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So, in this fantasy preindustrial world almost everyone can cast small spells like spark within a one meter radius from their mouth.

Taking that into account, igniting mechanisms like matchlocks or flintlocks might seem redundant.

What would firearms look like and function in this world? And what would be the simplest firearm mechanism possible?

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    $\begingroup$ Question: can they cast spark through metal. I'm wondering if you can simply remove the primer from a modern bullet and then spark inside of the casing with the spell. The primer (the bit that starts the bang after being struck) is, I think, the most sophisticated component of the entire modern firearm. Not needing that might be a real boon for gun development. If they can't spark through metal, though, then that changes things. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ Imagining machine guns would be somewhat at at a disadvantage. Or at least tiresome to operate. Conversely Steve Woodmore holds the speed talking record. He is able to articulate at a rate of 637 words per minute. A person with such skill would be in high demand on the battlefield. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 19:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Gillgamesh Now that you mention it, when I answered the question I simply assumed we were talking about black powder weapons. I can't imagine the value of Spark! for any cartridge-based firearms (machine guns being the worst case). Maybe "modern" naval weapons or artillery, but I suspect that's crowbaring the magic into the system when it's not a substantial (or perhaps even literal) benefit. Maybe I was fast to answer. Rhomaioi? In respect to Europe, what Earth year represents the technological frame for the firearms you care about? The more modern it gets, the less valuable Spark! is. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 21:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Gillgamesh he lost the record in 95 to a Sean Shannon from Canada with 655 wpm. Steve also died in February $\endgroup$
    – Tristan
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Tristan thanks for the correction. Sad there will not be a Spark shootoff between the two. Also am writing a stern letter to google for the mistake. $\endgroup$
    – Gillgamesh
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 16:07

4 Answers 4

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Huge impact

Given that the OP specifies that the "Spark spell" can ignite powder through a metal barrier, firearms are suddenly much more effective at each stage of development. The increased effectiveness will make them more desirable, which will push the impetus to design improvements. Let's look at what makes them better.

  1. Reliability (and therefore logistics): Some modern enthusiasts for flintlocks claim they are extremely reliable, but records from the period show that the misfire rate was very high - some say one-in-seven, an Austrian Army study showed 15-20% in normal battlefield conditions and up to 50% in rain etc. This is for flintlocks - the previous methods such as matchlock, wheel-lock were less reliable and more resource-intensive. With the Spark ignition method, misfires will only occur if the main charge is so wet that it cannot be ignited. This has a benefit to logistics in two ways: 100% of the powder taken on campaign will go boom as desired and there are no fiddly trigger mechanisms to be broken and need replacing. Which leads to:
  2. Cheaper and easier to manufacture: A firearm no longer needs a carefully drilled hole for the powder trail for ignition from the pan to the chamber, it no longer needs a spring-loaded trigger mechanism with carefully placed jaws to hold a flint - each firearm is now a metal tube attached to a wooden stock. Which means that it is cheaper to equip an army with them. While this is the simplest firearm, as specified in the question, it is more effective as the metal tube is manufactured better, especially once rifling is included.
  3. Faster to reload: Armies will be able to get repeated volleys away faster. They still need to reload with powder and then ram down a bullet and patch, but there is no longer any messing around with priming the pan.
  4. More accurate: With many pre-cartridge firearms, soldiers would aim, then turn their head away the instant before squeezing the trigger in order to avoid getting burns to their eyes from the ignition of the powder in the pan. (Which goes some way to explaining how short range volleys were more survivable than one might have expected otherwise.) With no powder in the pan required, soldiers can keep aiming and mutter the invocation for their Spark as part of their breathing routine as they shoot, significantly increasing their accuracy.

The combination of the above points will make firearms far more effective from the moment they are first introduced, which will in turn make it a far better investment to work on developing improvements such as sights, rifled barrels, more consistent gunpowder etc. Also note that the Spark spell would have a lesser impact on improving both land and naval artillery, as the need to cool down the barrel of a cannon in between shots would make the increase in rate of fire negligible.

Possibly unintended consequences

The ability to Spark through metal and presumably other substances may have issues if control is difficult to achieve and/or suicidal opponents are encountered. The "one metre from the mouth" limit prevents deliberate widespread battlefield "jamming", but it should be noted that every person with a pre-industrial rifle will also have a powder horn or the equivalent, which is the equivalent of a grenade sitting against their body. A recruit with poor control who is shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellow soldiers could conceivably detonate not only his own powder horn but those of the soldiers to either side in one fatal mistake. Similarly, an apparently-dead-but-actually-still-dying enemy on the losing side could, with his last breath, detonate the powder horns of one or two soldiers on the winning side as they advance across his body.

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    $\begingroup$ Powder horns don't explode, they just burn. (You need the powder in a pressure-resistant chamber to explode.) It would be potentially harmful to the comrade, but not as catastrophic as, say, accidentally dropping a triggered hand grenade. (Now these would be really dangerous. Also, say goodbye to timed charges, grenades being dropped would be detonated early by the "grenade watcher" soldier, rendering them far less effective.) $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ @toolforger For smokeless powder such as nitrocellulose, that's true: The burn rate depends upon pressure, so if not under pressure, it just conflagrates. But black powder is more explosive at ambient pressure. Source: Personal experience $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 10, 2023 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @WayneConrad Yeah you need more than 1 kg of black powder, to make its own mass work as a containment. I don't think a powder horn (or powder flask) would contain that amount, though is does work as a containment (but not a very effective one unless filled to the brim). $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ @toolforger It is possible for very small amounts of black powder, much less than a pound, to go "bang" instead of "fwoosh." $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @toolforger I think you're right. Black powder is a low explosive, which does not detonate. I can tell you that when a tablespoon or two is placed under an upside down coffee can, it burns quickly enough to send the coffee can quite far into the air, with a bang that seemed like an explosion to a much younger, very much stupider version of myself. Don't try this at home. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 20:55
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I don't believe anything would be different in terms of advancement

It might be uber cool to cast Spark! to ignite your firearm, but it has several limitations — and one is, IMO, a doozy.

  1. First, the use of magic with a firearm is splitting concentration. From the perspective of real firearm use (which we need to consider if we're going to answer the question, "how would they develop if...") you're focused on your target and your focused on your weapon. Now you're also focused on the magic.

  2. It's slow. The time required to invoke Spark! will always be slower than the time required to pull a trigger. Even if we go back to the earliest guns. Anyone with a trigger-activated gun will have an advantage over anyone using a magic-activated gun. It won't take long for everyone to have a triggered weapon.

  3. Here's the doozy. The incantation can be heard. Whether your hunting or a soldier in the military, the sound of the incantation will always precede the ignition of the powder. Generalizing, one can only hear the report of a rifle before dying when shot from a great distance. In most cases, you either never hear the shot or, more to the point, you can't react to it. Enter the incantation, where every target not made of bottles, cans, or wood will hear you speaking before the bullet is flying and have a chance to react. That gives a good advantage to the prey when hunting and a substantial advantage to an enemy soldier who's opted for the much more stealthy triggered weapon.

Now... if the incantation for Spark! was nothing more than an unbelievably quick and an equally unbelievably soft click of your tongue.... Can you create the magical version of a hot-key?

Conclusion

  • I can believe a series of magic-activated firearms would exist, but somewhat as a novelty. The aristocracy would love them. They'd be seen at gun ranges.

  • But I believe that the advantages of a trigger-activated firearm would make them preferred by the military, for hunting, and for personal security. That's 99% of the firearm market.

Alternative

From a certain point of view, an incantation like Spark! would represent the least a magician could do or, said another way, would represent the smallest change in the operation of a firearm. Is that useful?

What makes a firearm deadly is its ability to accurately direct the projectile. If you don't have something like Lightning Bolt! that "automatically" hits its target, then it makes more sense to replace both the trigger and the powder. Rather than casting Spark!, you want to cast Bang! All three issues mentioned above technically still exist, but now what you have is something...

  1. Is inexpensive. It's just a well-decorated tube (OK, it's more than that, but you get my point),
  2. Is trivial to maintain,
  3. That does not depend on plentiful dry powder, patches, etc., and...
  4. That is much simpler to load (and you can do it in a thunderous downpour!).

I'd recommend that you modify a world rule to minimize the sound of the incantation, but...

All those advantages weigh well enough against the disadvantages that my suspension of disbelief feels like it's happily eating pizza and drinking a cold soda.

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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't it be completely impossible to hear somebody stating or whispering "spark" in the heat of a battle at the sorts of distance that rifles would be fired? especially with the noise of other guns firing and the general chaos and shouting $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 4:09
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think the sound of the incantation is much of a factor unless there's a significant delay between the casting of the spell and its effect to allow someone within earshot to react. But if that's the case, it's the delay that would make it a poor firing mechanism, not so much the sound. Plus you can easily get around that by allowing whisper incantations. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ For precedent in activating guns without powder, I highly recommend the Power Mage Trilogy. Very nicely written, and while powder mages do depend on powders, their magic then allow them to fire bullets without powder in the guns (as well as having longer range, more powder, better control, etc...). Most notably, the ability to do without powder make them faster at recharging, and able to fire multiple bullets at once. Bang! indeed. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ Who said there was any incantation or any significant time to cast? $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Commented Aug 10, 2023 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ But you're telling OP that his idea wouldn't work based on something OP didn't even say. That's not fair to him. It would be better to interpret his idea in a way that does make it work. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Commented Aug 10, 2023 at 1:40
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Blowpipes/Blowguns. They've been around for quite some time here on earth as well, and it wouldn't be too far of a stretch to adapt them into a form of firearm if your citizens are able to cast a spark from their mouths. I think the biggest issues might be recoil, and keeping any expanding gasses from blowing back out of the end that faces their mouth. Though if they can cast the spell in a one-meter radius away from their bodies, they might be able to get around that issue! Or if they engineer some sort of valve that shuts off as soon as whatever charge is inside the pipe ignites, which wouldn't be too complicated. They also might need to make them out of sturdier materials as well though.

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In close quarters, can one put a spark in your eye? Heart? Head?

Is that survivable?

Might be an interesting addition to the second act of the classic battles, when two sides have exchanged a few volleys of balls and the muskets became clubs with knives on the end (bayonets) and so the distance to opponent is close enough for the one-meter range.

Otherwise, in some hide-and-seek thrills, nowadays characters often toss a bit of debris to make a sound which makes the seeker momentarily look elsewhere (and the character has a better chance to ambush or run away). Can a spark be used like that (if the delay and spell spoken volume is negligible)?

Conversely, can a delayed spark be set? e.g. you run through a corridor, hide in a random room and make a "proximity spark" in advance (less limit on the spoken voice giving away your position) that would go off once someone comes through the door, so then you make your jump on the distracted intruder...

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