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April 02, 2004

Ammunition, Part the Second.

Now for the JDM Warning™ - Excessively wordy post ahead!

In the first part, we met D’oh! who discovered and then lost the concept of attacking your enemy with a projectile weapon because Mean People Suck. While I postulated the idea lay dormant for another 10,000 years until rediscovered, once a guy used the trick and survived, the whole concept took off like gangbusters. You go from hand-thrown rocks , darts and spears to applying mechanical advantage to the process, with slings, bows, and atlaltls. From there you move to applying more mechanical advantage and produce catapults, onagers, ballistas and other engines of massy destruction.


But with the discovery of black powder things changed dramatically. For a long time, the western world held to the myth that black powder was discovered by a monk, Black Berthold. The Chinese have a claim, that they are still working on. This fellow in New Zealand has his own opinions, but offers no definitive answer... In short, it's still up for grabs - except for the adherents of the Chinese, Hindu, Greek, Arab, German, Spanish and English theories - though the english claim is really tied to Roger Bacon, who recorded the recipe, but never claimed to have been the inventor. At least, unlike the machine gun, you can't blame America for this.

What we do know is this - in the early to middle 1200's, gunpowder made it's debut in Europe. And the governing elites haven't been happy since, because, among other things, "God Created Man, but Sam Colt made 'em equal!" And if there is anything a governing elite dislikes, it's people with power to do something about it!

It didn't take people long to figure out that if you took a rocket, plugged it with something moveable, that the resultant activity of the moveable object might have interesting uses in hunting game and Mean People Who Suck.

Just as the first motorcars had the engine in front because that's where the horses had been on carriages (and carriage-makers were making the first bodies) so too the first cannon used a common projectile - the arrow.

Cannon firing an arrow, from "De Nobilitatibus, Sapientii et Prudentiis Regum", manuscript, by Walter de Milemete, 1326

But people quickly learned that round shot was better, whether made of stone or iron. The stone balls, while comparatively cheap, didn't do that well against fortifications. As a projectile, round ball and shot lasted until the end of the blackpowder era in the late 1800's, as this little collection of projectiles in my living room demonstrates.

Just as the first form of mechanical locomotion in the form of steam engines were large, because it was technically hard to make them small, so it went with firearms. As the technology improved, the 'gonne' got both smaller and larger.

Okay. We've got gunpowder. We got barrel making. We've got lead. We've got handier weapons. And there are plenty of Mean People Who Suck. Now we've got to go through the development of ways to get all this to work - i.e., getting the powder to explode. Many methods worked. Some better than others, and for a long time, the better methods were also more expensive to make or didn't stand up well to battlefield conditions. The first, and still simplest, is bring a coal to the hole. After that, well, it gets complicated. If you want a detailed look (and I recommend it if you have the time - this is an excellent site!)

Early "Handgonne"r

The next step was to take a fuse rope and touch it to the hole, and after that came the matchlock, where the fuze was held by an arm on the weapon and a trigger bar used to bring the fuse to the touch hole. I happen to have an arm like that, a North African Jezail that was made in the late 1800's. Unfortunately, the match holder is broken - but here is a representative example of an ignition system that survived very late in the era.

Let's cover the major bits. All blackpowder muzzle loaders had this much in common: a tube, generally closed at one end (there were breechloaders, but that's a different story) with a small hole to allow flame in. The soldier dumped in his powder, with or without a wad to hold it down, tamping it as he did so. He then dropped (or after a few shots and the fouling that resulted) rammed a bullet home. After that, it changes.

The basic components look like this.

A large (in this case, .69 cal) ball, and a quantity of powder.

There were many tools in use over time to make this job easier for the soldier under the stress of combat. If you look at engravings and paintings from the era, you see soldiers festooned with odd-looking bits of paraphernalia. Like this guy, taken from a 16th Century drill manual.

He has all those little bottles all over him so that he can load without having to measure while under a little pressure - ie, Mean People Who Suck inconsiderately trying to kill him before he kills them. One of the purposes of drill was to make the loading process automatic, and correct - learned at the muscle-response level, not just intellectually, so that you can still respond to the commands even though your lizard-brain is telling you to run. The rump of drill we have left today is what's left of a much greater body of drill. Today we use it to move groups of troops around in an efficient, disciplined manner - without the natural straggling that occurs when people move as a mob. This is just a tiny bit of what was a vast body of drill designed to move blocks of muskets around the battlefield quickly (in column) and get the weapons employed in mass quickly (shift from column to line) in order to mass fires on the Mean People Who Suck.

Modern tools that do the same thing as all the little bottles do are illustrated here. Powder measures. They both allow you to fill in bulk and dispense measured amounts, the large one for the main charge, the smaller one for the finer powder used in the pan of a flintlock or similar action.

Speaking of the flintlock, let's go on into that particular weapon, as it became the dominant form of lock until the good Scot Reverend Forsyth invented the percussion cap.

We've covered the basics of the weapon already. With a flintlock you add a pan, to hold fine grained powder that will be set off by the sparks. A frizzen, which serves to both cover the pan retaining the powder and is the striking surface for the flint, and the hammer, which holds the flint.

This is the lock at half-cock, with the frizzen down, and the hammer locked back so that you can open the frizzen to charge the pan, but not inadvertently send the hammer forward.

Next step is to open the frizzen and charge the pan.

I cheated here - I also cocked it. Normally you would still be at half-cock. Starting to get an idea where the phrase "Don't go off half-cocked" came from?

Now you are locked, cocked, and loaded. All you need is a target and permission to fire.

Target? If you look at old military smoothbores, you'll see the sights are rudimentary. Targets were blocks of men. There was much windage in the bore, to make it easier to load when the weapon was fouled from firing and to make manufacturing simpler and cheaper. Since the ball bounces down the bore, final trajectory is defined by the direction of the last bounce, so fancy sights aren't needed. Troops were taught to aim low, maximizing their chances of a hit.

Once you got the command to fire - pull the trigger.

There are sparks there, but in the light it's not easy to see them.

The next major improvement came with the invention of the percussion cap (for a discussion of that, see the Reverend Forsyth link, above). This further simplified the loading and firing drill. Though improperly trained soldiers would still screw it up, witness the rifles picked up in the area of the Pennsylvania militia at Gettysburg some of which were loaded near to the muzzle with multiple charges - the militia drilled without percussion caps to save money and ammunition - and forgot to cap their piece when under fire. There are also several confederate accounts of casualties caused by ramrods. Works once.

The other nice thing from a governmental perspective was that this new technology was adapatable to older arms and didn't require a complete re-arming to take advantage of it.

And that's going to wrap it up for this installment - next up, percussion ammunition in Ammunition, part the third.