Philosopher’s Bullet.

Amusing myself with writing vignettes. Here’s one. Constructive criticism is welcome. 

Philosopher’s Bullet.

“We can try to fight our way out with just swords in hand and die. Sixty eight men, even in better armor than the savages, won’t get through the thousand waiting for us at the foot of this hill. They only reason they haven’t come up to get us is they don’t know we can’t shoot. Or we can sit here and try to eat that damn gold idol!”

The situation was dire. Yesterday, the five mules that remained of our once-ample supply train fell to the arrows and javelins of the pursuing locals. With them, perished all of our meat and wine, and most of our lead. The gunners burned through the handful of shots they still had in bandoleers to break us out of the ambush. We did get to the hilltop temple, finding the biggest gold idol we’ve ever seen right when we could not shake off its riled-up worshipers.

“Captain, we have just six halberds in the ranks. Everyone else carries arquebuses. What are we supposed to load in them, pebbles?” My second in command was panicking himself into a demotion, but he could hardly be expected to care about rank when our very survival looked so unlikely. “There’s no pebbles here, and they won’t fly straight anyway.”

We had tried pebbles before: at thirty paces, the wood and fabric armor of our foes turned them, whereas a proper bullet went through both the shield and the savage at seventy. In any case, we had no pebbles at the top of this God-forsaken volcanic rock. Without lead, our men had but their dirks to wield against spears and arrows of the painted red men awaiting us on the way out of this trap.

The irony of it all! The gold idol must be eighty pounds of almost pure metal that we can’t bring home. We can’t stay here long either: we have no food, and what water and wine we still have shall run out by morning. Our one full keg of powder holds a dozen charges for every man, and we even have fabric for wads…just no lead. Europe is full of alchemists seeking to turn lead into gold, and here we are, in need of the reverse miracle.

Night is coming, and the mountain cold with it. We are still dressed for the jungle below. I tell the sergeant to make camp around the temple, and to build two fires. One by the wall, leeward, the other on the narrow path going to the top. If out pursuers attack in the night, we would at least see them. Our own fire should keep us warm and give flame for slowmatch or fuse. I fuse the powder keg in case we are overrun.

There’s little vegetation here, so we make fire with the lacquered wood from around the idol. As the splinters catch and flare, we all must draw back from the flames that are hotter than hellfire. Whatever they used on the wood burns hotter than charcoal without even a bellows.

“Cut it!” I shout. “Cut the idol!”

The troops look at me with incomprehension. A captain will get replaced if he cracks under pressure.

“Bring the bullet molds,” I tell them “Put the gold in them.”

The men obey, some nodding their heads at my madness. Wine mixed in with water in a morion quenches the reddish ball. After it cools, I heft it in open hand: it feels much heavier than lead and somehow more significant. I wad the ball with a piece of cloth cut from my own shirt and roll it into an arquebus barrel, over a charge cut by a third. Tamp it in place with the rod, replace the rod. Prime the pan, close it, then light slowmatch.

“Pace something out to thirty steps” I say, and one of the men settles a badly dented breastplate against a rock.

I sit and take careful aim, wishing for a fork rest. In the shifting light of the campfires, the target seems too far away for a true shot. As glowing red dot dips towards the priming powder, I close my eyes and listen to the hiss of ignition. The boom from the muzzle sounds deeper, the push against the spaulder harder than I expected. The smoke drifts off with the breeze, revealing the armor unbreached but caved in as if with an iron fist. Gold wash covers the entire front of the plate.

“Start melting,” I say “Don’t quit while you have the food for the fire.”

By morning, every arquebusier has an even dozen shots. The idol is gone, with mere specs of metal marking the spot. None of the lacquered wood remains in the temple. The ground around the fires is thick with shiny black soot. We light matches, form up, and march slowly and orderly down the narrow path.

Our foes do not wait for us, but climb the narrow path with every kind of sharp and pointy thing in hand. Fortunately, their bows are feeble and carry but thirty paces. We pause at fifty and let loose the first volley. The lieutenant and I stand higher on the path and see yellow streaks appear from the smoke to smite the first rank…and the second. Some in the third fall too. Our bullets arrive streaking gold and leave splashing red. The second volley follows as the smoke lifts. After the third, the path is clear of the living. The dead don’t bother us.

By noon, we reach the grassy plain and march for the cover where our ship awaits. The savages pursue, we reform into ranks when they get too close. They charge, we volley, they recoil, we march again. By the time we reach the water’s edge, all ammunition is gone but what’s in the bores. Our ship rides close, but the enemy swarm is closer. The shipboard cannon can’t reach them without hitting us too. We see the solid shield wall and let loose with everything we’ve got. The last of the golden streaks arced away. Firelocks on the ground, swords out, polearms to the fore!

We broke them. Sixty one of us, most wounded, boarded longboats. Back on deck, the crew wanted to know if we found gold…

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5 Responses to Philosopher’s Bullet.

  1. Edom O'Gordon says:


  2. Merle says:

    expensive bullets, eh what???

  3. larryarnold says:

    So, one up on the Lone Ranger?

    expensive bullets
    Not compared to the alternative.

  4. Lyle says:

    It isn’t worth nitpicking, being that the basic premise is flawed.

    It’s a nice thought, BUT;
    Given the other technology described, at best their bullet molds would be made of grey iron, which melts at around 2,060 to 2,200 F. Gold melts at 1,948 F, and to pour it successfully it would need to be significantly hotter yet.

    Even assuming they had iron molds and not brass or bronze molds (which would be severely damaged in a single pour), the iron molds would be running very close to their melting point.

    By contrast, lead melts at a little over 600 F, and we usually run the pot at a bit over 700, or up to 750 for starters, to get good “fill-out” of the mold.

    They may have had some nice wood fuel, but without something for a crucible, or without assembling something akin to a blast furnace, they’re not going to be melting gold at all, much less pouring it.

    So no; iron bullet molds, for this to work, would need to be running at a bright, red-hot temperature, and filled with gold which is running at the melting point of the iron. Getting a wood or even charcoal or coke fire hot enough to melt gold requires forced air of some kind, and something to contain the molten metal. Then you need a way to pour it into the molds.

    Someone who’s done this (say, melting irong to casting temperature using a charcoal fire for example) please correct me if I’m wrong, but I bet you couldn’t get even an experienced foundry worker to duplicate the scenario as described in your story even if he had a week, and some fairly specialized materials for the period depicted, to do it.

    In actual practice it would be easy to make gold bullets, but you’d need a jewler’s setup for investment casting. The bullets would probably work very well too.

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