Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wheel-locks, Rifles, and the Roar of Cannons

AKA Adding Firearms to B/X D&D Part Deuce

I mentioned wheel-locks only briefly in my prior post. The wheel-lock mechanism (developed late 15th or very early 16th century) was a precursor to the flintlock and allowed for firearms to fire without the use of match cord. They did this by striking a spark from a piece of pyrite, similar to the spark of a wheel cigarette lighter that fires lighter fluid to create a flame (ah, the memory of my poor aching thumbs). In addition to the practicality of not carrying flaming string on your person, the removal of the match cord meant the weapon could be quite stealthy (until fired), giving off neither glow nor smell, and there was no danger of the weapon being useless in the rain.

As such, several kingdoms in Europe banned the wheel-lock or passed laws against its possession.

But the wheellock was never manufactured in great numbers and never replaced the matchlock in military forces. Costly to make, each required a skilled gunsmith to hand-craft the mechanism, and its operation wasn’t well-known or widespread. The snaphance developed mid-16th century was the next development in “locking mechanisms” until the flintlock (circa 1600) renders everything else obsolete, being both cheap and easy to produce and being extremely effective on the 17th and 18th century battlefield (due to its extra powder charge, a flintlock musket could hole plate armor at 100 yards).

Just because a weapon is invented on or around a particular date, doesn’t mean it became prevalent, nor immediately accessible. The harquebus was still the main long gun of eastern Europe well into the 17th century…a fact that allowed the Polish heavy cavalry (the Winged Hussars) to remain a potent battlefield force up into the 1700s…plate, lance, and sword, folks!

Rifling, the cutting of the gun barrels to impart spin on shot, allowing for more accuracy and range (like an NFL quarterback throwing a spiral), was known from at least the 15th century. However, in addition to being more costly to produce well-rifled weapons, rifle barrels needed more care and cleaning, becoming fouled and useless (or dangerous) with the black powder being used. Rifles as a matter of course don’t see regular battlefield action till the 18th century, though they are still used by individual hunters and sharpshooters. Elongated bullets (further improving accuracy) were not developed until the 18th century, well after the pseudo-medieval D&D era.

Pistols, too, could be rifled though...there is some historical evidence to suggest that the use of rifling on dueling pistols was considered “un-sporting.”

Black powder cannon (the roaring guns) were fairly slow to replace ancient-type artillery, being small, slow to maneuver, and short of range…as well as expensive to produce, slow to re-load, and dangerous to their own side on the battlefield. Part of the difficulty with early cannon is the inability of the Europeans (at the time) to cast large iron cannon, or iron balls. Instead, cannon are used as anti-personnel weapons, well into the 14th century (hurtling grapeshot, arrows, and anything else they can be stuffed with). However, by the end of the 15th century, cannon is replacing all other artillery pieces on the battlefields of Europe, and bombards on wheeled carriages are able to reduce castle walls to rubble with extensive pounding, just using (heavy) stone balls.

How heavy? Well, hundreds of pounds. Of course the cannon themselves weighed 2-4 tons.

Let’s put that in “D&D terms.” A two-ton cannon weighs 40,000cns in B/X terms. The largest transport presented in the Expert set is the wagon which, when pulled by four draft horses, can haul 25,000cns weight. You need about twice as much pull to schlep that Big Gun…which is about what they used in the “old days” (eight or nine horses to a cannon).

You can see how this could add up to be an expensive bit of hardware. Unlike a catapult or trebuchet which could (conceivably) be constructed “on site” (given timber and the right knowledge), cannon would need to be hauled to the siege…along with adequate shot and powder, feed for the horses, spare wheels for the carriage, etc.

[Jeez, I’m starting to sound a bit like ol’ whatsisname over at Tao of D&D]

For my purposes, I think I’m content to keep firearms right around the EARLY 15th century (1400s) era. There are handguns and harquebus and pistols and plate armor, but cannons are going to be suitable only as anti-personnel weapons. Wheel-locks and bombards might be available, but only from dwarven master smiths or less-than-sane magic-users. Will these things develop over the course of the campaign history? Probably not…after all, we’re talking about a world where powerful magic is available to the Powers That Be. Why would they spend money from their treasury developing technology and outfitting their troops? Especially when those troops might turn around and throw them down in a bloody proletariat revolution!

No...firearms as weapons are a novelty weapon and/or weapon of surprise. Plate armor has been developed (perhaps in part) to prevent the odd stray bullet from ending a mailed noble’s career. But societies with access to magic (like humans and elves) have no need to spend more time on the dangerous and temperamental black powder…firearms are expensive toys for wealthy adventurers and nobles, not the all-conquering weapons of war.

Now, for species that don’t have magic in their arsenal, firearm development is a different story:

- Dwarves are technological craftsmen, well versed in the making of locks and mechanisms. The development of the wheellock for use in firearms can be a boon in their on-going conflicts with goblins and the like (they don’t mind the extra craftsmanship/expense needed AND matchlocks would be counterproductive to their subterranean conflict…not to mention dangerous in close quarters fighting and close contact with black powder! However, there are several reasons dwarves would NOT go beyond wheellocks and bombards:
A) Dwarves in general are not ambitious to conquer territory and don’t have the numbers to raise the large armies (tens of thousands) of the late Middle Ages. Their weapons are more likely created for defense and/or love of working with contraptions.

B) Firing off any firearms in great number…wheellock, flintlock, whatever…creates huge clouds of black smoke. In the confines of tunnels, this can be dangerous to health, not to mention polluting to their environment.

C) Unless you’re laying siege (and dwarves are more likely to BE besieged), there’s little reason to create bombards underground. Possibly a few iron loaded cannons placed (outside) defensively can be used to smash approaching siege engines. Firing a cannon underground is reckless to say the least!

D) Any guns created may very well fall into the hands of enemies (goblins and such) at some point. One of the advantages dwarves have over the more numerous subterranean humanoids is their stout armor…why give up that advantage by allowing large numbers of firearms to be captured by the enemy?

- Halflings do not have access to magic and yet are not technologically inclined (nor are they especially ambitious and warlike…how many times did the hobbits of the Shire lay siege to Bree? Um…zero). For the halfling, too, I would imagine the firearm is more a novelty weapon…certainly it is loud and obtrusive for the stealthy species (whose accuracy with missile weapons is reason enough to lay off the intimidating black powder weapons).

- Humanoids, especially the fouler and more opportunistic ones, are likely to LOVE firearms and make as much use of them as possible. Fortunately for civilized folks, most humanoids are decidedly STUPID and unable to develop any but the crudest types of firearm. Goblins and/or orcs, might make use of the odd handgun or two, but certainly won’t be able to manufacture a matchlock harquebus or pistol. Hobgoblins might have the brains to do so, but are more inclined to prove their honor in hand-to-hand combat than with long-ranged shooting. However, a hobgoblin might carry a finely crafted pistol into battle along with his blade, if he can get one. Ogres are too stupid to use firearms, let alone make them, and giants are already their OWN cannon…they have no need of firearms. No…goblins and orcs are the most likely to make use of black powder weapons, and not in any great number. And even though they might WANT to manufacture a cannon (for anti-personnel use only), they have no horses to haul it…how many wargs/slaves does it take to bring an artillery piece out of the mountains and down to the battlefield? Too many.

The following new rules supplement the ones submitted yesterday:

A rifled firearm (harquebus and pistol only) costs 50%-75% more than the weapon’s usual price, depending on availability. A rifled harquebus has all range increments doubled; a rifled pistol has all its ranges increased by 50%. Rifled weapons’ rate of misfire increases by +1 after each firing until cleaned (which takes 1-2 turns). For example, the first shot from a rifled harquebus only misfires on a roll of “1.” The next shot in the same combat misfires on a 1 or 2. The third shot misfires on a 1, 2, or 3, etc.

MASS LAND COMBAT (for use with the B/X Companion rules)

FIREARMS: A unit equipped with firearms (God help us!) must all be armed with the same type of firearm. Units with handguns adds +5% to their damage multiplier in the missile phase; units with harquebus add +10% to their damage multiplier. Units with pistols add +10% as well, but only in the melee phase (pistols are two inaccurate to use at range on the battlefield). The damage multiplier may never be greater than 100%. Any unit that suffers a casualty from a unit armed with firearms checks Morale with a +1 penalty to the roll unless the unit is also armed with firearms.


Cannon (1000gp): Requires four people to operate including one engineer or dwarf (4th+ level). May only be used against units and large monsters (attacks as a 4th level fighter). Cannon ammunition and powder costs 50gp per shot and does 12D12 damage. A unit attacked by cannon suffers a +1 penalty to Morale checks.

Bombard (2000gp, dwarf only): requires five people to operate including one dwarf engineer (4th+ level). Used as a light catapult but causes a breach in one clash. Cost per shot/clash is 250gp. If used against a unit, does 5D20 damage. Solid structures (siege towers and the like) are destroyed if hit (roll as a 4th level fighter).


  1. I'm really enjoying this series. I still fondly recall the treatment of firearms in WFRP and I love the idea of half-crazed, gun-toting dwarves. The computer game Myth and Myth II also comes to mind, with grenade lobbing and mortar firing dwarves being almost as much of a danger to their own side as the enemy.

  2. Again, outstanding! You've done a superb job researching and presenting these. I'm happy to add these to my house-rule lineup.

  3. Not bad rules with the caveat that "misfire" rules don't really belong in D&D. We don;t have rules for snapped bowstrings or broken weapons in B/X or LL, no sense importing them.

    I might just say "matchlocks don't work when wet' DM discretion instead

    Otherwise cool series.

    Let me add also, I like gunpowdwer fantasy. Its certainly not D&D but D&D worlds +Flintlocks have their charms

  4. I'm liking these gunpowerd in D&D posts, too. Great stuff.

    Ed Green

  5. cannon would need to be hauled to the siege

    Until some bright spark of an orc warlord decides to buy one for his pet giant...

  6. I like this post and the one before it on guns. As I mentioned before, I add them to games I run. I also see a kind of arms race between the people making guns and canons and wizards, similar (though not as hard core) as the tension between magic users and Technocrats in the old White Wolf "Mage" game. So guns are not as expensive as you have listed them above, and they are better protected from magic.

  7. Oddly, I can entirely see ranks of Orkish matchlock musketeers and pike facing off against knights and bowmen. I would think the orcs would adapted the gun because it is a game changer and the status quo is not kind to the goblin races.

  8. From the Fall of Constantinople, page, Wikipedia, circa 1453:

    "Prior to the siege of Constantinople it was known that the Ottomans had the ability to cast medium-sized cannons, but the range of some pieces they were able to field far surpassed the defenders' expectations. Instrumental to this Ottoman advancement in arms production was a somewhat mysterious figure by the name of Orban (Urban), a Hungarian (though some suggest he was German.[34]) One cannon designed by Orban was 27 feet long, and able to hurl a 1,300 lb projectile over a mile.

    The master founder initially tried to sell his services to the Byzantines, who were unable to secure the funds needed to hire him. Orban then left Constantinople and approached Mehmed II, claiming that his weapon could blast 'the walls of Babylon itself'. Given abundant funds and materials, the Hungarian engineer built the gun within three months at Adrianople, from which it was dragged by sixty oxen to Constantinople. In the meantime, Orban also produced other cannons instrumental for the Turkish siege forces.

    Orban's cannon had several drawbacks however: it took three hours to reload; cannon balls were in very short supply; and the cannon is said to have collapsed under its own recoil after six weeks (this fact however is disputed,[2] being only reported in the letter of Archbishop Leonardo di Chio[29] and the later and often unreliable Russian chronicle of Nestor Iskander).[36] Having previously established a large foundry about 150 miles away, Mehmed now had to undergo the painstaking process of transporting his massive artillery pieces. Orban's giant cannon was said to have been accompanied by a crew of 60 oxen and over 400 men.

    Mehmed's massive cannon fired on the walls for weeks, but due to its imprecision and extremely slow rate of reloading the Byzantines were able to repair most of the damage after each shot, limiting the cannon's effect."

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