A Second Volley | Taking another shot at firearms, AD&D style by Ed Greenwood

Since the appearance of "Firearms" in DRAGON issue #60, several readers have requested a similar treatment of the small arms which developed from the handgun. Accordingly, here is a brief look at the arquebus and its successors. The historical development and battlefield use of such weapons are familiar to many gamers and readily available in library books to most others, so military history pertaining strictly to our "real world" has been omitted.

It is again recommended here that in an AD&D campaign, gunpowder should be considered undiscovered or inert, so that firearms cannot be used in the "standard" fantasy setting. Experimental and enjoyable play involving firearms is best safely confined to parallel "worlds" (alternate Prime Material Planes which can be reached only by the use of magical items, spells, or gates).

A campaign can be quickly unbalanced by firearms that are too accurate, or easy to use, or numerous. I once visited a campaign in which a cache of weaponry culled from the GAMMA WORLD game was walled up in the first level of a dungeon. Excavations into a suspiciously circumvented area on our dungeon maps won us an arsenal of powerful explosives and lasers - and deadly boredom. Frying our first dragon was quite exciting, and the second was a workmanlike but still enjoyable job. But the third was routine, and the rest (it was a large dungeon) were boring. Once we'd run out of dragons, we sallied forth from the looted dungeon and barbecued a nearby wandering army of orcs. Play soon ended in that campaign; the party members became absolute rulers of an almost featureless landscape, having destroyed everything they didn't fancy the looks of.

On the other hand, the occasional "hurler of thunderbolts," held by an individual NPC and jealously guarded for use only in dire emergencies, is an acceptable and useful "spice" for an AD&D campaign in need of same. Longtime readers of DRAGON Magazine will recall (from "Faceless Men And Clockwork Monsters," issue#17) that an adventurer recognized a firearm because he had once seen a mage in Greyhawk with "such a wand." Such rarity and misunderstanding (i.e., the assignment of magical status) of firearms appears the best way to handle such weapons in an AD&D game.

Before embarking on a brief tour of the small arms developed from the handgun, it is well to bear in mind that during these times no large munitions factories or production standards existed (and unless all firearms in the AD&D setting come from one source, this is likely to hold true in play as well). As a result, almost every weapon is unique, having individual characteristics due to varying barrel dimensions and materials, amount and mixture of gunpowder used, and differences in the shot employed. Small arms were in use for a very long time before King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden introduced a fixed cartridge of bullet and powder. Until then, everyone measured their own powder charges on the battlefield. The timid did little damage to the enemy; the reckless blew themselves up. The statistics shown on the tables given in this article should therefore be treated as a "typical" base, to be modified freely to fit the situation at hand.

It is also necessary to keep in mind the accoutrements of a gunner: oil, to keep the weapon in working order and free of rust; a watertight carrying container for gunpowder (such as the powder horn of the American frontier); rags, to clean and wad with; shot, usually large metal balls for piercing armor and stopping men, and handfuls of tiny metal pellets for shooting fowl and vermin; and a rod or rods (often carried slid down one side of a boot) for cleaning out the barrel and ramming the shot home. Details of these vary from weapon to weapon; I DM should keep track of such heavy and awkward gear, and try to keep the use of guns a fussy and not too rapid business ? in a street fight one should grab for a blade, rather than whipping out a pistol or musket and clearing the field ? because one would risk a fatal misfire, and in any case would have to coolly stand for one round loading the firearm between each and every shot. A more complete list of a gunner's equipment is provided later on for those who wish to consider encumbrance in detail.

The primitive handgun was a small cannon on a stock. It was fired by means of a red-hot wire put through a touchhole. Later, a slow-burning match (usually a cord that had been soaked in nitre and diluted alcohol and then dried) replaced the wire. The flame of the "slow match" was more likely to ignite the gunpowder, and the implement was both easier and safer to use: A wire had to be heated in a non-portable fire laid on the ground, which could be perilous with gunpowder nearby, whereas a slow match could be lit with flint and steel at a safe distance, and carried to a more mobile gunner.

Later, the matchlock replaced the hand-held match; at the pull of the trigger, the lit match was dipped in a pan of gunpowder by the S-shaped clamp (or "serpentine") which held it. Firing became more rapid and more accurate - a gunner could now look at his target when preparing to fire, rather than concentrating on the touchhole.

The matchlock was faster than the handgun, but not fast by any other standards. Firing it required 96 separate actions ? such as measuring the powder and pouring it down the muzzle; dropping in the lead ball and then a wad of rag; uncovering the priming pan, filling it with powder, and closing the pan again; adjusting the position of the match in the serpentine, and lighting the match; and then opening the pan again, aiming, and pulling the trigger. As author Richard Armour puts it, "the gunner hoped his target would hold still while all this was going on." (This last statement is from Armour's hilarious book, It All Started With Stones and Clubs (Being a Short History of War and Weaponry from Earliest Times to the Present, Noting the Gratifying Progress Made by Man Since His First Crude, Small-scale Efforts to Do Away with Those Who Disagreed With Him); published by McGraw-Hill, New York, 1967.)

The matchlock had other disadvantages, too: a premature ignition of the potentially dangerous open pan of powder, too much powder, or simply an uneven distribution of powder in the pan (ever try carefully leveling a spoonful of powder in the midst of a battle?) could cause an explosion at the expense of the gunner and not the target ? the source of the expression "flash in the pan."

The barrel of a matchlock was fouled by gunpowder with each shot, and in a long engagement its accuracy declined as the recoil caused by the fouling grew wilder, leaving a gunner's shoulder numb and bruised. A curved stock was soon devised to reduce the recoil impact. There was also the problem of shooting in the rain; water could easily put the match out. Surprise was impossible because of the smell, glow, and noise of the matches; and it was not unheard of for one gunner to set off his own or a comrade's ammunition. Although names have been applied rather loosely over the years to all sorts of weapons, I have confined "arquebus" to the earlier versions of the handgun, and "caliver" to the lightened matchlock musket.

The musket was an up gunned arquebus, and consequently was so heavy that it had to be supported on a crutch or a rest. It was almost a hundred years before the weapon was lightened enough to dispense with the supports. Although he musket fired a heavier shot, it also jumped in the rest when fired, resulting in lower accuracy. But its bullets could pierce the best armor that could be worn by a foot soldier. (As this became known, soldiers in full armor all but disappeared from battlefields, and subsequent small arms could be made smaller; the musket no longer needed its rest.) Musketeers still had to be protected by non-shooters while loading their pieces, but almost overnight firearms became the dominant force in warfare. Infantry who did not employ muskets were armed with pikes, so that a musketeer could undertake the slow, clumsy process of reloading safely within the long reach of defending pikemen. When pikeheads were attached to  muskets (upon the invention of the bayonet), the pike disappeared.

Two "firelock" mechanisms, the wheellock and the flintlock, were developed to solve the problems of the slow match. Both could be loaded and primed at leisure, to be fired at a moment's notice. But both were more expensive than the matchlock, more likely to go awry and misfire or need repairs, and could be fired fewer times before needing cleaning. As a result, they took awhile to catch on.

The wheellock was never widely used by infantry. Rather than a match, it employed a saw-edged wheel wound up with a spring and a piece of iron pyrite (or flint) held against it in a doghead vise. When the trigger was pressed, the wheel (like a cigarette lighter) would spin, shooting a shower of sparks into the priming powder in its enclosed pan. If properly loaded with dry powder, adjusted and wound, a wheellock firearm would almost certainly fire when the trigger was pulled, even in a rainstorm. Cavalry could carry loaded pistols in their holsters for hours or even days. Although the wheellock was complicated and slow to load, this "at the ready" feature revolutionized cavalry tactics. Rather than using the shock of their charges to strike and overrun infantry (the reason for pikes), cavalry now performed such dangerous maneuvers as the "caracole," lines of armored cavalrymen carrying three pistols each formed up in lines. Each line in succession rode up to the enemy, fired, and swerved off to reload and form up again in the rear. Not only was this maneuver overly complicated, but a cavalryman riding close enough to shoot enemies could himself be shot at, both by firearms and longbows. Nevertheless, the addition of wheellock pistols restored to cavalry the effectiveness it had enjoyed before pikes and muskets faced its every charge.

The flintlock was to become the standard infantry weapon for more than two hundred years (until the advent of the percussion cap, which resulted in the cartridge or "bullet" familiar to us now, and a firing mechanism consisting of a pin driven forcefully into the rear of the cartridge by a pull of the trigger). The flintlock resembles a tinderbox ? a flint strikes steel, and the sparks created fall into the priming powder. The flint is held in a "cock" or vise which (unlike the wheellock, wherein the vise is stationary) flies forward like the hammer of the familiar Colt revolver to strike a steel arm (the "frizzen") when the trigger is pulled. Although not as surefire as either the matchlock or the wheellock, the flintlock is cheaper and simpler, more durable, and easier to repair in the field. If the flint does not need adjusting, a flintlock can be loaded slightly faster than a matchlock ? and it can be loaded in advance and carried ready to fire one shot at a moment's notice. The persistent failing of the flintlock revealed over centuries of use is that it too often misfires (does not go off). At least, this failing is preferable to one of the main drawbacks of earlier firearms, which was that they literally blew up in the gunner's face.

Firearms were of course continuously modified and improved upon, but this article will not follow on to rifled barrels and the other innovations of the Napoleonic era and later weaponry. Instead, mention must be made of another development of the same idea, which is basically to increase the chance of striking a target by firing a spray of shot rather than a single bullet or ball. A blunderbuss has a short, trumpet-flaring barrel which is loaded with powder, wad, and a handful of iron balls or whatever was available. This was the chief advantage of the blunderbuss: one traded muzzle velocity (and thus penetrating power, range, and accuracy) for the ability of the weapon to take stones and other projectiles that need not be carefully shaped to a specific bore (barrel diameter). Farmer Giles in J. R. R. Tolkien's delightful fantasy Farmer Giles of Ham used anything he could spare to stuff in as ammunition: old nails, bits of wire, pieces of broken pot, bones and stones "and other rubbish." Giles fought off a giant with his blunderbuss, even if firing it did leave him flat on his back.

A blunderbuss barrel can be made of brass, or a length of stove pipe; it is easy to build and to repair. It can fire anything small enough to easily f it in the barrel: a pound of nails, say, or odds and ends of lead castings or rusting ironmongery (this last usually resulted in infected wounds). A covered blunderbuss, known as a "spring gun," could be set up to discourage poachers and other intruders; it would be mounted on a swivel post a foot or less off the ground and attached to three or four long trip-wires leading off in all directions. When someone disturbed one of the wires, the strain would act on a rod beneath the gun attached to the hammer or cock of the flintlock, and the gun would instantly swing around and fire along the tripped wire.

Any gunner in an AD&D setting must carry the supplies of ammunition and tools necessary to keep his or her temperamental weapon in working order. In practical terms, this generally consisted of keeping one's gunpowder dry and cleaning the weapon after every use. Taking a primitive firearm into battle is a time-consuming job. It is also a skill to use it effectively; every shot must count when the firing rate is so low, and one cannot snatch up a weapon and pick off a target when it must be carefully loaded with a precise amount of powder and the right size of shot. (The use of too-large shot will destroy the weapon and usually also the gunner, whereas too-small shot rolls along one side of the barrel, acquiring a spin perpendicular to the line of fire, and therefore an unpredictably curved flight path.) It must also be aimed with care: none of the guns described will work if not upright; the "snapshot" of the western gunfighter or modern commando is impossible to execute.

Necessary gear for a gunner consisted of matches or flints, a large flask of (coarse) gunpowder and a small "touchbox" of fine priming powder. Often these last were of wood, and carried slung on a bandolier like the modern movie GI carries grenades: when pulled, the top of the flask remained behind, and the gunner put a thumb over the top of the touchbox (which contained just enough powder for one firing) until he could upend it into the priming pan. The matchcord was carried wrapped around one's hat (inside the hat in wet weather), and flints were usually carried in a belt pouch, wrapped so as to keep them from chipping and striking sparks from one another if the holder had to run or scramble about.

Bullets or shot were carried in belt pouches, and when in action, a couple for immediate use were often held in the gunner's mouth (much as a tailor holds pins). All firearms also required ramrods (most of which were carried in a slot provided in the gunstock), scrapers, and cleaning rags and curved metal extractors (which resemble miniature golf irons) for raking out bullets orshot. Making bullets required lead and a brass mold; often only one mold would produce bullets of the right size for a particular gun. Flint and steel, and dry kindling, were required for lighting slow matches and/or laying the fire necessary to cast bullets. To use the early arquebus practically in battle, a gunner needed a helper to tend his fire, mix the ingredients of gunpowder (at a safe distance from the fire) and carry the weapon's rest (in battle, the gunner himself carried it about by a loop of cord tied around his wrist). Wheellock weapons also required a "spanner" or key which wound up a chain attached to the spring which spun the wheel, usually carried tied to one's belt so that it would not be lost.

A gunner also carried a sword and a dagger (which served also as eating knife, flint scraper, and cleaning tool), and in a pinch could use the pointed end of the crutch-shaped rest for defense. Most early pistols were made with huge balls or knobs at the butt end of the grip, so that when empty they could be used as clubs ? doing 1?3 points of damage, 1?4 if a mounted wielder is combating a target on foot. A musket uses up to two ounces of powder per firing; one pound of lead made eight musket balls if they fitted the barrel tightly, or ten if they .'rolled in." Modern shotgun gauges developed from this sizing of shot by the number of bullets to the pound.


Maximum Rate Maximum Rate
Range Damage Of Fire Of Fire Cost of Average Average


Caliber S M L S-M L (one man) (gnr & ldr) Weapon Weight Length
Arquebus Widely variable 3 7 12 d10 d6 1/3 3/2 500 25 3'4 to 4'6
Caliver (matchlock musket) Variable 4 8 14 2-9 d8 1/2 1 450 11 4'6
Dragon (wheel-lock pistol) 0.5 1 21/2 4 d6 1-3 1 1 600 4.5 1'4
Flintlock pistol 0.6 2 3 5 d6 d4 1 1 550 2 1'2
Early flintlock musket 0.7 10 20 30 3-12 d10 1 1 800 10 5'6
Blunderbuss Widely variable 1 2 3 d10 d10 1/2 1/2 500 8 2'4

Note: The prices shown on the table are those in an area where weapons are plentiful, and ammunition, repairs or manufacture of same is nearby. Prices should be doubled, tripled, or even increased by a factor of ten where weapons are rare and/or are objects of prestige or power.

back to games index 

built by unclefester | sternzwischen | updated 14-05-29 23:15:25