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What is a Blunderbuss?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A blunderbuss is a type of firearm which was widely used in the 17th century, and ultimately replaced with more precise shotguns. You may be familiar with the shape of a blunderbuss if you are a fan of pirate films or if you've looked at a lot of artwork depicting the Pilgrims, as both of these groups used blunderbusses extensively. The well known inaccuracy of this weapon led to the development of the slang term “blunderbuss” for someone who is clumsy and awkward.

This weapon is classified as a muzzle-loader, meaning that the charge, wadding, and shot are packed down the barrel from the muzzle, rather than being loaded in the breech. The mouth of a blunderbuss is wide, to facilitate easy packing of shot and wadding, and the barrel is short, allowing the weapon to be used in close quarters. The design of the weapon allowed people to fire it either from the shoulder or the hip, and it was ideally suited to close quarters conflicts such as those on board ships.

The primary disadvantage of a blunderbuss is that it is not a very accurate weapon. The blunderbuss scatters shot at close range, but it is difficult to aim at a specific target and it cannot realistically be used for more long-range targets. In close quarters, the shot would have damaged or injured people nearby, but it could also injure people fighting on the same side in the confusion of a crowded battle.

In addition to being used on ships, blunderbusses were also commonly kept on homes and farms so that a method of self-defense would be readily available. Some companies also manufactured bayonets to attach to their blunderbusses, giving fighters another close-quarters tool. Several companies continue to produce blunderbusses for black powder enthusiasts and other people who like to work with old-fashioned weapons, and many of these weapons are fully functional.

To use a blunderbuss, someone must first pour in a charge such as black powder, followed by wadding, shot, and another layer of wadding. The wadding helps to direct the shot as it emerges, as the explosion from the charge would otherwise blow through the shot. All of these layers of material must be tightly packed for the gun to be effective, making the process of loading a blunderbuss rather lengthy and inconvenient.

Incidentally, the delightful name of this weapon is a corruption of the Dutch donderbus, or “thunder gun.”

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Azuza — On Sep 16, 2011

@strawCake - Yes, blunderbusses do sound fairly useless. However, I think they have a lot more style than many of our modern guns! I certainly can't imagine a pirate brandishing a modern handgun. It just wouldn't have the same effect!

That being said, the name "blunderbuss" is delightful, just as the article stated. I've never heard this term used to refer to a clumsy person, but I'm going to start using it. Maybe I can start a local trend.

By strawCake — On Sep 16, 2011

I saw an exhibition in a museum of blunderbuss guns quite awhile back. I have to say, I'm glad our modern weapons are more accurate!

Imagine if our police force had to use blunderbusses? They would risk injuring each other and innocent bystanders every day! Also, their likelihood of actually hitting their target would be very low. I can definitely see why this particular gun fell out of favor!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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