Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tools of the Trade: Stick It...

Everyone who hasn't been in a coma for the last seventy odd years is familiar with the image above in some form or another. It just happens that I've chosen the best form possible - Errol Flynn as Captain Blood. There he is, the pirate in all his antiheroic glory. His rapier at the ready and his fist to the shrouds. A moment more and he's swinging across to board the enemy followed by a scruffy crew with flintlocks in hand and knives clutched in their teeth. The games afoot.

Did it really happen that way? No. Whatever "it" might be, it didn't. Rapiers are awful when it comes to close combat aboard a crowded ship and a knife in your teeth is going to spell more trouble for your face than the enemy's gut. So what were the pointy weapons of choice for freebooters down through the ages? Let's dive in and have a close look.

Before we start analyzing the weapons themselves, it should be noted that most pirates probably didn't sign on with a gentleman's knowledge of hand to hand combat. Weapons, up until the 19th century and then only in a limited number of countries, were for the powerful and wealthy. There's a reason why torches and pitchforks were the go to items for angry peasant mobs. They weren't allowed anything else, except rocks. Allowing the plebs arms means the government's authority can be questioned by one of those pesky revolutions and that will never do.

Even men who came from navy ships probably had only a slight advantage in the sword handling department. Officers couldn't risk men carrying swords or dirks for fear of mutiny. A foremast jack was allowed only a sailor's knife, which resembled a modern mat cutter, to be used for slicing rope and sail as needed. Boarding weapons were locked up until combat loomed.

A green hand aboard a pirate or privateer had to rely on a veteran to show him the ropes when it came to swordplay and it must have been a very odd feeling to hoist a weapon at first. Which is why the choice was clear. Get your hands on something that didn't require finesse but could easily mutilate unmercifully.

It is no surprise, then, that the slicing weapon of choice was the cutlass. This compact and deadly sword was the descendant of a Medieval weapon called a curtal axe. The rounded blade, sharpened like a razor, was approximately a yard long and could cut right through a man if enough force was applied. Blades were frequently painted to keep salt spray from causing rust. The brass hand guard kept others from cutting up a man's fingers as he came at them and the shorter blade allowed for a good, hefty swing even in close quarters.

The hanger, a shorter cousin of the cutlass, was also popular with pirates in particular. This weapon got its name - or so I'm told - because it hung from a leather belt. Yeah. We'll go with that.

Yet another form of cutlass was the German dusagge which had a larger, scalloped hand guard for diverting sweat and blood away from the fingers and a nasty, double-edged serrated blade that could do even more damage.

Once a man got the hang of handling steel he might want a second weapon for good measure. Daggers, dirks and stilettos were all popular and could easily be concealed in clothing or boots if the need arose. A main gauche (French for "left hand"), pictured above, would be the penultimate in panache. The thin blade and long cross guard or quillon would be ideal for befuddling an adversary's sword momentarily, giving the bearer time to strike with his cutlass or hanger.

Let's face it, though. Not everyone was ever going to get to the cutlass-and-stiletto stage. No worries. There were weapons for those guys who just wanted to hit somebody hockey style.

A boarding axe, as pictured above, was the usual choice. Measuring between two and three feet long and weighing up to seven pounds, just swinging the thing with a reasonable amount of force could be devastating. The hooked side could bash in a skull and the axe could chop off a limb. Added bonus: a boarding axe could cut rigging with one handy chop, disabling the prize.

It goes without saying that anything can be made into a weapon if the need arises. Loading hooks, marlinespikes, belaying pins, block and tackle could all come to the party if the need arose. Just like there are no atheists in the trenches, there are no picky pirates in a brawl for a prize.

Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule. Blackbeard favored two cutlasses and six flintlocks, which struck fear into the enemy without Mr. Teach raising a hand. Just the opposite, Jean Laffite - while he killed more than one man with a pistol - never carried anything but a colchemarde at his side. The colchemarde was the Louisiana Creole sword cane that consisted of a rapier with a silver or wooden handle concealed within a wooden hilt which could be carried as a cane. Jean's, legend has it, had a ruby from India in the hilt. The perfect accessory for a gentleman privateer.

I think I just made my own point moot with that bit about the rapier. Ah well. I'm only sorry that Errol Flynn never played Laffite.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Errol Flynn as Jean Laffite? I don't know he seems too Anglo for that. Maybe Basil Rathbone. He could get away with playing a Frenchman. Plus he was more "dark" and a good "bad guy". After all, one man's "Hellish Banditti" is another man's charming rogue. Isn't that what you told me?

Pauline said...

(In the voice of Jean Laffite): "Well, you know. I don't like to brag. But, it is not bragging if it is true, oui?"

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