Episode 71: Pirate Special

Air Date: January 17, 2007

Wooden shrapnel from a cannonball impact to pirate ship causes more damage than the cannonball impact itself.

busted

Using a simple air cannon and four pig corpses, the Mythbusters proved that a cannonball could penetrate at least four pigs with a single shot. However, when fired at a wooden wall, the splinters did not have enough power to pierce any of the pigs. In order to fully confirm or bust the myth, the Mythbusters used an authentic Civil War era cannon. Though preliminary tested, they proved that the Civil War cannon was significantly more powerful than the air cannon. However, when fired at the wooden wall, none of the splinters managed to penetrate the pigs with enough force to be lethal. Therefore, the Mythbusters concluded that getting hit with a cannonball was more deadly than the splinters it creates.

Pirates wore eyepatches to preserve night vision in one eye.

plausible

This myth works under the assumption that the eye covered with the eyepatch is already accustomed to low light conditions, while the other eye must take time to accustom. The Mythbusters were sent into a dark room with light-accustomed eyes and were told to complete certain objectives. Their movements were hampered by the darkness and it took them five minutes to finish. When they went into a rearranged but equally dark room with an eye that was covered for thirty minutes, the Mythbusters were able to complete the test in a fraction of the time. As a control test, the Mythbusters then went back into the same exact room with light-accustomed eyes and ran into the same difficulty as the first test. The myth was deemed plausible because there is no recorded historical precedent for this myth.

You can slow a fall by using a knife to cut a sail.

busted

Through various small scale tests, the Mythbusters found that sails were not made in one piece, but in fact had a number of seams where the sail was folded over into several layers, making them harder to cut. Also, the sharpness of the knife plays a major role in the myth. If the knife is too sharp, the pirate falls too fast. If the knife is too dull, it would be unable to cut through the seams. In the full scale test, Tory attempted the myth himself by using a moderately sharp knife on a full-size sail. However, every time he attempted the myth, his knife would hit the seam and pop out of the sail. In the end, the Mythbusters concluded that there is no possible way that a pirate’s knife would be able to be at the perfect balance between dullness and sharpness to safely cut through a sail.

Rum is a better clothes cleaner than detergent.

busted

Using rum, modern detergent, period soap, and even urine, the Mythbusters tested to see if rum could be used to clean up blood and tar stains on fabric. However, after the tests, the results were the modern detergent and urine doing fairly well, but almost no effect from the period soap and rum. Also, Jamie jokingly points out that pirates would more likely drink the rum rather than use it to clean their clothes.

92 Comments

  1. P Skalla says:

    Apparently to make rum clean your clothes better you have to drink the rum and then pee on the clothes.

  2. A Maher says:

    The one issue I had with the knife/sail tests was that the sail in the original film clip was like most every sail at sea billowed out which would give far different fall profile than a straight vertical drop, If the sail were either convex or concave there would be more frictional forces at play and per haps the knife need only be used to provide some additional anchor points.

    Everyone knows that a dull knife is more hassle than it is worth, so if the test had bee structured to take into account the practical working shape of the sail and a sharp knife only for anchor then you might obtain different results.

    How different is a matter for science to determine nes pas?

    • D Symons says:

      Dude all you would need to do to get the balance between bluntness(to slow the fall) and sharpness (to cut through the seams) is a very sharp knife, but stabbed into the sail then twisted 90 degrees (as the original movie clip actually shows) this would allow the flat of the blade to slowly tear through the sail, then when coming across a seam simply rotate the knife 90 degrees again to cut through it. The shape of the sail thing is kind of a good point, but I don’t think it really takes that much thought, just using the knife effectively would work.

  3. A Maher says:

    The cannon segment was interesting, while I don’t disagree with the phrasing (though I found your choice of cannon suspect, I understand that resources are limited) I think that it missed the point of the chaos and collateral damage that can ensue when a room fills with splinters.

    Carronade while used in the 1770′s to 1860′s had much larger ammunition and were intended for close range combat of the sort. The lower velocity and much larger rounds (12 to 64 pounds were common) would cause many more splinters than your small field gun in similar circumstances.

    While being struck by a cannon ball will result in death or for the very fortunate dismemberment, the chances of being stuck were low in any given volley. A fifth rate ship with 30-40 guns at 30-40+ pounds each dealt quite a bit of damage per volley, Carrying 200 some odd crew, most would avoid the volley, but many would be wounded by the shrapnel. Wounded are an impediment to combat for the survivors, while the dead are not.

  4. K Fouhse says:

    You can slow a fall by using a knife to cut a sail.
    When the pirates sail around its windy and that has to effect the results somehow. It should be able to slow down the pirate to the required speed needed to survive. But the knife has to be relatively sharp to cut through the sail all the way. The wind will blow the sailor against the sail slowing him down.

  5. mr happycakes says:

    you guys are all wrong in the knife/sail myth. the problem was that the sail on a real ship would have been tied down, but the test one was not so tory’s weight tilted the sail and made the knife slip off

  6. sam says:

    rum is good it would be a waste to clean with it

  7. Chris says:

    Question: would pirates really want to be cutting big holes in their own sails? They would be doing an awful lot of damage.

  8. Brad Hoehne says:

    Any amateur astronomer will tell you that an eye patch is great way to preserve night vision.

    I, for instance, have travelled to two total solar eclipses- one in Zimbabwe and one in Turkey. For the Turkey elipse used an eye patch in order to preserve my night vision for the grand moment of totality. During totality light levels are more akin to moonlight than sunlight and the brilliant light of the sun, even moments before, can “bleach” one’s vision, making the faintest details of the solar corona invisible. By doing wearing a patch, and removing it at the moment of total eclipse, I was able to see fainter details in the solar corona than were visible to those who did not wear an eye patch beforehand. Moreover, the view seemed better than it did for the previous eclipse where I did not wear the patch.

    • John says:

      I hope the eclipse was beautiful…not sure how many more you’ll get to see, what with going blind and all.

      • Richard Craft says:

        If you look directly at the sun at totality, you will not go blind. At totality, you can see the stars behind the sun.

        If you are lucky enough to be looking at the sun within a week of your birthday, you can decide whether to believe astrology or your lying eyes.

  9. Maximushost says:

    adoro o vosso programa… deviam ter um horario mais flexivel para que mais gente pudesse ver pois axo que muita gente iria aprender muita coisa com voçes e deixar de dizer muitas asneiras. fica entao nota maxima para o vosso programa que é muito fixe. akele abraço deste fã MAXIMUSHOST lol lol lol :P

  10. Curt says:

    RE: “Splinters kill more sailors/pirates than cannonballs”. Your hypothesis was flawed from the outset. Variables: (1) velocity achieved by air gun; (2) velocity achieved by small bore/small weight cannon/cannon ball; (3) single cannonball used for test of hypothesis; (4) type of cannonball used (round); (5) thickness and type of wood used for this static demonstration; (6) thickness of pig skin (vs. human skin); (7) one-ship-on-one-ship tactical engagement scenario.
    Guns commonly named by their bore and/or Weight of cannon balls. Common weights of cannon balls used by Western navies during this historical time period: 42-pounders, 32-pounders, 24-pounders, 18-pounders, 12-pounders, 9-pounders, 8-pounders, 6-pounders, and various smaller calibers. Larger ships carried more and larger, heavier cannon; might be limited in distance, but could shoot larger cannon balls.
    Different kinds of shot used for different purposes: Round shot (what is usually thought of as a “cannon ball”), Chain shot, Canister shot, shrapnel (spherical case shot), Shell, Grape shot, Carcass (crude gas shot), Heated shot, and Spider (chain) shot, almost all of which would create splinters through wood sides of ships.
    French navy sought to disable opponent’s ship, while British navy sought to kill or disable as many seaman of the opposing force as possible. How? French typically fired as ship was on upward swell of a wave, aiming for the rigging or masts of other ships. British waited to fire into the body of the ship on the downward side of a wave.
    Another common tactic during period of sailing ships in 18th & 19th century: ship-of-the-line broadsides. Massive cannonades into sides of other ships. Usually, larger force with more firepower able to overcome opponent because BROADSIDES of cannonades caused significantly greater splintering than a single shot. It wasn’t one shot that caused the killing effect of the splintering, it was the cumulative effect of multiple cannon broadsides (ergo multiple cannon balls of different weights and types) over time that broke down the integrity of the wooden sides of the ships. Myth wasn’t busted; hypothesis and tests were flawed, leaving viewers with a mistaken impression because of the theatrics involved. It would be great if this information could be passed on to your viewers; I know it won’t be.

    • Steve Williams says:

      Agree completely – the myth was busted because it was simply too small scale. We know from Royal Navy reports and records that roundshot of 24 lbs and upwards in weight penetrating ship sides nearly 1 foot thick produced sharpened oak splinters the size of chair legs moving at high velocity. This is the reason so many seamen lost limbs/eyes in battle. A BBC history show, “Chronicle”, reproduced these results firing against railway sleepers with an authentic cannon. This does date back to the ’70s – the test was done at the Royal Artillery range at Shoeburyness. Guys, astonishingly, you just didn’t think big enough!

      • Bidge says:

        Have to agree with the above. Just caught this episode and too many variables left unaccounted for. For me the biggest issue though was not munitions used (although a major factor) but the type of wood being fired against. It looked very much like a soft wood and Oak is a totally different animal.

        • Greg says:

          I again agree with the responses above. Besides the comments regarding appropriate firepower for the test, particular respect should be paid to the wood used. They just don’t grow trees the same way anymore. Wood used in this time period was generally much denser than modern examples. Slower growth periods meant more rings per inch and the resulting product would behave differently under the same violent duress. Additionally, there are just too many reliable historical sources that refer to this for it even to be a “myth” that needs busting. It is a historical fact.

        • c says:

          Their ship side was a period recreation – oak outer shell with pine inner shell.

          The cannon was much too small, though.

  11. bobby lew says:

    The one thing I don’t get with the knife/sail one is that couldn’t a pirate turn the knife sideways as he approached the bottom of the sail?

  12. jollybones says:

    with the knife/sail myth what would be the effect if the sail was full of air, couldn’t the pirate just slide down it like a theme park ride?

  13. Brian says:

    i wonder y pirates say “RRRRRRRRRRRR”

  14. Croatia says:

    I loved how Adam spoke like a pirate. I was laughing my head off.

  15. wrwrewrwrtewyswy2e3ytrwytd says:

    hiiiiiiii fueyiuyriufyjutduytytyutuytuytuytuyfrt8765e8u7ft475e87rtj3yfd67teufjxeuyxkugkuwyiucyiuegcjheiucyeiuhxksdhcoiefyci8gxkjwskuxh8dcyi7dtgxkusgwkuxgwdi7utcejygxkjsgxkuydc7itwdyjxfgshgxkjsghkucxwydciutwdugxjshgxkusytiuctdwuytwxjhgsxkuwtdsci7dw5tiugskjxgskuxgducguydtcjuydwgxjhwdgcjytduyct biiiiiiii

  16. Nicholas Sammons says:

    I was somewhat disturbed by the cannon ball episode. It is a matter of historical fact that people were killed by splinters (check out http://www.historynet.com/historical_conflicts/3036286.html?showAll=y&c=y) for examples. The mythbusters failed to demonstrate a condition under which they could produce any splinters at all. As Curt pointed out, there are a whole group of variables which did not get tested.

  17. Cheyenne says:

    this is a really cool website it gave me a lot of ideas for a science fair project.
    thanks,
    Cheyenne.
    =]]

  18. ML says:

    The cannons used were not representative, sorry. Check here for info on common armament (Victory had quite a variety).
    Next time, use serious cannon and proper shot. Don’t extrapolate, you can afford large bore Schedule 80 pipe…

  19. Lona says:

    I just finished watching the part were you were cleaning with the rum and “wee-wee” and got to thinking when you rinsed the cloth with your cleaning supply on it did you use freash water or sea water? The reason I ask is that i would think if you are at sea you would’t use freash water for cleaning due to the limit supply of water on the ship.

  20. mr happycakes says:

    the sail would also be filled with wind so it would e stiffer. man they really screwed up on this one.

  21. flink says:

    As Curt and others mentioned, your cannon test was flawed.

    Hundreds of years of empirical evidence to be found in logs, journals, and memoirs has documented the fact that splinters were a major cause of wounding and death aboard wooden warships.

    Guns under 10 pounds were considered suitable only for harrassment and salutes.

    To have consideration for a true ship of war, the guns would be 12-32 pounds. 42′a were a rare beast.

    Also of note, the hull in a war ship of the napoleanic era averaged 12-18 inches thick, not 3. The 6 ships built in the 1795 construction act (Constitution, et al.) had 21 inch thick hulls. 3 inches is more than likely a misplaced figure: 3-5 inches is an average deck plank thickness. Consider that the larger guns ran 2000-3000 pounds.

    Another point is that your experiment did not account for large shot hitting the near the relatively unsupported areas near the gunports, rails, masts, etc.

    Trust me. A round from a long 18 pounder blows through 12 inches of oak like a hot nail through butter and does create massive splinters.

    Your example hull side was constructed of what appeared to be a 3 inch slab of kiln dried cathedral sawn white oak. Try that with 12 inches of air dried quarter sawn. that’s been subjected to salt water for a couple years. The results vary quite a bit from your testing.

  22. judy says:

    I browse and saw you website and I found it very interesting.Thank you for the good work, greetings

  23. Siber says:

    You guys do a wonderful job! Keep up the good work!!!l

  24. You think to much says:

    The sail would not always be full. If the wind was down, so would be the sail.

    Plus, a full sail would be cut more easily. When you cut a string, which is easier, cutting a taught, tight string or cutting one with slack in it.

    Even if it did slow you down, it wouldn;t be enough to make a difference.

    Also, the wind would need to blow very hard to move a human boduy, even one suspended on a sail.

    If it did, it would stand to reason it might puch you enough to dislodge the knife.

    Remember, they are testing what was shown in the movies, not a scene in a gail force wind.

  25. Willem says:

    Fascinating site and well worth the visit. I will be backw

  26. Paul Seyfrit says:

    For video of ship damage typical of 1812 with twelve 24 and 32 pound cannon balls as well as grape and canister shot, and the resulting splinters.
    http://www.brigniagara.org/Fightingsaildeck.htm

  27. angelo says:

    This episode was good

  28. Siber says:

    Thanks so very much for taking your time to create this very useful and informative site. I have learned a lot from your site. Thanks!!

  29. Becky says:

    I have just watched the Pirate Show. I think you missed one point about decending the sail. In the movie, the actor turns his knife at the seams (you can see the curves in the cut)…that slightly slows his fall.

    Love the show.

  30. Elvis says:

    Excellent site – do keep up the good work.

  31. William Kinter says:

    Wood Splinters Vs. Cannonballs:
    Of course getting hit with a cannonball is probably more deadly that getting hit with wood splinters – but the collateral damage increasesd from splinters is something to be avoided also.
    I still remember a newsreel of activities aboard one of our battleships shortly after Pearl Harbor where they were tearing up the fancy teak walkways covering the steel decks and throwing them overboard to prevent injuries from flying splinters.

  32. John McMullen says:

    I don’t know of any historical record of a pirate slowing his fall by using the knife on the sail. As far as I know, the stunt was invented by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. for (agh! I’m blanking on the name!) his first silent pirate movie.

  33. John says:

    Thanks so very much for taking your time to create this very useful and informative site. I have learned a lot from your site. Thanks!!

  34. Baudkarma says:

    Regarding cannon balls and splinters, you also have to take into account the state of medical care during the sailing ship era. With no antibiotics and little or no understanding of the importance of disinfection and sterility, even a relatively minor splinter wound would have a very good chance of becoming infected, leading to either amputation or death.

  35. Castilloranger says:

    On the cannon shot penetration and resulting generation of splinters. I have to say that the folks have missed the mark. I worked with one of the folks that participated in the Brig Niagra live fire before he retired, and use a copy of the event to illustrate to the cannon crews I train for our park what a successful weapons system these guns were. The hull section used in the test is all wrong, as it was not put together anything like the hulls of the ships serving at that time. The wrong type of gun was used for the test, but the greatest problem was the distance from the gun to the target. At such short ranges, the shot’s velocity is too great to replicate in anyway the circumstances of a naval battle. If you really want proof of the devastation that splinters created, just look at the medical retirement petitions by survivors of this type of warfare, they are fill of accounts ofmen dealing with splinters working out of their bodies years after the battles they served in.

  36. AndyB says:

    Sail & knife… sliding down a sail hich is kept inflated and bowed by the wind… the knife trick would also help keep the sailor in CONTACT wi the sail increasing his frictionn. But more importantly ever seen the ripple effect pushed below the moving sailor/object… adding to the resistance… in a sail that is inflated, but not blown to full taughtness…
    As for not wanting to do damage to ones own sails… ahem… if i thought slicing a sail might save my skin in a fall I know what I’d do!!
    Also the twisted knife theory mentioned in passing has legs… I wonder what the effects are if a ‘too shapr knife that cuts seams well but slips through sail… I imagine turning it would help… increasing friction cutting the sail yet still slicing a seam when it stuck on it…

  37. kbear says:

    Knife/ Sail

    I Hope you revisit this myth with the seggustions above bellowed sails and knife twisting as well as tied down sails it seems to me that all these factors should have been considered in the first place i know the movie scene that “we” see in this episode was added post preduction but it would stand to reason that if thats the myth you test you examine that scene completely not just glance at it to get the general idea which is what seems to have happened here… that being said. I love the show and generally agree with your findings hope you keep up the good work.

  38. Jim says:

    I was always a bit skeptical about the cannon/splinter testing. There have been a few posts here about the size and velocity of cannonballs and their relationship to splintering. Here is a good article just published with some actual scientific data on it – and it looks like regardless of the thickness/solidity of the wooden walls, splinters are a major result:

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090715101505.htm

    I would love to see this myth revisited!

    Jim

  39. hr says:

    i tried the eye patch thing and it really works ty guys
    love the show :P

  40. Delaney says:

    Can a gitar string snap and slice your head off. good luck.

  41. chris says:

    i LOVE the show!!!!!! these might be a small experiment you could preform. the myth is that cold water boils faster than hot water.

  42. Jeff says:

    Hi Adam & Jamie (alphabetical order) – I am a real fan of Mythbusters and I attempt to watch every episode. However, having missed the first run of this in NZ I just watched a repeat of the “Pirate Special”. I have to agree with those who have pointed out a number of errors in your test on the splinters.
    1) There is more than enough emperical evidence (for example from ship’s logs of the period) that wood (oak) splinters were a major cause of injury and sometimes death in battle.

    2) Pine is classed as a soft wood as opposed to oak which is a hard wood; as a consequence woodworkers could tell you pine resists or absorbs shock better than weathered oak. Pine splinters are lighter and softer than oak splinters – oak splinters have sharp, often barbed, points which can penetrate human flesh and lodge in place; sometimes the operation needed to remove the “splinter” – which could be over a foot long and a couple of inches wide – entailed pulling it right through whatever part of the body it penetrated because, like an arrowhead, it could not be pulled out the same way it went in. Sometimes a limb would need to be amputated. This could lead to secondary shock or infection.

    3)The inner bulwarks of your “ship” were lined with pine. As your cannon ball penetrated the oak I would suggest that the majority of the oak splinters were stopped by the inner layer of pine; your pirate pigs were saved from getting a skin-full of oak splinters. In addition, splinters were often gouged from the ship’s deck as a cannon ball skipped across it.

    4) Ships of the 18-19 C were usually constructed using trenails or treenails; these were wooden (often oak) pegs which were used to secure the planking to the frames http://www.hmssurprise.org/Resources/SteelSWVMLex.html

    Like others I’m hoping you will seriously consider retesting this myth. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy Mythbusters.

  43. mike says:

    I’ve worn and eye patch for two days before for medical reasons and i took it off in the dark after my eye had healed and i had better vision in the light than in the dark.

  44. Andy says:

    I agree with all those who have raised doubt about the validity of the cannon ball/splinters test. Apart from the issue of shot weight, a 42 pound ball fired from an equivalent of a 3.5 tonne naval long gun is really required for an absolute test of the splinter producing capacity of round shot.

    An issue not previously mentioned is that in a full size 18th century wooden warship, the hull is under considerable compression, something which is hard to reproduce in a small mock up section. A large high velocity shot, or even a large short range corronade shot which actually breaches the hull, will cause a rapid release of compression in a small area of the hull with any fragments (splinters) being energetically released.

  45. Bryan says:

    Wooden shrapnel from a cannonball impact to pirate ship causes more damage than the cannonball impact itself. not totally busted. Jamie and adam forgot to soak the wood on water for a couple of years to make it heavier and more realist.

  46. Bryan says:

    knife on a sail myth not accurately tested.
    sail must have some angle, so free fall must be less. the sail cloth they used are new.

  47. Stan says:

    Firstly, your programme is terrific. It is interesting, amusing, and you occasionally repeat tests when questions arise – I hope you get as much pleasure doing it as I do watching.

    Secondly,regarding Episode 71, which showed very little damage from wooden splinters. I think you should see an episode of “Ancient Discoveries” shown on the “History” cable channel in the U.K.
    The episode is “Mega Ocean Conquest” shown on 21/07/2010. Replaying the battle of the Spanish Armada, it shows large planks devastating an area behind an oak wall when a cannonball goes through, disintegrating several dummies.
    The difference may be the use of solid oak of the correct thickness.

  48. Richard says:

    Historically there are many accounts of the damage done by splinters in naval battles. Eye-witness accounts state that it was the large slow-moving cannonballs that did the most damage. At battles like Trafalgar these would mainly be 32 or 34 pounders. However, even larger balls were fired by carronades. The carronade aboard the Victory fired a 68 pound low-velocity shot. At point blank range it would cause horrific damage.

    The cannon used in Mythbusters appears to have been a rifled Civil War cannon. As a result it would have a very high muzzle velocity and pass through the simulated wooden side of the “ship” without much damage. Almost certainly a 24 or 32 pound low velocity shot would cause extensive splintering.

    If Mythbusters can get hold of a larger gun or get one of their members to build one (Corrie seems quite good at doing this) they should try to replicate the experiment using a heavier cannonball fired at subsonic speeds. Most Napoleonic era guns fired such low velocity shot. I suspect they will get a different result.

    The eye patch myth made no sense. Why on earth would pirates attack in the dark? The crew of a pirate ship usually vastly outnumbered the merchantmen they attacked. Attacking in the dark would throw away part of their advantage. Also on the open ocean finding another sailing ship in the dark would be next to impossible.

    • c says:

      The darkness is below decks, not because of nighttime. There were not extensive windows on period ships, nor was there electric light.

  49. Hefsgaard says:

    A couple of thoughts on the Splintes myth.

    Most pirates might indeed have carried small weight cannons. But the ships sent to combat pirates would be Naval ships with larger guns.

    The construction of the test-shipside is proberly quite close to a lige ship such as the average pirate might use. However planks and spars would not be screwed fast but nailed with wooden pegs. Another part of the construction that missed totaly was the tar and pitch used to make it waterproof and combat rot.

    The angle of penetration might produce diffrent resaults. As could hitting not one plank, but between planks, or even tilling the spar itself.

    One observation that may indicate that large splinters is indeed possible can be observed when a beam of heavy wood is broken my asserting mechanical preassure. The ends produce large pointed spikes.

  50. Evan says:

    if the mythbusters knew their history they would know that despite their test the majority of injuries suffered during battles abourd ships a few hundred years ago were from splinters, not the cannonballs themselves

  51. bobby jones says:

    on the hellboy flip a jeep episode, they test with a weight smashing straight down. i think the results would be different if instead of a 90 degree hit to the front of the jeep, they hit the same spot the top of the nose of the jeep but at more of a opposing forward downward 45 degree angle. this could probably be done with a recking ball cable attached at a position behind the jeep at the point of impact swinging in a bow like motion useing the ground to stop the ball. however this may cause the jeep to flip and hit the cable that is attached to the ball. you could probably avoid that by having two crane cables one out each side of the ball instead of out the top of the ball.

  52. Andrew Givens says:

    Wow, Johnny-come-lately turns up with something to add.
    As a lay, if enthusiastic, student of naval history with the prerequisite crossover taste for nerd data and big boys’ toys, I was left somewhat cold by the original ‘splinters vs cannonballs lethality’ test. I too took the view that the myriad of historically-documented casualties from heavy wooden splinters during the Napoleonic Wars showed the team’s test results to have been incorrect or at the least flawed.
    But, having reviewed a few key items, I think the truth is probably closer to Adam & Jamie’s conclusion.
    I say this for several reasons:
    Firstly, we know about the kinds of splinter-related injuries from the days of sail and broadsides, but we must also accept that the vast majority of such documented cases occurred in fleet vs fleet combat and aboard ships of war ranging from 1st rate ships-of-the-line, down to 6th rate frigates. These were heavily-built to mediumweight ships, the largest of which featured the 12 to 18″ thick timbers mentioned by earlier posters and armed to the teeth with guns up to 32lb projectile weight, and occasionally carronades. Yes, these guns did terrific damage, that’s what happens when heavy shot hits thick timbers. The splinters were horrendous.
    Secondly, the original myth was not about the effects of splinters relative to cannonball impact aboard warships; it was about the relative number of such fatalities aboard PIRATE ships. Pirates couldn’t generally afford to buy a 3rd-rate, two-decker battleship, or even a nice spanking frigate. A sloop of war would have been a push. The vast majority of ships employed by pirates were of private or mercantile origin, and their scantlings were typically much lighter than those of even small warships such as corvettes. Built to tolerate the stresses of oceanic voyage whilst carrying a cargo, the emphasis was on frame strength and economy. To meet these demands, a mercantile hull invested in a strong frame for durability but a relatively light skin for low cost and low weight & high speed. Such vessels typically only carried light guns of less than 12lb projectile weight in addition. This saved weight and cost and made procurement of ammunition easier. Also, what would a pirate ship be shooting at? A merchant victim or a rival pirate vessel would only need a light gun turned on it to punch holes in it and have the correct psychological effect. If the Royal Navy turned up in pursuit, it would be with a little brig or two, maybe a sloop. These vessels carried small guns also, for the same reasons as the pirates carried such armaments, though the navy did usually have the edge it’s true.
    Finally, the myth stated that the splinters were more deadly than the cannonball. That was busted because, in the firing tests I’ve seen, it’s false! A direct hit from a 6lb shot will kill you or carry off a limb; a splinter produced by a small round against thin timbers may or may not be grievous and may well lead to infection, but has none of the lethality of either a solid shot or the splinters encountered on the heavyweight ships at Trafalgar. Totally different story. In any case, the History Channel documentary that was referenced earlier shows a sequence where a 40-odd lb shot hits heavier timbers than the Mythbusters used. The result superficially suggested that the splinters from this hit were more lethal than the solid shot; in fact the slo-mo showed the shot passing through and destroying two of the three man-size targets before the splinters even hit, and the third target (which had been declared to be “decapitated” by a splinter) sustained only superficial penetrative damage from wooden shards while its head fell of due to the shock of impact, being moulded separately to the body like a tailor’s dummy and lightly attached. In short, this demo, like Adam & Jamie’s, did not recreate the effect of fire against a galleon or ship of the line, but rather against a light, piratey target and both proved the same result: Myth Busted.
    I didn’t want it to be so, but there it is.
    Please guys; feel free to revisit this myth and ramp it up sometime though!

    • Hubert says:

      It all depends on what you mean by “more lethal.” Of course one man directly hit by one cannonball will be injured much more gravely than one man hit by one splinter or perhaps even by the shower of splinters from one cannonball. But the splinters are much more likely to hit you – and a bunch of other people too — because they spray out all over the place. The cannonball itself is like a single bullet that either hits you or (more likely) misses you, but the splinters are like a shotgun blast that is a lock to hit everyone in a wide area. Far more death and injury would be caused by the splinters because they would hit many more people than the cannonballs that caused them. The Mythbusters test misses the point completely. Myth Not Busted At All.

    • c says:

      As you said, the wealth of historical data on this subject clearly indicates that this was in fact true.

  53. Jeremy says:

    “If it skipped, it went over the hill.” — sage words for a missing cannonball, what eh?

  54. Nicholas says:

    I just want to join the chorus of those protesting the cannonball episode. The idea that a cannonball striking a ship cannot create lethal splintering seems grossly out-of-line with the historical record.
    Please Myth Busters, redo this episode, and test more variables!

    Your loyal fan,
    ~Nick

  55. Robert says:

    I would love to see the cannonball splinter myth revisited with a properly constructed section of hull and an 18lb+ gun, preferably double shotted.

    Sincerely

    Robert JK
    Armchair Admiral

  56. Jesper says:

    On the eye patch, the german astronomer D’Arrest http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%27Arrest was said to use an eye patch during the day to improve his observatory skills.

  57. basilus says:

    If I didn’t miss somebody else’s comment (but I tried to read all of them), I think that you guys are right, but missing one more point here – the probability that cannonball actually hit the pirate and probability that swarm of splinters hit somebody.
    Who would believe that pirates, when see the enemy ship firing towards them, stop doing anything and line up in nice smooth row of bodies to get the shot, like those pigs in demonstration?

  58. Samantha says:

    What if, when cutting the sail, you used a very sharp knife (or a knife with a very sharp point) but used the opposite side of the blade? This way the sharp tip will allow the knife to penetrate through the sail, but the bluntness of the back of the knife will help to stop the fall?

  59. elbio says:

    Hola, gostaria de falar q admiro muito o trabalho de voces, acho o maximo as esperiencias q voces fazem.
    Abraços,
    Elbio.

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