Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tools Of The Trade: The Buccaneers Gun

They name the musket their gun and have used it with great ingenuity to make up for their lack of resources.

Thus wrote Triple P’s house physician Alexander Exquemelin of the famous boucaniers of Tortuga. They were, said the Doctor in his eye-witness accounts, reliably efficient marksman who could be compared to “… the finest of the French Musketeers”. This is a statement not to be taken lightly when one considers the facts surrounding it. First, the flintlock musket, with its long barrel, smooth bore and uneven shot, is ungainly and ill suited to accuracy in the eyes of modern marksmen. Second, the French Musketeers had a reputation in their day comparable in many ways to modern special ops snipers.

So what was the draw of the musket for men who roved the sea and land looking for plunder and rarely settling in to one place? The answer to that question is surprisingly complex and yet perfectly logical. But it does require a familiarity with the weapon and its uses.

The long musket was the son of the matchlock. Aside from line-up-and-fire-on-command military actions based on land there was really nothing the matchlock could do. With its slow loading and lit match waving dangerously off to the side of the gun itself, the matchlock was always a fire or even explosion waiting to happen. Particularly aboard a close-packed ship made of wood and smeared with combustibles like tar and tallow, the matchlock was beyond impractical. All that changed with the simple but profoundly brilliant mechanism of the striking flint.

A flintlock musket had the advantage of being easy to carry first and relatively inexpensive second. Though cannon can do tremendous damage on land and at sea they are hard to come by and even harder to steal. Then too not all buccaneering ships – some of which were no more than simple canoes – could carry cannon. But a pirogue manned with ten superior boucaniers marksmen could inflict a lot of damage on the men aboard a much larger prize. And that even before the prize knew what was upon them.

The musket Exquemelin and his mates dubbed the fusil boucanier, or buccaneer gun, was originally of French or Dutch origin. By the time of Exquemelin’s writings in the late 17th century, this specific type of musket was in use throughout the New World with the notable exception of Spanish territories. On average the gun was about four and a half feet long with a smooth bore and fittings made of brass or more infrequently iron. It resembled the hunting guns favored in Europe but not the blunderbusses so familiar to American children from Pilgrim themed cartoons. At first glance the musket would appear to modern eyes like an unusually long rifle with very fancy fittings.

The musket had a front sight but no rear sight and the best marksman would use a rest of some kind – a fence or tree crotch or the rail of their ship – when firing. The caliber of the gun was not set but based on the bores of guns still in existence ranged from .73 to .78. It is worth noting that there are no examples of the fusil boucanier proper available today, so all of this is well informed speculation. Loading was a complicated process that will need an entire post of its own but contemporary reports and modern research indicated that an accomplished buccaneer could potentially complete the task within twenty to thirty seconds. Effective deadly range in the hands of the same man would be approximately 200 yards but up to 300 yards the ball (or balls, frequently the muskets were double or triple loaded) could cause serious though not necessarily life-threatening injury.

With all this in mind the answer to the initial question seems a bit clearer. The musket was relatively easy to carry. In fact, on Morgan’s march across the Isthmus of Panama many of his men, particularly the French boucaniers from San Domingue, carried two or three at a time. Not surprisingly these were Morgan’s go-to marksmen who equalized battles and fed their fellows when game or cattle were available with their beloved muskets. This weapon was also easy to come by. They were relatively affordable and it goes without saying that taking them from a prize or off a fallen foe or comrade was easy work. The guns were surprisingly accurate in the hands of a seasoned marksman. Even aboard small vessels, as long as the musket was double loaded, a good shooter could hit a man somewhere in his torso three shots out of six at a reasonable distance.

Of course the muskets had their drawbacks. They had to be kept meticulously clean and oiled to avoid the ubiquitous rust that dogged all metal items in the tropics and particularly at sea. Interestingly, the buccaneers routinely allowed their muskets’ brass fittings to tarnish, presumably to cut down on any tell tale glint that might give them away in an ambush situation. Then, too, there was the issue of firing with a fouled barrel. Even dry black powder would build up in the barrel of a musket with each firing and eventually the marksman would have to take a moment to scour his barrel with linen or tow wrapped around the ramrod and soaked with any available fluid (yeah; any available fluid). Failure to do so could result in a jammed ball and the potential ruin of the weapon.

For a superior and detailed discussion of the particulars of buccaneer muskets, see Benerson Little’s book The Sea Rovers Practice, which your humble hostess consults quite frequently. Little, a former Navy SEAL, has done tests with guns comparable to these muskets both on land and afloat, and his findings are well worth the time of any researcher, novelist, enthusiast or re-enactor. Plus the book is a very enjoyable read; find it

The days of the flintlock mechanism, and the muskets it informed, continued into the pre-modern era. Infamous pirates like Roberts and Blackbeard were good with their muskets and, at least in the case of Edward Teach, died at the point of the same weapon. And of course it was the need for rifle flints that first drew Andrew Jackson into the confidence of that “hellish banditi”, Jean Laffite. Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, your average freebooter was probably better with a buccaneer gun than he ever was with a sword.

Header: The Buccaneer by Howard Pyle


Le Loup said...

All right, i'm in. Excellent post, well done. Having and using a fusil myself, I can't agree with the fowling stopping one loading a ball, a rifle yes, musket no. But a brilliant post just the same. I will with your permission post a part of this post on my blog, and on our group forum. I hope it brings you more followers.
Best post I have read anywhere of late, except for mine of course!
Thank you.

Regards, Le Loup.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Le Loup! Thank you so much and yes, please feel free to use all or part of the post.

I see your point about the fouling issue; my language in the post is not at all clear. It's my understanding that, depending on the gun, black powder and ammunition in use, a marksman could get as many as 20 shots off before being in danger of jamming the musket. Please let me know if that jibes with your experience and thank you for pointing that out.

It is wonderful to have folks like yourself with knowledge to add chiming in!

Charles L. Wallace said...

"This is your weapon, and this is your gun..." hahaha Quite an enjoyable piece, Pauline.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Charles. It's all symantics sometimes, and of course what language you speak...

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I would imagine that they would also use these as a bludgeon in close quarters as well (without any fencing skills required). Another reason why they might be more commonly used than a sword...

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Exactly. At that point all bets are off and substance beats style by a very wide margin.

Murphyfish said...

Greetings from across the pond Pauline,
Just had a heads up about your blog from Le Loup, me thinks I'll tag along a while if that be to your liking.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, John and welcome aboard! Always glad to have a heary mate join the crew. Please come back often and add yer thoughts as ye see fit.