I created a low-fantasy world (there is magic, but it cannot really do much) centered around a city-state similiar to medieval/renaissance Venice. On the broken remains of an old empire they became a trade center, got rich and established multiple colonies on islands and even inland along the major continental river.

Greedy remnants of the empire attacked the city-state. Fortunately for the city-state, they discovered gunpowder some years earlier and used it to soundly defeat these attacks despite being greatly outnumbered.

Now comes my question: Fifty years in the future they still are the only ones that have gunpowder and they can be quite certain that they will be the only ones in the future. But why?

In my eyes the recipe for gunpowder is too simple to be kept secret and its components are to common to have a monopoly on them, but maybe I am wrong.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In the Renaissance, the Most Serene Republic of Venice was not a city-state; besides what is now the Veneto region of Italy, it held considerable territory overseas, the Stato da Màr, usually called the Venetian Empire in English. Venetian possessions included the Istrian peninsula, Dalmatia, Corfu, Crete, and (until 1571) Cyprus. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ This is pretty much the plot of the Engineer trilogy by K J Parker (except that the deadly missile weapons don’t actually use gunpowder). I’d suggest reading those books. goodreads.com/series/41528-engineer-trilogy $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MikeScott yeah, that was exactly the book I was thinking about when I wrote my answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 21:28

4 Answers 4


In real life, one ingredient gunpowder needs is potassium nitrate. Historically, the first source of potassium nitrate that was used in any great quantity was saltpeter. We know of ways it can be cheaply and simply created in large quantities now, but that wasn't always the case. Saltpeter is somewhat difficult to find in Europe; there were some limited sources in Spain, but that's it. Most saltpeter used in Europe had to come from Asia, especially India.

So if your city-state controls the only good source of saltpeter, it will have a monopoly on gunpowder and thus also a monopoly on guns. This monopoly will last as long as it takes for other methods of acquiring potassium nitrate to become available. This could take centuries, like it did historically, but eventually someone will figure out that you can distill potassium nitrate from chicken droppings.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a reference for this high-sulphur saltpeter, and lack of understanding of the importance of sulphur? Arabic gunpowder recipes included sulphur, and they were from the 1200s. Chinese recipes from the 900s often had weird ingredients and insufficient potassium nitrate, but did include sulphur. Most means of purifying potassium nitrate would have removed any sulphur from it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 20:54
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    $\begingroup$ I know saltpeter was important for gunpowder and difficult to get in Europe. It looks like I'm mistaken that it was for the sulfur content though. Will edit my answer shortly. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ Most of the saltpeter used in Europe for making gunpowder was produced locally. (The raw material being organic waste, either manure or urine.) Europe did not import significant quantities of saltpeter from overseas in pre-modern times. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Here's my source: firearmshistory.blogspot.com/2016/02/…. Here's another saying England imported 90% of its saltpeter in the 1500's: reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1481 $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ Both your sources agree that significant imports of saltpeter from India began with the East India Company. That's the second half of the 17th century; post-Medieval, post-Renaissance, Early Modern period. (And England is far from being all of Europe.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 1:13

They have a monopoly on the recipe

Yes, it's as simple as that. And, to illustrate my point, I'll point to something that Venice did have a monopoly on the recipe - glass. Glass was a legendary secret in the Middle Ages, and while the glass making secret wasn't only restricted to Venice, Venice had a unique recipe which refined the glass far better than anyone else could and this led to a unique product called Murano Glass, or simply Venetian Glass.

A crude and basically useless version of the gunpowder recipe can be known to the general public, but it's 100% historically viable that the unique recipe is kept secret within a single family of gunpowder chemists.

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    $\begingroup$ Ugh, Venice did most definitely not have a monopoly on making glass, not in the Middle Ages, not ever. Glass making was never a secret. In the Middle Ages Venice did have a monopoly on spice trade, and then in the Renaissance the Murano glass makers did have a monopoly on the production of flat (optically flat) sheets of clear glass, which entailed an obvious monopoly in the production of large-ish mirrors. But a monopoly on glass making in general they never had. So the spirit of the answer is true, but the specific example is misleading. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 22:22

They kill anybody who starts figuring it out.

There are two aspects of this. First of all, just having gunpowder isn't a huge game-changer. The Chinese had it for centuries before they really started using it effectively militarily.

There are a lot of associated technologies in metallurgy and chemistry that all come together to make gunpowder based weaponry dominant on the battlefield and a military that's making use of all of them is going to have a huge advantage over anybody who doesn't.

So: Your city-state has been lucky enough to have some really excellent chemists who figured out smokeless powder, and some really excellent metalworkers who figured out rifling and Minie balls. They have a monopoly on production of these items, sell their second-rate stuff for astronomical prices and keep their first-rate stuff for their own army only.

Finally, they have made it known through brutal, ruthless example that if any other city-state starts trying to manufacture their own gunpowder weapons, they're going to invade, burn everything down, and salt the earth. With the head start they have, nobody is going to be able to build their own home-grown industry quickly enough to be able to match their military before they get attacked, and as long as the ONLY way these guys will come after you is if you start trying to compete with their military technology, there just isn't a good reason to risk it when you just buy their guns and call it a day.


It isn't gunpowder as we know it.

Perhaps the magic of your world even prevents gunpowder. Instead it is alchemical almost-as-good-as-gunpowder which is, however, harder to make than ordinary gunpowder.

  • Perhaps the mixing bowl must be made out of a specific alloy which acts as catalyst.
  • Or it takes sulfur from a specific, blessed hot spring.
  • Or it degrades quickly if it isn't kept in blessed barrels.

They have an edge in metalcraft.

The common firearm is a wheellock. That might take some explaining why matchlocks and cannonlocks are not used instead. "Everybody knows" matchlocks are dangerous?

  • Only the city-state can make proper spring steel because only they have the right ore.
  • They are more advanced in clock-making, any other nation would only be able to build and maintain a handful of flintlocks.
  • $\begingroup$ The problem with the first part, is that my magic is really weak and more of a psychological nature. $\endgroup$
    – Sebastian
    Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 12:01

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