Would it make sense for pirate characters in fantasy to be skilled in combat? if so, what combat would be the most likely? I’m not sure if a bunch of pirates being good at wielding swords would make sense, since their job is basically sailing. Would pirates fighting like a Retiarius Gladiator make sense? or would it be basically whatever the could get their hands on sort of deal? sawed off harpoons and knives?threeeyesslitthroat
So, several questions, let’s hit them in order.
I should probably preface this with a reminder: Pirates have been a part of nautical civilization since the beginning of commercial shipping. They’re a natural, criminal, response to people moving anything valuable by sea. If it’s out there on the water, someone else will see that as an opportunity to take it.
It’s common to think of The Golden Age of Piracy as, “that’s pirates,” but the truth is, they’ve always been there. Piracy still exists in the modern world. It will continue into the future. In a random tangent, there’s a lot of realism behind the idea of space pirates, even if the implementation is fantastical.
So, with that said, when you’re shaping a fantasy setting, if there’s sea travel, there’s a place for pirates if you want them.
Your character’s background could be anything. Many Golden Age pirates were naval veterans, mutineers, or deserters. They learned to operate on military vessels, and then took that skillset and made a lot of money as criminals.
So, it’s entirely reasonable your pirates would have military backgrounds, and as a result be very well acquainted with how to fight effectively.
Conversely, during the golden age of piracy, a pirate in the Caribbean could make a small fortune on a single raid. This made piracy a very attractive career, in spite of the personal danger. Even resulting in labor shortages in some pirate cities, like Port Royale, as the available workers preferred to take the risk and work as pirates.
The short answer on your pirate’s combat training comes down to the simple question of, “what did they do before they became a pirate?” As I said, it’s entirely reasonable your pirate was a sailor in an imperial navy. It’s possible they were a mercenary. It’s possible they used to work on a farm, ran away from home, found a job cleaning a tavern in the port, and hired on as a pirate at the first opportunity.
It makes sense for pirates to learn how to fight, because that is a part of making money. They need know how to operate their ship. They’ll need most of the essential positions, and some redundancies. A ship needs a helmsman, it needs a navigator. If you don’t have those two, you cannot set out to sea at all. You need deckhands, you want a boatswain to manage them. You need a cook. You need a surgeon or medic, because people are going to be injured. Golden Age pirates needed a quartermaster, though the job title is a little misleading, as they acted as a kind of dispute adjudicator, and ensured that the loot was shared equitably, they would also take command of captured vessels. In the age of sail, you needed crew to man the cannons. Finally, you need boarding parties to assault and capture enemy vessels.
Your boarding parties needed to know how to fight, because they’d be going up against armed crews. Even if your character didn’t have a naval background, it is reasonable that they’d get on-the-job training to get them up and going if they didn’t have a background. Alternately, if they did have a naval or military background, it’s quite possible they’d be tasked with training some of the new recruits.
So, would it make sense for them to fight in the style of a Retiarius? No. We’ve talked about this before, but the Roman gladiator types were not designed to be efficient. In fact, they were specifically equipped in ways that would hamper their ability to swiftly kill their foes. The entire point of gladiatorial combat was to prolong the fight, with a focus on wounding rather than inflicting fatal blows. The Retiarius was armed with a weighted net and and a trident. While both of these items would make sense on a sailing vessel. Either would allow the crew members to supplement the ships stores with fresh fish, however, neither makes a particularly good weapon, especially during boarding actions.
This loops back to the question about the sword. The term “sword,” is very generic, and includes a massive array of bladed weapons. Some of these are very well adapted to shipboard combat, and it would make sense that pirates would use those.
Polearms are, in general, less well suited to close quarters, and you’d probably see fewer of those during a boarding actions. There might be a few on the ship, and some of the crew might choose to use them if they were engaging in coastal raiding.
There might be an element of, “whatever they could get their hands on,” but remember, piracy was a very lucrative career, so while their options were somewhat limited by what’s available at the ports they dock at, and the gear they plunder, “whatever they could get their hands on,” would leave them pretty well equipped.
The one thing I’ll point out from that list is knives. Knives are a must. Not, necessarily as weapons, but they’re extremely important as a utility tool, and their combat application is secondary to that. So, your pirates probably have knives, in addition to cutlasses, muskets, pistols, and blunderbusses. They might even have some halberds and other heavy weapons squirrelled away below decks in case they find a situation where those would be useful.
Obviously, that weapon list would be a little different if your pirates are operating in a bronze or iron age setting, but the basic idea is the same. If you have pirates in a pseudo-Roman Empire, then it would make sense if your pirates are using Gladiuses, and pelting the enemy ships with arrow fire. It’s all about the technology that exists.
So, yeah, it makes sense for your fantasy pirates to have a background. It’s part of the job. It also makes sense for them to be pretty well equipped after a successful raid or two. Though, they probably wouldn’t talk like they’d just walked out of the English West Country in the early 20th century.