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Titanic Facts: Were Shots Fired During the Sinking?

Were shots fired on the Titanic as she sank? In a word, yes. The question of whether shots were fired on the Titanic is a relatively big deal because, except for military honors and burials at sea, guns are rarely fired aboard ship. Steamships always carried weapons, though, and certain crew members had access to guns. Some of the Titanic’s crew must have immediately armed themselves upon learning of the ship’s fate. (Can you blame them?)

Confirming three instances of shots fired on the Titanic

Based on testimony by passengers and crew members given at both the British and U.S. inquiries into the disaster, three instances of shots being fired can be considered accurate beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • First Officer Harold Lowe fired three warning shots along the side of the ship while loading Lifeboat 14. When asked during the British Commission of Inquiry hearings into the Titanic disaster why he fired his revolver, Lowe replied, “Because while I was at the boat deck two men jumped into my boat. I chased one out and to avoid another occurrence of that sort I fired my revolver as I was going past each deck. The boat had about 64 persons in it and would not stand a sudden jerk.”

  • Either First Officer William Murdoch or Purser McElroy fired two warning shots in the air while loading Collapsible C. This was reported by first-class passengers Hugh Woolner and Colonel Archibald Gracie.

  • Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller fired two shots in the air while loading Collapsible D. This was also reported by Gracie.

Hearing from the survivors about shots fired

One of the most frustrating realities for Titanic historians is that none of the accounts of what went on aboard the Titanic after it struck the iceberg can be incontrovertibly confirmed. No empirical evidence in the form of photographs or recordings can confirm what has been reported. However, we can look to repeated, almost identical accounts from survivors to paint what must be considered a fairly accurate picture of events aboard the Titanic.

Several people who survived the sinking of the Titanic were clear about their recollections of shots being fired onboard. Here are a few of their firsthand accounts:

  • Abraham Hyman, third-class passenger: In the April 19, 1912, edition of The New York Times, Hyman said, “When [some of the steerage passengers] got on deck, they found a rope drawn closer to their quarters than usual, and this made some of them think there was danger. One or two of the women began to cry, and a panic began to spread. An officer came forward, stood close to the rope and waved the people back. . . . The officer who was standing at the rope had a pistol in his hand, and he ordered everybody to keep back. First, one woman screamed and then another, and then one man (I think he was an Italian) pushed toward the boat and the officer fired at him.”

  • Jules Sap, Belgian, third-class passenger: In the Chicago Tribune of Sunday, April 21, 1912, Sap reported being threatened with death twice by officers with revolvers: first on the Boat deck and then in the water when he tried to get into a lifeboat.

  • George Rheims, first-class passenger: Rheims wrote a private letter dated April 19, 1912, to his wife, in which he stated that he personally saw an officer shoot a passenger who was trying to force his way into a lifeboat.

  • Eugene Daly, third-class passenger: Daly wrote a private letter to his sister in which he reported seeing an officer shoot two men who were trying to get into a lifeboat.

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