How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 31
“Absolutely, Sir. On the other hand, each hit would be enormously more destructive. It takes dozens of hits, sometimes hundreds, to drive a galleon out of action with solid shot. A handful of hundred-pound exploding shells would be more than enough to do the job, and just to indicate how the weapons would scale, a rifled thirty-pounder’s shot would weigh about ninety pounds, which would give you a shell weight of only forty-five or so, so you can see the advantage the larger gun has. Of course, the smoothbore thirty-pounder’s shell is only around twenty-five pounds, and its bursting charge is proportionately lighter, as well. And if both sides start armoring their vessels with iron, anything much lighter than eight inches probably won’t penetrate, anyway.”
“That sounds logical enough,” Rock Point acknowledged. “We’ll have to think about it, of course. Fortunately it’s not a decision we’re going to have to make any time soon.”
“I’m afraid we might have to make it sooner than you may be thinking, Sir,” Seamount put in. Rock Point looked at him, and the commodore shrugged. “You’re talking about the possibility of beginning production and stockpiling weapons, Sir,” he reminded his superior. “If we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to decide which weapons to build, first.”
“Now that, Ahlfryd, is a very good point,” Rock Point agreed. “Very well, I’ll be thinking about it, and I’ll discuss it with the Emperor as soon as possible.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Seamount smiled. “In the meantime, we have a few other thoughts that should be more immediately applicable to our needs.”
“Yes. You may have noticed commander Mahndrayn’s hand, Sir?”
“You mean that fathom of gauze wrapped around it?” Rock Point asked dryly.
“Exactly, Sir.” Seamount held up his own left hand, which had been mangled by an explosion many years before. “I think Urvyn was trying to do me one better. Unfortunately, he failed. All of his fingers are still intact . . . more or less.”
“I’m relieved to hear it. Exactly what bearing does that have on our present discussion, however?”
“Well, what actually happened, Sir,” Seamount said more seriously, “is that we’ve been experimenting with better ways to fire our artillery. The flintlocks we’ve gone to are far, far better than the old slowmatch-and-linstock or heated irons we used to use. That most of our new prizes’ guns are still using, for that matter. But they still aren’t as efficient as we could wish. I’m sure you’re even better aware than we are here at the Experimental Board of how many misfires we still experience, especially when there’s a lot of spray around or it’s raining. So we’ve been looking for a more reliable method, and we’ve found one.”
“You have?” Rock Point’s eyes narrowed.
“Actually, we’ve come up with two of them, Sir.” Seamount shrugged. “Both work, but I have to admit to a strong preference for one of them over the other.”
“Doctor Lywys at the College gave us a whole list of ingredients to experiment with. One of them was something called ‘fulminated quicksilver,’ which is very attractive, on the face of it. You can detonate it with a single sharp blow, and the explosion is very hot. It would reduce lock time significantly, as well, which would undoubtedly improve accuracy. The problem is that it’s very corrosive. And another difficulty is that it’s too sensitive. We’ve experimented with ways of moderating its sensitivity by mixing in other ingredients, like powdered glass, and we’ve had some success, but any fuses using fulminated quicksilver are going to tend to corrode over time, and according to Doctor Lywys, they’ll lose much of their power as they do. For that matter, she says at least some of them would probably detonate spontaneously if they were left in storage long enough. They do have the advantage that they’re effectively impervious to damp, however, which would be a major plus for sea service.”
“I can see where that would be true,” Rock Point agreed.
“We’ve pushed ahead with developing those fuses — for the moment we’re calling them fulminating fuses, after the quicksilver, although Urvyn is pushing for calling them ‘percussion’ fuses, since they’re detonated by a blow — but I decided we should explore some other possibilities, as well. Which brought me to ‘Shan-wei’s candles.'”
Rock Point nodded. “Shan-wei’s candles” was the name which had been assigned to what had once been called “strike-anywhere matches” back on Old Terra.
“Well, basically what we’ve come up with, Sir, is a tube — we’re using the same sort of quills we’ve been using with the artillery flintlocks at the moment, although I think it’s going to be better to come up with a metallic tube in the long run; probably made out of copper or tin — filled with the same compound we use in one of Shan-wei’s candles. It’s sealed with wax at both ends, and we insert a serrated wire into it lengthwise. When the wire is snatched out, friction ignites the compound in the tube, and that ignites the main charge in the gun. As far as we can tell, it’s as reliable as the fulminating fuses even in heavy weather, as long as the wax seals are intact before the wire’s pulled. It’s less corrosive, as well, and it lets us dispense with hammer lock mechanisms, completely. For that matter, we could easily go directly to it on existing guns which are already designed to take the quills we’re using with the flintlocks.”
“I like it,” Rock Point said with unfeigned enthusiasm. “In fact, I like it a lot — especially the ‘easily’ part.” He grinned, but then he raised one eyebrow. “Exactly how do the Commander’s damaged fingers figure into all this, though? Did he burn them on one of the ‘candles’?”
“Not . . . precisely, Sir.” Seamount shook his head. “I said I prefer the friction-ignited fuses for artillery, and I do. But Urwyn’s been exploring other possible uses for the fulminating fuses, and he’s come up with a fascinating one.”
“Oh?” Rock Point looked at the commander, who actually seemed a little flustered under the weight of his suddenly intense gaze.
“Why don’t you go get your toy, Urwyn?” Seamount suggested.
“Of course, Sir. With your permission, High Admiral?”
Rock Point nodded, and Mahndrayn disappeared. A few minutes later, the office door opened once more and he walked back in carrying what looked like a standard rifled musket.
“It occurred to us, Sir,” he said, holding the rifle in a rough port arms position as he faced Rock Point, “that the Marines and the Army were going to need reliable primers for their artillery, as well. And that if we were going to provide them for the guns, we might as well see about providing them for small arms, as well. Which is what this is.”
He grounded the rifle butt on the floor and reached into the right side pocket of his tunic for a small disk of copper which he extended to Rock Point.
The high admiral took it a bit gingerly and stood, moving closer to the window to get better light as he examined. It wasn’t the flat disk he’d thought it was at first. Instead, it was hollowed on one side — a cup, not a disk — and there was something inside the hollow. He looked at it for a moment longer, then turned back to Mahndrayn.
“Should I assume the stuff inside this” — he held up the disk, indicating the hollow side with the index finger of his other hand — “is some of that ‘fulminating quicksilver’ of yours?”
“It is, Sir, sealed with a drop of varnish. And this” — Mahndrayn held up his bandaged hand — “is a reminder to me of just how sensitive it is. But what you have in your hand is what we’re calling a ‘primer cap,’ at least for now. We call it that because it fits down over this” — he raised the rifle and cocked the hammer, indicating a raised nipple which had replaced the priming pan of a regular flintlock — “like a cap or a hat.”