Frontiers – History of the Firearm, Part 2

   Posted by: Andrew Linstrom   in Frontiers

After the dragons were scoured from Atrebor, firearms development in the Old World slowed down. With the entire continent pacified, the Empire had little need to devise new weapons, and muzzle-loading sparklock rifles and cannons gave them an edge over potential opponents from Husset, Dasago, or Ber-Tud. The only properly armed adversaries came from within. After a handful of bloody secession attempts by ambitious consuls and warlords, the Empire cracked down.

Gun ownership was tightly controlled–the only private citizens allowed to own a firearm were veterans of the Legions and those considered nobles by the local government or by Imperial appointment. After costly examples of insurrection, the Siean Civil War of 204-207 and the Red-Shored Autumn of 213 in particular, the Empire wisely feared militias and private armies having access to weapons that could help level the playing field against legionaries.

The rise of the Pirate Kings challenged the new dynamic. Konetti merchant ships had well-stocked armories, with the guns owned by the ship’s merchant house and only distributed during battles at sea. The plague of ships turning pirate or having their guns seized by raiders meant more seaborne brigands were armed with weapons fit to challenge the Emperor’s finest. The Empire’s gunsmiths were spurred to innovation in order to keep their edge against a well-armed foe. The breech-loading mechanism was the first new development. Stuffing a charge directly into a sidearm or cannon’s chamber proved quicker and easier than ramming it down the whole length of the barrel. Imperial cannoneers and marines soon had an impressive edge in rate of fire against their piratical opponents.

The next step came from a Gnossan gunsmith named Bernhard Lukas. Lukas was a prisoner for life, found guilty of crafting guns for sale on the black market. In prison, he repented and turned his talents to Imperial service. He devised the revolving cylinder: a wheel of chambers that would turn after each shot, allowing a single gunslinger to fire off a whole volley of shots before having to reload. Before, multi-shot guns were cumbersome pepperboxes or volley guns, with as many full-length barrels as chambers. Lukas’ invention was enough to earn him a pardon and an Imperial commission to set up a factory for production of his designs. Lukas revolving pistols and rifles allowed Imperial marines to fire off several more volleys in the opening phase of boarding actions before the work mostly falls to blade and bludgeon. By the time of Mad Henry Temeryte, as the Pirate Kings were in decline, raiders had to very carefully pick their targets. At the fateful battle off the Final Islands that sent Mad Henry fleeing west to eventually discover the New World, the revolving cylinder cannons in the bellies of the Empire’s new ironclads helped break the strength of the Last Pirate King’s fleet.

After the invention of the revolver, another pair of inventions visited firearms development: smokeless powder and the cased cartridge. Imperial alchemists at the university of Treb introduced a new form of gunpowder that was not truly smokeless, but created far less smoke than the gray, hazy clouds thrown up by black powder weapons, and produced a greater kick, besides. The added stress to firearms from the extra power of smokeless powder led to the use of brass cases around ammunition, which formerly was packaged in paper. Brass cases hold the bullet and powder tightly together, and the case serves as a surrogate chamber, absorbing most of the heat and shock of ignition, taking them with it on ejection. Casing isn’t cheap–the case must be tooled sturdy enough to stand the rigors of firing, and the alloy used must retain enough conductivity to carry a sparklock’s igniting charge. Misfires from underjolted cartridges and jams from cases warped by the blast are far from unheard of, but the benefits of using a cased cartridge are numerous. For one, it’s far easier to slip out a spent cartridge and slip in a new one than to pour in powder, then pack the wadding and bullet down tight. For another, the ability to stack brass cases alongside one another, an option less reliable with paper cases, allowed the development of new feeding mechanisms.

The Siean inventor Desmond Kerrigan invented one such new mechanism: the lever-action rifle. A tubular magazine running underneath the barrel stores a row of cartridges, and working a lever fashioned into a handguard back and forth does a row of complicated tasks: opening the breech and ejecting the cartridge there, loading a new round in from the magazine, and resetting the sparklock hammer. The lever-action mechanism is complex and expensive enough that most nations still arm their rank-and-file with simpler single-shot breechloading weapons, but elite troops and discerning adventurers avail themselves of the newer technology.

In the last years of the Empire, another weapon was developed with deadly implications and a grim fate: the machinegun. Little knowledge survives of its mechanism’s specifics, but it is believed that it somehow harnessed the power of recoil to continually reload the weapon, letting the gunner hold down the trigger and spray hundreds of rounds per minute. The weapons were a closely-guarded secret, intended to be kept in reserve by elite units until another orcish invasion from Ber-Tud. That was until a unit of the weapons were used to kill or maim thousands of rioting secessionist protesters during the Founder’s Day Massacre in 479. The gods themselves took notice: technology was fast pushing the old ways of war out of relevance. They laid a curse on the machineguns, forbidding their use under the threat of death, damnation, or worse. The Emperor ordered all of the weapons and knowledge of their means of manufacture locked away in his hidden vaults. Rumors arose that certain undead legionaires retained access to the the forbidden weapons, willing to risk even divine retribution if threats to the Empire demanded their use.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 28th, 2011 at 3:51 pm and is filed under Frontiers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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