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It is commonly shown in movies that pirate ships would flank their target, and then shoot huge salvos of cannonballs at it.

I think that it doesn't really make any sense: if they wanted to steal a ship or its contents, shooting 10-20 cannonballs at it from close range would certainly sink the ship or spoil its cargo!

Did pirates commonly shoot salvos of cannonballs at their targets?

Example on youtube.

  • Note: this question was asked as part of the "topic of the week" initiative to raise our questions per day stat. Please contribute some great questions! – Sklivvz Feb 6 '12 at 21:37
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    I doubt that 10-20 cannon balls would sink most ships, unless they were extremely lucky, or hit the magazine (causing an explosion). – Flimzy Feb 7 '12 at 23:35
  • As far as how unlikely ships were to sink, I read a book that was an account of the battle of trafalgar and I recall that none of the British ships were sunk in the battle! (Some were lost afterwards as the fleet was unwisely ordered, against Nelson's previous orders, to sail home and were caught in a bad storm. Some very badly damaged ships couldn't survive those conditions.) It seems you could blow them full of holes, dismount their guns, kill large numbers of their crew, blast off their masts, render them helpless and adrift, but they'd keep on floating. – Grimm The Opiner Nov 25 '16 at 11:16
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In short: Yes, they did, but it was not their preferred tactic


Quotes in this post from Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates by David Cordingly the former curator and head of exhibitions at the British National Maritime Museum. The book has a extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and was good read. I recommend it.


A number of points:

  • One of the main purposes of pirate tactics was to scare their targets into surrender. They preferred to accomplish that without doing major damage, but they were willing if it seemed necessary

    Equally frightening but more devastating in its effects [than bombardment with hand thrown explosives] was the broadside. This was rarely used by pirates because they did not want to damage a potential prize,

    (from chapter 6) which supports the position taken in the question, but the book continues

    but they had no hesitation in firing a broadside if they needed to blast a victim into submission.

    and they did, at times, employ tactics like overloading the guns. We continue

    Captain John Frost was chased for twelve hours by a pirate ship in July 1717. It was nine o'clock in the evening when the pirates drew along side. The pirate ship, which was commanded by Frenchman Captain La Bouse, had twenty guns and a crew of 170. She fired a broadside of "double rounds and partridges, and a volley of small shot," which means that each of the ten guns on one side of the ship was loaded with two round cannon balls and a bag of partridge shot.

    Note however that they made non-resistance pay:

    Pirates did not appreciate a brave resistance from a merchant ship, but expected and demanded instant surrender. [...] If a merchant ship surrendered without a fight, the pirates usually refrained from inflicting violence on the crew.

  • A second major tactic was to carry an unusually heavy crew to allow for overwhelming boarding actions. Notice the 170 men on a twenty gun vessel in the proceeding bullet point. That was a huge crew, exceeding that used by the navies of the time.

  • Pirates often did not want to capture the vessel: they wanted to loot it. As long as it wasn't sinking too fast, they were happy.

    One scenario documented in the book (chapter six) ends

    Having striped the Princess Galley of everything of value, the pirates who were led by George Lowther, sailed away. Captain Wicksted was left to make his way to Barbados with the remains of his crew.

    and another

    When they had finished looting the Samuel, the pirates turn their attention to the crew. All except one Irishman and the Captain were forced at pistol point to leave the ship and join the pirates. [...] Captain Cary was left with one seaman and three passengers. With their assistance he sailed the ship to Boston and reported the attack [...].

  • Wooden ships tend to sink slowly (or at least more slowly that steel ones) and could often be saved if the crew could concentrate on the problem (i.e. were not busy fighting a boarding action). A well manned ship had at least one carpenter on board plus tools and stock for him to use. I'll give one indicative quote (chapter 6):

    The pirates had no difficulty in recruiting ordinary seamen to their ranks, but they also needed men with specialist skills. Of these the most in demand were carpenters and coopers. In a naval warship the carpenter was one of the most valued men on board. [...] He was responsible for the maintenance of all the wooden parts on the ship, which included most of the structure from the keel to the masts and spars. [...] [He] really came into his own during and after a battle, when he and his mate would be called upon to patch up holes in the hull, repair damaged gear, and replace broken spars.

  • Mangling the rigging of the opposing ship was a standard tactic of the day. Warships would have carried consider quantities of extra lumber, line and canvas and so the crews would be able to effect at least partial repairs at sea. [Citation needed, I'll have to take a little time to scan the book again to find a decent quote.] Merchant vessels may have been less well equipped.

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    double shot was probably chain shot, special shot designed to rip sails (and thus aimed high, not at the hull). Being mixed with shrapnel would make that more likely still, shrapnel being used to clear decks in preparation for boarding action. As to massive amounts of fire used: it'd not be economically feasible. Less weapons expended means cheaper, thus higher profit :) – jwenting Feb 7 '12 at 6:49
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    You can be certain that the author is/was aware of the existence of chain and bar shot. I won't guess at why he interprets the primary source as he does, but I will defer to him on the matter. – dmckee Feb 7 '12 at 16:16
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    maybe he quotes his source (possibly eye witness accounts of survivors of the attack) verbatim. Fog of war and things like that. – jwenting Feb 8 '12 at 5:55

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