Bucolic cabin and cannon

Dear Evil Engineer: Could I arm my henchmen with plant-based guns?

Image credit: Dreamstime

A villain harking back to a bucolic age wants to replace their henchmen’s sub-machine guns with something more organic.

Dear Evil Engineer,

For the past year, we have all indulged in escapism while our worlds are reduced to little more than our own homes. Like many others, I have been looking back on a bucolic time long past when there were no computers, no internet, and no antibiotics. It was easier to get away with being evil in a time when doctors injected mercury to treat syphilis and you could blame any suspicious behaviour on witchcraft.

In an effort to live a simpler and happier life, I have thrown away all my electronics and I am gradually replacing my belongings with rustic alternatives. My henchmen’s polyester uniforms, for instance, have been replaced with 100 per cent organic cotton tunics. Now, the time has come to replace their sub-machine guns with something more organic and I’ve hit a wall. I can’t even search the internet for help any longer, which is why I am seeking your advice.

Would you be able to suggest how to build a fully wooden gun fit for my cottagecore lifestyle?


An archaic villain


Dear villain,

Thank you for getting in touch; it’s been many centuries since I last received communications on vellum. Wooden guns are feasible as weapons, although your commitment to the organic comes with some major drawbacks: the inherent fragility of wooden weapons means that you are restricted to primitive firearms which require frequent maintenance.

Wooden weapons have been used in times of by dire necessity. For instance, during Aurangzeb’s Decca campaign, one besieged town left without artillery built a set of wooden cannons with its abundant wood supplies. One discharge was enough to reduce the weapon to splinters. While the cannons were sufficient for intimidating the besiegers into abandoning their attack, they were otherwise very limited. That being said, if it’s a wooden gun you want, it’s a wooden gun you shall have!

Guns possible to recreate in wood are largely limited to early black-powder weapons: a hand cannon (simply a barrel and handle), a matchlock (which uses a curved lever to hold the slow match to an external flash pan, igniting the primer and subsequently the main charge in the barrel), and a full cannon. “But why am I stuck with these?” I hear you cry.

In these early weapons, the primer was effectively the same chemical as the main charge (responsible for pushing the projectile from the barrel) and it was ignited by a source such as a slow match. In more modern, powerful cartridge firearms, the primer is a specialised substance ignited by either a sudden force or electric charge. I’m ruling out the electric primed type as the basic circuitry necessary would violate your wood-only rule, so the only ‘modern’ wooden weapon would use a springloaded firing pin to deliver a powerful strike and ignite the primer. There’s a good reason why firing pins tend to be made out of steel, titanium, and other rigid metals: most woods would shatter before they come close to igniting the primer. And while it is possible to mould and dry wooden strips to form coil springs, these are far from the small, powerful springs that would be useful in firearms.

So, let’s focus on primitive cannons and matchlocks. The next challenge is keeping the weapon in one piece once the primer is ignited. Chamber pressures for these primitive black-powder firearms are much lower than for modern cartridge firearms, but wooden firearms are very prone to exploding with inconvenient haste. Those that resist exploding still wear down quickly. This fragility is the main reason why they never seriously caught on, even centuries ago. Their longevity depends on factors such as chamber pressure, but can be limited to a single shot. This is quite absurd, when you consider that building the weapon is seriously skilled and time-consuming work.

However, you can improve the endurance of a wooden cannon or hand cannon by wrapping the barrel with rope (rather than iron rings), looking for the grain before carving, and choosing a strong wood. Some of the best materials – other than dense ‘exotic’ hardwoods like snakewood – include cherry, oak, fir, beech, and ash.

Wooden cannons historically used projectiles made from all sorts of materials, including more wood! In fact, the only part of a cannon that cannot be replaced with wood is the black powder itself. Your wooden weapon wouldn’t be at all effective compared with even the most antiquated weaponry, but what is cottagecore about if not sacrificing convenience in the pursuit of an idealised pastoral aesthetic?

You could add to the effect by mounting your gun in a wickerwork stand adorned with dried roses, and tying some gingham ribbons around the end of a stick for the linstock.

An alternative way to approach the problem – which wouldn’t require any craftsmanship – is to print a gun using wood filament. Wood filament isn’t entirely wood (it is usually around three-quarters PLA and one-quarter wood fibre) but the result is surprisingly wood-like, with the look, feel, and smell of carved wood. You’d have many of the same problems as you would with the hand-carved wooden weapon, but this way you can keep printing attractive but cheap new weapons to replace the ones that explode.

While it is possible to create a wooden gun, you may want to consider alternative ranged weapons that would suit your new lifestyle. There are delightful throwing weapons such as javelins and boomerangs, but I should think your henchmen would be best armed with crossbows. These are powerful weapons which can be made almost entirely from wood, and have all the historical charm with none of the complications of a wooden gun. Good luck, and please post me a daguerreotype once you’ve armed your henchmen!


The Evil Engineer

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