Arrrrgh… Mythbusters misses the boat
Mythbusters put on a very fun two-hour “Pirate Special” recently. It addressed a Hollywood staple of swashbuckling—leaping from a yardarm and using a dagger stabbed through the face of a sail to slow one’s descent to the deck (“busted”)—as well as the fascinating revisionism that pirates wore eyepatches not due to opthalmological damage, but rather to give one eye the benefit of night vision when charging below decks during daylight attacks (intriguingly “plausible”).
Unfortunately, they came to the wrong conclusion for the prime “myth” addressed on this episode, which was this: in battle, a pirate is more likely to take damage from the splinters a cannonball produces in striking the ship, rather than from the cannonball itself.
The Mythbusters verdict? “Busted.”
The reason? They were unable to produce the requisite money shot on camera, that of a viciously long and sharp splinter of oak stabbing gruesomely through the flesh of a dead pig carcass.
Despite the explosive violence of impact the pigs appeared unharmed, and Jamie and Adam claimed that, despite the scary-looking clouds of debris flying around, it just wasn’t as dangerous as a fast-moving iron ball, which they showed could penetrate four back-to-back pigs with velocity to spare. Sure, a direct hit from a cannonball is going to be devastating. But to call the wood shrapnel “harmless” flies completely in the face of the historical record, which shows that death and injury from large splinters of wood was commonplace in the era of wood-hulled naval warfare. (Adam, seeking consolation, lamely suggests that perhaps a scratch from the splinters could cause a nasty infection, given the microbes living on the wood and the poor hygiene of the day.)
Their conclusion also ignores the evidence of their own high-speed footage, which shows what looks to be a five-foot length of two-by-six lumber being knocked completely free of their solidly built ship’s hull mock-up and striking two of the pigs in the head with enough force to cause the board to flex. Sure, it’s not a jugular-gouging shard, but that’s bound to hurt.
The reason they misjudged the potential of shrapnel damage can be summed up in Jamie’s last line: “Maybe we should try a bigger cannon.” Their final test used a mid-1880s-era replica firing 6-pound shot. According to Patrick O’Brian’s Men-Of-War: Life in Nelson’s Navy, this is on the very small end of the cannonball scale: 12-, 18-, 24-, and 32-pounders were commonplace, “and a 32-pounder could smash through two feet of solid oak at half a mile.” You can’t tell me that’s not going to generate big, sharp splinters moving at deadly velocity.
What they ultimately ignored was the wording of the myth in the first place. Setting aside their mishandling of the “amount of damage” assessment, the operative question is the likelihood of being hit by one or the other. This becomes a question of statistics, and area of effect—one which was answered in their very first sub-scale test.
Using an air cannon and a 2-inch ball bearing, they fired shots at boards of pine, white oak, and red oak. Behind the boards were two backstops coated with foam board to catch splinters, each placed at a 45° angle to the target board and with enough gap between to allow the shot to pass through to a sandbag backstop behind.
In these tests, the answer was clear: the cannonball will do damage to anything it strikes, which in this case was a field of damage along an imaginary cylinder only two inches in diameter. Meanwhile, shrapnel blasted away from the point of impact in a broad cone—making the field of potential damage several feet wide within just a few feet. Unless your pirates are ludicrously lined up in close proximity (as the pig carcasses were in one of the scale tests), and hit by a very lucky dead-on shot (a one-in-a-million shot when using inaccurate iron cannons on the high seas), the odds are much, much greater that they will be hit by wood shrapnel instead of cannonballs.
I hope the Mythbusters find that bigger cannon, and a place to fire it, so they can revisit this “myth” and demonstrate, conclusively, that it is most definitely “confirmed.”