A Spanish captain is overwhelmed by pirate cutlasses.A ship's crew under attack from pirates stood little chance against a large force of battle-hardened, well-armed men. Wielding cutlasses, daggers and axes, and firing muskets and pistols, the pirates were usually victorious. Axes were used for smashing holes in the decks and for chopping through ropes. The pirates could then fire their guns or throw bombs at defending crew below deck through these axed holes.
The cutlass was the favoured weapon for all fighting men at sea. Its short, broad blade was ideal for use in small spaces—a longer blade would have got tangled in the rigging. A dagger was easy to carry on a belt. It was useful below decks, where there was little room to swing even a cutlass. Axes could help a pirate clamber up the ship’s sides as well as chop through ropes to bring down sails and smash the deck timbers.
According to pirate myth, the cutlass was developed from the butcher's blades that Caribbean buccaneers used to cut meat. Use of the cutlass by mariners had almost died out by the 20th century—but they were carried and very occasionally used by both the British and US Navies during World War II.
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