March To The Sea im-2, page 36part #2 of Imperial March Series
The Mardukan stared at her incredulously, and she showed her teeth in a thin smile and continued.
"In addition, the new carriages we're going to be building, coupled with how much lighter the cannon themselves are going to be, will make them a lot more mobile than any bombard you've ever seen. We figure a single pair of turom should be able to haul even the bigger ones around without much trouble. And this new feature here—" she tapped the trunnions of the wooden mock-up someone from ancient Earth might have recognized as remarkably similar to something which had once been called a "twelve-pounder Napoleon" "—will actually let you make changes in elevation between shots."
The Mardukan uncrossed his lower arms and leaned closer. It was apparent that he was truly looking at the new weapon for the first time, and Kosutic hid a smile as some of his truculent skepticism seemed to fade. If they could just get the scummies to really see the advantages, three quarters of the job would be done.
The K'Vaernian Navy's bombards were very well made from the standpoint of their metallurgy and casting techniques, but as practical artillery pieces they left a lot to be desired. In fact, they were simply huge bronze or iron tubes which were strapped to heavy wooden timbers and then chained or roped to the deck of a ship. They looked more like big, clumsy rifles than they did anything a human would have called an artillery piece, and it was impossible to adjust their elevation in any way. As for recoil, the K'Vaernian gunners simply stood as far to one side as they could and touched off the priming. The heavy hawsers which fastened the bombards to the deck and bulwarks kept the gun from jumping clear overboard, and the friction between the wheelless "carriage" and deck acted as an extremely crude recoil damper. Hauling the guns back into position for the next shot without any sort of wheels under them was a backbreaking process, of course, but they accepted that as the price of doing business because that was the way it had always been done before.
The new guns, on the other hand, were a very different proposition. Their carriages, with large spoked wheels with extra-wide rims, and lighter weight, would give them a degree of mobility no Mardukan had ever dreamed was possible, and the introduction of trunnions and elevating screws would completely change their tactical flexibility, both afloat and ashore. With the addition of premeasured, bagged charges and fixed rounds of grapeshot and canister, their rate of fire would also be enormously increased. If the team working on ammunition actually managed to get the bugs out of a decent shrapnel round in the time available, the guns would be even more effective, but the sergeant major had no intention of holding her breath while she waited. In fact, she had a pretty shrewd notion that the more optimistic visions of explosive filler for cast-iron shells were doomed to disappointment. The rocket batteries were a different matter entirely, of course, but no one really knew how well that project was going to work out either. And in the meantime . . .
"Sir, as you know much better than any of the Guard officers, the important thing with crew-served weapons like this is for everyone to perform their jobs precisely according to a standard drill. What we're going to add to what you already know is speed, because it will be possible to load and fire the new guns much more quickly . . . if the crews are properly trained.
"You know what your bombards do to the hulls of enemy ships. Try to picture what a weapon like this will do to a mob of Boman. Each shot will punch right through them and kill anyone who gets in its way, and when dozens of these guns are massed, there's nothing like them. In our society, artillery was called 'The King of Battle,' but for the guns to be effective, their crews must be drilled to exhaustion. They have to be able to clear, load, and fire the weapon under the most extreme circumstances, then limber up, move on, and do it again. So you learn the steps, then you practice them again and again.
"That means that there's no need, initially, for the cannon themselves. A training mock-up, or even a few marks on the ground to show its outline, will do in a pinch, because it's how you move around the gun that really matters. The trick is to teach the gunners how to do it right before they ever see a real cannon—teach them never to stand behind it once it's loaded, to do their jobs in a certain sequence, and to do them fast.
"So we're going to show you how. You and your people were chosen because you're already familiar with artillery. Whether you realize it or not, you already have most of the basic knowledge you need, and all we have to do is to teach you to see that knowledge a little differently and adjust to a whole new tempo. So once we've shown you that, your people will show others, and those people will show still others, and so on. And when we're finished, we'll have ourselves a tiddly little artillery corps that will pile up Boman like barleyrice."
The skeptical naval officer was listening much more closely now, and she hid another smile as she turned to the six Marines standing around the carved wooden model. The end of the barrel was slightly scorched, because it had just finished double duty as a model for the mold and been left a bit too close to a furnace afterward.
"These fine young Marines, who just spent the last few hours learning what to do, are going to demonstrate," she continued. "What they can't demonstrate is that there are some things you Mardukans can do, with four arms, that they can't do with just two. We'll have to work that out, with your assistance, as we go along."
She drew a deep breath, and nodded to the senior Marine.
"Squad!" she barked. "Prepare to place the gun into action! Gun in action . . . Move!"
And the six Terran Empire Marines, born on planets circling five different stars, began the ritual of service to the artillery—a ritual which had been old before the first rockets lifted beyond the atmosphere of Terra and looked to be going on when the last star cooled.
Some things just never seemed to change.
Something hard and circular socketed instantly into Fain's temple as he trotted through the doorway, with Erkum hard on his heels, and ran straight into the human prince.
The newly promoted sergeant heard a deep rumble of displeasure behind him and reached back to very carefully put a restraining hand against Pol's chest until Roger could reach out and push the bead rifle muzzle aside.
"It's all right, Geno. He's one of ours," the prince said, then tapped the sergeant on his mid-shoulder. "Krindi Fain, isn't it? You did well at the Battle. Held your squad together admirably."
"Thank you, Your Highness," Fain said, braced to attention and trying not to show his relief too plainly.
"Not so formal, Sergeant—we're all old soldiers here. Sergeant Julian making sure you're getting fed right? I can't promise sleep; none of us are getting much of that."
"Yes, Your Highness."
"Good. Remember to take care of your troops, and they'll take care of you." The human turned to the sergeant's shadow and craned his neck to peer up at the towering giant. "And the inimitable Erkum Pol, I see. How are you, Erkum?"
"Yes, Your Highness," the private said.
"I'll take that as 'doing well,' " Roger said with a smile. Apparently he knew about the soldier's simplemindedness. "And, Erkum, next time use a smaller plank, right? I need all the cavalry I can get."
"Yes, Your Highness," Fain heard himself say.
"Carry on," the prince said, striding off with a wave, followed by his bodyguards, and the Diasprans braced back to attention.
"Lots smaller plank," the last Marine guard whispered with a human-style wink as he passed Fain. "Fuckers are still in the hospital."
* * *
Roger shook his head as he turned the corner to the training ground. That lad Krindi was going to go far . . . assuming he could keep Pol from killing someone at an inopportune moment.
He chuckled, then turned his attention to the company of riflemen-to-be. The ranks were lined up in an open formation, with each soldier holding a wooden mock-up of the final rifle design. As the prince entered the area, the cadence of fire was being called.
"Open. Load. Close. Cock. Cap. Aim. Fire."
The numbers for those new units were looking much better than Roger had feared they might, if not quite as good as he could have wished in an ideal world. The core of the new and improved K'Vaernian army would be the veterans of the Guard, their less than enthusiastic fellow citizens temporarily reassigned from the Navy, Rastar's Northern cavalrymen, and the Diaspran pikemen. But that would account for little more than a third of the total numbers they needed, and volunteer levels had been gratifyingly high. Some of the local volunteers were in it only for the expected loot, which, however mercenary, was certainly understandable. The Boman on this side of the Nashtor Hills had conquered the northern cities and Sindi, all of which had been wealthy and powerful states, so it was only to be expected that they would be swimming in treasure as a result of their victories. Other volunteers had come forward because they perceived the Boman as a threat to their own city, and some had volunteered because they were refugees from other cities who wanted some of their own back.
Whatever their reasons for joining, the troops were being formed into a tidy little army. Now if they could only get some weapons for it.
And maybe they were doing something about that, he thought, looking up to see Rastar grinning as he waved something and trotted towards him from the other side of the square.
"First production unit out of the Tendel foundry," the Northerner said as he reached the prince, and handed him a massive rifle.
The weapon was gigantic and starkly utilitarian. The twenty-five-millimeter bore made his own eleven-millimeter look like a toy, and the breech was the size of a plasma cannon firing chamber.
The final design was very different from the one the Marines and Rus From had sketched out before leaving Diaspra, and almost equally different from the new, improved cartridge version Pahner had wanted to produce once they actually got to K'Vaern's Cove. The original design had been very similar to the old Sharps breechloader from the ancient American Civil War, with a moving breech block that clipped the end off of a linen cartridge when the breech was closed to expose the powder charge to flash from a priming cap. Although gas leakage would probably have been a problem, just as it had been with the original, From and Pahner had rather doubted that it would seriously inconvenience anyone already accustomed to the godawful priming flash of a Mardukan arquebus.
The much more advanced design Pahner had wanted once he decided to stay and fight, on the other hand, would have used either a brass cartridge case or a composite brass and paper case, either of which would have been a centerfire percussion design with a metallic base to provide an excellent, flash-proof seal at the breech. One look at the manufacturing complexity and lead time required to produce that ammunition in quantity had knocked that idea on the head, however, and everyone had gone looking for some workable compromise solution. One had been found—and finally put into production—in a design which had been suggested by Dell Mir and owed more to local expertise with pumps than even Pahner had believed might be the case.
The prince gripped the protruding bolt handle, which looked very similar to that of his own hunting rifle when it wasn't configured for semi-auto fire, and raised it, turning the bolt through a half rotation. K'Vaern's Cove's pump makers had developed a standard fixture for use as an inspection/cleaning port for their pumps, which was closed by what was in effect a big, coarse-threaded bolt with a washer at one end. Mardukans spent a lot of time doing maintenance on their flood control pumps, even in a place like K'Vaern's Cove, where the steepness of the slopes (which promoted very rapid runoff) and the absence of a readily tapped aquifer made potable water scarce, and the inspection port had been designed for ease and speed of access. It was fitted with a crank-style handle on one end, and moved in a cam-mounted sleeve, so that when the bolt was run out of the threads, the entire plug pivoted downwards and hung from the underside of the pipe it normally closed.
Mir, with an eye to practical adaptation which explained much of his reputation for genius, had seen no reason not to use a perfectly sound existing design rather than get bogged down in esoteric new concepts. Of course, there had been some changes. The two biggest ones had been to convert the fittings from bronze to steel and his decision to cut away the threads on two sides of the threaded bolt plug and to interrupt the threads that the plug seated into so that only a half turn was required to engage and disengage the threads. He'd also made some other minor changes, including moving the bolt handle to the side (an idea he'd borrowed from Roger's eleven-millimeter) and machining a guide onto the rifle bolt to ensure that it followed the proper mechanical path, but the overall effect had been to take a simple plumbing fixture and use it to manufacture the most deadly weapon K'Vaern's Cove had ever seen.
The cartridge design had also been simplified. There wasn't much question that the K'Vaernians would have been able to produce Pahner's brass cartridges . . . eventually. Certainly, their tech base and metallurgy were capable of making the jump to manufacture the captain's design, but setting up to produce it and experimenting to come up with exactly the right alloy for the cases would have taken considerably longer than K'Vaern's Cove—or its human visitors, at least—had. So instead, Dell Mir had turned to a local plant.
The Mardukans called it shonash, but after one demonstration of its properties, the Marines had instantly christened it the flashplant, because on any planet without Marduk's daily rains, it would have been a deadly fire hazard. The K'Vaernians crushed its stems to extract a fine, clear, hot-burning oil, which they used in industry and as lamp fuel, and the large, flat leaves were sometimes used to wrap packages where wetness was an even greater than usual danger. They were so heavily impregnated with volatile oils that they remained tough and flexible even after they'd been "dried" and were almost totally impervious to water. That was good, but, unfortunately, they were also extremely combustible, which made it somewhat dangerous to use them for packaging in conditions which wouldn't keep them fairly wet.
Dell Mir had recognized instantly that those very qualities made flashplant leaves almost ideal as a cartridge paper substitute. A little experimentation had quickly demonstrated that the flash from one of Despreaux's early percussion caps would burn straight through a double layer of leaf almost instantaneously. So the K'Vaernian inventor had produced a design in which one of the new hollow-based bullets and its propellant were wrapped together in a flashplant leaf cartridge. The base of the cartridge was a thick, disklike, heavily greased felt patch, and when the rifle bolt was driven forward and engaged in its threads, the explosion of the cartridge drove the felt back against the face of the bolt to complete the seal and prevent any gas leakage. The next round loaded pushed the remnant of the previous round's patch forward and out of the way, and the rifle was ready to fire again. The final product of his efforts adhered very closely to Pahner's drive to reduce the number of parts, yet worked with a robust simplicity Roger had to admire. There was still plenty of room for improvement, but this design had the three most important virtues of all: it worked, it would be hard for even a soldier to break, and it could be produced quickly.
The workshops of K'Vaern's Cove had sprouted rifling benches like toadstools, and the Guard and Navy's arquebuses had been hauled in and handed over to the machinists for modification. The rear ends of their barrels had been sliced off, they'd been rifled, the exterior of the back end of the barrels had been run through thread-cutting dies, the modified pump inspection ports had been screwed on, and a redesigned trigger mechanism taken from the existing wheel lock pistols had been modified to control a side-mounted hammer for a percussion lock. And that had been that. Well, aside from the provision of bayonet lugs on the ends of the barrels.
Now the prince finished opening the breech and flipped the rifle up to his shoulder to take a good look at the breech mechanism and th
"Very nice," he said. "The only thing that would make it better would be proper metallic cartridge cases, but this will more than do the job."
Despite what Rus From had told them, the volume of production that was in the pipeline still amazed Roger. The effective blockade of the city from the land side had idled hundreds of small foundries and shops throughout the peninsula on which K'Vaern's Cove sat. All of them, it seemed, wanted in on the new government contracts, which had given the designers some leeway to stray from the "simpler, simpler, simpler" mantra. They hadn't wandered far, but the provision of a proper bayonet had been one of the "frills" Pahner had been prepared to forego. The K'Vaernians, on the other hand, found the notion of parking a sixty-centimeter blade on the end of their new rifles very attractive. One of the great disadvantages of the arquebus had always been that it was essentially little more than a clumsily shaped club if the arquebusier found himself forced into a melee. Now each of the new riflemen would be able to look after himself in the furball if he had to, which had proven extremely reassuring to soldiers who were still none too sure about the effectiveness of all these newfangled ideas. Roger was a strong supporter of the bayonet, but he personally found the ladder sight even more useful, and the butt-mounted cleaning kit was nothing to sneer at, either.
The logistics bottleneck, as From had predicted, lay far less in the rifles than in the manufacture of their ammunition. There was plenty of lead for bullets, and the new bullet dies hadn't been a problem, but actually putting the cartridges together—even using Dell Mir's flashplant design—was a delicate, time-consuming, hand labor task, and not one that could be trusted to off-the-street casual labor. Even if simple assembly hadn't been a problem, no one in K'Vaern's Cove had ever imagined the rate of ammunition expenditure Pahner was projecting. An arquebusier did well to fire one shot every two minutes, and under normal circumstances probably wouldn't fire more than five to ten rounds in any engagement. Pahner was talking about issuing sixty rounds per day as the new riflemen's standard unit of fire, and he wanted a reserve of no less than four units of fire for the entire army before committing to action, and that didn't even consider the rounds they were simply going to have to expend in training. While each individual cartridge used very little gunpowder, hundreds of thousands of them used tons of the stuff, and given the competing needs of the artillery, the claymores, and the new rocket batteries, there simply wasn't enough powder to provide ammunition for the numbers of rifles which could, in theory, have been produced.