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Blades of the Brethren
By Manveruon   |   Watch
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Published: October 5, 2015
© 2015 - 2019 Manveruon
I did this sketch a while back to demonstrate the most common bladed weapons associated with the pirates, buccaneers, etc. of the Golden Age of Piracy.  The title, "Blades of the Brethren" was shamelessly... um... "borrowed" from the title of a column written by Matt Stagmer of Baltimore Knife and Sword for the short-lived "Pirates Magazine," and refers to the informal alliance of pirates during the late 17th century, the "Brethren of the Coast."  This is nothing like a definitive collection of the various different types of swords, knives, etc. used by the seafaring outlaws of that period, but I felt it gave a decent basic overview.  I have taken a few artistic liberties with the designs of the items, and the scale may not be perfect, but I was quite happy with the end result.

From left to right and top to bottom we have:

- French épée du soldat (or soldier's sword).
This sword was common in the early 18th century among the French, as well as the English.  It marries light broadsword blade to a smallsword hilt, and is therefore suitable for both cutting and thrusting (though some have argued that this type of sword is neither heavy and stiff enough to be truly effective in the cut, nor light and well-balanced enough to be truly effective in the thrust).  It still happens to be one of my favorite sword types from this era.  Here I have depicted it with a slightly fancier grip, but the hilts were often of all-brass construction.

- Spanish cup-hilt rapier.
Most of Europe, and the rest of the world, had largely abandoned the use of the true rapier by the late 17th century, but the Spanish (being somewhat old-fashioned in many ways at that time), retained the use of the cup-hilt version of this sword well into the 18th Century.  It tended to have a more robust blade than a smallsword or court-sword of the period, but perhaps not as stout as the épée du soldat.  The cup-shaped guard offered good hand protection, and the sword was fairly effective in the thrust, but not ass effective as a cutting weapon.  Still, draw-cuts and percussive cuts could be made.

- Clamshell-hilt cutlass
Perhaps the type of sword most widely associated with pirates and buccaneers, the cutlass was a brutally effective cutting sword, which did not require a great deal of skill or finesse to wield.  The clamshell-hilted variety of this, shown here, was extremely popular during this era, and is closely associated with the Dutch, in particular.  The blades of these swords were single-edged, stiff, wide, and heavy, with a point of balance a fair distance out towards the tip of the blade, making them almost axe-like in their chopping power.  Most did have a thrusting point (on this one I have also added a false edge  to the last quarter of the blade in this picture, which I do not believe was common, but I rather like), but their primary purpose was, without a doubt, the cut.  Cutlasses were generally shorter and more compact than thrusting swords of the era, which made them ideal for fighting on or below the cramped decks of a ship.

- Infantry Hanger
The Infantry Hanger, or short-saber has also been referred to as a cutlass over the years (this term is not especially well defined).  This type of sword was worn widely by enlisted infantrymen of the period, and was extremely common.  It has similar properties to other cutlasses, in that it has a rather short, single-edged blade, which is well suited for cutting or slashing attacks, though it tends to be a bit lighter-weight than its naval-issue cousins.  The hilts were generally simple, with dished heart-shaped guards and knuckle-bows.

- Scottish Dirk
To be honest, I don't know much about the dirk, other than that it was popular at the time, generally single-edged and very stiff, longer than most knives or daggers, but shorter than most swords.  From what I understand, the dirk was primarily designed as a weapon, but was also effective as a shipboard tool when the need arose.

- Hatchet
Also called a tomahawk or hand-axe, this style of small axe was fairly universal, and widely used from the Middle Ages through the present day.  The one I have chosen to depict here has a hammer-poll back, making it a dual purpose tool.  Hatchets/tomahawks of this kind were nicely compact, and therefore highly effective as weapons in shipboard, hand-to-hand combat, where there was an extreme deficit of open space in which to fight.  They could also be thrown, with a degree of practice, though the advantages of doing so during a naval battle are dubious at best.

- Boarding Axe
Larger and heavier than a hatchet, the boarding axe was a staple weapon aboard ships for centuries.  There have been many designs over the years, varying slightly in one way or another, but overall they didn't change much.  The one depicted here has a long spike on the end, and a slightly curved handle.  I believe I based this axe on one or more specific photographic examples, but I'm afraid it's been too long for me to remember where I found them, and how I justified all its features.  I may have taken more liberties with this particular example than I remember, so take it with a grain of salt.

- Sheath Knife
The sheath-knife was probably the most ubiquitous bladed tool found onboard naval ships of the period, or probably anywhere, for that matter.  They came in various different shapes designs, but mostly they were a simple, very sharp knife, with a full tang and wooden scales pinned on either side, forming the handle.  They were, as the name suggests, housed in a leather sheath, which generally covered the entire blade as well as most of the handle, providing a very secure hold on the knife. Sometimes these were hung from belts, sometimes from thongs or ribbons around the neck, and sometimes with no carriage of any kind.  Sailors were occasionally known to carve intricate designs, such as faces, into the wooden handles.  This particular example is based on a replica 18th century trade-knife I actually own.  I rather liked the unique shape and curly maple handle, so I used it as the basis for my drawing.

- Hunting Sword
The hunting sword, or "cuttoe" was a common civilian weapon during this period.  Like the infantry hanger and cutlass, the hunting sword was single-edged, compact, sometimes (but not always) curved, and very well suited to cramped naval combat.  Unlike other swords of this general type, hunting swords generally had simpler hilts, with stubby quillions, diminutive up-swept clamshells, and often omitted the knuckle-bow altogether.  Handles were often made of antler, horn, or other somewhat "rustic" materials, but could also be more polished and refined, and generally omitted pommels in favor of ornate end-caps.  Many recent depictions of Blackbeard have shown the notorious pirate wearing a sword of this type.

- Smallsword
Smallswords, also referred to as court-swords, were a product of the natural progression towards light, quick, thrusting weapons among civilians of the period.  These swords were a gentleman's weapon, and could often be quite ornate - almost a form of jewelry worn by the nobility as a status symbol.  That being said, they were still a highly effective killing tool, in the right hands, and under the right circumstances.  Smallsword blades usually had a triangular cross-section, making them extremely stiff, and were generally not sharpened on the sides of the blade at all, being 100% dedicated to the thrust.  The smallsword required a high degree of skill and practice to master, so they were probably not common weapons among the poor, lower-class, uneducated, men who generally ended up becoming pirates.  There may have been some exceptions to this, however, such as Captain Bartholomew Roberts, who, by all accounts, was a well-educated, upper-class, gentleman, and was often described as wearing a crimson brocade frock coat and a large diamond-encrusted cross.  Still, it is unlikely that the smallsword was anyone's primary weapon of choice for ship-to-ship conflicts.
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anonymous's avatar
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IceWulf77's avatar
IceWulf77Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Intense stuff! I love the sketching used to draw these; makes 'em look like illustrations straight out of a book of archaic weapons, or maybe even a modern interpretation of a fighting manual. The cutlass and hunting sword are probably my favorite, but I am biased toward both. Either way, I love swords with knuckle guards and curved blades, and it's cool to see the non-sword weapons of pirates too.
Tears-of-a-Killer's avatar
Very nice, and actually very historically accurate. Great job
Manveruon's avatar
ManveruonHobbyist Traditional Artist
Thanks! I was trying to be as true to history as possible.
MensjeDeZeemeermin's avatar
These are all very good, nice details.
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