7
$\begingroup$

So here is the situation.

I have a character who is a trained modern gunsmith and he finds himself thrown into a setting where the most advanced firearm is the flintlock. I know some of the most advanced guns are going to be out of reach, because of the lack of machine tools and such, but I assume he would be able to make something like a revolver or pistol with a bit of hard work.

I want the scene and steps to ring true, what do I need to keep it real?

To clarify, this question is looking for what process this character would use, taking into consideration what tools and base resources they would have available.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if this is a proper fit for Worldbuilding SE. It may be better suited on Writers SE. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jun 2 '15 at 14:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre No, I think this is the right place; it's more about what needs to be done than what needs to be written about. OP is asking how to build a firearm with given parameters. $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Jun 2 '15 at 15:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I agree with Frostfyre, @DaaaahWhoosh This is definitely more for Writers. Consider the last sentence: "he wants the scene and steps to ring true" - to me, that seems like he's asking for how to write it so that it seems real instead of actual steps to build a gun. $\endgroup$ – Aify Jun 2 '15 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ The main target is to establish the hero as someone with a knack for the applied sciences. I also want to ensure the weapon's he makes and how he makes them are realistic enough that the average gun nut will enjoy the attention to detail, rather than going 'that so unrealistic'. $\endgroup$ – MrDracoSpirit Jun 2 '15 at 16:05
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A modern gunsmith would be able to make black powder versions of most modern guns, honestly. The technology hasn't changed as much as you'd think. It all depends on his access to good casting materials and his attention to detail. $\endgroup$ – Carpe CM Jun 2 '15 at 18:01
12
$\begingroup$

(Sorry about the length, I'm laid up today and bored.)

By happenstance, I have been researching pretty much this particular issue on and off for several months now for some alternate history type stories.

The problem with whole "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court" scenario which everyone from Mark Twain onward has failed to deal with is that no technology stands alone. Technologies exist in ecosystems of related and supporting technologies. You really just can't pop into a place or time that lacks the ecosystem and reproduce a technology the ecosystem won't support. Indeed, people working in the developing world today often face exactly this problem.

More importantly, the problem in the past was not one of conceptual design, the information that time traveler or the like would have but rather lack of precision and predictability in all forms of manufacturing from the gunpowder, to lead in the balls and most importantly the metal in the components. No to instances of any technology were actually alike e.g. in the early specification for the Brown Bess Musket, the barrel length could vary as much as 1.5 inches and still be considered in spec.

Virtually all the designs we think of as being attributes of modern weapons, rifling, revolver or multi shot, breach loading, etc were attempted more than once by 1600 at the latest. All these designs failed in the sense of being anything more than demonstration pieces because in the real world manufacturing, no two components could be expected to have the required degree of precision and accuracy in manufacturing to make the design work reliably.

E.G. -) Rifling is actually probably older than smooth bores because they usually made barrels by hammering nails or similar pieces of iron flat and then wrapping them around a mandrel in a spiral. If you don't ensure that the inside is smooth, instant rifling.

What made rifles mere speciality weapons was not only their slow loading times but the wide variability (caused by lack of manufacturing precision) in the size of the barrels, groves and bullets such that the friction encountered by the bullet when it engaged the rifling varied significantly. So, although the rifling ensured the bullet flew straight, it randomized the muzzle velocity so the shooter never knew exactly how far any shot would travel along its straight line. This problem grew worse with scale to the point that it made rifled cannon completely useless. It might shoot a mile, it might shoot 10 feet , it might jam and blow up the cannon

-) Revolver and other multi-shot designs were common but again, lack of precision in parts defeated them. Specifically, sealing revolving cylinders against the barrel so no fire escaped to to ignite other cylinders.

-) Superimposed charges (charges stacked in the same barrel) were also tried but again, sealing was an issue and the tended to fire off all the charges and bullets at once.

-) Breach loading: The first cannon were actually breach loading and many examples of individual breach loading firearms exist but getting a reliable seal on the breach proved impossible. Sometimes it worked, sometimes the shooter got blinded

The only truly new designs to arrive in the blackpowder era didn't show up until the early to mid 1800s. The mercury fulminate ignition cap had no conceptual predecessor and there wasn't much thought given to expanding bullet or the Minié ball that gave a muzzle loading rifle the same rate of fire as a smooth bore.

Mercury fulminate requires an early industrial chemical industry base to produce, you couldn't whip some up at the local alchemist. Well, you could perhaps but the slightest impurity in the fulminate will cause it to detonate randomly. Again, getting precision, in this case purity, was the key bottle neck.

If might be possible for your gunsmith character to introduce the Minne' ball but it took nearly twenty years of experimentation across the industrializing world to get the expanding bullet concept to work. Also, I'm pretty sure that barrel and bullet precision had to match fairly closely. The bullet had to expand but not to much or to little and the little groves on the side had to survive to prevent nutation tumbling.

An expanding bullet rifle in the 1600s and 1700s even if just a little more accurate than smoothbore but just as fast loading, would have had quite an impact.

But some wild ideas:

-) Electrical ignition: Even with pre-idustrial tech, making a magneto is not all that difficult and according to Wikipedia

The first blasting cap or detonator was demonstrated in 1745, when a Dr. Watson of the Royal Society showed that the electric spark of a Leyden jar could ignite black powder.

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia made a commercial blasting cap consisting of a paper tube full of black powder, with wires leading in both sides and wadding sealing up the ends. The two wires came close but did not touch, so a large electric spark discharge between the two wires would fire the cap.

Modern blackpowder is coated with a layer of pure graphite, which conducts electricity and therefore prevents electrical sparks from setting it off, but the old stuff was subject to spark ignition. However, you'd probably want to hedge your bets by making thermal sparks by arcs between fine wires embedded in fine powder as well

A good use of of electro-fire in a historical setting would be to make a reliable and minutely controllable volley gun, really a piece of artillery more than a gun but one in which the character could shoot one barrel at a time in a controlled fashion, something real volley guns could not do. It could define a killing field more like a modern machine gun and would be hard to charge and overrun.

The magneto could be shrunk down to an individual weapon though, perhaps actuated like the pump stock on a shotgun, since a magneto is basically a solenoid so the shape is right already. Just pumping back and forth quickly would generate current. Might have to add a capacitor but those are pretty low tech.

-) Partial cartridge breach sealing: The problem with breach loading is the gap where the cylinder with the charge meets the barrel. Most modern system solve this problem by having the cartridge bridge the gap such when the weapon fires, the soft metal of the cartridge expands and seals the gap. Early attempts also used rubber seals.

The era's lack of precision would defeat using an entire cartridge but just maybe, sticking a ring or tube of copper in the breach behind the bullet but over the powder charge such that when the breach closed, the ring crossed the gap would work. When fired, the gasses would deform the soft copper and give an effective seal. The rings would have to removed and resized again before they could be used.

-) Flechettes: Again, one of the oldest ideas, early cannon fired arrows but the idea was never scaled down to firearms and they were never combined with sabot to get a good seal. Most likely because even today, good large flechettes are incredibly expensive to make in mass at the size of a bullet.

So, our intrepid hero would have to hand make a lot of small metal finned arrows, likely steel arrows with a bit of lead at the tip for mass. Then make a sealing sabot of lightweight wood, wadding and grease to ensure a seal. In theory,he might have weapon with the accuracy of a flintlock rifle, the loading speed of a smooth bore flintlock and horrific penetrating power, especially against armor. (Flechetts penetrate so readily that it’s a problem when you want to kill a human being. They just a neat little through and through hole. The Flechette has to kink when it hits and flip through the body to do major damage.)

Somewhat surprisingly, flechettes don't have to be all that straight and even to have good flight characteristics over moderate ranges. The ones used in military shot guns are just stamped out crudely and not even loaded with all points and fins pointing in the same direction. Even such crude flechettes would outrange smooth bore muskets and hit multiple targets.

Flechettes with sabot could also be used in cannons producing a blackpowder version of the common anti-armor weapon of today.

-) Suppressors: I don't see why you couldn't build a suppressor for a blackpowder weapon although given all the smoke they produced it 1) sound might not be your biggest give away and 2) it would foul quickly, likely in just a shot or two.

So, the gun smith could whip up something like this:

-) Ignition: A magneto, perhaps in the form of a pump stock like a modern shotgun. One pump spins the magneto and then you'd have maybe a second to pull the trigger.

-) Breach loading with copper seal: Could just have a lot of chambers made before hand kinda like cartridges that would pop in and seal reliably. Don't think a revolver would work because the cylinder would have to move back and toward the barrel to rotate and that precision would be hard.

-) Sabot Flechettes projetiles in the pre-charged breachloading cylinders: As accurate as a rifle but with startling range and penetration. You also have the option of going the shotgun route and putting multiple flechettes in the same load. Bend some fins even and you've got a kind of shotgun with the range and striking power of a rifle.

-) A supressor for a few surprise shots.

The hero might be able with preparation and practice get a rate of fire of say 12 shots a minutes with high accuracy and lethality at range. In action it would look bizarrely like someone shooting a weapon that combined a bolt action with a pumped shotgun.

But... with blackpowder after two or three shots, the smoke is blinding and large amounts of residue it leaves behind will foul the barrel, he could never fire more than 30 or so shots before he had to stop and clean the weapon. (Maybe he could swap out the barrel like they did with machine guns?)

In action, the hero would have to keep moving to get out from under his smoke if didn't want to shoot blindly and would have to plan to finish the fight in less than 3 dozen shots.

One problem the hero will face, however, is that he will have no idea how reliable the weapon will be. All the metal is variable and suspect from the barrel to the springs to the copper wire in the magneto. Voids, cracks, rapid fatigue, impurities, you name it would make the weapon a crapshoot, no pun intended with almost every shot. Plus, his gunpowder would behavior differently even from hour to hour as humidity changed.

-) Recoilless blackpowder mini-cannon: In theory you could make a recoilless rifle with blackpowder as long as you used the original WWI design that shot a counter weight out the back. The counter weight could be friable (a bag of sand or lead dust) so it would do little damage behind. Such a weapon might be able to fire a 40mm round or so which from a man-carried weapon would be quite a devestating surprise back in the day. Basically, a kind of musket bazooka.

Plus, you could combine the recoilless mini-cannon with some of the ideas above. One guy with the mini-cannon firing flechette case shot could probably wipe out a platoon if shot in enfilade.

-) Air Rifle: If you want to cheat a bit, if the hero just happened to take the right plastic back with him, he could make an impressive air rifle. Air rifles were used by snipers in the late 1700s and Napoleonic wars. They had high accuracy, descent lethality and range but again lack of manufacturing precision meant they could never get them to seal reliably for long.

If your character just happened to have modern gasket material, he could whip up something really impressive. Probably, the flexible plastics in the soles of a modern par of tennis shoes would work.

With a stock of compressed air bottles, (hand pumped of course) he could keep up a sustained rate of accurate long range fire that would seem magical for the flintlock age, with no smoke and not a lot of noise.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ The air rifle off the cards (since the hero starts the story with pretty much nothing but rags), but the Sabot Flechettes look like something I could make limited use of for dramatic effect for sure. Thanks for the ideas. $\endgroup$ – MrDracoSpirit Jun 2 '15 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ I'll disagree with you in a major way about rifling. The problem was not inconsistent bore size. Until the advent of mass production techniques, every firearm needing a good fit for the bullet had a custom bullet mold, which produced exactly the right size ball. The operational drawback of the rifle was the slow reload rate. The (very close-fitting) ball had to engage the rifling as it was literally hammered down the barrel, and this took far too long for most units. Minie balls changed that in a big way, and were dominant during the US Civil War. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 2 '15 at 21:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Terry Pratchett dealt with the lack of knowledge in a time traveller sent back a generation: he made his first fortune in the novel concept of a fast food franchise, and his second by having an uncanny knack for knowing which inventions to invest in. Johnny and the Bomb $\endgroup$ – TRiG Jun 3 '15 at 0:20
  • $\begingroup$ @WhatRoughBeast - Yes, but the very act of loading a rifle distorted the ball producing variable muzzle velocity. The effect became more pronounced as the caliber increased. Beyond around IIRC 30mm or so distance became almost random (See Benjamin Roberts famous 1747 book on the subject) $\endgroup$ – TechZen Jun 3 '15 at 2:07
  • $\begingroup$ So how could Kentucky Long Rifles operate at 200 yards? And 30 mm is a 1.2 inch diameter ball, with 8 times the mass of a more or less standard .60 caliber ball, which would limit muzzle velocity to 300 fps or less to keep the recoil manageable. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 3 '15 at 3:46
9
$\begingroup$

Basically, you need a gunsmith with an enormous curiosity about the development of firearms, and how the technology was developed. Furthermore, you need to specify exactly what technological level he has found himself in. Flintlocks were in use for about 250 years, from 1610 to about 1860, and the state of technological infrastructure changed a great deal during that time.

Let's take the revolver as an example.

There were, of course, flintlock pistols. What does the black powder revolver need?

Percussion caps. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percussion_cap These are copper or brass cups with a charge of primer material at the bottom. And the primer? Well, the first ones were mercury fulminate mixed with (essentially) black powder. There are better materials possible, but mercury fulminate was successfully used for a long time. How do you make mercury fulminate? It's not hard: you dissolve mercury in nitric acid, then pour into alcohol. The fulminate precipitates out. But just because it's not hard doesn't mean it's obvious. See http://www.powerlabs.org/chemlabs/fulminate.htm for a demonstration of what's required, including a subsequent purification process. Note that production of large quantities is a very iffy proposition, due to problems managing waste heat.

Of course, making primers in any quantity is a ticklish business - mercury fulminate in any quantity is horrendously sensitive to shock and friction, and special techniques had to be developed to deal with it. For example, a quantity of potassium chlorate is placed on a rubber membrane stretched over a suspended iron hoop. Mercury fulminate is added, then the mixture stirred with a feather. If (when) a batch explodes, damage is minimized. Frankly, this isn't the sort of thing most modern gunsmiths would know, and developing the knowledge cost a considerable number of lives.

Mass production of the cups is something of an art, too, although not too much of a problem.

A major contribution a history-minded gunsmith might make is the minie ball. This allows muzzle-loaders to effectively use rifling, and greatly extends effective range. The phrase "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes" was a reflection of the accuracy of muskets. Smoothbores have a lot of trouble hitting a man beyond 50 to 60 yards. Muzzle-loading rifles can be good out to 400 yards or more (specialty sniper rifles could reach 1000 yards), although aiming is a problem. Black-powder rifles have a low muzzle velocity, and compensating for range gets difficult.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 for the percussion cap, which I see as the major challenge. People used to making their own ammo, and even their own guns are still going to be buying this as a 'part' and inserting it. Making your own and reliably setting them off is going to be hard. $\endgroup$ – IchabodE Jun 2 '15 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Percussion caps look like something the hero would know enough to be wary of. Through the minie ball look a very strong contender for the 'practice and awesome' use of more advance firearm knowledge. The range improvement would give him a massive edge alone. Many thanks for the help. $\endgroup$ – MrDracoSpirit Jun 2 '15 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, it doesn't help as much as you think. In a black-powder battle, visibility drops rapidly as smoke from the weapons accumulates. And if you can't see 'em, you can't hit 'em. And percussion caps are the key to revolvers. During the Civil War, some of the irregular cavalry units gave up rifles (carbines, actually) and depended mostly on carrying several revolvers. These could be fired rapidly at close range, and greatly improved the shock effect of cavalry. The trick, of course, was getting close to the ground troops, and this was very difficult in setpiece battles. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 2 '15 at 20:59
6
$\begingroup$

I'm not a gunsmith nor am I a precision machinist, so my opinion may be worth what you paid for :P

Although the concept was around long before they became widely used, breech loaders didn't become popular until some manufacturing problems were solved.

Although breech-loading weapons were developed as far back as the late 14th century in Burgundy, breech-loading became more successful with improvements in precision engineering and machining in the 19th century (see Dreyse needle gun).

The main challenge for developers of breech-loading weapons was sealing the breech. This was eventually solved for smaller weapons by the development of the self-contained metallic cartridge. For weapons too large to use cartridges, the problem was solved by the development of the interrupted screw.

Breach loading firearms have some, no $h17, you really have to satisfy design constraints.

  1. Your breach must be strong enough for the powder load - or your gun blows up in your hand, killing you.
  2. Your breech tolerances must be tight enough that the powder doesn't blow out the breach instead of the pushing the projectile down the barrel - or your shot blows hot burning gun powder back into the face of the person wielding the gun, blinding you.

Breech strength
The first requires a great deal of knowledge, skill, & quality control of the metals (probably steel) used to construct the weapon. Too little carbon and the steel will be too soft - allowing the breach to erode and limiting the life & utility of the weapon.

Too much carbon (or other impurities) and the steel becomes too brittle and shatters upon impacts (or big explosions) - killing the weapon wielder.

The difference in carbon percent between these two states isn't all that large.

Breech sealing
Sealing the breech requires pretty tight manufacturing tolerances but is aided by the use of brass cartridges. These are made of much softer metals and are designed to fit into the breech, expand, and seal the breech upon firing. The breech tolerances must still be tight enough to provide support to the cartridge casing or the casing will rupture and allow hot gases to escape anyway.

To solve this problem, the gun smith will need to develop high precision machine tools out of very hard & durable metals (probably machine tool steels). Meaning he needs to develop new machining metals as well as the metals for the gun.

Summary
I would think any gun smith from our era would know how to do the necessary manufacturing using the tools from our era. But perhaps only a gunsmith with an affinity for how weapons where made in prior eras might have the background necessary to begin developing new (to that era) metals and machining practices.

Even so, I would expect the gun smith to have to begin a series of tests over time to develop a final end product that would work for him. It might take him a year or much more.

Alternatively, he might be able to entice others from the period with the necessary background to begin developing those things to support the gun smith's endeavor (with promises that it would help them in their trade).

He could provide the smiths with necessary / desirable properties and a set of processes to follow to try develop them. He'd probably also give the smiths a set of tests to conduct at various stages of the process to see if the samples were turning out the products that he needed.

This might speed things up significantly.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I have found it to be particularly reasonable to assume weapons of war are well optimized for the materials and environment of the day. The march towards precision weapons moves alongside the march towards the ability to produce such precision. As suggested here, the gunsmith's best option is to find out what is available and optimize to that, rather than hoping and dreaming that a 1900's style firearm can be produced. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jun 2 '15 at 17:59
5
$\begingroup$

There are several problems that need to be solved whenever you have a time-traveller trying to bring knowledge of the future to the past. Modern guns are made of specific alloys that have been refined over centuries. They are precision-made using a production line that involves many people and processes from when the metal is first mined to when the final gun is assembled. Different processes and materials are used to manufacture each component. The knowledge required spans multiple disciplines, from mining, to materials science, chemistry, manufacturing, etc. Many of these advanced processes are impossible without advanced tools whose construction also relies on similarly-complex systems.

Consider this TED talk, where Thomas Thwaites tries to build a toaster from scratch. Even a simple toaster consists of over 400 components, each specifically made using modern processes. Something like a gun is even worse.

That said, your gunsmith would need to know, essentially, a detailed history of firearms; he'd need to know what was invented, and when, and what the early problems were. He'd find any obvious inventions probably stymied by manufacturing issues, such as quality control in the strength of the steel, or tolerance of the sizes of components that fit together, or dangerous manufacturing processes, and this all assumes that he actually knows how to manufacture the raw materials necessary. I can tell you many things about the manufacturing of computers: how lasers etch silicon using masks, how transisters are made from doped semiconductors, how transisters arrange to form logic gates, how logic gates arrange to form computational units, how computational units arrange to form computers. But there is simply no way that I know enough about this to actually manufacture a computer from scratch, not even without time-travelling. Your gunsmith would be in a similar predicament, and would probably have to rely on introducing one or two concepts that provide a lot of improvement. Maybe there's one specific thing that isn't being done yet, that's not obvious, that he can provide as an advantage (other posters have suggested rifling with Minie balls). If, at the point in time where your gunsmith finds himself, the main bottleneck for gun technology is manufacturing, there may not be much he can do alone.

Also, consider the problem of interchangeable parts. Even when it's possible to manufacture, say, a breach-loading rifle, you still face huge difficulty scaling the manufacture of one working gun up to an army's worth of guns. Our modern society's technology is global. It takes the whole world's worth of knowledge and cooperation and advancement to make possible the inventions we have here. Getting even close to what we have would be impossible without a team of specialists working together for years.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

I am going to give a contrary opinion here. In Northern Pakistan there are gunsmiths who can essentially recreate any firearm with not much more than blacksmith's tools. Some of these weapons are so good that you have to be very careful when buying an "antique" firearm (a friend and I looked at a "Martini Henry" in a shop in Afghanistan, and it took several hours of close examination, reference to a guidebook and quite a lot of tea before we recognized it as a forgery. The would be gun dealer took it with a grain of salt, but we ended up getting some nice rugs instead. Of course the first "hand woven" rung we looked at had even, machine tied knots when we flipped it over...).

Talking to people who were closer to the action (so to speak) we discovered that you could get a fully functional AK, SKS or even a copy of a Russian heavy machine gun from these sources.

There were two keys here that need to be kept in mind, however. First off, the Pakistani gunsmiths reverse engineered these weapons from existing models they could take apart, examine and measure. Second, they had the existing ammunition as well, which is important since they used this as the guide to ensure the weapons could function properly (especially establishing the headspace between the bolt and the chamber). Having access to modern steel blanks to forge the metal parts helped, and with Russian weapons, a lot of it is stamped sheet metal, which is also easier to deal with.

So if the gunsmith has access to superior (for the time) metals, lots of time and patience and some good reference materials, he may be able to manufacture a functional weapon (singular) after a prolonged period of time. Much of the time will be spent learning the use of tools and techniques from the time period he is in (and possibly training a lot of assistants), and most likely reinventing a few very critical tools, like a lathe. Teaming up with a top flight swordsmith is probably a good idea, the smith would already have access to good quality steel and know the proper techniques for working that particular metal.

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Also note that, without proper heat treatment of the bearing parts (like the selector assembly and trigger assembly, the hand-crafted guns are likely to have a short lifetime compared to the originals. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 2 '15 at 23:16
0
$\begingroup$

I'm not an expert but I can think of some issues:
1.Material, hard steel is important unless you like a big and heavy gun.
2.Primer, your gunsmith need a bit chemistry knowledge.
3.Rifling, necessary for accuracy but if you want musket just ignore this.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Rifling was well-known during the Revolutionary War. It's just not great for military muzzle-loaders. See Ferguson's Rifles. George Washington should have been killed by a rifle, but Ferguson admired his style and ordered his men not to shoot. All this changes with the minie ball, of course. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Jun 2 '15 at 17:01
0
$\begingroup$

Doubble22 mentioned the primer. Let me add casings of an uniform diameter, or at least cartridge bases -- the cartridge walls could be paper similar to a shotgun shell. Each of those will be hand-made and making them fit will be hard work.

The alloys for bullets would probably make problems in high-velocity rifles, but they could be workable in a revolver.

Contemporary black powder will foul the barrel relatively quickly, but again manageable in a revolver.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.