1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 75:
After stomping into the office that Robert Du Barry and Yves Thibault maintained for their new arms manufactory, shrugging out of his winter coat and hanging it on a peg, Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne glared at his two subordinates. Or glared in their direction, at least.
“The Vicomte de Turenne seems in a foul mood today,” said Du Barry. The French cavalry office’s tone of voice was mild.
His civilian gunsmith partner looked up from the sketches on the table. “Must be the local Picards pissed him off again, the way they butcher the French language. Or maybe he just doesn’t like every building made out of dark red brick.”
“Very witty,” growled the twenty-two-year-old French marshal, brushing a bit of snow from his trousers and wiping his boots on a mat. “I wasn’t actually thinking of you at all—though if you maintain this stupid badinage, I may yet.”
“God forbid.” Du Barry pointed to the sketch. “Well, come here, then. This should cheer you up, Henri.”
His expression lightening, Turenne came over to the table. “Do you really think you can get it to work?”
Thibault laughed. Du Barry grinned. “Better yet.” He jerked a thumb at the gunmaker. “Yves has one already made. And, yes, it certainly does work.”
Hearing that, Turenne simply glanced at the sketch. “Show me the gun itself, then. I’m a soldier, blast it, not an artist—of which the French army has sufficient as it is.” His scowl returned. “All of them loudly assuring Cardinal Richelieu that they are about to unveil a military masterpiece, in two months.”
Du Barry lifted an eyebrow but asked for no clarification. It was a mark of his young commander’s anger that Turenne had said anything at all on the subject of his clashes with the French military establishment, in the presence of a civilian. He’d give Robert the details later, in private.
Thibault was already heading for the door into the workshops. “This way. Since I knew you’d be arriving today or tomorrow, I have it set up in the firing range.”
Five minutes later, after handling the new gun without firing it, Turenne shook his head.
“I owe you an apology, Yves. I take back every sarcastic remark I ever made on the subject of breech-loaders and gunsmiths who can’t control their obsession with the things.”
Thibault smiled, then shook his own head. “You would probably have been right, if Servien’s spies in Grantville hadn’t found enough of a diagram of this mechanism for me to work from. I confess I was thinking only in terms of those wonderful modern American breechloaders. That would have been… not impossible, no, to make in small numbers. But—”
He hurried forward to cut off Turenne’s certain interruption. “Yes, yes, Henri, I know! You told me once, you told me a thousand times. Better to have weapons that are good enough in numbers an army can use, that to have a few splendid ones that will only wind up hanging on the wall for a general to admire.”
Turenne grinned at him, his mood obviously lightening. “My motto, indeed.” He hefted the rifle. “And…”
Thibault wiggled his hand back and forth. “I can’t possibly make enough of these—not in time for this spring’s campaign, certainly—to arm every soldier of France. But I can have enough ready by the end of May to equip your force for what you need.”
“Not soon enough, Yves. Things are getting darker by the day. How many can you have ready by… let’s say, the end of April.”
The gunmaker scratched his chin. Then, took a few steps to the entrance of the firing range and looked out at the big workshop beyond, in which dozens of workmen were plying their trade.
“Let’s see…” he murmured. “If I take Francois off…”
Turenne turned away. From experience, he knew that Thibault would take several minutes in his muttering cogitations before he’d provide him with an answer. Might as well take the time to test the gun himself, while he waited.
He held up the rifle again, looking at Du Barry. “Have you fired it, Robert?”
“Oh, yes. It’s not complicated at all.” He extended his hands and Turenne gave him the weapon.
“This lever here. It looks like a large trigger guard—which it is also—but it’s actually what works the mechanism.” He lowered the trigger guard and pulled it forward. “See how this block slides, opening the breech for loading? It’s called the drop block.”
Turenne leaned forward. “And the block is solid enough to withstand the powder charge?”
“More than solid enough.” He closed the lever, showing how the block moved back into position, then re-opened it. “There’s some leakage, you understand? No way to eliminate all the backflash. The breech will wear and leak more over time, too, but it is adjustable with this screw here. That’s the only adjustment on the whole rifle, so the shooters shouldn’t be able to fuck it up too badly. Still, the soldiers will complain about it, so be prepared.”
Turenne grunted. “Troops always complain. But they’ll be so delighted at the prospect of being able to reload without standing—or reload in the saddle without dropping everything half the time—that I don’t imagine the complaints will be more than what’s needed to maintain soldierly self-respect.”
“What I figure also. And there’s this added advantage.” He pointed to the face of the breechblock. “The rifle is a single-shot, you understand. Still needs to be reloaded each time it’s fired. But we can used prepared cartridges—no need for messy and clumsy powder flasks—and you see this edged blade here? It will cut the linen cartridge and expose the powder, all at the same time, which makes everything very quick. All you have to do…”
He broke off while he demonstrated the steps by which the rifle was to be loaded, ending with: “And now you simply place the percussion cap on the nipple—like… so—and all that’s left is to cock the hammer and pull the trigger.”
He extended the weapon to his superior. “Go on, try it.”
Turenne fit the stock against his shoulder, cocked the hammer, and took aim at the post some twenty yards down the range. “Anything I should know?”
“Prepare to have a bruised shoulder, if you fire it enough.”
Turenne frowned. “I thought it was only a half-inch bore.”
“It is. What the Americans would call a .50 caliber. But it’s a .50 caliber carbine, Henri. You wanted a light gun, short enough for cavalrymen to handle easily. There isn’t much weight there to absorb the recoil.”
“So I did—and so it is. I forgot—well, to be honest, I didn’t really expect Yves could have it done in time.”
He pulled the trigger, not trying for more than an indifferent aim. Then, lowered the rifle and gave it a very respectful look. “Sure enough, it kicks like a mule.”
“Something else to keep the troops happy, in their grousing. But they’ll love it, they surely will. This is a real cavalryman’s weapon. The first gun you could properly call that in history, I think.”
“Yes, it is.” Seeing that Thibault had finally concluded his self-deliberations, Turenne placed the rifle back on the bench.
“I can have two thousand ready by then, Marshal. No more, I’m afraid. But training is very important if the rifle is to be used properly. So I will have twenty guns ready in two weeks, so your sergeants and officers can start learning how to use it soon enough to train the rest.”
Turenne pursed his lips, while he did his own much quicker calculations. “Two thousand should be enough, I think. It means I can arm almost half—well, no need to get into the details. Intending no offense, Yves, but the enemy has spies too.”
“None of my business,” the gunmaker agreed pleasantly. “And now, I’ll take your leave and give Francois his new marching orders.”
After he was gone, Du Barry turned to Turenne. “Are you sure—”
“Robert, please! I know you want to accompany the expedition, but that’s just foolish. I have enough good cavalry commanders. This—right here—is where you’re indispensable. Without you to serve as my watchdog, these maniacal gunsmiths would have gone in twenty different directions. You know it as well as I do. We need a real soldier in command here.”
Du Barry took a breath, and blew it out loudly. “Well, so be it. Are you still planning the same campaign?”
“Basically, yes.” Turenne looked back at the rifle. “But with these… I think I can add a nice extra touch. Send perhaps a third of the force to threaten Hesse-Kassel while I press on to the target with the rest. I’d keep all the breechloaders—what name have you picked for them, by the way?—for the main force, since they’d make up for the fewer numbers, and the diversionary force wouldn’t actually need to engage in any real fighting.”
Smiling slyly—and perhaps a but ruefully—Du Barry ran fingers through his hair. “Well, that’s a problem, there. What to name the rifle, I mean. It depends on whether you’d prefer to taunt the enemy or instill pride in our own. If the former, then why not just call it a Sharps rifle? Let the damned Americans grind their teeth, that we have their own famous historical rifle and they have nothing but muskets.”
Turenne chuckled. “Well… it’s tempting. But not altogether wise, I think. Besides, it’s not even really true. Yes, we got the design of the gun from our spies, but the key is the percussion caps. Which—”
Here, his chest swelled with genuine pride. “Resulted entirely from the genius of France.”
Turenne was not a puffed-up peacock by nature, however. So, a second or two later, his chest deflated and a similar smile came to his face. Half-sly; half-rueful. “I grant you, the genius consisted mostly in hiring a German alchemy wizard, who did the actual work.”
“John Rudolph Glauber.” Du Barry shook his head. “It’s amazing, in a way, that he could see what not even the up-timers could. They decided to abandon any quick attempt to develop percussion caps because they could only think of using fulminate of mercury.” He grimaced. “Which is, indeed, very nasty stuff. We lost three men here, ourselves—and twice that many, maimed or badly injured—before Glauber came up with his alternative of using potassium chlorate, as he calls it.”
Turenne shrugged. “Not so amazing as all that, Robert. The Americans are no different from anyone else. Once people get a notion firmly fixed in their heads, they usually become blind to any alternative.” His early scowl started coming back. “I could show you a much worse example—not that I’d subject you to the misery—at any collection of generals back in Paris.”
“They haven’t budged at all?”
“Not an inch. I’m afraid I’m partly to blame for that. They’re none too smart at the best of times, but this degree of mule-headedness is unusual even in their circles.”
“They resent you, Henri, it’s as simple as that.” Du Barry clapped Turenne on the shoulder. By now, at least in private, their relationship was as much that of two friends as commanding and subordinate officer. “You’re half the age of most of them, and already a marshal.”
Turenne grunted softly. “Yes. I often think the cardinal made a mistake, promoting me so quickly.”
“That’s crap. Pure crap. I know those generals in Paris. And why are they still in Paris to begin with, dining in palaces—when their soldiers are shivering in trenches around Luebeck? I served under them, for more years than I want to remember, not being a sprig like you. De la Valette is probably the worst of the lot, but none of them are any prizes. It’s been too long since France fought a real war, that’s all, unless you count that butchery in Mantua. The officers have gotten rotten and the men are mostly undisciplined. And what good young officers do show up, like Jean de Gassion, have been coming into your service. No fools, they.”
“Yes, I know. It means I have as good a cavalry force as probably any in the world—but that’s still only five thousand men. Even if every last man in the ranks was armed with one of these”—he pointed to the rifle—“five thousand men simply can’t withstand what’s coming in the spring.”
“I think so, yes,” said Turenne gloomily. “Fucking idiots. All they hear from the spies—all they listen to, rather—is ‘volunteer regiments.’ So they assure the Cardinal that the Swede will be bringing nothing but a poorly trained rabble into the field. All the rest of what the spies tell them, they simply ignore. Have no illusions, Robert. Say what else you will about him, Gustavus Adolphus is one of the great captains of the day. He didn’t sit in Luebeck for months waiting for Torstensson to present him with a shiny new army, if he thought it would collapse at the first trial of arms.”
He threw up his hands. “But what does Gustavus Adolphus know? A barbarous Norseman, is he not? We shall forget that he’s probably fought and won more battles—and bigger ones—than all of today’s French generals put together.”
The firing range was filled with a grim silence, for a moment. Then Du Barry sighed and said: “So we’ll be depending even more heavily on Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar and his mercenaries than ever. At least you can always count on that shithead to fight. He can move troops quickly, too. Enough that he could come up in time from Alsace, even with his fifteen thousand strong army.”
Turenne made a face. “I’m not so sure about that, any longer, I’m afraid.”
Robert cocked his head. “You know something?”
“I don’t know anything. Neither does the cardinal, I don’t believe. Servien told him that getting spies into Bernhard’s inner circles had proven impossible, so far. I just have a bad feeling about that whole situation. Mostly”—here he smiled, thinly—“because I’ve noticed that Bernhard hasn’t been bragging as incessantly as usual, the past two months.”
“Ah.” Du Barry swiveled his head and studied the target at the other end of the range. The thick wooden post was getting pretty badly shredded, by now. “Yes, that is a bad sign.”
Two hours later, as Turenne was putting his coat and hat on for the long trip back to Paris, Du Barry reminded him of an overlooked detail.
“The name of the rifle. You still haven’t decided.”
Turenne finished buttoning his coat, while he thought about it. Then, with a smile: “Let’s call it the Cardinal.”