How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 30
“I’m not sure how our sudden acquisition of so many galleons is going to affect that decision,” he continued. “On the one hand, we’ve already revealed the existence of the shell-firing smoothbores, and I’m sure that bastard Clyntahn is going to provide dispensations right and left while the Church works on duplicating them. I still don’t see the additional theoretical range being all that valuable in a sea fight, what with the ships’ relative motion, but I’m beginning to think that if Ehdwyrd has the capacity available it might not be a bad idea to begin manufacturing and stockpiling the rifled pieces. That way they’d be available quickly if and when, as you say, we decide to shift over to them.”
“I’ll look into that, Sir,” Seamount said, chalk clacking as he turned to make a note to himself on the waiting slate. “It’ll probably mean he needs to further increase his wire-drawing capacity, as well, so the additional leadtime would almost certainly be a good thing.”
Rock Point nodded, and Seamount nodded back.
“Second,” he continued, “at that same meeting you suggested Commander Mahndrayn give some thought to the best way to protect a ship from shellfire. He’s done that, and discussed it with Sir Dustyn Olyvyr, as well. We don’t have anything like a finished plan yet, but a few things have become evident to us.”
“Such as?” Rock Point prompted, and Seamount gestured for Mahndrayn to take over.
“Well,” the commander said in the soft, surprisingly melodious tenor which always sounded just a bit odd to Rock Point coming out of someone who seemed so intense, “the first thing we realized was that wooden armor simply won’t work, Sir. We can make the ships’ scantlings thicker, but even if they’re too thick for a shell to actually smash through them, we can’t make them thick enough to guarantee it won’t penetrate into them before it detonates. If that happens, it would be almost as bad as no ‘armor’ at all. It could even be worse, given the fire hazard and how much worse the splinters would be. Another objection to wood is its weight. It’s a lot more massive for the same strength than iron, and the more we looked at it, the more obvious it became that iron armor that prevented shells from penetrating at all or actually broke them up on impact was the only practical answer.”
“Practical?” Rock Point asked with a faint smile, and Mahndrayn chuckled sourly.
“Within limits, Sir. Within limits.” The commander shrugged. “Actually, Master Howsmyn seems to feel that with his new smelting processes and the heavier hammer and rolling mills those ‘accumulators’ of his make possible he probably can provide iron plate to us in useful thicknesses and dimensions within the next six months to a year. He’s not sure about quantities yet, but my observation’s been that every one of his estimates for increased productivity has erred on the side of conservatism. And one thing’s certain — we haven’t seen any evidence that anyone on the other side would be in a position to match his production for years to come.”
“That’s true enough,” Rock Point conceded. In fact, it was even truer than Mahndrayn realized, although that didn’t mean enough small foundries couldn’t produce at least some useful quantities of armor, even using old-fashioned muscle power to hammer out the plates.
“Assuming Master Howsmyn can manufacture the plate, and that we can come up with a satisfactory way of securing it to the hull, there are still going to be weight considerations,” Mahndrayn continued. “Iron gives better protection than wood, but building in enough protection out of anything to stop shellfire is going to drive up displacements. That’s one of the problems I’ve been discussing with Sir Dustyn.
“I understand Doctor Mahklyn at the College is also working with Sir Dustyn on mathematical ways to predict displacements and sail power and stability. I’m afraid I’m not too well informed on that, and neither is Sir Dustyn, for that matter. He’s a practical designer of the old school, but he’s at least willing to give Doctor Mahklyn’s formulas a try once they’re finished. In the meantime, though, it’s obvious hull strength is already becoming an issue in our current designs. There’s simply an upper limit on the practical dimensions and weights which can be constructed out of a material like wood, and we’re approaching them rapidly. Sir Dustyn’s been working on several ways to reinforce the hull’s longitudinal strength, including diagonal planking and angled trusses between frames, but the most effective one he’s come up with uses iron. Basically, he’s boring holes in the ships’ frames, then using long iron bolts between adjacent frames to stiffen the hull. Obviously, he hasn’t had very long to observe the approach’s success at sea, but so far he says it looks very promising.
“When I approached him about the notion of hanging iron armor on the outside of the ship, however, he told me immediately that he didn’t think a wooden hull was going to be very practical. I’d already expected that response, so I asked him what he thought about going to a ship that was wooden-planked but iron-framed. Frankly, I expected him to think the notion was preposterous, but it turns out he’d already been thinking in that direction, himself. In fact, his suggestion was that we should think about building the entire ship out of iron.”
Rock Point’s eyes widened, and this time his surprise was genuine. Not at the notion of iron or steel-hulled vessels, but at the discovery that Sir Dustyn Olyvyr was already thinking in that direction.
“I can see where that would offer some advantages,” he said after a moment. “But I can see a few drawbacks, too. For example, you can repair a wooden hull almost anywhere. A shattered iron frame member would be just a bit more difficult for the carpenters to fix! And then there’s the question of whether or not even Master Howsmyn could produce iron in quantities like that.”
“Oh, I agree entirely, Sir. I was impressed by the audacity of the suggestion, though, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I have to say I believe the advantages would vastly outweigh the drawbacks — assuming, as you say, Master Howsmyn could produce the iron we needed. That’s for the future, however. For the immediate future, the best we’re going to be able to do is go to composite building techniques, with iron frames and wooden planking. And the truth is that that’ll still give us significant advantages over all-wooden construction.”
“I can see that. At the same time, I’d be very reluctant to simply scrap all the ships we’ve already built — not to mention the ones we’ve just captured — and start over with an entirely new construction technique.”
“Yes, Sir. As an intermediate step, we’ve been looking at the possibility of cutting an existing galleon down by a full deck. We’d sacrifice the spar deck armament and completely remove the forecastle and quarterdeck. That should save us enough weight to allow the construction of an iron casemate to protect the broadside guns. We’d only have a single armed deck, but the guns would be much better protected. And we’ve also been considering that with shell-firing weapons we could reduce the number of broadside guns and actually increase the destructiveness of the armament. Our present thinking is that we might completely remove the current krakens and all the carronades from a ship like Destroyer, say, and replace them with half as many weapons with an eight or nine-inch bore. The smaller gun would fire a solid rifled shot somewhere around a hundred and eighty to two hundred pounds. The shell would probably be about half that, allowing for the bursting charge. In an emergency, it could fire a sixty-eight-pound round shot, which would still be more destructive than just about anything else currently at sea.”
“Rate of fire would drop significantly with that many fewer guns,” Rock Point pointed out, and Mahndrayn nodded.