I want to create a convincing world where gunpowder is a rare and expensive commodity, allowing swords and plate armour to still be used effectively despite the world having current level of scientific knowledge is similar to that of earth in the early 1800s.

I reckon sulfur is the best candidate in terms of being a rare ingredient of those that are used to make up gunpowder, so I figure the most reasonable way to do this is by altering the sulfur cycle from that of earth (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SulfurCycle_copy.jpg#/media/File:SulfurCycle_copy.jpg) Sulfur cycle

My biology knowledge is poor, but if I understand this correctly, elemental sulfur isn't used for much in nature, so it's not unreasonable to say there are little to no sulfur mines. The formation of mineral sulfur comes from sulfate - and reduced sulfur, which comes from sulfate. Thus, the explanation I currently have in mind is that a new 'competitor' is present in the environments where sulfate would typically be deposited in minerals, in the form of some bacteria/algae/plant life that has a rapid sulfate uptake.

My questions are:

  • Is this feasible? If so, which out of bacteria/algae/plant/other would be a good way to fill this role, and in the case of plants/other, what form might the plant life or other alternative take.

  • How might the world look different from ours as a result of this. In particular, are there sulfur compounds that had many useful applications in the 1800s

  • Are there any alternative ways sulfur might have been produced in large quantities, for example from biological sources, using chemistry known in the 1800s, that might have developed in the absence of sulfate minerals

Obviously little of this will be explicitly stated in the book, but I would still like my solution to be scientifically plausible, and am very interested how a world altered in such a way might look different to our own in ways besides the desired scarcity of gunpowder.

If anyone has any other suggestions about how a gunpowder might be rare in a world whose scientific knowledge is comparable to ours in the 1800s, I'm all ears


Edit: Tried and failed to fix the image link

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    $\begingroup$ I think your basic premise is flawed. Although Sulfur makes up only about 0.25% of the human body, Iron (which your blood requires) makes up even less at only 0.006% ! See here and here And the Sulfur is used in important amino acids. So you can't just bypass Sulfur. Reducing it's availability in minerals by any mechanism will also reduce it's availability for humans. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Mar 10 '18 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ See the link to the sulfur cycle picture (apologies, I can't get the image to appear in the post). Plants do not get their sulfur from minerals, they extract sulfates from the soil, so they would still be able to get sulfur. Effectively I'm describing a way of tying up most of the sulfur in biological compounds. Extraction of sulfur from this would be entirely possible, but chemistry was in it's infancy in the 1800s, so it's not unreasonable to think that efficient methods of extraction would be a work in progress at this point $\endgroup$ – Jack Maggs Mar 11 '18 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ "Is this feasible?" When are you suggesting that this new bacteria evolved? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Mar 11 '18 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ Good point, on earth these sulfate mineral ores probably formed extremely early in our history? So I guess it would have to have evolved some absurd length of time ago, say a billion years $\endgroup$ – Jack Maggs Mar 11 '18 at 1:57
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    $\begingroup$ its completely possible to make explosive powder with 1800's technology without the use of sulphur, it just won't be as good. in fact in our world the British devolved sulphur-less gunpowder to try and combat corrosion. its also i believe possible to use other catalysts in gunpowder (though I am unaware as to their effectiveness, i'm just aware that its possible to do, iron oxide for instance.) this might not be a major problem though as lower quality black powder might simply lack the punch to get through plate armour, depending on the tech-level of your civilisation. $\endgroup$ – Ummdustry Mar 11 '18 at 20:58

Create a cartel for the gunpowder industry.

A small, vulnerable nation (think Switzerland) discovers the secret to making gunpowder. They keep the formula on serious lockdown, and make agreements to sell at exorbitant prices to other nations only if they agree to shut down any attempts within their border to find out the formula.

Any government that doesn't agree to the terms will be at a serious disadvantage to other nations with access to it. The cartel stays safe by having a good stockpile themselves, and calling upon aid from other countries if threatened, by threatening to destroy the formula and stockpiles if not helped. The cartel limits supply and keeps the prices high, so only nation-states and very wealthy individuals have access to the gunpowder.

Edit: As Ummdustry pointed out, this may be easy to reverse engineer. Perhaps the cartel makes caseless cartridges, which use a solid propellent that would be harder to reverse engineer. This could also add the element of guns not always functioning correctly, which could make guns not as overpowered.

  • $\begingroup$ good idea though its worth noting that gun powder is essantially a mixture of powders, that can be seperated as easily as repetitive shaking or dropping in the wind into clearly recognisable components. if given gunpowder it would be fairly easy to reverse engineer, so perhaps this Cartel instead invents a comparable but harder to reverse engineer explosive like nitroglycerine or TNT and gunpowder is never invented? $\endgroup$ – Ummdustry Mar 13 '18 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ It can be processed in ways that make it harder to distinguish. Modern gunpowder can't be separated out because it comes it pellets or flakes, and grinding gunpowder isn't a good idea. But a better idea might be to use a solid propellant and make caseless cartridges that are hard to reverse engineer. $\endgroup$ – Unassuming Guy Mar 14 '18 at 16:27

I'd say it's best not to focus on Sulphur specifically, since as comments have pointed out a scarcity of Sulphur is probably not sufficient to prevent the use of gunpowder. Indeed there are many other explosive compounds that may have been invented earlier had gunpowder not been around, such as nitroglycerine (invented 1847 in our world) or TNT (invented 1863).

The common element of most effective explosives is Nitrogen, so if you had to pick something to be scarce I would use that. Obviously a world entirely without Nitrogen would be vastly different to our own (c.f. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_cycle), but if it were impossible/very difficult to manufacture in quantity that might produce the desired effect. Before modern distillation techniques the main source of nitrogen was naturally-occurring Saltpeter, so a dearth of that would probably work.

It is still possible to manufacture Saltpeter from human/animal waste (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrary) but this could easily - for the purposes of your fantasy world - either not be invented, be culturally forbidden, produce insufficient yields, or suchlike.

  • $\begingroup$ It is worth noting that this very nearly happened in our timeline. before the invention of the Haber process people did go to war over islands of bird poop which could be used as a nitrogen source, however its also worth noting that sufficently low levels of available nitrogen would making agriculture a nightmare, but you could get around this somehow i'm sure. $\endgroup$ – Ummdustry Mar 13 '18 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ Nifty idea but considering the atmosphere is predominantly nitrogen, I suspect the removal of nitrogen from the world would have even further reaching effects than removing sulfur $\endgroup$ – Jack Maggs Mar 14 '18 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of using other explosives though, presumably they would have been studied more if gunpowder is rare $\endgroup$ – Jack Maggs Mar 14 '18 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @JackMaggs I'm not proposing the world is bereft of Nitrogen, just that there are no dense deposits of it in the ground. $\endgroup$ – K. Morgan Mar 15 '18 at 0:32

As an example, see H. Beam Piper's novel "Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen" A modified version was published as two novellas in Analog as "Gunpowder God" and "Down Styphon"

The House of Styphon is a religious theocracy/plutocracy that maintains power through the control of the supply of gunpowder. The land is kept as a bunch of squabbling princedoms to keep demand high.

One of the mechanisms used by Styphon is to monopolize any deposits of sulfur. In the opening chapters, Styphon has made a demand on Hos Harkanos for a plot of land that includes some springs of evil smelling water.

No mention is made of sulfur bearing ores such as galena that commonly have a first step of roasting to drive off the sulfur.

Book is a good romp.

  • $\begingroup$ Haha so someone has already beat me to it. I'll give it a read! $\endgroup$ – Jack Maggs Mar 14 '18 at 17:40

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