1636 The China Venture – Snippet 33
Von Siegroth pointed to the pendulum hanging from the foremast. “The ship’s officers can use that to judge the roll, and instruct the gun captains accordingly. We’ve also equipped each gun carriage with spirit levels; a bubble moves inside a graduated tube partially filled with alcohol. One tube shows roll and the other shows pitch.”
The gun captain was checking that the gun was trained and elevated properly.
“You’ll observe,” said von Siegroth, “that the breech end of the carronade is substantially wider than the muzzle end. Consequently, we equipped the muzzle end with a dispart sight.” By this he meant that the gunner would peer through the rear sight across the top of the dispart sight; they formed a line parallel to the bore. Whereas if he sighted along the barrel metal, as was the norm with a long gun, the carronade would be aimed too high and the shot would most likely overshoot the target.
“Are these measures really necessary?” asked Zhilong. “Aren’t most engagements at just a few hundred yards?”
“Quite true,” von Siegroth admitted, “and short range smashing fire is the forte of the carronades. But just in case they ever have to duel with long guns at a somewhat longer range, we have tried to take advantage of their greater precision.”
Von Siegroth did not confide that he thought that the spirit levels were more a sales gimmick than anything else. After all, Zhilong was a potential customer.
The gun captain of Gun One jerked the lanyard of the friction primer. There was, of course, a delay from when the lanyard was pulled to when the primer was ignited, and then another delay before the ball emerged from the muzzle, so the gun captain had to anticipate where that delay would put the gun on the roll.
The gun barked. Some seconds later, there was a splash on the far side of the target.
“A miss,” von Siegroth admitted. “We prefer to fire just after the bottom of the roll, at the beginning of the rise, so if we miss the hull we have a chance of hitting the rigging, but that was a plain miss, dammit.”
“I think it would have hit the upper part of the sail if it hadn’t been reefed,” Admiral Zheng offered.
“Fire again,” commanded von Siegroth.
They could see the gun captain reduce the elevation a notch or two. A couple of rolls later, he fired again.
The ball whistled out, and this time struck home, perhaps a foot below the main deck, but above the waterline. It made a large, irregular hole.
“Nice,” said Admiral Zheng. “Hard to patch, and it would create lots of splinters. May we see what a full broadside would do?”
Von Siegroth signaled the captain, who gave the necessary orders. One after another, each of the four starboard quarterdeck carronades fired, then the lower guns: four carronades, the lone “short 32,” and the five “long twelves.” Ship gun captains had told von Siegroth that the rippling fire was necessary to minimize the shock to the hull, but he wasn’t convinced of this. The ship was much more massive than the broadside, and the elasticity of the breeching ropes would spread out the momentum transfer to the hull. His guess was that any long term damage from firing simultaneous broadsides would be fairly superficial to the bulwark and the deck planking in the immediate vicinity of the guns. However, he could think of other reasons to use staggered fire–reducing smoke that would make it difficult to see the enemy, reducing heel produced by gunfire, easier observation by the officers of how the gun crews served their guns, the psychological effect on the enemy of maintaining continuous fire.
A huge amount of white smoke was generated, and when this cleared, it could be seen that the damage done was considerable. Without actually sending someone aboard the Eagle’s Claw to count the holes and the balls embedded in the hull, it would be difficult to say precisely what fraction had actually hit, but it was clear that the broadside had done serious damage to the hull and probably would have been devastating to the crew, had the Eagle’s Claw been manned.
Even von Siegroth was impressed. It was one thing to set up a single carronade to shoot at a wooden butt at a proving ground, quite another to see the effect of a full broadside on a real hull.
“How thick is the hull of the target?” he asked the admiral.
Zheng Zhilong held up his palm, with the thumb parallel to the forefinger.
Okay, thought von Siegroth, about four inches. No wonder the Eagle’s Claw looks like Swiss cheese; the Vasa’s hull was sixteen inches thick, and even a Dunkirker would probably feature eight inches of oak.
“And now,” said von Siegroth, “as the climax of our little presentation; we will show you the effects of an explosive shell. We would normally recommend use of shells at a somewhat closer range, as they are more expensive.” That was a half-truth–the real problem was that the supply of shells was limited, and the crew was nervous about handling them. “May we proceed?”
Zheng expressed assent and von Siegroth walked aft to speak to the captain. In due course, the Rode Draak swung around the target, bringing its port guns to bear at a range of perhaps one hundred yards.
“Number Two Gun, fire practice shells when ready,” von Siegroth ordered. Turning to Zheng Zhilong, he explained, “the practice shell is filled with sand in place of a bursting charge.”
The practice shell fell slightly short, splashing the sides of the Eagle’s Claw.
“The shell is much lighter than 32-pound solid shot, although of the same diameter, a bit more than six inches. Hence, it flies differently.”
The next practice shell struck the target directly.
“There we go!” he told the admiral. Then, more loudly, he ordered the gun crew, “fire a single live shell when ready.” A hatch in the forecastle deck allowed the shell to be hoisted up from the shell magazine.
The shell, which was round like the solid shot since the cannon was a smoothbore and thus couldn’t impart a stabilizing spin, was rammed down the bore. “This live shell will explode on contact,” von Siegroth added. The percussion fuse was of the Pettman type that had been manufactured by the USE Navy and used in the Baltic War.
“But we also have shells that will explode after a set time. Those are mainly intended for bombardment of land targets. They are also less expensive to manufacture.” The time-fused shells would be loaded into the barrel with the fuse end facing the muzzle opening. It had been discovered during the gun trials that the flash from the charge would travel around the ball and ignite the fuse, despite the smaller windage of the carronade. The time fuse itself was a hollow hardwood fuse body filled with the fuse composition. That was admittedly problematic for naval use. If the fuse were too short, the shell would explode short of the target, and if it were too long, and fell on the enemy deck, an alert opponent conceivably could toss the shell back in the water or even snuff out the fuse.
Von Siegroth looked skyward, and uttered a brief nonverbal prayer. Percussion fuses were still cutting-edge technology.
The prayer was either heeded or unnecessary. The shell was fired without mishap and struck the target, holing it. An instant later, the shell exploded.
The ship was set afire and after a little while all that was left of it were some blackened planks that were bobbing in the water.
Admiral Zheng said to von Siegroth, ‘Let us talk more about your wares.”
Somewhat to von Siegroth’s surprise, Zheng Zhilong was insistent on acquiring the particular carronade that had fired the shell that destroyed the target, rather than one of the “sales units” stowed below. Insistent enough to pay triple price, and to throw in gifts for both von Siegroth and Captain Lyell.
At last they agreed. The carronade proper, that is, the barrel and its mounting block, were detached from the slide bed and hoisted over to Zheng Zhilong’s flagship. A box containing the parts for a slide carriage was taken up from the hold and likewise transferred over. The Rode Draak‘s carpenter went onto Zheng Zhilong’s to make sure the mounting was done properly.
“Some assembly required,” Jim Saluzzo muttered to von Siegroth.
“Come again?” the artillerist asked, looking confused.
“Up-time joke. Not important.”