BY SCHISM RENT ASUNDER – snippet 65:
"It's not quite as bad as the Commodore might seem to be suggesting, My Lord," Clareyk said. Lock Island looked at him, and the brigadier shrugged. "Oh, I'm not saying it won't be a problem, My Lord. I'm just saying that finding firing lanes two miles long isn't going to be all that difficult as long as we make good use of things like hilltops. Or, much as the farmers are going to hate it, cropland and pastures."
"The Brigadier's right about that, of course," Seamount agreed, "but even without the question of terrain features, there's still the fact that the effective range of rifles can match or exceed the effective range of grape or canister. If a battery's exposed to the fire of a couple of hundred rifles, it's going to lose its gunners in short order."
"That's true enough, My Lord," Clareyk said a touch more grimly.
"I take it this is going somewhere?" Lock Island said mildly.
"Actually, it is, Sir." Seamount shrugged. "As I say, Merlin and the King were watching the artillery demonstration, and I raised the same point with him. You see, I'd been thinking about the new muskets. It occurred to me that if we could increase their range and accuracy by rifling them, why shouldn't it be possible to rifle artillery, as well?"
Lock Island's eyebrows rose. That idea had never occurred to him at all. Probably, he thought, because he was still too busy being so impressed by the revolutionary changes which had already overtaken the naval ordnance with which he'd grown up. Trunnions, bagged powder charges, carronades — the increase in shipboard artillery's lethality was enormous. Yet even with the new guns, sea battles tended to be fought at relatively low ranges. Longer than before the new guns, perhaps, but still far shorter than the theoretical range of their artillery might have suggested. One of the new long thirty-pounders had a maximum range of well over two miles, for example, but no gunner was going to hit a ship-sized target at that distance from a moving deck, no matter how accurate his artillery piece might theoretically be.
But the ground didn't move. So what sort of accuracy and execution might be possible for a land-based rifled artillery piece?
"And what did Seijin Merlin have to say in response to this fascinating speculation of yours, Ahlfryd?"
"He said he didn't see any reason why it shouldn't be possible." Seamount met Lock Island's eyes for a moment, and both of them smiled slightly. "He did . . . suggest, however, that bronze probably wouldn't be the best material for rifled artillery pieces. As he pointed out, bronze is a soft metal, Sir. Even if we can figure out a way to make a shot take the rifling in the first place, a bronze gun's rifling grooves wouldn't last very long."
"No, I can see that."
Lock Island discovered that he was rubbing his own chin in a gesture very like Seamount's.
"Master Howsmyn told me he was making good progress with iron guns," he said after a moment.
"He is, Sir." Seamount nodded. "They're heavier, and there are still some of what Merlin calls 'quality control issues' that haven't been completely solved. Despite that, I think we'll be able to begin arming ships with iron guns instead of bronze within the next few months, or possibly even sooner.
"But that brings up another problem. The pressure inside a rifle's barrel is higher than the pressure inside a smoothbore musket's barrel, because the bullet seals the barrel and traps more of the force of the exploding powder behind it. That's one reason rifles have more range."
"And if the pressure inside a rifled artillery piece increases, and the piece is made out of iron, not bronze, we're likely to see more burst guns, since iron is more brittle than bronze," Lock Island said.
"That's what I'm afraid of, Sir." Seamount agreed. "I can't be certain how much it will go up, because I don't know if the bore will be sealed as efficiently in a rifled cannon as in a rifled musket. Too much depends on how we finally figure out a way to do it for me to even hazard a guess at this point. At the moment, I'm playing around with several different ideas, though. And I'm sure we can come up with a solution for the problem — assuming it actually arises — eventually."
Which means Merlin hasn't told you it's flatly impossible, Lock Island thought. I wonder why he's so prone to throw out cryptic hints instead of just going ahead and telling us how to do it? I'm sure he's got a reason. I'm just not sure it's a reason I want to know.
"Oh, the Commodore is definitely playing around with 'a few ideas,' My Lord," Brigadier Clareyk said. Seamount darted him a ferocious look which was two-thirds humorous and one-third serious, and the Marine went on. "After Merlin and the King had headed back to Tellesberg, the Commodore and I were discussing weapons in general, and he suddenly got this peculiar expression. You know the one I mean, My Lord."
"Like someone about to pass gas?" Lock Island suggested helpfully. From Clareyk's expression, the suggestion didn't seem to help as much, perhaps, as one might have hoped it would.
"No, My Lord," the brigadier said in the careful, half-breathless voice of a man trying very hard not to laugh, "not that expression. The other expression."
"Oh! You mean the one that always reminds me of a wyvern contemplating a chicken coop."
"That would be the one, My Lord," Clareyk agreed.
"And what, pray tell, inspired that particular expression this time around?"
"Actually, My Lord," the brigadier's own expression was suddenly serious, "it was a very intriguing thought indeed, when I asked him about it."
"But it's one I'm still working on," Seamount interjected in a cautioning tone.
"What's one you're still working on?" Lock Island demanded with more than a hint of exasperation.
"Well, Sir," Seamount said, "the truth is that simply increasing the range and accuracy of a cannon by rifling it won't make the shot it fires any more effective against infantry than traditional round shot. It would just let us fire the same sort of round further and more accurately, if you see what I mean. So I was still turning that problem over in my mind even after discussing it with Merlin. Then, last five-day, the Brigadier and I were watching a new batch of Marines training with hand grenades, and it occurred to me that, right off the top of my head, I couldn't think of any reason for it to be impossible to fire grenades — only they'd be a lot bigger, a lot more powerful, you understand — out of a cannon."
Lock Island blinked. If the notion of rifling artillery had opened new vistas, that was nothing compared to the possibility Seamount had just raised. And not just when it came to killing infantry at extreme ranges, either. The thought of what a "grenade" five or six inches in diameter might do to a wooden hulled warship was . . . frightening. No, it wasn't "frightening." For any experienced naval officer it would be terrifying. Heated shot was bad enough. It was undeniably tricky to fire, and dangerous to load, since there was always the possibility that it would burn through the soaked wad behind it and detonate the gun's charge prematurely, with nasty consequences for whoever happened to be ramming it home at the moment. Despite that, however, it could be hideously effective, because a red-hot mass of iron weighing twenty-five or thirty pounds, buried deep in the bone-dry timbers of a warship, could turn that ship into a torch. But if Seamount could fire explosive charges — explosive charges that could be reliably detonated, at least — it would be infinitely worse. Not just an incendiary effect, but one which would literally blow its target open and provide plenty of kindling, as well.
"Ah, have you discussed this particular notion with Seijin Merlin?" he asked after a moment.
"No, not yet, Sir. I really haven't had the opportunity."
"Well make the opportunity, Ahlfryd." Lock Island shook his head. "I find the entire idea more than a little frightening, you understand. But if it's possible, I want to know about it. As soon as possible."