Nov 052012

I’ve touched on Warbows and Murder Strikes so far, but this week, we’re going to take a look at something a bit more advanced; gunpowder weapons firing balls of lead. Although these are a lot less prevalent in fantasy RPGs, I do know they exist, as well as in Pirate themed action and adventure games. Feel free to take as much or as little of this advice to apply to your own games, as some of it may be a little too real, and could take away from the fun of it all.

Because these weapons are far from common, and most fantasy games prefer to stick closer to a late medieval time frame, if they do show up, most people don’t actually know too much about them. Lets start with some basics then. Loading the weapon – and for this I am assuming that the barrel has not been rifled - takes a professional soldier whom has been drilled extensively, roughly twenty seconds. Feel free to work out how many combat rounds that is, and then decide you probably don’t care that much for realism in this subject. I don’t blame you, but if you are going to shorten that time, don’t make it too silly. Allow for well trained characters to take feats or advantages to reduce this some. Just remember, what the character is doing is dangerous, and rushing leads to mistakes, which could lead to severe trauma and death.

The reason for this is that you will setting off a small explosion in a narrow space very close indeed to your face. Even when it works fine, expect to have a soot blackened face, with pock marked scars from the black powder in the priming pan. Also, be very careful with the ramrod: grip it with finger tips and not a fist. If you get an accidental ignition, life’s easier with shorter fingers than no hand.

Once loaded, the gun is usually fired immediately. This is because the ball will not be lodged firmly in the barrel, and holding the gun pointed vaguely downwards could allow it to roll out. Even too much jostling before firing will dislodge the shot and mean that it will not receive the full force of the explosion, exiting the barrel at sub-optimal velocity. There are ways round this, but they are not risk free. You could force a lump of drying mud or clay down the barrel to hold the shot and powder in place. If it’s too dry, it will have little effect, coming loose just as easily; too wet and you run the risk of getting the powder damp and causing a misfire and a blockage. This will destroy the weapon, and do considerable damage to its wielder.

When fired, an Indian Long Pattern musket or pistol was horrifically inaccurate. At the battle of Waterloo alone, based on rounds fired, less than 5% hit their target. The pistols were only accurate at incredibly short ranges: typical duels at twenty paces were called off with honour satisfied if three rounds were fired by each participant and none hit. This happened more than you would think. In battle, the muskets were only effective in volley fire, and even then, only at close range. Holding fire “’til you see the whites of their eyes” was very good advice, as firing early was a great way to waste powder and shot. the reason for this was the shot was a lot smaller than the barrel, and when fired would have plenty of room to rattle along inside it before coming out in the vague direction it was pointed.

The way around this was to rifle the barrel. You know that great of James Bond as seen down the barrel of a gun, that looks like a camera? The lines you see are the rifling. This is done to put a spin on the round, making it travel in a straighter line through the air. To be truly effective however, the round needs to fit the barrel much tighter. Before advances in weapon design and the invention of cartridge shots, the way to do this was to wrap the ball in leather. The grooves would grip the material, spinning the round as it left the barrel, drastically increasing accuracy and allowing for sharp shooters.

If you plan on playing a character who uses a black powder weapon, I would strongly suggest you find a rifle rather than a musket. It makes you significantly more effective without forcing you to join in the volley fire. In realistic terms, the disadvantage of this was a longer reload time, as the shot would have to be forced down the barrel because of the firmer fit. For the sake of fun, this can easily be ignored though. Since these weapons would be hand made, the basic weapon would certainly be a musket, and a rifle would be a master-crafted affair.

If you’re the GM it might also be an idea to assume that your player characters armed with firearms know how to maintain them. Keeping track of how often they strip the weapon to clear powder from the touch holes, how regularly the change the flint to ensure a spark, and how clean they keep the grooves of the burning leather that sticks inside them.

One final note now, on bayonets. They are usually socket mounted, meaning they can be taken on and off in a few seconds by someone with experience, and act similar to spears in close combat. Their added benefit is that they can be wielded as knives, with the longer bayonets used on rifles closer in length to a short sword. If you have an entire unit equipped with these weapons, they could all fix bayonet and form square, holding them pointed outwards like a very pointy wall. Although effectively stalling them, and making it harder to load and fire, no horse, no matter how experienced its rider, will willingly charge at the square.

I hope some of the above was useful to you, and please remember that all of the above is optional, and if you would rather ignore it, I take no offense at all. I’m just happy to get any chance to use my History degree…

  20 Responses to “A historical look at black powder weapons for your RPGs.”

  1. The Patriot (Mel Gibson, not Steven Segal) gives a a great view on just how close armies had to be to each other to make even volley firing effective in any way. It also shows in a very graphic scene how cannon balls worked (=not exploding on impact, as many people believe). I’m not too much in love with that movie as a whole, but it has some great scenes.
    I hope you will continue to put your History degree to use, I really enjoy reading these posts.

    • You’re spot on about cannon, the trick was to get the ball to land in front of a unit so that the bounce would tear through the men. Nasty indeed…

      • I remember reading in my French-Rev/Napoleon course that cannon-fire typically rolled, seemingly, slowly across the battlefield, such that many of the injuries and lost limbs were incurred by soldiers thinking they could stop a cannon ball simply by extending their foot…

      • I actually learned that from Warhammer (:

        Thanks for the article, this series is pretty useful!

  2. Don’t forget the immense utility that magic can have for firearm users in RPGs that include it. In D&D, for instance, some of the lowest level spells (Prestidigitation and Mending) can maintain a weapon better and quicker than even the most experienced gunsmith; I would go so far as to enchant any firearm I owned with a permanent Prestidigitation cleaning effect. Also consider enchanted ammunition (Seeking, Flaming, or Vorpal bullets!) and the different ways to generate infinitely-replenishing ammunition, potentially even summoning it directly into the weapon.

    • being powerful enough at magic would almost certainly remove the need for firearms, but I think you’ve got some great ideas. I’d be interested in more on the subject in fact.

      • A powerful magic user will almost certainly get more use from their spells than from their firearms, but powerful mages are quite rare in almost every setting, and lower-level magewrights, adepts, and artificers would have many incentives to implement these sorts of inventions.

        In one of the games I played in (an Eberron campaign – I was a Rakshasa sorcerer who took control of a city, and brought it to post-scarcity levels of magical technology), I designed a mass-produced magic item of the level 0 spell “Launch Bolt”, modified with Eschew Materials; essentially, it was a silent, semi-automatic, magical railgun that produced ammo as it was fired. The trigger was the safety, not the actual firing mechanism – the “boltcasters” were activated with a command thought, but only if the trigger was held down. This way, the physical act of pulling the trigger would not add any shake to the user’s aim. Of course, the enchantment was designed to only function for loyal citizens of my city – those with my character’s personal arcane mark.

      • Also, even if you’re sticking to completely mundane firearms, you can still make incredible technological leaps by using magic to craft them; the Fabricate spell (one of my favorites) turns raw material into finished product. The quality of the results is limited by your craft check and knowledge, but not by the tools and techniques of the time – you could Fabricate a perfectly-rifled, seamless barrel (along with the rest of the gun around it, and ammunition perfectly fitted for the weapon), greatly increasing the limits of what can be done safely, since you don’t have to worry about flaws in the barrel exploding in your face. The possibilities are even greater if you use materials like adamantine. Also: imagine the penetrating power of adamantine-tipped bullets.

      • Another great interaction between firearms and magic: Sniper rifles with Spell-Storing bullets (or the same enchantment on the rifle itself) become one of the best long-range spell delivery platforms once someone thinks to make them.

        I have absolutely no idea what would happen if you fired a Spell-Storing shotgun at multiple foes, but I want to try it now.

      • Take the Arcane Archer class a step further with an Arcane Marksman.

        While Outlaw Star was a highly flawed show, the idea of a gun that fired bullets imbued with spells so that a non-magic-user could still fight against magical opponents on a level playing field was interesting.

        In some systems, this could turn into a colossal XP sink, but bullets could be treated like potions. I doubt you’d need to use permanence, since the bullet (and spell) would not need to be reusable. Perhaps the wadding could be inscribed with runes and itself be a spell-scroll?

        I might start cooking up some ideas & report back later…

  3. [...] Shortymonster recently wrote a post on black powder weapons in RPGs. This is a bit more scatterbrained than some of my other posts, so bear with me. [...]

  4. This certainly taught me something new. I’m not going for this kind of realism in my pirates campaign but it’ll be helpful in one of my high consequences, realistic solo campaigns.

    • That was the level I was going for. You don’t want to be saddled with too much realism in a game of Savage Worlds or something similar, but there may be a little bit of flavour you can add if you want to.

  5. I would be interested to know what you think of how I handled firearms and cannons in “The World Between for Fictive Hack.”

    I kept most of the firearms ranges pretty close because the accuracy is so bad. And the noise is the most scary thing, at times. =)

    Still, a pistol can be an equalizer when facing tough foes. It’s kind of cool having a game setting with black powder as the default. I skirt the edge of rifling the barrel, but I use flint-locks and skip match-locks altogether as too much work. The reload times are not realistic, but I suppose I can live with that. I’ve done a realistic version for another game, and it sucked a lot of the fun out of firing off blackpowder weapons. At least characters are motivated to carry at least a brace of pistols.

  6. Bullets rolling out isn’t actually a concern. They would be wadded in with paper or cotton to prevent this. It would be a pretty big oversight not to have a system to prevent this…

    From what I’ve read, smoothbore muskets of the 18th century were accurate (i.e. could hit within a few inches) out to 50 yards, and reasonably accurate (could hit a man more often than not) out to 100 yards, and could often hit a man out to 150 yards.

    • Contemporary experiments show that at 100-150 yards, you’re about 50/50 to hit a man sized target, with an aimed shot. This was against a stationary target with time spent to brace the weapon with no one shooting back at you. As you can imagine, these conditions were actually pretty rare when people were trying to shoot at real people.

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