Unlike the many muskets, carbines and pistols used throughout history, the blunderbuss was a fast and loose weapon. Lacking in accuracy or range, it was a blunt and crude weapon used for fighting in close quarters on land or sea. Sometimes referred to as a “naval” blunderbuss or “pirate” blunderbuss, they were actually in use on land as well. Naval and merchant ships carried them for protection, to repel boarders such as pirates, who used them also, for the opposite purpose. Once a victim’s ship was softened up by broadsides from cannon and swivel gun fire, or caught off-guard by stealth, they would move in and board. They would often attack by throwing burning pots of sulfur, rotting fish or other nasty substances–called stinkpots–onto the decks of their victim’s ships in an attempt to cause pandemonium and nausea, to repel and demoralize them before attacking to loot, rape and pillage. They would then board forcefully using axes, pistols, cutlasses, pikes and other weapons in addition to the blunderbuss. One of a pirate’s best weapons was their reputation. The more fierce and merciless their reputation preceding them, the better to intimidate their victims. Their flags would be revealed just before they attacked, revealing their identity to strike terror into the hearts of those being raided.
For the most part, a blunderbuss was a hybrid between a pistol and a carbine or musketoon. It had a short stock, but was usually fired from the hip, as it is too short to fire from the shoulder. It also had a vicious recoil, like a shotgun, so you really wouldn’t want it up against your cheek when it went off, unless you’re looking to loosen a few teeth. The blunderbuss was usually loaded with multiple lead balls rammed onto a large powder charge, although in a pinch, the user could drop in nails, rocks, broken glass or bundle shot–a nasty projectle consisting of a small bunde of metal rods that would blast out like a swarm of tiny spears. While some of these items might damage the barrel, they could be utilized in a fight if they became necessary. Blunderbusses were also used for crowd control or clearing the decks– just having it in hand made for a strong deterrent to any challengers or mutineers. More compact than a musket–or for that matter, even a carbine or musketoon–but more intimidating than a pistol, it was relatively light and portable. They were sometimes attached to the railing of the ship or the gunwales, using a crude, mounting swivel to steady them for use as a makeshift boat gun to disperse people standing on the deck of a ship alongside. The large, flared muzzle did not improve the scatter of the shot used, but was more useful for ease of loading when in the heat of battle, especially on the deck of a rocking ship or climbing around in the rigging. Like mainstream weapons of the day, the blunderbuss was fired using a flintlock mechanism.
The earliest use of the blunderbuss was in the 17th century, and continued until the middle of the 19th century, around the 1840s. The heaviest use of the blunderbuss was during the mid 1700s, when piracy was at an all-time high. Many were left unemployed after the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and turned to piracy to make a living. This is often referred to as the “Golden Age of Piracy”, during which time a large portion of maritime commerce was violated and plundered. The British Royal Navy in particular waged a vicious war against piracy. When the British caught pirates, the punishment was extremely severe, and their chained bodies were often hung out in public waterfront areas, and left to rot for months as an example and warning to others. Much later, blunderbusses were used by mail and stagecoach drivers to ward off attacks on the road by bandits and highwaymen.
The most well-known blunderbuss weapons were produced by armories in England, France, and the United States. They were also produced in Poland and elsewhere. The armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) produced a limited number of blunderbuss weapons. By far, the largest producers of the blunderbuss were the various gunmaking firms in and around London. Firms such as H. Nock, Waters & Co., Ketland & Co., and Rea of London.
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