I want to add pirates in a medieval world where gunpowder doesn't exist. Pirates are traditionally known for canons and firearms, so how can they attack and capture commercial ships with non-gunpowder medieval technology.

  • Medieval world
  • No gunpowder
  • Cogs, Caravels and Carracks
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ Are you looking for historical incidences of piracy prior to the development of gunpowder, or how gunpowder-deprived pirates could capture modern vessels? In the former case, you would probably receive better answers on the History SE. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Dec 6, 2015 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ And the differentiation is important since the latter scenario (capturing modern ships without resorting to gun powder) would be appropriate for this board. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Dec 7, 2015 at 3:29
  • $\begingroup$ The question is on-topic, potentially, but it needs a great deal of clarification. For example, what do you mean by "commercial ships"? What is the base naval technology? And so on. $\endgroup$
    – CAgrippa
    Dec 7, 2015 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ @CAgrippa, thanks for the advice, i mean by a commercial ship: ships who insure the commerce between kingdoms of a sea, the technology is caravel and carrack type without gunpowder. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ Aiman I made an edit to help organize and clarify, feel free to roll back the change if it does not meet your intent. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Dec 7, 2015 at 15:57

7 Answers 7


Look a few hundred years back. Grapples still worked, though very often you would stop a ship by ramming them, so ramming prows and rowing crews might make sense. Catching up to an enemy would be essential and pirate vessels would likely prize speed over anything else.

Oddly, I think the big difference would be the need to have a team of rowers for maneuverability since you had to close in to fight.

You could replace cannon with say ballista, scorpions or even very large banks of crossbows. Flaming arrows to burn and damage rigging and sails makes sense.

While they take longer to load than longbows, crossbows would be a one for one replacement for muzzleloaders, and would probably serve the same role as personal, ranged weapons.

While its tempting, I'm pretty unsure how a small force of longbowmen would fair on a moving platform with a moving target. Might be worth considering though especially with flaming arrows.

  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of replacing canon with ballista, if i do so how much a pirate ship could support ? The last point in your answer will not be a problem, it's a fantasy world so i can imagine another type of arrows. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ It would depend on the size of the ship, and how they were mounted. They would be bulkier, but lighter than equivilent cannon, but alas roman weapondry isn't my area of expertise, outside occationally catching snitches of tv shows $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ Flaming arrows would be an exceptionally bad idea - pillage, then burn (the first of the seven habits of highly effective pirates). $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ @pluckedkiwi pillage, then burn would be habit if there was cannon, without that i dont think they have a better way to board a ship without firing some part of it. $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2015 at 14:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You do not set fire to a ship you want to board. Fire gets out of hand very quickly and is very dangerous on a ship - there is no way to calibrate a fire to be just enough to distract the crew so you can close distance, but not enough that a crew desperately trying to run from pirates wouldn't be able to keep control of it. Besides, by the time you are in fire-arrow distance, the chase has practically ended. $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2015 at 18:07

Before the age of the Caravel or Carrack when most ships were one or two decks, ships were often primarily powered by a single sail and a series of slave or volunteer rowers.

The common tactic in piracy was to have a larger ship with more rowers to close the distance with the target ship. Upon closer contact, skirmishers shooting missiles towards the target would aim to hamper the defenders with javelins and arrows.

Upon closing with the target, the attacking galley would attempt to ram the targets oars as to either force them to withdraw their oars and slow, or for the target's oars to snap under the ram and be disabled.

Then upon disabling oars, the attacking ship would throw across grapples to connect the two ships, then begin the boarding procedure where they would often slaughter the ships marines and take the galley slaves for them selves to replace crew lost in the assault.

The greatest advantage to a pirate ship was speed, first to close the distance between vessels, and second to ram the targets oars to prevent its escape. This last part was the key tactic used in piracy.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ The Venetian fleet used crews of volunteer rowers, which explains why they were rapidly able to overcome enemy ships (the rowers became Marines once the ships were in contact). Galleys of that era had the ram much higher up than in the ancient world as well, since it doubled as the boarding ramp. Navies which used slave oarsmen often had much larger but slower galleys, since the ship needed to carry up to 100 Marines to do the fighting (since the oarsmen could not be counted on to do so). $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Dec 7, 2015 at 1:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Thucydides IIRC The Venetian fleet crews still used these same tactics in their galleys even after the introduction of Cannon, often only mounting a couple at the front of their galley to fire at the target they were pursuing. With the cannon replacing the ram's purpose in disabling enemy mobility. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 1:50
  • $\begingroup$ The tactic of targeting oars is very helpful, but using it with javelins and normal arrows will be nearly impossible, adding your tactic to @Journeymangeek's ballista should do it perfectly. Thank you $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ @AimanVargas indeed, beyond ramming, there was little that could be done to disable oars which is why the evolution of cannon revolutionized naval combat. Keep in mind adding ballista to the naval vessel would increase the weight and subsequently slow the boat, so the ballista would need to achieve greater accuracy and range beyond what was achievable in medieval times to compensate for the added weight. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ @JustAnotherDotNetDev Aiming the sails and yards with firing ballista could slow the boat enough to start the boarding ? Specially if the oars is hidden they will be untouchable even with ballista $\endgroup$ Dec 8, 2015 at 0:07

Pretty much the same way you see on Black Sails (substituting bows for guns). Shoot arrows to pick people off as you approach, focusing on officers and other key personnel. Steer as close alongside as you can. Throw ropes with grappling hooks to pull the other ship close enough to jump over, or use spiked boards to make paths over which people could charge. Either way, kill any of the crew that fights back with your swords.

Note that pirate ships tended to be over-crewed so as to have more people than the ships they attack. This also means that they didn't necessarily have to keep any of the crew alive. This is less true now, as pirates can use superior weaponry to overcome civilian crews and the ships are more complicated. Experience with the actual machinery is more useful now. Experience transferred better between ships then.

  • $\begingroup$ Substituting bows for guns, so all commercial ships in that sea must have archers on it as a defense ? $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2015 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ @AimanVargas Ships are crewed 24-hours a day, meaning about 2/3 of the hands are available at a given moment to deal with emergencies that are not navigational in nature. The need for an infantry-style force at sea is the origin of creating professional marine forces whose full-time job it was to master combat at sea, BLS, and management of naval artillery. Lots of crossovers in the way this job was defined historically, and quite a bit of crossover in terms of a person's career: merchant sailor, kidnapped and impressed to service by France, munity to piracy, chartered privateer, etc. $\endgroup$
    – zxq9
    Dec 7, 2015 at 1:52

History - especially Romans - could be the perfect inspiration; at their time, there was no gunpowder.

Roman Quinquereme and **corvus**

From the image source :

The use of the corvus negated the superior Carthaginian naval expertise, and allowed the Romans to establish their naval superiority in the western Mediterranean.

The corvus is kind of a "boarding bridge", which allowed the Romans to use their experience in on-land warfare. You just need strong, and preferably well armored soldiers. Enemy archers or crossbowmen would stand almost no chance if your ground troops are as disciplined as the Romans.

Also, it's worth noting that they also had a ram and ballistas, proving the proposals made by other users very efficient.

However, there's a difference between pirates and romans : the latter ones are not interested in looting anything; they only care about defeating the enemy fleet.

You, on the other hand, only want to immobilize your enemies, but not to sink them, as in that case, all your loot would be lost. So a ram could be "too" dangerous.

This is actually the main advantage of the corvus.

Read more about the roman navy and their tactics on Wikipedia.


"Asian method."

Prior answers seem based in a Mediterranean / Caribbean scenario. Piracy was and is prevalent in Southeast Asia.

Piracy in Southeast Asia: Status, Issues, and Responses

Pirate operations vary according to local conditions, the availability of targets, and the competence of the pirates involved. Geography has a large influence on pirate tactics…. See areas dotted with islands rocks and recent form an ideal setting for pirates using the "hit and run" or Asian method because they provide hiding places and narrow sea-lanes slow ships down making them easier targets. Pirates conducting a hit and run attack board a steaming vessel, plunder it, and carry off whatever they have been able to lay their hands on. The geography of Indonesia is particularly propitious for this kind of attack…

Back in the 1600s, attacks like this were made by small fast ships under cover of night, manned by pirates armed with knives.

In the 2000s, attacks like this are made by small fast ships under cover of night, manned by pirates armed with knives.


Mainly amateurs, they put on masks and use their own household machetes (parang) when they strike at night. “Black magic” helps give them confidence. They believe water from sorcerers (dukun) will make their sampans invisible.

The thing about being this kind of pirate is the thing about being a predator. You do not need a lot of tech to match the tech of your opponent. That is warfare - intraspecies competition. If you are a predator, you attack prey that cannot fight back effectively. You take on prey that you can surprise before it fights, or which is unable to fight. Opportunity, timing and speed are what it is all about, now and 1000 years ago and 100,000,000 years ago.


Pirates did their job well before guns. As soon people had ships big enough to sail and move goods, there were pirates who used this said ships to visit unlucky or ambush trade routes.

Lack of guns did not make it harder. What makes pirates a danger to trade ships is weight. As trade ships are loaded and for most part are build for capacity, not speed, pirates had no problem to chase them down( galley, sloop, schooner).

How you board trader? It is something like mobile castle siege. You use your speed and maneuverability advantage to get close. Start to rain arrows on enemy defenders, get ready boarding team. Use hooks and ropes, ladders, boarding ramps and small boats to board and overpower guards.

Ramming is viable, but bad option, as you will damage ships or even sink them. It is more of a war tactic.

  • Lack of guns will result in different types of ships, as there is no need for gunports and no heavy guns.

Greek Fire

Greek fire was an incendiary weapon used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire that was first developed c. 672. The Byzantines typically used it in naval battles to great effect, as it could continue burning while floating on water. It provided a technological advantage and was responsible for many key Byzantine military victories, most notably the salvation of Constantinople from two Arab sieges, thus securing the Empire's survival. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire

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