Thursday, May 1, 2008


I've been reading the section on small-arms in Sea Rover's Practice. What he describes as a pirate gun is pretty close to the Brown Bess. It is the same size, muzzle bore, and general shape. This is basically a 10-gage barrel firing a .75 round ball.

According to the book, pirates increased their rate of fire by thumping the butt against the ground instead of ramming it with the scouring stick (aka ramrod).

I have quite a bit of experience firing blanks from similar pieces and some experience with live fire. Also, most of my experience has been doing earlier periods which gives me a different point of view.

Thumping the gun instead of ramming is common during reenactments. If you don't use the scouring stick you aren't going to leave it in the barrel. I don't see any problem doing this with a loose ball. Even with the fouling from several shots, the ball will still be loose enough to go down all the way with a little thump.

A ball with wadding is a completely different matter. I've never tried firing it this way. When I fire with wadding or a patch it takes some effort to get the ball down the barrel.

So how did the pirates do it? I'm betting that they didn't bother wadding. This is where my early-period experience gives me a different perspective.

Paper cartridges were known for over a century by the GAoP but they were not used by the infantry until late in the 17th century. Instead they used a bandoleer with wood or tin chargers hanging from a leather belt.

Paper cartridges were used by cavalry and civilians. Later cartridges had a ball as part of the cartridge but for most of the 17th century a cartridge was just a powder charge rolled in paper. You bit off the end, poured a bit in the priming pan then poured the rest down the barrel. You carried balls in your mouth and spit one down the barrel after the charge.

Later they started including the ball at the end of the cartridge. The powder would be poured down then the empty cartridge with the ball attached stuffed into the barrel.

So, did the pirates attach a ball to the cartridge? I'm guessing that they did not which is how they kept up the rate of fire.

When I am doing live fire I usually use a patch with my ball. I know people who insist that this is not needed but I find that it help with accuracy. Without a patch a loose ball can start to roll down the barrel. This makes it deflect a bit in the direction it is rolling. Chances are pretty good that it will roll a different direction the next shot. The deflection isn't much - a few inches over 50 yards - but this can make the difference between hitting and missing a target. With a patch the ball can't roll so it is more consistent. This means that there are trade-offs. If you want a more accurate shot you have to take longer loading.

On the other hand, if you are firing in the general direction of the enemy you might just add more shot. You might load with two balls or a combination of a large ball and three or more smaller ones known as buck and ball. We know that this load was used as early as Jamestown. The first body discovered in the original settlement had been shot in the knee from behind with this charge (probably an accident).

Since cartridges with attached balls were still brand new during the GAoP, mmy guess is that pirates didn't bother with them. Their first load might include buck and ball with a cartridge rammed on top of it to keep the shot in place but reloads would just be a ball which would be kept in the mouth. The cartridge would be discarded. That would give the fastest rate of fire.

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