My world is in a Napoleonic era in terms of weapons technology, but firearms are extremely expensive and rare. How do I make his believable?

Im doing this because I want to keep bows, swords, spears, etc. viable and plentiful but to have some firearms as well. Militaries are not issued standard issue firearms, but elite units will sometimes use their own personal firearms.

How would this be possible? would it be possible to make gunpowder extremely hard to make by making sulfer, charcoal, or potassium nitrate super rare? Would that have any other ramifications of making one of those rare?

thanks for any help.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi BWMilliams, please make sure to restrict your question down to just one question, and ask follow up questions in a different post. Your 2nd and 3rd questions relate only to limiting gun powder, while your 3rd question is related to your title and about limiting guns in general. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Oct 4 '18 at 23:28
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    $\begingroup$ Part of the problem is that technology is a pyramid. Firearm tech stands on the shoulders of millennia of experience involving metallurgy, chemistry, manufacturing, physics, and war. Making something systemically rare means making everything similar to it (like pipe and swords, in the case of manufacturing rarity, or fertilizer and acids, in the case of chemical limitations) also rare. Regrettably, giving you an answer to even a fraction of these issues is far too broad. The simple truth is, if you have metal-tipped arrows and the ability to make anything go boom, you'll have firearms. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 5 '18 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH that's exactly right. You can't just pick and choose which technologies to have. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 0:50
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    $\begingroup$ Also you have the magic tag in your question, but give no details on how it impacts the situation. Is magic common? $\endgroup$ – Chromane Oct 5 '18 at 1:16
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    $\begingroup$ None of the answers claimed as duplicates are even near this question. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 13:23

10 Answers 10


Instead of making gunpowder rare, focus on metallurgy. Gunpowder creates a huge spike of pressure, which is of course the point, but it's also well capable of bursting metal barrels if they aren't constructed properly. Normally you would have the option to simply make the barrel thicker (naturally at the cost of weight and, well, cost) but for guns that's not an option beyond a certain point because of heat dissipation: firing the gun builds up a lot of heat, and if it can't dissipate away from the barrel, eventually the powder will start self-igniting as you pour it in, which is a Bad Thing. (In the early days of field artillery, people experimented with leather-reinforced cannons, but they had exactly this problem.)

You could make high-quality steel rarer in general without affecting other uses too badly. The big thing to look for here is purity: a saucepan will still work if it's not of uniform composition. A gun barrel won't, because the impurities will create weak spots for overpressure to act on. Guns therefore demand the highest grade of purity and craftsmanship, hence their restriction to the elites, because they're simply too expensive for the masses. Gunpowder would however be available for grenades, rockets, etc.

In this universe, I would expect a lot more use of non-steel materials (especially various types of iron, wrought iron perhaps) in fields like construction where high-grade steel is valuable but not essential.

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    $\begingroup$ A very good answer. In addition to barrels, look at spring steel for locks. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Oct 5 '18 at 4:38
  • $\begingroup$ This is the answer I was looking for. Thank you. Ill have to look into how steel is made and purified to be able to explain this. There is a culture in the north of my world that makes Ulfberht swords. So they would be very competent smiths, but that culture detests firearms. So their rarity could be cultural as well as what you said. Again, Thank you. $\endgroup$ – BMWilliams Oct 5 '18 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ Having low quality steel would also reduce the effectiveness swords and other melee weapons. Which the original post wants to avoid. $\endgroup$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Oct 5 '18 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Xavon_Wrentaile Swords would need special treatment and would end up being rare and precious, akin to guns. Mass infantry weapons like pikes would probably be less affected, since they use less metal and aren't under the same design stresses. (A sword has to have the right stiffness, the right flexibility, and the right balance of weight throughout. A pike head pretty much just has to be sharp and not break.) $\endgroup$ – Cadence Oct 6 '18 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence - Except, again, all that basically goes against the initial question. $\endgroup$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Oct 6 '18 at 1:34

Given that:

  • nitrates were largely extracted from animal waste products at that time (bat guano was particularly prized, but human urine would do the trick nicely), and
  • cooking fires create an ample supply of charcoal,

that leaves you with limiting access to sulphur, the 10th most common element in the universe by mass, and 5th most common element on Earth.

I think limiting access to gunpowder is out unless you change the basic physics of the universe .

Once you achieve a certain level of know-how, the gun appears to be an inevitable result.


No guns means no Napoleon, and perforce no Napoleonic age

You cannot have a world in the Napoleonic era without widespread gunpowder weapons. For example, because...

  • Napoleon himself was an artillery officer. He first came to prominence by his masterful use of artillery at the siege of Toulon.

  • You cannot take the guns out of 13 Vendémiaire without changing the nature of the event. Not to mention that taking the guns out of Napoleon's ruthless crushing of the Royalist uprising would preëmpt Thomas Carlyle quip about the "whiff of grapeshot" which blew up the French revolution.

  • The Napoleonic wars were fought between large armies. What are those armies doing rampaging all over Europe without guns? The entire premiss of military strategy of the time was speed of execution; fast maneuvers, quick decisive victories. Without guns you have the Hundred Years' War. You cannot have the brilliant campaign of 1806 (when Napoleon took Prussia in one month) without guns.

  • What is Napoleon doing with his millions of conscripts in a world without guns? Before the gunpowder age war was a highly specialized occupation, accessible only to rich people. You don't assemble large armies of citizen conscripts if in order to make them useful soldiers you need to train them for years and years.

  • What's the purpose of the British Navy without its guns? The major outlines of the Napoleonic wars are circumscribed by France's domination over land, and Britain's domination over the seas. The British naval supremacy depends on ships armed with guns. Without the British naval supremacy, the Napoleonic wars would have turned out very differently.

  • And finally, how on Earth did history unfold prior to the Napoleonic age? How did Mehmed take Constantinople without guns? How could small Sweden carry on in the 30 Years' War without guns? How did Britain lose her North American colonies without guns? For that matter, how did Cortez and Pizarro conquer the Americas without guns?

    As Jared Diamond strikingly put it, the European cilization conquered the world with Guns, Germs and Steel: take the guns out, and you leave Europe in the High Middle Ages, a sideshow on the world stage. Without guns, Asia's uncountable hordes would dominate history.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice. This seems absolutely the key point. Can't have that kind of era if you take they key ingredient away. Even without Napoleon, you quite correctly point out that the rest of the era would belong to a much earlier period. $\endgroup$ – StephenG Oct 5 '18 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ yes, in addition the tech for guns also applies in most other areas of industry, take it out or make it too expensive and everything changes with it. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Oct 5 '18 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ The classic substitute for firearms is crossbows. Whilst ballista are not equivalent to cannon, it could be feasible to have all the conscripts use crossbows instead of muskets. From my limited knowledge, they have similar difficulty of manufacturing and ease of use that would enable this. $\endgroup$ – Kyyshak Oct 5 '18 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ The questions state Napoleon era in terms of technology level. Napoleon itself and other historic facts of our world don't seems pertinent to the question. $\endgroup$ – Lupino Oct 5 '18 at 9:38
  • $\begingroup$ I see your point. I just mean that guns, cannons, and related technology have been invented and are in use, but are relatively rare. countries can't afford to equip all of their infantry with muskets or rifles and have only few cannons. $\endgroup$ – BMWilliams Oct 5 '18 at 20:25

Resource competition

If saltpeter or sulfur is an essential component for an important form of magic, then the cost benefit for gunpowder just isn't there. They know how to make it but no one does because a primitive gun is a far worse use of those resources.

I can use the saltpeter to make enough gunpowder to maybe kill 4 people, or I can use it in fireball magic that will definitely kill 20 people. Or maybe it is essential for healing magic, getting soldiers back on their feet is a far better use than some experimental hard to make weapon.

There are a lot of powerful weapons that never get made because they just cost too much or the resources are better used elsewhere.

  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't considered making it more valuable for other uses. Very interesting. Thank you. $\endgroup$ – BMWilliams Oct 5 '18 at 20:35

Perhaps the magic in your world has reduced the incentive to develop gunpowder-based firearms.

There could be protective magic that affects bullets far more than bolts or arrows. Maybe it's easier to enchant a larger projectile to counteract it. Or the magic works by stifling sudden explosions on the battlefield - regular human power isn 't affected, but gunpowder is deadened.

Either way, you could make it so expensive, mastercraft enchanted firearms are required to counter the magic, which explains their presence only in the hands of a few elite soldiers.

Depending on your magic system, it could have conceivably set back scientific progress, to the point where guns are only just starting to be introduced. After all, there's not much incentive to study chemistry and mettalurgy if magic allows you to do those tasks quicker and with less effort.

On the topic of magic - maybe gunpowder explosives have an undesirable magical side affect? They could cause a spike in energies that dangerous to any magic users nearby, or caary a risk of chain reaction - or summon angry spirits. Whatever the negative effect, only a few brave foolhardy souls dare carry firearms. Now the negative effect mightn't matter to much on the battlefield, but it would certainly slow development or cause substantial social/political pressure against their development.


Other factors weigh in on fire-arms; propagation of atmospheric propulsion of the object to be moved at high speed can be limited by the atmosphere's density, whether you are actually using a chemical explosion to create the impetus and so on. Perhaps a non-science/chemistry route could be taken, such as a superstition or religious/traditional prohibition against such things, and maybe even actual historical records that show nasty things happening to those who use such items.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. This is the beginnings of a good answer, but it would be greatly improved if you take the time to flesh out the several possibilities you raise. $\endgroup$ – JBH Oct 5 '18 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ There are definitely cultures in my world that frown on firearms and stick to sword and bow as their primary weapons, but there are definitely cultures that do not. Thats why I wanted to limit firearms. so that cultures that do not have the same cultural resistance to firearms are not militarily dominant. $\endgroup$ – BMWilliams Oct 5 '18 at 20:51

Change the formula

You already have the magic tag, so presumably physics are at least slightly different. So change the formula of the gunpowder. Add a fourth ingredient that is rare, expensive, or hard to process. Like bones of the sky god (uranium), powdered rubies, or powdered titanium.

Make it stronger

Make gunpowder ten or twenty times as powerful. Make it so that guns have to be incredibly reinforced, to the point that they are too heavy to carry and aim for all but the strongest warriors. It works great of emplacement cannons, but not so much for man portable devices.

Evolutionary magic

If magic exists, from the standpoint of evolution, pyromancy is a tremendous advantage. Fire is one of early man's greatest tools, but also one of their greatest threats. Being able to create,control, and suppress fire would be tremendous. People with that power would be more likely to survive and reproduce. So then you get to Napoleonic times, and the majority of people have at least some ability to manipulate fire. Which means your powder horn is a bomb that most enemy soldiers can set off by looking at it. And even if you block their powers, they can prevent the gunpowder from going off.

Enchanted Items

Namely, bullets can't be enchanted, due to their small size. You can enchant a pistol or rifle, but since the launch mechanism is chemical, not mechanical, all you can do is make the gun a better club in an emergency. Bows and arrows both can be enchanted, making them more effective at range.

  • $\begingroup$ "Make it so that guns have to be incredibly reinforced". That would not work, since you'd just use less gunpowder. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Not if you made the gunpowder really powerful. Then it becomes almost impossible to measure the extremely small amount needed without advanced scientific implements. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 0:24
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    $\begingroup$ You could make gunpowder 100 times as powerful, and still manage measurement with the same ease by cutting it with another chemical that is relatively inert as long and having each grain was diluted by a factor of 100. $\endgroup$ – Gary Walker Oct 5 '18 at 0:34
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnLocke even 220 years ago, balance scales were very precise. Even if smokeless powder -- aka nitrocellulose -- were invented 100 years earlier, they'd just use less. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ Precision is great in a lab. But when you are pouring black powder into your musket in the field, you don't have the time or the precision. $\endgroup$ – Xavon_Wrentaile Oct 5 '18 at 1:14

Cultural taboo.

The Second Lateran Council's (yes, that was a Real Thing) ban on the use of crossbows, bows and slings against Christians actually gets obeyed for a lot longer than it did in the real world. Hundreds of years later, though, political pressure, morphs it into a ban on firearms while re-allowing crossbows, bows and slings.

  • $\begingroup$ Your answer would be better if you took the time to flesh it out. You haven't explained what time period this happened in and where. Did this event actually happen during the Napoleonic era? Your answer does not go into much detail, and should probably be a comment. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnLocke what are you talking about? It is well known when and where the Second Lateran Council happened. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ A google search for Napoleonic era will tell you that the era started in 1799, way after this council happened. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnLocke you need to re-read the part of my answer which says "Hundreds of years later, though, political pressure, morphs it into a ban on firearms while re-allowing crossbows, bows and slings." $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how this can work. There were clearly guns in the Napoleonic era, but you say this was at a time when guns were banned. For guns to be used, either there was no ban at that time, or not many people were Chrisitan, so hardly anyone followed the ban. Either way, this is not a way to stop the majority of people from using guns, which is what the question asks. This also does not increase the price of guns, which is what the title asks for. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 13:23

Instead of making gunpowder's ingredients rare like @Xavon_Wrentaile suggested, you can make gunpowder harder to make and store.

If gunpowder is extremely volatile, to the point where just shaking it enough causes it to go off, gunpowder will be too dangerous to manufacture. It will constantly be exploding, destroying factories and driving up the price.

If it is very volatile, gunpowder will be way too dangerous to carry around. Even if the actual amount of it is small and the consequence of ignition is small, in combat this will be devastating:

Say you come across a swordsman who you end up angering. Being very fast, you run out of range of the sword and turn around to aim with your rifle. When loading the gunpowder into the barrel (we are talking old times here), you accidentally scrape the metal gunpowder canister against the metal barrel of the rifle. The tiny spark ignites all the gunpowder. While you were unharmed due to the small amount of gunpowder, you are now out of gunpowder. At this point, a sword or bow would have fared better against the swordsman.

Making gunpowder more volatile is pretty easy [citation needed]. Your first option is that gunpowder is volatile because it is a magical property. However, that is not the most realistic solution. By adding more Oxygen to the atmosphere, the ignition will happen more easily and the explosion will be more explode-y. Since we are talking about Napoleonic-era people, they have no idea how gasses work. However, many gunpowder-makers have found that by capturing air bubbling from the swamp nearby (methane), and filling all of the gunpowder barrels with this, explosions happen less often. Your people have no idea how gasses work, so they don't realize that by adding methane, they are replacing the oxygen with an explosive gas. While explosions will happen less often, they will be much more violent when they do. That will further increase the cost.

Bonus: By adding in the swamp gasses, they also introduce fowl-smelling compounds into the gunpowder mixture. The charcoal filters these compounds out, and when fired, the guns release a giant cloud of fowl-smelling smoke. Why would anyone want to use such a disgusting weapon anyway?


Because of the magic tag, I can handwave gunpowder's volatility as being a magical property. However, I want the cause to be more realistic, so I justified its increased volatility as being a result of higher oxygen levels. If you think increased oxygen levels are not feasible for some reason, I will be happy to discuss it in the comments or chat. However, do not rant or complain to me about my use of the magic tag! The poster included that tag for a reason. If you have a people with the question, complain to the asker. If you have a problem with the magic tag, go complain on meta. If you have a problem with Worldbuilding, you shouldn't be on the site. And finally, if you have a problem with Stack Exchange, there is nothing you can do

  • $\begingroup$ The question is "How do I make his believable?*", and "make gunpowder harder to make and store isn't believable. Adding more oxygen to the atmosphere changes everything. Not a little, not some, not a lot. EVERYTHING changes, and it's been different for millions of years. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn I can understand why it would change "everything", but how is this not believable? A slightly higher oxygen content would seem to work, and is entirely possible. Maybe the planet has less geological activity, or there are more forests, which are carbon sinks. A higher oxygen level would also justify dragons, although giant bugs are way more likely in any high oxygen setting. Maybe magic drives up oxygen levels. If not with higher oxygen, the magic tag lets us handwave it as a magical substance with magical properties. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 1:06
  • $\begingroup$ All fire would be more dangerous, and iron would rust that much faster. Thus, the "while metal is still widely available" constraint would be violated. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 1:11
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn As I said in my above comment, magic alone could justify gunpowder's special volatility. However, I think higher O₂ levels would be more believable than "because I said so" magic. As for iron rusting, spears and arrows commonly used copper or bronze, and those would still be available. Because of increased Oxygen, the problem of rust would indeed be bigger. As stainless steel was invented only 98 years after the end of the Napoleonic era, we could assume that stainless steel was made sooner in this scenario due to high demand. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ Nothing in the question has anything to do with magic. It's only mentioned in one tag, right next to reality-check. (IMNSHO, the magic tag should be an automatic VTC POB, since it lets you do anything, say anything and justify it with a wave of the hand.) $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 1:36

Your people are very slow-witted.

The people of your world are able to cover themselves, kill animals, dig holes, plant seeds and reproduce. They can make weapons, especially clubs and sharp sticks. Arrows are chancy, as are items like wheels and plows; the attempted creation of such objects fails more often than not.

Smelting refined metals takes place but only at rarefied sanctuaries where the method is carefully passed down. There might be certain individuals with the mental capacity to make something like a rifle, but in this world such individuals do not want for money or resources, and can pursue their interests without making guns on a regular basis.

  • $\begingroup$ If they're slow-witted, they aren't at the Napoleonic level of technology. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 0:55
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn Willk says "There might be certain individuals with the mental capacity to make something like a rifle". I don't see a reason why they wouldn't be at that level if there are enough smart people in the society. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 1:36
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnLocke according to the answer, the smart people are in "rarefied sanctuaries". That's not conducive to the widespread dissemination of wheels, plows and bows/arrows. Europe would be stuck in the upper stone age. The would be no hope of making it to the Greco-Roman era, much less the Early Industrial Revolution. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 1:45
  • $\begingroup$ @RonJohn If dissemination between sanctuaries is slow, that doesn't mean those items won't be developed or spread. When they are developed, either commoners will be taught to use them, or the sanctuaries will make and sell them. Either way, the inventions will spread, and the civilization(s) won't be stuck in the Stone Age forever, if a bit longer. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Oct 5 '18 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnLocke you much -- and foolishly -- higher opinion of mental capabilities of "very slow-witted" people than I do. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 5 '18 at 2:04

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