego and Juan Lorenzo were the last to leave. They loaded a longboat full of the remaining treasure and rowed as hard as they could, as long as they could, up the Hillsborough River. Nearly exhausted, but still fearing capture, the men slept hidden under their boat for the rest of the day. That night they buried the treasure under the waning quarter moon. They made a map with directions on the back to the treasure what they had buried and then made their way back into the small settlement of Tampa. Before going their separate ways, they made a pact not to betray the other. To enforce the pact they decided to tear the map into pieces and put said pieces into a hat. Both men then chose an equal number of pieces at random and they went their separate ways. Juan Lorenzo, the surgeon, was your great, great, great, great grandfather on your mother's side. I am in possession of his half of the pieces. I have spent years researching journals, making contacts, and searching for the remaining pieces of the map. With these clues and contacts, perhaps you will be able to succeed where I never was and you will find the lost treasure of Lorenzo and Salazar. Again though, I get ahead of myself.

In addition to this letter, I have sent an exam on the “sweet trade” to validate you as a Master of Piratical Arts, which you will be required to pass before you take possession of the first bit of contact information. In the event that I am sadly mistaken and you are unable to score a passing grade on this Master exam, do not be concerned. I have made all of the necessary arrangements with my proctor.

Happy Birthday Nephew and where-ever your voyages take you may the weather always be fair, the wind always be strong, the sun always be warm, and the rum always close to hand with the luck of the Irish rovers forever in your soul.

Get dressed now and go see the proctor.

Afterwards, he was given a test of knowledge and then he had to make his way around town finding clues to lead him to pieces of the map.  There were 6 stops in all.  During his adventure, he had to find and dig up 2 treasures, solve a pirate puzzle, follow a compass, drink rum, climb a tree, sword fight an enemy pirate, and sail a boat upriver to the "hidden spring".  There were people to help out at every stop to keep up the theme. Great fun was had by all.

Friday, July 4, 2014

America -- Founded By Pirates

Happy 4th of July to Everyone!  On this day when we celebrate the birth of American independence, let us not forget the pirates.  Wait?!?  What do pirates have to do with American independence?  Quite a bit, actually.  Pirates influenced our style of government, worked with colonial governors, and even fought in the Revolution of 1776.

What the U.S. Flag Should Look Like

As you may remember from "You Want Me to Sign Your What?", pirates have a very democratic process for electing their captain and believe in rules agreed upon by the group as a whole and explained to everyone.  All though it may not resemble it so much anymore, this was the root that our modern system of government in the U.S. came from.  Many pirates were originally maroons; our modern freedoms have their roots in the settlements these former slaves set up for themselves.  If you don't like that idea very much, then check this out.

Pirates often worked with the governors of the American colonies.  As a holdover from earlier and simpler times, colonial governors had some of the crown's executive authority.  They could (and did) create privateers.  One of the major values to being a privateer was having a port to sell your cargo in, as long as you could prove it was 'spoils of war'.  Of course, you run the risk of being caught when you do this.  Below is an excerpt from a letter Governor Dudley of Massachusetts sent to the crown:
. . .

1.  That the government of Rhode Island does not observe the Acts of Trade and Navigation; but counteneces the violation thereof, by permitting and encouraging of illegal trade and piracy.

2.  That Rhode Island is a receptacle of pirates, who are encouraged and harbored by that government. . . .

What you may not know is the good governor Dudley also licensed pirates to be privateers for the Massachusetts Bay Co.  He wrote the crown because he was angry that these Rhode Island boys were cutting into his profits, not because he honored the Acts of Trade and Navigation so much or because he feared that pirates were a danger to his people.

What about the pirates fighting in the Revolutionary War?  Well that is a really fascinating story because it involves not only pirates, but also Ben Franklin.  You can read all about it here:

Luke Ryan, the Irish pirate who fought for American liberty.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

From the Quarterdeck

I've had setbacks (my computer died leaving me a week behind before I could replace it), overcome them then met more setbacks (the art that I want to use is not up to the job, for a single example).  I am working now to overcome these new setbacks.  The learning curve for even a tiny, home-based publisher is incredible.  It's very clear to me at the onset of this enterprise that time is the most valuable commodity we have as humans.  Regrets for the past, blah blah, ok that's it - I've no more time for that bs.  I've had a lot going on even with the setbacks.

First, I'm really excited to announce that I'm working with a fantastically talented 1st time writer who is telling stories of her farming life.  I'm helping her to edit and assemble her first book: How NOT To Raise Pigs.  It's being a true blast to work with Rebecca on this.  Yet, this is really just a side project.

I have nearly finished the first draft of the The Pirate GM's Fist, which I am pretty certain that I am changing the name of.  But hey, that's life in the constant change of creation.

I have laid out projects for BSE until the end of the year.  The next project on the horizon for us is Seven Ships on Mysterious Missions.  It will be a collection of warships with interesting backgrounds, crews, captains, and missions for use in swashbuckling and pirate games.

Additionally, I have been contacted to consult on a surprise pirate enterprise that I am really excited to be a part of.  I'm afraid that NDA prevents me from saying anything more here.  It's really gonna be cool though because so many excellent people are involved. I am super honored that I was contacted.  Woot!

Mainly though there is a lot of work to be done and only one guy to do it.  So I must run before the wind like a Jamaica Sloop.  Until next time, mates.