Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cannons and Gorns

This isn't strictly pirate-related but pirates are always interested in cannons. Mythbusters just showed an segment based on the "Gorn" episode of Star Trek. In this the Enterprise pursues a ship manned by the alien race the Gorn into an unknown system. Powerful aliens in that system transport Kirk and the Gorn captain to a planet to finish their fight one on one. They promised that a weapon would be available. Kirk eventually realizes that the weapon is the raw materials for a gun - sulfur, charcoal, saltpeter, hollow piece of a bamboo-like tree, and diamonds. He gathers the ingredients, mixes the gunpowder by hand, stuffs it all down a piece of bamboo with diamonds as projectiles, and sets it off. The result is enough to knock the Gorn off his feet long enough for Kirk to hold a knife to his throat and win the contest.

So, could this work? The Mythbusters found that bamboo makes a poor cannon and would injure Kirk more than the Gorn. Assuming that the alien bamboo is sturdier than the earthly variety, what about the gunpowder? The Mythbusters used the best of 30 trials. When they tried this in a modern cannon it barely pushed the ball out of the barrel so they gave up and switched to commercial powder.

Obviously, they did something wrong. In the GAoP, gunpowder came two ways, serpentine and corned. Serpentine powder was used for cannons. It is exactly what the Mythbusters used - the three ingredients mixed together by hand. Over time these would settle out so gunners had wooden paddles or scoops that they would use to remix the powder before use.

Corned powder was used in small arms and is what is sold today. This is serpentine powder that has been wetted and baked into cakes then ground up into grains (corns). In period, urine was often used for wetting the powder.

So what happened on Mythbusters? Serpentine powder burns slower so they would have needed wadding in their cannon to assure a good seal. They did not use this which is probably their problem. A longer barrel would have helped, also. Period cannons were quite long. That gives the powder longer to burn. It is also possible that they got the proportions of the powder wrong or didn't mix it properly. The best powder is 75% saltpeter, 15% charcoal, and 10% sulfur. That comes out to 15 parts, 3 parts and 2 parts. If they measured like Kirk did, then they just estimated by eye.

How does this relate to the Star Trek episode? Kirk measured his powder by eye while the Gorn was approaching. We didn't see Kirk use wadding in his cannon. Chances are pretty good that, in real life, his results would have been worse than the Mythbusters. On the other hand, if he remembered the right proportions and used a measure and wadding (and his bamboo barrel didn't explode in his face) then it would have worked.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pirates in Paradise 2009

PiP 2009 is over. Here's the wrap-up.

First the weather
Wednesday and Thursday were hot and humid. It rained Thursday night/Friday morning and got even more humid. A front moved in Saturday which cooled things off. We had heavy rain for something under an hour followed by high winds. It was a little too cool. Sunday was really nice.

The battles
We were supposed to have daily battles on Friday, Saturday,and Sunday. The Saturday battle was canceled because of weather so we only had two battles. Last year the attackers were on the field between the fort and the ocean with the Wolf joining in. All of the artillery was on the fort. When the pirates won on Saturday, we rushed around the fort to the open back, climbed the walls, and took the Viceroy. It was a little clumsy.

This year everyone was on the field. The artillery was divided up with the Royalists having two 6-pounders and 1-2 big mortars and the attackers having a half dozen or more small pieces. The cannon crews sucked up a lot of manpower and we ended up with more people manning the cannons than attacking with small arms.

They were short on experienced gunners so I volunteered for a gun crew.

On Friday we had the two cannons and one mortar on the far end of the field. The Viceroy shouted orders from the fort walls. We fired our four shots then abandoned our guns. After that, they reworked the battle plan and things worked much better.

On Sunday we were on the close end of the field with the pirates on the far end. We also had a second mortar. Our soldiers (both of them) were on our side and the Viceroy was behind the cannons. After we fired our four rounds, we took up cannon tools and made a stand against the pirates' advance. As soon as we realized that we had brought hand tools to a gun fight, we retreated. Several royalists threw off their coats. People on both sides stripped the dead of their shoes and hats. The Sunday format worked very well and was a lot of fun.

Other items
Most people skipped the parade in favor of the auction. Last year the auction was slow and boring. It was interrupted part way through by a slide show. This year it was very entertaining. I could say more but I am sworn to secrecy.

The Sunday dinner was a disaster. It was announced that people should come up to the fort around 6 for a Piracy Pub photo and dinner. Around 7:30 it was announced that dinner would be served within fifteen minutes. A few minutes before eight, and well after it was pitch black, the had us line up for the picture. Dinner was brought in while the picture was being taken. Dinner consisted of chips, one of several types of salad (bean salad, pasta salad, etc.) buns, and a small portion of pork.

Authenticity was up this year although there were two or three Jack Sparrow-types. There was some question about what to do with some people who had a large purple booth-like tent with an aluminum frame. They started setting up in the historic camp but were stopped and sent to the modern camp. They were not happy there and sneaked back under cover of darkness. Last year there were several camps decorated with Ren Fair gear but this year there was no sign of that.