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MUSEUM:  
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CATEGORY

Arms and Armament

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When it came to fighting at close quarters, small arms and edged weapons played a vital role in engaging with an enemy vessel’s personnel. As the range between warships closed during a battle, Marines and specially trained seamen used muskets and rifles to pepper the opponent’s deck with a well-aimed hail of lead. With few hiding places on an exposed spar deck, the men stationed there could only hope that the bulwarks and hammock nettings stood high enough to intercept the brunt of the fire from overhead. Wooden ships rarely sank from the effects of long-range bombardment, and boarding decided many battles. As the hulls of the vessels crashed together, the cry of “Boarders away!” rang through the ship. The men denominated “boarders” on the warship’s quarter bill rushed to snatch up pistols, cutlasses, and pikes. The Marines concentrated their fire on the enemy’s decks, at the point chosen for boarding. Hastily formed into divisions by their officers, the men with the cutlasses and pikes boarded the opponent’s ship first, charging four deep along the gangways toward the quarterdeck. A reserve of Marines and sailors armed with muskets kept up a steady fire on the opponent’s quarterdeck, the tops, and anywhere else an enemy dared show his head. Hand-to-hand combat was dangerous, brutal work, but nothing else could win or lose a battle as quickly.

A well-appointed American warship in 1812 usually carried three muskets, three cutlasses, four pikes and two pistols to every two guns (cannon). A ship as large as USS Constitution therefore needed at least 156 muskets, 156 cutlasses, 208 pikes, and 104 pistols. Although every warship in commission at the time carried a proportionate number of weapons, early American naval small arms and edged weapons are today considered some of the rarest of collectibles. No matter how well the armorer or gunner did his job, no matter how well the arms were cleaned, oiled, and packed, service at sea created havoc with a ship’s store of small arms and edged weapons. Extant pieces often show signs of repair and restoration. Even the best bear the scars and wear of heavy use.

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