Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Quest: Pitch Perfect

The hierarchy of targets had been a subject of great contention in the days leading up to the invasion. The discussion went in circles until each player was able to articulate what he saw as his primary mission.

Urdie’s inclination was to expend the minimum ordinance and expose his men to as little hazard as possible. He contended that his primary mission was to stop the initial thrust of the invasion.

Spackle argued otherwise.

Perhaps it was an artifact of Quinn Spackle's rapid rise in rank, or perhaps it was because Capiche did not have an established military tradition, but Spackle seemed to think it was important for his Lieutenants to agree with his reasons for doing things. Spackle could have just ordered Urdie to do it his way but there were reasons he chose not to.

In the course of arguing, sometimes the Lewies brought up points he had not considered. Then, they wrangled about how to get most of what Spackle wanted while incorporating the new information.

Other times, the point the Lewie raised was a minor point in the overall scheme of things. While it was important to the Lewie, it was strictly a local issue and optimizing it for one zone would make it sub-optimal for the everybody else.

Urdie argued that blowing through a significant percentage of his ordinance in a single engagement, in a single hour, was foolish.

Spackle thought for a second about how to best argue his vision. “Suppose you are in a bar fight and the guy you are fighting is bigger than you. Suppose he gives you a clear shot at his chin. What do you do? Do you step back and say, ‘Well, I might hurt my hand”?

“Hell no. You punch him in the throat. You punch him in the chin. You hit him until he falls down or he gets his guard up.” Spackle argued.

“Because the only reason he offered his chin was because he was arrogant, or sloppy or you were already beating him silly” Spackle said. “If you don’t beat him when he gives you an opening like that, what is to prevent him from going to his car and coming back with a bat or a gun?”

“If we don’t knock-the-snot out of them when they come waltzing down I-96 not expecting a fight, then they will pull those forces back and hit us where we aren’t as prepared.”

Urdie would have rolled over if Spackle had simply ordered him to burn through most of his artillery shells but Urdie would not have taken a personal interest in the positioning of every tube, the location of the ammo dumps and the targeting.

What tipped the argument in Spackle’s favor is that the supply chain was delivering pallet loads of artillery shells every day. They had worked through some perplexing technical problems while the chemical plants were churning out ammonium-nitrate. Once those problems had been resolved the floodgates opened and the ammo came rolling in.

For one thing, the only viable material for making the shell casings was cast iron. Capiche and Delta Township no longer had the infrastructure to forge steel on the scale required by the coming conflict.

Cast iron is a horrible material for shell casings. For one thing, it is extraordinarily brittle. The sharp shock of high-explosives detonating turn it to sand-sized particles.

The answer had been to use a kind of cast iron called nodular iron. Ordinary “gray cast iron” was filled with flakes of graphite much like a bowl filled with corn flakes. When it was fractured, it cleaved along the flakes and exposed the graphite. That is why the iron looks gray when broken, because of all the graphite that was exposed.

Nodular iron was virtually identical to gray iron except a very tiny addition of magnesium resulted in an increase in surface tension between the molten iron and the carbon that was dropping out of solution. Instead of forming flakes, it formed tiny spheres that did not interrupt the iron matrix nearly as much as the flakes.

Janelle didn’t get into the metallurgy. She handed the problem off to a tiny foundry in Springport, Michigan just south of Eaton Rapids. They knew about nodular iron. They also knew what automotive components were cast from nodular iron.

Benicio had labor. He had hundreds-of-thousands of disabled automobiles. Soon, crankshafts and front suspension struts and the like were being trucked to Springport for melting and casting as shell casings.

Janelle had other issues she was working on.

Even with the increased ductility of the nodular iron, completely filling the shell casing with the compressed ammonium-nitrate and powdered zinc-aluminum had two unfortunate outcomes. One outcome was that the explosion shattered the nodular iron into fragments too small to travel far or to penetrate targets. The other unhappy outcome was that the small particles rapidly spread apart in space and the high pressure gasses leaked around them without transferring as much energy to them.

Not completely filling the shell resulted in incomplete detonation or duds. The AN-ZA explosive demanded compression to detonate in a reliable way.

The solution came from the most unlikely of places.

Janelle found an old muzzle-loader enthusiast. She sought him out because the old “pineapple” grenades from WWII used cast iron and black powder. She hoped against hope that he might have some insight that she would find useful.

He invited Janelle to sit with him on his front porch. It was on the south side of his house and the sun felt nice. Janelle took him up on the offer. The bent-wood rocker fit her body well.

“Do you know why we lube cast bullets and cloth patches?” the old thunder-stick enthusiast asked Janelle.

“So they don’t stick in the bore?” Janelle guessed.

“Nope. So the gas-cutting doesn’t shred the patch or weld the lead to the bore” the old geezer informed her. “The lube is a floating seal.”

"What did you use for lube?" Janelle asked.

"Depended on the weather" the old geezer told her. "Lot of folks used straight lard or Crisco. Some mixed lard and wax. Others used wax."

Walking back to the shop, Janelle wondered how she could use the information. Her first efforts involved a slug of AN-ZA centered in a tube of polyethylene. After all, polyethylene is basically a wax with a high melting point.

It worked well. It worked even better when the 3/8” thick casing was scored into a grid of 1/4” squares. Unfortunately, polyethylene was hard to come by and she didn’t have the equipment to process it on an industrial scale.

That problem was solved after she shared it with her husband, Chernovsky. He had worked on a roofing crew after graduating from college. The crew worked on flat roofs.

Chernovsky wondered if the pitch they mopped down and then covered with stone would be an acceptable substitute for polyethylene. Chernovsky's thinking was pitch melted like wax and burned like wax.

It proved a very good substitute for polyethylene. And it was available in massive quantity from the builders supply warehouses and the local paving companies. Even though it was extremely flammable, nobody ever tried to burn least nobody ever tried a second time. It stank like a Stygian cesspit and when it leaked out of a stove it invariably started a fire on the floor.



  1. Holy shite ! It would be bad enough to be in the vicinity of any exploding mortar or artillery shell. But I cannot even imagine how much worse it would be to be near one that was partially filled with roofing tar.

  2. Thanks for the comment ERJ. I added you to the bloglist.

  3. Buy in is essential for the level of commitment required to attain victory. Thank you for all the tidbits of technical information. Some of that's gonna be real handy information in thefuture.

  4. I wonder if you could mix an oxidizer in the pitch or tar so that it will still burn without free oxygen. Say in a wound for example...

  5. Agree with Fred- Buy in is essential to getting the LTs on board along with the line fighters. You're doing a good job of showing that with these stories.

  6. Awesome story. I want this in a book.

  7. So their rounds have a black napalm chaser? That's got to hurt even if you don't get hit by shrapnel.


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