Rifles and Rounds

More or less ubiquitous in combat and historical reenactment, the rifle is a proud member of the pantheon of great inventions.  The child of the blackpowder musket, which was the child of the Arquebus, which was the child of exploding gunpowder in large heavy pots with projectiles wedged in them, the rifle changed military combat worldwide.

Named for the swirling grooves on the inside of the barrel, rifles (technically called “rifled guns” in a flash of name dropping genius) revolutionized the world of armed conflict by allowing footsoldiers effective range that rivaled early artillery.  Where cannons could once fire repeatedly upon soldiers with grape shot and no fear of returned fire, artillery crews found themselves within the max range of the new guns.  This forced cannon crews to rely more heavily on longer range and less effective rounds, improving the effectiveness of infantry to a great degree.

Scientifically, the rifle was a monumental creation because it finally broke free from the confines of musket range, but only when it worked in tandem with another great invention (one that gets way less of the fame).  Muskets would blast a small spherical ball of lead towards their target, which worked great until around 300 yards.  After 300 yards, the aim was nonexistent and the likelihood of hitting a target was low.  Gunsmiths knew that having rifling in the barrel would theoretically improve the range and accuracy of the gun, but the rifling on the tube would allow too much of the explosion to eek around the round and would dramatically reduce the range and stopping power of the gun.  Gunsmiths assumed that you would need a perfectly sized bullet, form fit to the individual quirks and shapes of each rifle, and essentially said that a rifled gun would never fire as well as a musket would because bullets made for a gun with rifling could never be perfect for each rifle and produced in mass quantities.

It wasn’t until Claude Minie invented his own bullet that rifles began to be used.  His invention was a small conical round (the kind that were used in the American Civil War) with a ring of soft lead around the base (best descriptions can be found on Wikipedia’s minie ball link).  The ring of soft lead would be wedged into the barrel and when the gunpowder would go off, the ring would get blasted outward and would form a seal around the rifling, bypassing the issue that people had with rifling.  With bullets that would then form fit themselves to the barrel of any rifle, the gun began to become more popular and the days of the musket and smoothbore barrels began to rapidly close.

Minie’s bullets only lasted for a short time though.  Within a century of his creation, breechloading rifles and the creation of what would be known as cartridge rounds quickly outstripped his bullet in the speed they could be loaded and fired.  Minie was the one who put the rifle on the radar, but it was the creation of repeaters and Colt and Springfield who pressed the guns to the fame they hold today.

Hessian Riflemen (http://flintlockandtomahawk.blogspot.com/2011_09_01_archive.html)



The Father of All Pocket Change

In the last few decades, coinage has begun to die out.  People prefer credit, plastic, paper and electronics to the hassle of carrying around little stubs of metal with negligible value.  The coin however, has been a staple in commerce and economics for over 2,500 years.  For most of the last two millennia, the coin has been the embodiment of money and the easiest way to make barter and commercial trade possible.  Without a placeholder for value, complex bartering and professionalism in general becomes exceptionally difficult.

The original coins trace their way back to modern day Turkey (Technically, to China where they used a thing called spade money.  Spade money was essentially small cast iron trinkets shaped like farming implements that held value in barter.  Spade money isn’t really coinage because it lacks marking that designates the governance/officiates the mint) where a coin known as the “Lydian Lion” was produced in 600 BCE.  The coin from Lydia was made from a naturally occurring alloy called electrum, found in the Pactolus river near the city.  The river was loaded with electrum (roughly 55% gold, 40% silver, 5% copper) though the coins from Lydia show evidence of human tampering to obtain a consistent mixture through gold and sliver refining.

The Lydian coin bears the face of a lion with a unfortunate forehead wart on one side, and the imprint from the die on the other.  It would be produced by plopping a glob of electrum in a mold on an anvil and slamming it with a hammer to pound it into the proper shape.  While it seems like a basic process, the Lydians were the first to truly create consistent coinage that bore markings designating the value and governmental seal of approval.  Called the “Adam of coins”, the Lydian lion coin was the precursor to Roman coins, Persian coins, Indian coins and eventually even later Chinese coins.  The idea of using a coin for a single value designated by the ruling party began to take off (a lion coin was worth about 1/3 of a month’s pay for a soldier) and cities and countries began to adopt coinage from them.

The interesting thing about the electrum in the lion coins is that it finds its way into several mythologies of the Greeks.  The river that Lydia was so close to was apparently the one that Midas bathed in to lose his golden touch, and the story is that the river was made golden because of it.  Lydians would prospect for the gold using sheepskins to sift through the gravels and dirts, leaving a sheepskin that would be laden with gold; likely the origin point for the legend of Jason, the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

A Lydian Lion Coin, you can technically buy them for $2,000 at some places, but the authenticity is dubious.


The Scourge of God meets the Vicar of God

Attila the Hun was known as the Scourge of God.  His armies ravaged the world Kazakhstan to Germany, sacking cities, crushing townsfolks and ruining the Eastern Roman Empire.  His march on the Western Roman Empire stopped just short of Rome however; when a small envoy of men met with the great warleader.  Among the group suing for peace, Pope Leo I, known as Leo the Great, was present and is actually given the credit for single-handedly turning back the Hunnic armies.

As Attila destroyed his way to Rome, he demanded the Western Roman Emperor’s daughter as dowry placing the emperor in the troubling position of either giving his empire to the Huns through marriage, or giving it to them through conquest.  Then in 452, three men met with Attila; and he retreated.  No historian actually knows what went on between the Pope and Attila, but we know that it was the last official meeting before he dipped out of the Western Empire.  Historians speculate that the Pope offered large sums of money to the Hun, that Attila feared the curse of Alaric (Alaric the Visigoth destroyed Rome some decades before Attila and died prematurely soon thereafter.  It was the Gothic version of the Curse of King Tut’s tomb, where the men who destroyed Rome would be doomed), some historians even speculate that the Pope appealed to Attila’s religious side.

File:Leoattila-Raphael.jpgRaphael’s painting of the meeting of Leo and Attila, 1514 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leoattila-Raphael.jpg)

Current speculation is that Attila knew that Rome was on its last legs economically, and invading a city that was poor and decrepit would not provide enough food and plunder to make it worth destroying.  The thought is that Attila realized that the continuing of his invasion would not have been profitable or useful, so he turned his eyes towards internal disputes and consolidation of his new empire.  Sadly, he died from either choking on a nosebleed or an internal hemorrhage in his throat from drinking too much.  The Roman Jordanes wrote,  “The greatest of all warriors should be mourned with no feminine lamentations and with no tears, but with the blood of men.”; as the warrior king of a warrior society died a death that could not be avenged.



The City Nestled Among Prickly Cacti

The Western World of the 1500s always liked to pat itself on the back about its achievements.  Authors and theologians and proto-anthropologists spent entire lifetimes explaining why European innovation was the best kind and why Europe was going to win the future.  When Cortes landed in Mexico to invade and conquest the “savages” of the Central Americas, he and his men were dumbfounded by the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan.

Founded in 1325 (legend says because Huitzilopochtli appeared to the Aztec leaders and pointed out to them an itty bitty island in the middle of lake Texcoco, where there was a prickly pear cactus with an eagle sitting on top of it eating a snake) the city was dead center in some of the most difficult property to homestead because it was literally inside a lake.  The Aztec rulers evidently relished the challenge and within 200 years, when Cortes arrived in 1521, the city was massive, successful and powerful.

As the seat of Aztec power, Tenochtitlan (roughly translates to “the place where the Prickly Cactus grow”) was an economic and social heavyweight in the world.  It was slightly under 5 square miles, making it as large if not larger than Seville or Cordoba of the 1500s.  Sporting a population of some 400,000 people, the city had 5 times the population of London and yet remained clean and organized; something most European cities of the era had extreme trouble with.  The city was broken into 4 campan (kind of like Quarters) which would be broken into 20 districts.  Each district would have a personal marketplace, a wealth of streets (the 3 main streets in the city were large enough for 10 horses to cross side by side; whereas the smaller alleyways were half street, half channel to allow canoe traffic through) and the occasional temple or public building.  Trade was done in the neighboring city of Tlatelco, where 50,000 people would meet each day to trade.  Cortes postulated that it would have twice as many people cross through it daily than did Seville, one of Spain’s more important trading locations.

Montezuma’s palace contained 2 private zoos, one for his birds of prey and one for his menagerie.  He also had a botanical garden and an aquarium with 10 ponds for fresh water and 10 for salt water.  Reportedly, the palace had some 300 rooms and was one of the most visibly expensive places on earth.  Water itself was piped from springs using aqueducts, allowing cleaning and cooking to be done with fresh water (the original lake’s water was brackish and nasty, but the Levee of Nezahualcoyotl formed a barrier between the actual lake and Tenochtitlan’s spring fed natural water lake).  Aztecs were said to take two baths a day, while Montezuma was known to take four, at a time when some cities in Europe made decrees forcing their citizens to bathe at least once a week.

Cortes and his men arrived in 1521 (shortly before they sacked the city and leveled it, regardless of how much it impressed them) and couldn’t believe their eyes.  They saw a city unlike any in Europe, in a continent far from home they believed to be backward.  Descriptions of Tenochtitlan ranged from describing its enchantment to calling it a dream (Bernal Diaz del Castillo who described it as a dream said that simply calling it a dream was incorrect because it was something that he could never describe; he had never even dreamed about something like the city before).  The Spanish force along with the Aztec’s numerous indigenous enemies destroyed the city over a 75 day siege.  A 200 year creation was broken in less than three months.

A rough map of the city of Tenochtitlan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tenochtitlan.jpg)