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Brigentines Described
Brigentine BluenoseGeneral description of a colonial ship type named a "brigantine", often used as a privateer.

Brigantine. The brigantine was the second most popular type of ship built in the American colonies before 1775.  (The most popular ship type was a "sloop.") A brigantine is a vessel swifter and more easily maneuvered than a sloop or schooner, and hence employed for purposes of piracy, espionage, and reconnoitering,  and as an outlying attendant upon larger ships for protecting the larger ship, or for supply or landing purposes in a fleet of ships.

The brigantine was generally larger than a sloop or schooner.  However, the brigantine was a vessel that could be of various sizes, ranging from 30 to 150 tons burden. 

 brigantine drawingGenerally, in the 1700's  a  brigantine was a two masted sailing ship, having on the main mast both (1) a fore-and-aft main sail ( a triangular type of sail) and also (2) a square main topsail.  The fore-and-aft main sail  has an advantage over a square sail of being able to be better maneuvered and to allow better sailing of the ship.)    But after 1720 the main [square] topsail was omitted in most brigantines in favor of a large main sail.

The 1780 Universal Dictionary of the Marine by William Falconer further defined a brigantine as:

Brigantine . . . Among English seamen, this vessel is distinguished by having her [fore-and-aft] main-sail set nearly in the plane of her keel; whereas the main-sails of larger ships are hung athwart, or at right angles with the ship’s length, and fastened to a yard which hangs parallel to the deck: but in a brig, the foremost edge of the main-sail is fastened in different places to hoops which encircle the main-mast, and slide up and down it as the sail is hoisted or lowered: it is extended by a gaff above, and by a boom below.

Converting a merchant brigantine into a privateer.

It did not take much to convert a brigantine from use as a merchant ship to use as a privateer, or vice versa.  That was because privateers avoided navy battles with navy ships, first of all because the navy ship could be expected to fight (whereas merchant ships frequently surrendered).  Second, the best prize of a privateer was a merchant ship loaded with goods that could be sold. Hence, if merchant ships were the only ships likely to be attacked by a privateer, a privateer merely needed small cannons, such as swivel guns, and relatively small spaces for the storage of powder and ammunition.

A swivel gun was mounted in an iron fork that was shaped somewhat like an oarlock.   The iron fork was bolted to the outside of the hull.   One very popular type of swivel gun was about three feet long and had a bore of about an inch and a half, with a wooden handle, about the shape of baseball bat, attached to its breech.  This handle was used from the deck to aim the cannon.

Other popular types of swivel guns were the blunderbuss, which fired loose shot, like a shotgun; and the howitzer, a shortened cannon with a larger bore.

Swivel guns were primarily used as anti-personnel weapons, rather than as ship-sinking weapons.  First of all, the object was to seize ships and their cargo, not to sink them (which produced no profit). Second, the shots a swivel gun could fire would produce relatively little damage to a stout ship hull.  Third  the main ships of the navy's of the day had cannon with much longer ranges than swivel guns, so the chances of ship with only swivel guns getting close enough to a navel ship to sink it was small.

Here's a view of one of today's recreations of an 18th century brigantine.