Is it wise to carry a gun on board your boat if you are cruising round the world, or are they more trouble than they're worth? Let us know what you think

Should you carry a gun on board?

This is an important question, often a dilemma, for many long-distance sailors. It’s a generalisation for sure, but European sailors tend to decide they are not worth the risk, whereas Americans feel happier carrying firearms.

But what are the arguments for and against?

Against is a stronger argument, in my view. First, there are the practical aspects: in most countries you must check in firearms on entry and they are held ashore in a safe.

Shotguns are sometimes allowed to remain on board in a secure gun cabinet, provided they are declared at Customs.

If you do have to relinquish your gun(s), you will of course not have them at anchor, when you are most vulnerable to intruders or attack. Additionally, most countries require you to return to your port of entry to reclaim guns; the authorities won’t forward them to a port of exit.

Firearms laws differ hugely from country to country, but the penalties for not declaring firearms are usually heavy and involve prison time.

And some would also point out that the time you’re most likely to need a gun (if ever) is while anchored off rather than at sea, when your firearm would have been taken off you.

So, those are some of the practical considerations. Then there’s the worrying prospect of firearms escalating a situation. Sir Peter Blake was killed in 2001 while cruising on the Amazon after meeting intruders with a gun.

Once you have a gun in your hands, you should be trained and prepared to use it – and must live with the consequences. Two years ago, a yacht crew approaching the Gulf of Aden were confronted by armed men in a skiff and while taking avoiding action the skipper fired his gun and shot one of the pirates, mortally wounding him he believed. He did not hang around to find out and quickly made his escape.

Even when acting in self-defence against an armed aggressor, this situation is one that would make many of us feel very disturbed. If you carry a gun, you do have to ask yourself whether you are prepared to pull the trigger and kill another human being.

An American sailor I spoke to on the subject, Morgan, put it this way: ‘As an American, a 10-year Army veteran with two-and-a-half years in Vietnam, I have to tell you that I do not necessarily advocate the carrying of firearms on a boat. I own two pistols (a 38 calibre and a 25 calibre) and a 12 gauge shotgun.

“But before one considers the use of a firearm, one has to ask oneself: ‘Am I prepared to actually aim the gun and pull the trigger and kill another human being? Can I do it? Or if I pull the gun out and chicken out, will the bad guy take it away from me and shoot me with my own gun?”

“And what will I do if I misunderstand a stranger’s actions and kill that person, only to find out he had no evil intent and I am then facing trial for murder in a foreign country?

“Taking that into consideration as well as the legalities of carrying weapons in other countries, are the legal penalties worth it? I don’t think so.’

Guns on board can also make a crew feel very uncomfortable. Sailing north in the Red Sea some years ago I once met a (British) crew who had several guns on board, including a handbag-sized mother of pearl handled revolver for his wife. They used to practice by throwing beer cans over the transom and taking pot shots. I felt very uneasy about that.

So, if you chose to sail unarmed, as most sailors do, what can you, or should you, use in self-defence?

I’ve heard lots of suggestions. One skipper told me he kept a technical ice axe below “small enough to be wielded to shatter kneecaps” – and that he had once used it north of Jakarta.

Some say flares or flare guns might be effective. A ship crew had some luck in repelling Somali pirates not so long ago by making and lobbing Molotov cocktails from the aft deck – easy to create but a bit dangerous to use.

Still others say the best deterrent is a Mayday on the VHF, as well as firing off a satellite message to the Coastguard and setting off an EPIRB. The trouble is that there are some situations where none of these deterrents is likely to work.

Let me know your views about guns on board and other possible deterrents to intruders/pirates. Comments are up and running below.

  • Dacha

    Then discover that it isn’t as “hidden” as you thought, have it be discovered by Mexican officials and spend the next decade or so brushing up on your spanish in a Mexican prison.

  • HondoCougburn

    Multiple AR15A2 HBAR sporters and 1911s.

  • HondoCougburn

    Easy train your crew in the handling and use of firearms, have hidden compatments that ony you your wife and captain know about and make it accessible in an emergency.

  • Rino Granito

    The most powerful weapon is your mind. How to use a gun or when to use a gun is a matter of wisdom and experience on the individual. In certain situations a gun can deter, in others it will provoke. Learn on when and how to use . But I would rather have and not need then need and not have ..

  • Nathan Leasure

    Wasp spray is for killing an insect smaller than your thumb. If the bad guy gargled with the whole bottle then might have an effect but you’ll likely do more damage by hitting him over the head with it. Otherwise all it will do is piss him off.

  • Nathan Leasure

    I am certain someone will laugh at this but I think the answer to this delemma lies further towards the extreme side. If you have a dozen people in a little boat, even if they are a bunch of teenagers doped up on cocaine or Kaat, they still have AK’s by’en large. A pistol or shotgun will just get you killed. There are many things to consider when thinking of arming yourself on the high seas. What am I getting into? How heavily are they armed? How do I defeat them at range? It boils down to three things Offense, Defense, and Detection.

    Like I said earlier, a side arm is suicide, you will just be out-numbered and out-gunned. Now here in the US you can get the proper licenses and tax forms to own an automatic weapon regardless of caliber, just as long as they were made before 1964. That means a bucket load of M2s and M60s, they are suprisingly afordable. But the former needs a mount, prehaps a pop up on the bow, just spitballing. If you have a mega yacht you probably have enough cash for an old bofors if you wanted to (and have enough “look the other way money” too).

    Also, offense is not all there is. If you are designing your own boat, a kevlar inlay to the hull is a good way of stopping bullets from ripping you up. And ballistic glass or armored shutters for windows is good too. If they try to shove a RPG up your hineie, your s.o.l. anyway, armor ain’t changin that.

    But it doest matter how much cash you have put into arming yourself if you can’t see what your shooting at. This is easily rectified however. A FLIR or forward looking infared canear can be picked up and installed for a couple of grand. These also can come in real handy for nighttime voyages. I’d get if for that even if I were not worried about pirates.

    Lastly there is the port authority to worry about. Well here is where this get, let’s say difficult. Many a time the weapons on board will get you in more trouble at the dock than they keep you from at sea. Mostly because government types can’t figure out that law abiding citizens declare their weapons upon arrival and criminals never come into port and say “Hi I’m armed to the teeth.” For this reason most people forgo firearms on board and so would I unless it where the ones I mentioned earlier. If you are going someplace civilized like Europe or Russia or Australia, you really don’t need one and you’ll be arrested if they find one. However, there is some new light being shed on this by the UN. There has been a motion going around to declare a private vessel national territory and soil. Meaning that the laws of the birth nation will be extended to the vessel regardless of what port you sail into. If it does pass though, I would not be too eager with that bofors whIle a Coast Guard ship is watching.

  • Mahatmah

    I once lived i Yemen for four years, including during the Gulf War in which Yemen was pushed onto the side of Irak. As a friend was to leave the country, he gave me his pistol and I started pondering wether I should keep it, and for what. My conclusion was that if you face another person with a gun, you have to shoot first in order to survive. But if you do not have the psychology of a killer you will always be at a disadvantage, since the person you are facing is likely to. So not carrying a gun, is most probably advantageous.

  • Nick

    You and me both. An M1A or AKM would seem ideal.

  • John Rohan

    One good suggestion are cans of wasp spray. They are powerful. Just as effective as mace but with a much longer range. Not deadly, and probably legal everywhere.

  • Best_Reviews

    I would prefer to face pirates with a semi-auto rifle and an automatic pistol than with a road flare and a mini-ax. I wouldn’t shed too many tears for taking a life of someone as they are trying to murder me.