A typical blunderbuss is a muzzle-loader with a relatively short barrel that has a distinctive trumpet-shaped flare at the muzzle end of the barrel. The caliber of this weapon is typically large and it was often used by filling the barrel with multiple smaller pellets.
A Blunderbuss. Note the typical flared muzzle end of the firearm.
The original term for this weapon was donderbuss and this name appears to be Dutch. The word "donder" means "thunder" and "buss" means "pipe" in Dutch and German languages. Blunderbuss class weapons also appeared in handgun form, intended for cavalry. These early pistol blunderbusses often had decorations around the muzzle that looked like a dragon with an open mouth and hence were called "dragons". The cavalrymen who used such blunderbuss pistols were therefore called "dragoons". One such example of a dragon pistol is shown below:
The trumpet shape at the muzzle is the distinctive blunderbuss feature that distinguishes it from other firearms of that period. Since a blunderbuss is designed to fire several pellets at the same time, the flare was thought to increase the spread of pellets. The flare also makes it easier to load powder and pellets into the firearm. People mounted on horseback, or in a rocking coach or ship, found this feature very useful indeed. Also, since these are shorter weapons compared to the muskets of the era, they are more easy to manipulate on horseback or a ship deck. This is why they were very popular among cavalry, pirates, mail coach guards, naval personnel etc.
Blunderbusses designed for navies and pirates typically had their barrels made of brass instead of iron, to prevent rusting. Since they are designed to spread multiple pellets around, one such shot could easily deal with several closely packed enemies with a single shot. Hence, they were often carried into action by boarding personnel.
While most blunderbusses were designed as everyday practical weapons, some blunderbusses were also works of art:
Blunderbuss commissioned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore, India. Click image to enlarge.
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The above weapon was custom made for Tipu Sultan, who ruled the Kingdom of Mysore in the 18th century. This fine weapon uses a flintlock firing mechanism and the barrel has engravings and gold inlays. Tipu Sultan was known to employ several European craftsmen and this weapon represents the latest in technology of that period.