So i was thinking about the world i set my story in:

  • Set in an age equivalent to the 17th century
  • Magic exists, but is not very powerful though very versatile
  • Gunpowder was never discovered
  • naval control is important, as most of the nations are seperated by oceans

I stumbled over the question if ships would have developed the same (with multiple masts, like Galleons or Viktorian Frigates) or if other forms would have been prefered. I imagined that maybe huge Ballistae could have been used to serve the purpose of sinking enemy ships from a distance. So, what would you think, how would ships have developed and how would naval battles work when gunpowder was never invented?

  • $\begingroup$ Oar galleys would still rule over sail-powered warships. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Dec 21, 2018 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ As far as I remember we had questions about making guns or gunpowder unfeasible. Try looking them up and tell us why no gunpowder in your world. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Dec 21, 2018 at 7:44

2 Answers 2


Mostly focussed around using bows and arrows, boarding and ramming.

There were hundreds of years (in fact thousands) prior to gunpowder being commonly used in weaponry where ships were used in battle.

These ships usually featured the following:

  • High forecastles to add range and accuracy for bowmen
  • Ramming spikes to ram enemy vessels in order to sink or disable them
  • Many did feature ballistas
  • Crew complement often carried 'marines' with the express purpose of boarding, although common sailors were often used also for this purpose
  • Grappling hooks and other devices to board
  • Fire was a major weapon, fireships were used and most warships were equipped with fire-arrows to attempt to disable another wooden vessel
  • Fleets were very large, even if the ships weren't. Fleet size became important as each ships capability is not as powerful as cannon vessels. Command and control were major issues in these times, so captains often had to act mostly independently.

In your world a well coordinated fleet would have an advantage - so your 'magic's' best use is likely initially in communication and detection.

Presumably, if metallurgy continued to develop as per our history then ships may become armoured like the later Ironclad battleships. Without gunpowder, the only way to disable an enemy ship is then to board her, and capture her crew.

  • $\begingroup$ You certainly point out some things i hadn't considered yet. The castles and the possible plating. Maybe some variation of the Korean turtle-ships could be an interesting option. $\endgroup$
    – miep
    Dec 21, 2018 at 0:36
  • $\begingroup$ Ironclads with rams were totally a thing. In our world, they proved kind of a liability, and improved gunnery put them to bed before long, but in this world, they'd likely stick around long enough to work out the flaws, like handling and friendly-"fire" incidents. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Dec 21, 2018 at 2:26

Alexander Volta noticed that a spark could ignite a mixture of air and flammable gases. Around 1777 he came up with the idea of a gun, called 'elettroflogopneumatica', and which we call today 'Pistola di Volta'.

Magritte would probably say: This is not a gun :)

In our world, a typical potato launcher works on the same principle. Note that for our purposes, one could even use baker's flour, in suspension in an air chamber. The weapon is not based on gun powder, and it is not quite a cannon.

It is easy to envision that a ship's crew armed with such wonders would severely beat any primitive navy that still insisted on bows and arrows.

  • $\begingroup$ Another option would be steam guns, once steam power becomes a thing $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    Jan 3, 2019 at 12:00

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