How Firm A Foundation – Snippet 32

          He turned the weapon, and Rock Point realized the striking face of the hammer wasn’t flat. Instead, it had been hollowed out into something a fraction larger than the ‘cap’ in his hand.”

          “We discovered early on that when one of the caps detonates it tends to spit bits and pieces in all directions,” Mahndrayn said wryly, touching a scar on his cheek which Rock Point hadn’t noticed. “The flash from a regular flintlock can be bad enough; this is worse, almost as bad as the flash from one of the old matchlocks. So we ground out the face of the hammer. This way, it comes down over the top of the nipple, which confines the detonation. It’s actually a lot more pleasant to fire than a flintlock.”

          “And it does the same thing for reducing misfires, and being immune to rain, you were talking about where artillery is concerned, Ahlfryd?” Rock Point asked intently.

          “Exactly, Sir.” Seamount beamed proudly at Mahndrayn. “Urwyn here and his team have just found a way to increase the reliability of our rifles materially. And the conversion’s fairly simple, too.”

          “Very good, Commander,” Rock Point said sincerely, but Seamount raised one hand.

          “He’s not quite finished yet, Sir.”

          “He’s not?” Rock Point looked speculatively at the commander, who looked more flustered than ever.

          “No, he’s not, Sir. And this next bit was entirely his own idea.”

          “Indeed? And what else do you have to show me, Commander?”

          “Well . . . this, Sir.”

          Mahndrayn raised the rifle again and Rock Point suddenly noticed a lever on its side. He’d overlooked when he examined the modified lock mechanism, but now the commander turned it. There was a clicking sound, and the acting high admiral’s eyebrows rose as the breech of the rifle seemed to break apart. A solid chunk of steel, perhaps an inch and a half long, moved smoothly back and down, and he could suddenly see into the rifle’s bore. The rifling grooves were clearly visible against the brightly polished interior, and Mahndrayn looked up at him.

          “One of the things we’ve been thinking about in terms of the new artillery is ways to speed rate of fire, Sir,” he said. “Obviously if we could think of some way to load them from the breech end, instead of having to shove the ammunition down the barrel, it would help a lot. The problem is coming up with a breech mechanism strong enough to stand the shock, quick enough to operate in some practical timeframe, and one that seals tightly enough to prevent flash from leaking out disastrously every time you fire the piece. We haven’t managed to solve those problems for artillery, but thinking about the difficulties involved suggested this to me.”

          “Exactly what is ‘this,’ Commander?” Rock Point asked warily, not quite able to believe what he was seeing. The possibility of breech-loading artillery, far less a breech-loading rifle, was one after which he’d hungered ever since gaining access to Owl’s records, but he’d never imagined he might be seeing one this quickly. Especially without having pushed its development himself.

          “Well,” Mahndrayn said again, “the way it works is like this, Sir.”

          He reached back into his pocket and extracted a peculiar looking rifle cartridge. It was a bit larger than the ones riflemen carried in their cartridge boxes, and there were two oddities about its appearance. For one thing, the paper was a peculiar grayish color, not the tan or cream of a standard cartridge. And for another, it ended in a thick, circular base of some kind of fabric that was actually broader than the cartridge itself.

          “The cartridge’s paper’s been treated with the same compound we use in Shan-wei’s candles, Sir,” Mahndrayn said. “It’s not exactly the same mix, but it’s close. That means the entire cartridge is combustible, and it’s sealed with paraffin to damp-proof it. The paraffin also helps to protect against accidental explosions, but with the new caps, the flash from the lock is more than enough to detonate the charge through the coating. And because the pan doesn’t have to be separately primed, the rifleman doesn’t have to bite off the bullet and charge the weapon with loose powder. Instead, he just slides it into the breech, like this.”

          He inserted the cartridge into the open breech, pushing it as far forward as it would go with his thumb, and Rock Point realized a slight lip had been machined into the rear of the opened barrel. The disk of fabric at the cartridge’s base fitted into the lip, although it was thicker than the recess was deep.

          “Once he’s inserted the round,” Mahndrayn went on, “he pulls the lever back up, like this” — he demonstrated, and the movable breech block rose back into place, driving firmly home against the fabric base — “which seals the breech again. There’s a heavy mechanical advantage built into the lever, Sir, so that it actually crushes the felt on the end of the cartridge into the recess. That provides a flash-tight seal that’s worked perfectly in every testfiring. And after a round’s been fired, the rifleman simply lowers the breech block again and pushes the next round straight in. The cartridges have stiffened walls to keep them from bending under the pressure, and what’s left of the base from the previous round is shoved into the barrel, where it actually forms a wad for the next round.”

          Rock Point stared at the young naval officer for several seconds, then shook his head slowly.

          “That’s . . . brilliant,” he said with the utmost sincerity.

          “Yes, it is, Sir,” Seamount said proudly. “And while it isn’t quite as simple as changing a flintlock out for one of the new percussion locks, fitting existing rifles with the new breech mechanism will be a lot faster than building new weapons from scratch.”

          “You’ve just doubled or tripled our Marines’ rate of fire, Commander,” Rock Point said. “And I’m no Marine, far less a Soldier, but it would seem to me that being able to load your weapon as quickly lying down as standing up would have to be a huge advantage in combat, as well.”

          “I’d like to think so, Sir,” Mahndrayn said. His usually intense eyes lowered themselves to the floor for a moment, then looked back up at Rock Point, dark and serious. “There are times I feel pretty useless, Sir,” he admitted. “I know what Commodore Seamount and I do is important, but when I think about what other officers face at sea, in combat, I feel . . . well, like a slacker. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. So if this is really going to help, I’m glad.”

          “Commander,” Rock Point rested one hand on Mahndrayn’s shoulder and met those dark and serious eyes straight on, “there’s not a single man in Their Majesties’ uniform — not me, not even Admiral Lock Island and all the other men who died out on the Markovian Sea — who’s done more than you’ve done here with Commodore Seamount. Not one. Believe me when I tell you that.”

          “I . . .” Mahndrayn faltered for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, Sir.”

          “No, thank you, Commander. You and the Commodore have come through for us again, just as I expected you to. And because you have” — the admiral smiled suddenly, eyes glinting with deviltry — “I’ll be coming up with another little challenge for you . . . as soon as I can think of it.”