1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 13

Chapter 7

Off Lübeck, Baltic Sea

Eddie watched the slide and tilt of the inclinometer diminish, peripherally saw that his ship’s hull was nearing the center of a long, smooth trough between the modest Baltic swells, and shouted, “Fire!”

The second gunner pulled the lanyard; the percussion lock atop the breech of the eight-inch naval rifle snapped down.

Flame jumped out of the weapon’s muzzle. The blast shook the deck, rattled all the ship’s fixtures, and buffeted Eddie’s clothes and those of the gun crew as if, for a moment, they had been standing sideways to a hurricane. The gun leaped backward in its carriage, slamming furiously against its hydraulic recoil compensators as smoke gushed out of it in a long, lateral plume.

A moment later, water geysered up approximately half a mile off the starboard beam.

Beside Eddie, Admiral Simpson adjusted his binoculars slightly. “Thirty yards long of the target, Commander Cantrell, but you were dead-on the line. Your azimuth needs no adjustment.”

“I just wish I could adjust the waves,” Eddie muttered.

Simpson’s wooden features seemed ready to warp. Eddie knew to read that as a small, but well-suppressed smile. “Sounds like a request for the twentieth century luxury of electric ignition systems, slaved to adequate inclinometers.”

Eddie tapped the deck fitfully with his false foot. “I guess so, sir.” Chagrined that he hadn’t hit the target once in ten attempts, he was reluctant to stop this part of the gun’s first sea trial, but the protocols were set. “Swap out the ignition system,” he ordered the gun crew.

Simpson raised an eyebrow. “You look annoyed, Commander.” His tone turned ironic. “Well, don’t fret over getting a proper inclinometer. I’m sure the arbiters of our destiny, the Department of Economic Resources back in Grantville, will put it on the top of their ‘to fund’ list when they get these test results. Even though they ignored my seven page brief which predicted this outcome.”

Eddie was glad that Simpson hadn’t phrased his facetious assessment of the navy’s budgetary overseers as a request for his subordinate’s opinion of them. Because, truth be told, Eddie could see both sides of the funding argument. Grantville’s resources were pinched more tightly than ever. Despite being part of the populous and productive State of Thuringia-Franconia, the town-become-a-city had less, rather than more, wiggle room when it came to supporting cutting-edge technologies.

It hadn’t started out that way, of course. When Grantville had materialized, no one understood what it represented in terms of knowledge and advanced materials. Hell, there had been a lot of people who simply refused to believe in its existence. But then, with its decisive intervention in the Thirty Years War in support of Gustav’s Swedes, Grantville became an object of intense scrutiny. And as it was integrated into the economic and fiscal life of the United States of Europe that it had largely midwifed into existence, and the broader domain of world events, its singular features came under singular pressure. Every monarch, great and small, wanted devices from the future, yes, but that wasn’t the greatest drain. It was all the extraordinary down-time innovators who realized the potentials of steel, of rubber, of electric motors, of plastic, and then designed genius-level devices or processes based on them. All they needed was just a modest amount of x, y, and/or z, and they could usher in a bold new era of — well, whatever bold new era their invention was sure to usher in.

The crowning irony of it was that, after you filtered out the crackpots (which was usually not very difficult; they tended to be self-eliminating), the great majority of these extraordinary innovations would probably have done exactly what their inventors claimed: they would have revolutionized some aspect of life as it was in the 1630s.

But there were thousands of such innovators, and only one Grantville. Only one source for all that up-time-quality steel, and rubber, and plastic, and everything else that was both handmaiden and midwife to these new inventions. And while Mike Stearns had led Grantville in the direction of sharing out its unique wealth rather than hoarding it, there were practical limits as to how far that could go. By now, the daily influx of inventors, treasure seekers, and curio hunters into the precincts of Grantville had emerged as both a singular fiscal opportunity (inns, hotels, eateries, short-term rental properties had sprung up like weeds) and a singular civic headache (congested streets, over-burdened utilities, inflation, and a far more complicated and multi-lingual law enforcement environment). And straddling it all was the State of Thuringia-Franconia’s beleaguered Department of Economic Resources, which had to set policy on how the town’s unique resources should be meted out.

John Simpson understood their job, may have even had a species of theoretical sympathy for it, but he was a man who had been given an official mandate that had also become his personal mission: to build a navy which, with its small number of hulls, could defeat any conventional force in the world. And the primary factor in achieving that extraordinary potency was up-time technology, either in terms of design, or in terms of actual up-time machinery. Unfortunately, it was that latter desideratum over which the admiral and the Department of Economic Resources, or DER, eternally wrestled, since there could be no increase in the amount of advanced technological systems. Grantville was almost four hundred years away from the riches of the American military-industrial complex, or even Walmart. There were never going to be any more motors, tires, televisions, or computers than there were right now. Not for a century or two, at the very least. And almost everything that Admiral Simpson wanted for his Navy, a hundred other people wanted for some other project.

The electronic inclinometer and fire-control system was, Eddie had to admit, one of those resource wrestling matches about which he felt the most profound ambivalence. On the one hand, that system was not technically essential to the operation of the new ship’s guns. And there was no accomplishing it “on the cheap.” Down-time materials and technology were simply not up to the task of fabricating one that was sufficiently sensitive and reliable.

But if he had had a system that could the measure the attitudinal effects of wave action on his hull, and then send an electric pulse to fire the gun the moment that the ship was level, he would have been able to hit today’s target — a forty-foot by twenty-foot wood framework mounted on a barge — on the fourth, or maybe even the third, try. Instead, after the first three shots — which had been required to make the gun’s basic azimuth and elevation adjustments — he still kept missing the target by thirty or forty yards. But not because his targeting was off, or his crew was sloppy, or the ammunition was of irregular quality. No, it was because of these comparatively tiny three- and four-foot swells.

The roll in the deck beneath his feet was almost imperceptible. From moment to moment it rarely varied by more than one degree. But since that motion was not predictable, and since a fraction of a degree was all it took for him to drop a round short or long, it represented an irrefragable limit upon his accuracy. It was a random variable over which he had almost no control.

What little control he did have was through the combined sensory apparatuses of a down-time inclinometer and his own eyes. But the inclinometer, although the best that could be fashioned by exacting down-time experts, was simply a very well built three-axis carpenter’s level: it was not sensitive or responsive enough. And of course, the human eye was an invariably unreliable instrument — although when combined with trained human judgment, it could furnish by prediction much of what the inclinometer could not provide quickly enough.

That kind of precision was simply not important to naval weapons and tactics of this era. The contemporary down-time guns were fairly primitive smoothbore cannons which evinced all the individual idiosyncrasies of their unique, by-hand production. And so, lacking the range and uniform performance of up-time weapons, it was inevitable that they were most effective when fired at very close ranges, and in volleys. That way, some balls were sure to hit.

Obviously, such weapons would have derived much less benefit from an inclinometer-controlled firing system. As Eddie had explained to Anne Cathrine, putting an up-time inclinometer on a down-time cannon was a lot like putting four-wheel disc brakes and airbags on an ox-cart. She had simply stared at that reference, so he had tried another one: it was like putting lip-paint on a pig. She got that right away.

But with the new eight-inch, breech loading, wire-wrapped naval rifles that Admiral Simpson had designed for these steamships — the earlier generation of river monitors had been provided with ten-inch muzzleloaders — the want for truly accurate and speedy inclinometers was making itself felt. Profoundly. The extraordinary range and accuracy of these weapons made them, ironically, far more vulnerable to the inherent instability of a sea-going ship. This had not been so important a consideration during the Baltic War, where engagement ranges had been short, the waters relatively calm, and the hulls had been comparatively barge-like and stable. But now, highly responsive fire control was a paramount concern. The hulls that were the prototypes for Simpson’s blue water navy — a large one similar to a bulked-up version of the Civil War era USS Hartford; the other, a slightly shrunken equivalent of the USS Kearsarge — were ocean-going, and if they stood high, rolling seas well, it was in part because the shape of their hulls helped them stay afloat by moving as the water did. Ironically, they were far less stable firing platforms, but fitted with guns that required, and would richly reward, superior stability. Or fire control correction.

Simpson had won the fight to get the guns he needed, and their recoil carriages, but not the electronic inclinometer and fire-control system. Eddie could see the value in both sides of that latter argument, which had essentially boiled down to, “there are finite resources and the navy can’t have first pick of all of them,” versus, “why go to the expense of creating the most powerful and lethal guns ever seen on the planet only to give them the same sights you would find on a zip gun?”

As time had worn on, Eddie’s sympathies had moved increasingly toward Simpson’s own — probably, he conceded, because he would soon have to ship out in one of these new hulls and wanted to be able to reliably smack the bad guys at distances of half a mile. By way of comparison, the down-time cannons were notoriously ineffective beyond one or two hundred yards, and were laughable at four hundred. And so if that made engagements with such ships a very one-sided proposition — well, Eddie had learned personally that in war, mercilessly exploiting an advantage wasn’t “unsporting.” It was sound tactics. Indeed, anything else was the sheerest insanity.

“Commander Cantrell?”

Eddie swam up out of his thoughts, saw blue waves and then Simpson’s blue eyes. “Uh… Yes, sir?”

“The gun crew has swapped in the new ignition system. You may commence firing at your leisure.” Simpson put the binoculars back up to his eyes.

Eddie stared unhappily at the fast-fuse that was now inserted into the aperture that had, minutes ago, been fitted with a percussion cap nipple. The hammer for that system was now secured in a cleared position.

The gun chief, a Swede, saluted. “Ready to begin firing, Commander.”

Eddie sighed. “Reacquire the target, Chief.”

“Aye, sir.” He stared through his glass, then nodded. “Reacquired, sir. Range and bearing unchanged.”

“Very well,” answered Eddie, “stand by for the order to fire.” Eddie felt for the wind, watched the pattern of the swells, looked for another long, flat trough between them — and saw one. He glanced at the inclinometer. The yaw and pitch were too small to register and the roll was subsiding, the bead floating gradually toward the balance point. Eddie saw it move into the middle band, approach dead center —


The second gunner touched the glowing match at the end of the handle-like linstock to the fuse. It flashed down in a lazy eyeblink: quick, but far slower than the near-instant response of the percussion-cap ignition system. The gun discharged, sending out its sharp blast of sound and air pressure.

But that lazy eye blink had been a sliver of a second too long. The ship had rolled a fraction past the perfect level point of the inclinometer. Water jetted up almost one hundred yards beyond the target, and very slightly to the left.

“And that shot,” observed Simpson, “had the advantage of being fired at an already ranged and acquired target.”

“I may have timed the swell incorrectly, Admiral.”

“Nonsense. Your timing was as good, or better, than during the trials with the percussion lock. You know the reason for the greater inaccuracy as well as I do, Commander.”

Eddie nodded. “The fuse delay. There’s just no way to compensate for that extra interval.”

“Precisely. The comparative difference in the burn-time of powder fuses reduces the accuracy of the weapon so greatly that it’s barely worth the cost of building it. Percussion caps not only ignite much faster, but with far greater uniformity. But let’s not leave any room for argument. Since the bean counters in Grantville want concrete justification to release funding for a uniform provision of the percussion system, we shall give it to them.” He watched the second loader turn the breech handle and pull sharply; the half-threaded breech block swung open and fumes rolled out, along with a powerful sulfur smell. “Give every shot your best estimate, Commander. I don’t want any more trouble with the DER than is absolutely necessary.”

Eddie squinted, stuck a finger at the horizon two points off the port bow. “Looks like we may have some other trouble before that, Admiral.”

Simpson frowned, looked, spied the almost invisible grey-sailed skiff that Eddie had just noticed, bobbing five miles to the southeast. Grumbling, the admiral jammed the binoculars back over his eyes, was silent. Then Eddie saw his jaw work and a moment later, Simpson uttered a profanity which was, for him, so rare as to be shocking.

“What is it, sir? Pirates?”

“Worse, Commander,” Simpson muttered through clenched teeth. “Unless I am much mistaken, that is the press.”