29
$\begingroup$

Is it possible to sabotage a horse-drawn vehicle in such a way that it fails a bit after leaving town? If so, how precise can this delay be and how would it be done?

$\endgroup$
8
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Do you want it to seem like an accidental breakdown? $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2021 at 12:04
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I believe there are multiple ways to sabotage a horse so that it can't pull any more. Drugs, doing something to the hoofs, and nicking a tendon all come to mind, but I'll bet there are more. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Sep 30, 2021 at 14:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @DavidR It should be possible to partially remove the nails from the horses' shoes, such that it throws one of them in transit, but A.) This requires a long period of time alone with the horse(s) to not be caught, and B.) might not completely disable the vehicle - horses can still pull a cart without shoes, albeit with greater chance of injury. $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2021 at 18:43
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Go you want a GPS tracker attached to a bomb? or is there a technology limit? what is it? $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Oct 1, 2021 at 20:01
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ tech level matters quite a lot here, late C19th carriages had roller bearings secured by nuts, leaf suspension and all sorts of things which can be precisely compromised. a C13th wagon did not. Both are 'horse-drawn vehicles'. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2021 at 23:35

10 Answers 10

17
$\begingroup$

Compromise the linchpin.

Carriages often used linchpins to hold the wheel to the axle. A failure or loss of that pin would lead to the wheel falling off the carriage, with consequences that would depend a lot on the specifics of the carriage and the wheel—a relatively stable vehicle could simply end up effectively immobilized for a time, while a less stable vehicle could fall on its side at speed and be catastrophically damaged.

How predictable this is depends on a lot of factors; however, one option would be to replace it with something very weak (a dark wax would probably not be noticed on a cursory inspection) on a wheel that you know will be on the inside on a sharp turn heading out of town. Most likely, the wheel would stay on the axle until that turn, when the lateral forces would cause the wax to give way and the wheel to fall off. For a yet-faster failure, remove the linchpin entirely; for a longer delay, use something too weak to do the job but strong enough to last for a little while (eg, replace an iron linchpin with dark-painted pine). The longer the delay, though, the less predictable the failure.

One thing about this method is that, depending on the results of the accident, it might never be discovered as sabotage. If the carriage were basically destroyed, it's plausible that anybody investigating would simply say, "oh, the linchpin broke, what a tragic accident," and not go digging into the axle enough to realize that the "pin" was a fake. If the carriage were intact, though, the ruse would almost certainly be discovered when somebody went to mount a new wheel.

(To give credit where it's due, the idea of a wax linchpin comes to me from the book "The King Must Die", in which the linchpin of Theseus's chariot is replaced by wax, so that the wheel falls off as he rides into battle.)

$\endgroup$
5
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ Depending on the climate, you could cut a linchpin and freeze it back together with ice, such that the break is inside the hole and invisible (perhaps overnight while it's cold). When the journey begins, the warmth of the day thaws the ice and the pin falls out. If a longer delay is needed, ice-and-sawdust make pykrete, which is stronger and melts more slowly. Bonus - minimal or no evidence other than a broken pin. $\endgroup$
    – Beejamin
    Oct 1, 2021 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ I love the precision and simplicity combined here - you are at the mercy of terrain features, sure, but you can plan the exact point of failure! $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2021 at 8:23
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ In climates where ice does not work, wax could. Beeswax is quite sturdy when kept in a cool cellar, but will melt in the sun. $\endgroup$
    – jpa
    Oct 1, 2021 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ How easy would tampering with the linchpin be? I imagine it would require tools (a hammer?) and not be something a child could do, and not something one could do very stealthily? $\endgroup$
    – MaxGabriel
    Sep 5 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ I can't say I've had the need to remove any carriage linchpins lately; but yes, I believe you'd need a hammer and punch or something similar. (The fake could just be pushed in by hand, of course, since the whole point is that it doesn't need to stay there for long.) Depending on the situation, you could probably either find a way to excuse it ("emergency repairs") or conceal it (do it when there are other similar sounds); but even aside from the physical challenges, a child might have a hard time explaining why they were working on a carriage! $\endgroup$ Sep 7 at 18:20
52
$\begingroup$

The wooden axle can get a V cut of suitable depth and over time it will break, due to the forces given by the road bumps and the carriage load. I don't think this method can be very precise, as it depends on the conditions under which the carriage is operated.

Alternatively, you can sabotage the brake: carriage had a lever operated brake to assist going down steep roads, usually consisting or in a wooden pad directly pushing on the wheel surface or a tensionable leather belt wrapped around the axle.

With the sabotaged brake you are sure the failure will happen at the first steep descent.

Last but not least, you can poison the horses' food, and that will take effect after a certain time from the last time they ate.

$\endgroup$
5
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ can be made a bit more precise, maybe, by using some sort of cable-saw across the axle with a spring $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Sep 30, 2021 at 18:42
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I reckon you could sabotage the brake linkage in such a way that it worked under gentle braking but failed on a really steep downhill when applied hard - cut partway through the lever of a spoon brake or the strap of a band brake. $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Oct 1, 2021 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ You could feed the horse something like the equivalent of a cocaine filled condom that wasn't tied properly. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 1, 2021 at 18:11
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Brake sabotage might be harder to find after the fact. Cutting an axle would be obvious, but not sure if hiding the sabotage is important. $\endgroup$
    – JPhi1618
    Oct 1, 2021 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure how much horse-drawn-carriages rely on bringing feed vs. having the horse graze. $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Oct 1, 2021 at 20:15
16
$\begingroup$

How about something reliable, reasonably timeable, not at all obvious, and using materials available in the timeperiod.

Just rub some Oxalic acid crystals into the grease on the coach's axles.
The stuff is quite inert, looks like just some yellow sand/dust, and will sit there completely inert until the coach starts moving at speed. You can apply the acid overnight, it remains to be just a dust covering on the axle until worked in to the grease heated by motion and heated by normal operating friction.

Once the stagecoach is moving, the acid crystals get worked into the grease, warm up, and promptly start eating away at the smooth surfaces of the loadbearing axle metal. Within an hour of staring to move, but no less than about 20 minutes, the coach has rough axles with zero functional grease on them. The coach either brakes to a halt with wheels that refuse to turn, or if the horses are strong the axle overheats, further activating the acid, and completely snaps off.

You have an immobile coach with a simple, obvious case of axle failure. And no obviously visible signs of tampering.

$\endgroup$
3
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, yeah! If I ever travel back in time to be a CIA operative, I'm totally using this. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2021 at 15:21
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @GregBurghardt *CERN operative. The CIA has no business in the past. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Oct 1, 2021 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Would it be normal for people traveling by wagon to carry grease with them to maintenance the wagons? I’m wondering if additionally stealing the grease would be necessary $\endgroup$
    – MaxGabriel
    Sep 5 at 0:32
11
$\begingroup$

Maybe far-fetched, requiring some installation but the technology would have existed.

install a gear driven device that advances a piece containing a saw or blade towards the axle that is driven as the axle turns. As the carriage travels, the axle turns, which in turns spins a gear which then turns a worm gear that moves the blade forward.

You can have a ratio of 100 turns of the axle moves the blade 1cm. After 1000 turns the blade could travel 10cm. For a 1m diameter wheel, that means the carriage would have traveled about 3km. If this device is geared and sized right and installed correctly, you could theoretically make this happen.

The math to figure this out, the technology was there and material components have existed for centuries. It just would be a very highly precise piece of machinery, for the time, that would be expensive and not really available to the public.

$\endgroup$
9
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Over the top, but absolutely glorious! $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2021 at 8:19
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the edit. Some of the issues came from my mind having edited certain trains of thought without it fully translating to my fingers. Also, not sure why axil was not flagged for autocorrect. I rely on that too much :) $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Oct 1, 2021 at 15:23
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Actually, you could do it a lot simpler by having a weighted sawblade resting on top of the axle. As the carriage moves the axle will slowly get cut. The heavier the weight, the faster this will happen. $\endgroup$
    – aslum
    Oct 1, 2021 at 19:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I'm fairly sure that horse drawn wagons had free hubs and fixed (non-rotating) axles. mechanical odometers were a thing however but they were driven from a wheel hub. a fixed saw will not cut a rotating rod well becaus it will get clogged with sawdust, a single-point cutter like used on a lathe is better here, but would need to be mounted on/in/against a wheel-hub, $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Oct 1, 2021 at 20:16
  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carriage had to look this up. It does seem the wheels are on bearings that turn on the axle. Im assuming it means the axles are fixed and the wheel turns on them, so @jasen would be correct $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Oct 1, 2021 at 20:33
10
$\begingroup$

Medieval car bomb

Plant a small keg of gunpowder somewhere on the cart where it won't be noticed, with a slow-burning fuse. These can be calibrated to burn down in a predictable length of time, up to a certain degree of accuracy.

Alternatively, for a more low-tech no-preparation-required alternative, if the cart has a load of goods packed in straw, simply toss a hot coal from a fireplace or blacksmith's forge into the straw. It can smolder for a while before the straw catches fire, and when it does, it may be too late to stop it, especially if there's no water nearby.

$\endgroup$
2
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ +1, but debatable if "on fire" is the same as "breaks down". :D $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Sep 30, 2021 at 18:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For bonus points, affix it to the axle and have the fuse ignited by a friction pad once the cart is moving "fast enough". $\endgroup$
    – aslum
    Oct 1, 2021 at 19:50
5
$\begingroup$

In addition to the answer by L.Dutch:

  • Are the wheels on the axles greased? Remove/adulterate the grease.
  • Do the wheels have iron hoops? Replace them with doctored ones.
$\endgroup$
4
$\begingroup$

If you want to control the exact distance traveled before the breakdown, you might partially cut the axle and mount a coil of rope under the carriage with one end attached to the carriage body and the other to the axle.

When the wheel turns, it coils the rope around the axle and when the rope runs out, it pulls on the compromised axle to break it. Another way is to attach the wagon body side of the rope to a sabotaged fastener under the wagon so the rope pulls the fastener out, causing the sabotaged part to fall off.

You might need to use some thread for the first part of the rope, since you would need about one tenth of the distance-to-failure in thread or rope. So, a few dozen feet of rope attached to the body, with miles of thread attached to the axis.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ This is the only answer so far that's addressed the distance part of the question. Neat solution. $\endgroup$ Oct 2, 2021 at 12:32
  • $\begingroup$ That was my initial solution, too! The clockwork suggestion was also on point, and the sabotaged pin can target a specific turn. But using cord for the initial stretch is a neat idea! $\endgroup$ Oct 2, 2021 at 18:24
2
$\begingroup$

I'm surprised that I haven't seen a this as an answer yet; compromise (using a cut partway through) the pole (the bar that keeps the horses equidistant), or the traces (the arms attached to the horse's breeching).

I'd imagine the failure would be certain, though the timing would not be precise.

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. $\endgroup$
    – Community Bot
    Sep 30, 2021 at 18:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A compromised equipment will fail unpredictably. The post is asking for some precision in the planned failure. $\endgroup$
    – Sonvar
    Sep 30, 2021 at 18:52
0
$\begingroup$

Remove the grease from the wheel bearings and clean it. I Believe these are typically brass and steel sleeve bearings. After a while these would eventually seize.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Welcome Michael. This is a quite astonishingly brief answer, which duplicates the idea of o.n. (which, to be fair is also brief but was posted first). To avoid deletion as low quality, in the future, please ensure that you take the time to read the other answers and to fill in as much detail as you can. Please take our tour and refer to the help center for guidance as to our ways. Enjoy Worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2021 at 17:47
0
$\begingroup$

A rasp on the axis, with a weighted block below

Carriage axes were made of wood.
Use a wooden block with a hole for the axis. Actually not a hole, it should be open at the top - a short piece of rasp blade is used to close it.
Make the block just heavy enough that the rasp will eat enough through the axis to break it. "Soon after out of town" sounds reasonable if the rasp is of good quality.

Downside: This will be noisy. A seasoned, attentive coachman may notice because he tends to know how it sounds normally. It might be advisable to make him unavailable, or drowsy, or bored, or have an utterly disinterested one, to make the plan work.

Whatever the saboteurs do, they need to test how fast their mechanism will work, since there's no way to predict that, given that carriages were crafted, not mass-produced, so the axis and other elements would vary slightly and also have pretty different stability depending on how well-maintained they were.

$\endgroup$

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .