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Writing a fantasy story where my protag has knowledge of modern day Earth technology. Magic also exists but it can't just create things in and out of existence and uses the body's energy for it to work e.g. you can crush earth to make hard rock or perhaps craft small objects with earth in hand but it'd take too much energy to exert enough pressure to make diamonds or craft a mansion.

So with that in mind, I have a couple of questions:

What is the closest to smokeless powder could we get? Chemicals made in factories are clearly out so we'd be looking for something that would be simple or moderate difficulty to create. Even if we can't make it that far what's the best optimisation of black powder could we do with modern day knowledge?

The gun itself, I'm thinking the end game would be a simplistic bolt action rifle (maybe with inbuilt silencer but that might be too much) with a magazine. Design would be in stages, for example, first she'd make a smooth bore then later on figure out with magic perhaps how to carve the rifling incrementally. Though if we made that possible, would that essentially make semi-auto and full auto possible if that level of precision was possible with magic?

A wood stock with magazine well should be more than feasible. It'll be the main body of the smooth bore gun or rifle and the manufacture of the bullets which I'm not too sure of. I'm assuming that the parts of a bolt action are a lot simpler than modern semi or full auto rifles?

Thanks for any advice.

Edit:

Silencer/Suppressor: As Dragongeek pointed out my ammunition would most likely be subsonic, at least for the most part until later perhaps (tbd) and the protag would wish to ensure not bring too much attention to herself.

Gunpowder is part of the overall question about gun manufacturing as of course without it, we have no ammunition. Smokeless is the modern day equivalent and I wanted to show progression. Our protag is the super knowledgeable about weapons person so I was hoping we could see progession from black powder to something even a little better but as Dragongeek stated, if the only real downside is fouling the barrel more often, then maybe there's no need (low power bullets are fine in the setting I'm in).

Protag would only be making one gun and for herself, to eke out an advantage in a world where she's not in a good spot. Masses of ammunition wouldn't be an issue, just enough for herself.

To try and clarify the magic system. Essentially I'm thinking of it using up the body's natural energy to manipulate the atoms/particles in the world. As long as it's nearby you can manipulate it. The further away the greater the energy required. I can create fire in my hand, increase it's heat enormously by manipulating the elements such as extracting the oxygen around the air and adding it (but taking it to ridiculous levels such as the temperature of the sun, no). I can condense and join atoms to create water, slowing down the atoms to freeze it (but nowhere near to absolute zero). I can energise the elements in the air to create wind but not a typhoon. Raise and manipulate the earth to create barriers of stone but no one is making any earthquakes.

With regards to gunsmithing. Our protag, after much training, magic manipulation could probably, with the materials roughly in the shape of what she's looking for, could perhaps smooth out the barrel of the gun (later on rifle it but it would take many attempts). Take a roughly designed body (receiver?) and smooth out any imperfections. she could probably with the magic strengthen the metal to a certain degree.

Essentially I'm thinking that without the magic, and tech set roughly somewhere in the early middle ages even a bolt action, magazine fed, smooth bore might be a bit too hard even for a very knowledgeable protag. With magic able to smooth out some kinks, perhaps offer a little bit of precision since I've seen a few questions on what kind of gun could be made way back when (I've done some research) and they all make mention that precision machining is required. No precision machining and you couldn't even make a semi-modern gun. Or that's what I'm lead to believe.

Again thanks any insight.

Edit 2:

Wouldn't think it was a duplicate as I'm not looking for the earliest gun, I'm looking for the most advanced gun for preindustrial era with magic. Edited title, though that doesn't seem to have changed anything. Any ideas?

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    $\begingroup$ If you know how a gun works you can make one in your garage, it might take a few weeks or a few years depending on what gears you have around. If you don't know how a gun works, then it might take a few decades of studying and trial and error until you get something done that might resemble a gun. As for silencers, you don't need a silencer ever, they only decrease sound by a few decibels and sub-sonic bullets are already slow enough to make almost no sound.... And I doubt someone would ever be able to mass produce sonic bullets, the ones that go BOOM.... Sub sonic ones go PEW PEW $\endgroup$ – user81643 Jan 6 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ You should elaborate more on what exactly your magic system can't and can do $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Jan 6 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ i think your title is kinda misleading if your main question actually asking about smokeless gun powder, or is that mean as follow up question? $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Jan 6 at 15:25
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    $\begingroup$ This is impossible to answer unless we know what your magic is capable of, without magic what you want is impossible. worth noting medieval guns did exist. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 6 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is not making the gun, it is - as with all these questions - making the ammunition. Cartridges have to be made to close tolerances, otherwise they don't work. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 7 at 6:57
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Smokeless powders began to be developed in the 1860s (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smokeless_powder), a product of the newly-developing chemical industry.

Here's an example:

In 1884, Paul Vieille invented a smokeless powder called Poudre B (short for poudre blanche—white powder, as distinguished from black powder) made from 68.2% insoluble nitrocellulose, 29.8% soluble nitrocellulose gelatinized with ether and 2% paraffin.

None of these ingredients can be directly scratched out of the environment. Each requires lots of processing steps just to become an ingredient for the final product. Processing that requires plenty of specialized equipment, energy, measurement, and testing.

The problem is that all of that energy, tools, and equipment also cannot be scratched out the environment. You need whole specialties to collect and store that energy, to make the assorted tools, and to finance/manage the development and sales of the equipment.

All of that knowledge and all of that technology impacts other elements of society. Energy management and equipment leads to steam engines. Metalworking machines leads to farming machines and canned food. And your medieval children suddenly need to go to school to learn careers using those machines and knowledge instead of working the fields alongside their parents.

Hmmmm. They're not medieval anymore. They're 19th Century.

Let's try this way: Perhaps there is a way to limit the changes brought about by all that technology and knowledge and machinery, so only a small segment of the population gets educated, and inventors don't benefit much from their inventions.

  • Use a closed-town to keep the educated inventors, teachers, and workers inside. Don't let them pollute the rest of the kingdom with their secret knowledge...regardless of how many lives it would save during the next famine or pestilence.
  • You need a strong central State to enforce (and pay for) the closed town.
  • Don't invent double-entry bookkeeping or banking. Prohibit debt financing and stock exchanges (note that this directly conflicts with the State's aching need for revenue to support it's costs, including the expensive closed-town)
  • The state needs to identify clever and mechanically-apt youngsters to replenish the closed-town's population: A system of testing and tracking, and a small bureaucracy to run it. And funds to pay for all of that, too.
  • A culture of placidity: Parents don't (openly) object when one child gets sent away to the closed-town forever. Farmers don't (openly) object to the State's onerous taxes. Folks refuse new inventions on nebulous ground. Blacksmiths and Tinkers don't (openly) object when folks refuse their minor improvements. State propaganda encourages this medieval culture.

Powerful central states did exist in the medieval era, though they went through cycles of strength and weakness as the palace intrigue waxed and waned. However, the culture-of-placidity is thoroughly unhealthy, and those folks are likely to be ripe volunteers for a rebel or an invader.

It simply won't work: The technological distance is too great. You cannot have smokeless powder AND medieval culture. The knowledge and industry required must change the culture from medieval to industrial.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the comment, though I'm looking into something that could fit inbetween or something like highly optimised black powder e.g. something that won't foul the barrel requiring the protag to clean after each shot but after 10 instead. i understand having modern propellant is unreasonable :) $\endgroup$ – GMHLee Jan 6 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ 1880s propellant is not modern. I cited among the first realistic alternatives for black powder. Your protag needs to clean their barrel frequently if they want to be pre-industrial...or just magic it clean. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jan 6 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ Ah ok, I see. In your opinion what's the best you think you could get before a barrel clean would be required or are they all equally dirty and there's no which way about it regardless of how much of a chemistry genius you are? $\endgroup$ – GMHLee Jan 6 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ Pre-industrial propellants are all dirty. If there were a cleaner one, everybody in the Napoleonic Wars would have used it (regardless of cost, it would have won battles!) No such thing as a "chemistry genius" before industrialization. Before the 1700s, you're talking hopeless hacks calling themselves alchemists without any real understanding of what they were doing. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jan 6 at 17:30
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The most difficult part of building a firearm with all its accoutrements completely from scratch, regardless of the time-period or tools you have available, is the ammunition. Even today, nobody except the most die-hard performance shooters would even consider making their own cartridges because machining individual brass casings on a lathe is a monumental time-sink.

Ammunition:

Without magic in a medieval setting, and using only primitive tools (no machinery, hand-tools only), a skilled metalworker like a jeweler, artisan smith, or clock-maker might be able to produce enough components (bullets and casings) for 1 to 5 completed cartridges per day. If they take the time to build tools to make this faster, they might even be able to double or quadruple that rate, but no matter how good they are, short of an industrial revolution, they aren't going to be making more than 20 completed cartridges per day (and that's assuming they have all the material, and do nothing else but make individual bullets for 10+ hours a day). Even then, the ammunition that they make is probably going to be quite unreliable as tolerances need to be extremely tight for metallic-casing ammunition to work. A lot of misfires should be expected.

If your magic can speed up the manufacturing process, metallic-casing cartridges suddenly make more sense. If, for example, your metal-mages or protagonist can visualize the required shape in her mind and then magically reshape metal into that shape to exact dimensions, mass-manufacture of metallic cartridges and bullets suddenly becomes much more feasible (although the casings are the real bottleneck, lead bullets can be cast).

If magic can't speed up the manufacturing process, your protagonist is probably better off sticking to paper-cartridges or rocket-ball ammunition. Paper cartridges are essentially just propellant wrapped in paper and rocket-ball ammunition is essentially just bullets with a hole in the back that are filled with gunpowder. These can be cast from lead, and while they have disadvantages, they would be fine in a primitive setting.

Chemistry:

Now, I'm not an expert on chemistry so someone else might want to weigh in here but making gunpowder/black powder is rather simple if time-intensive: you need sulfur (mined), charcoal (mined), and saltpeter (forms on manure over time). What would be more difficult is making the primer: you need to find something stable enough to store but volatile enough that percussion can set it ablaze (unless you're building a flintlock firearm).

As for smokeless powder, unless magic excels at chemical synthesis and your protagonist has the know-how that's needed, it would probably be too difficult to make. Even without it, a black-powder weapon is still effective and while it might not perform as well, produce more smoke, and require more frequent cleaning, these are all reasonable compromises against having now weapon.

Gunsmithing:

As you alluded to in your question, building a rifled barrel will be one of the biggest challenges to making a firearm that is accurate over long ranges. A secondary challenge is preventing the gun from exploding in your protagonist's hands. Particularly in 'ye olden times, metallurgy was more of an art than a science and creating an alloy that you can be sure won't simply explode from the pressure of the contained explosion would be a challenge. Mostly, this was because it was difficult to test a material's strength without testing it to destruction, and then, well the material is gone, and the manufacturer needs to trust themselves enough to repeat the process exactly (difficult!). In fact, metal crossbows used to be liberally wrapped in cord so that if the bow unexpectedly snapped, the cord would contain all the metal-splinters flung all over the place at high speed.

In fact, due to this inability to ensure the metal is strong enough, I wouldn't build a traditional firearm in 'ye olden days unless I were an expert metallurgist/smith and had supreme confidence in my work or I had the ability to magically strengthen/enhance/inspect the material the gun is made of to the point where it can't explode. After all, the firing chamber often is rather close to the eyes/head when aiming and firing. Metal shrapnel being thrown all over the place close to my face would be very unfortunate.

That said, there was a period of history where bolt-action rifles were handcrafted by artisans, so I don't see it as being too difficult provided your protagonist has the know-how, the wealth, and the time to build one. Developing further would be more difficult though. It would probably be possible to build a revolver and even adapt your bolt-action rifle to be magazine (or even clip!)-fed but that's probably where you'd get stuck barring advanced manufacturing techniques or magic and materials science that is required to build a semi-automatic or fully-automatic rifle.

Suppressor:

Interestingly, this is probably the easiest on the list. The metallurgical level wouldn't be so high as that of the gun due to lower tolerances and specs required. Combine that with the fact that your bullets may already be subsonic due to their low power, a rubber-wiper consumable suppressor might even be able to lower your rifle's noise output to "pew-pew" levels. Unfortunately though, this suppressor would likely be a high-wear, consumable component. If you're using rubber (or similar material) for the wipers, you'd need to replace them frequently not to mention lube them up before each use (a "wet" suppressor). If you're simply using metal baffles, you would likely need to clean it often and repair damage, particularly if you're using a black-powder based cartridge.

That said, it would likely end up needing to be rather large and heavy to be effective-- probably the size of a 2L soda bottle.

Final thoughts:

I'm not sure if a rifle is "worth it". Ammunition would likely be difficult and time-consuming to make. Additionally, many magic systems allow for things like telekinesis or applying force rather easily. Why mess with gunpowder when you could simply magically push the bullets down the barrel, using it only as a guide?

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer, I'll edit my post to clarify some key points. $\endgroup$ – GMHLee Jan 6 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ Uhm, brass casings are reusable. Cartridge reloading is a very common thing among even amateur hobbyist shooters. It's hardly a "die hard performance shooter" phenomenon. $\endgroup$ – stix Jan 6 at 17:32
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    $\begingroup$ @stix reloading isn't making from scratch. Hobbyists with reloading setups still use the brass from purchased bullets/what they scrounge up at the range--they don't make it from raw brass bar stock. Also, casings can't be reused indefinitely (and rimfire even less), eventually they just wear out or go out of tolerance to a point were it doesn't make sense to fix. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Jan 6 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ Creating a rifled barrel would also not be that difficult. The first rifled barrels were created quite literally by accident. Smiths at the time realized that certain barrels were more accurate, and found it was because the tool they used to drill the barrel left scoring inside the barrel that imparted a spin to the bullet. $\endgroup$ – stix Jan 6 at 17:46
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Your magic system, as described, would remove many of the traditional roadblocks to advanced metallurgy (removing impurities and adding alloying elements). This would bypass many of your initial issues, even with the inputs limited to magically fabricated metals. The same can be said for chemical synthesis required for smokeless propellants (traditional blackpowder is relatively easy to make). These inputs are responsible for a large share of the industrial base required for modern firearms production; the remaining elements can be accomplished on a workshop level.

I think it's important to note that many of the factors limiting firearms development were logistical instead of technological (the "why" instead of the "how"--how far can soldiers march without canned food, for example, being the "why" for what kind of firepower they need), and that among the "how" many of the limitations (both firearm-specific and technological in general) were eventually solved through experimentation. Your protagonist, with their knowledge of the future and requirements for only a single weapon, would necessarily be able to skip ahead to the "right answer".

An example: the Minié ball solves one of the main problems (difficulty loading) associated with rifled muzzleloaders. Fabrication is simple, requiring a slight increase in complexity in bullet casting. Rifling, though expensive, was never prohibitively so, and is possible with 16th century fabrication techniques. All of these things could be known to your protagonist.

In a broader sense, consider the series Build Your Own Metal Working Shop. Recreating the state-of-the-art of machining technology (from 1900 or so) from scratch may seem like a daunting task, but when the answers are known in advance the path gets much shorter. It's also important to remember that the implications of many of these technologies were (by definition) not known when they were developed; if the benefits are known, and a plan is in place, it's a different story.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for that, I did check on the Minie Ball previously but have read that the spin it imparted did very little for stability. But i could probably include it in the story as a step in her progress to make propellant based ammo :) $\endgroup$ – GMHLee Jan 6 at 17:58
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. Do you have that source handy? "Minie ball wasn't all that accurate" would be news to me, but I could believe it. $\endgroup$ – clyf Jan 6 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ I can't remember, it felt like some kind of academic paper but now that I google minie ball, it all says that it made everything better XD Will have to double check. $\endgroup$ – GMHLee Jan 7 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ No worries, no worries. I did find in additional research that if the Minie ball is poorly fitted to the barrel (not irrelevant in the case of your question) it can tumble after leaving the barrel, which would be less accurate than an equivalent (unrifled) projectile. $\endgroup$ – clyf Jan 7 at 2:06
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Because the protagonist can use heat magic, she can utilize air pressure to accelerate the bullet, making gunpowder unnecessary.

To survive in this magical world, the protagonist would need a deep understanding of physics and engineering to make an effective air rifle out of simple tools, as the most complex part of the rifle is the air release mechanism, which will free the hot air from the air bladder at the pull of a trigger.

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Here are three things to address:

  1. Bullet making

  2. Metallurgy

  3. Rifling

  4. Bullets Cartridge bullets are metal casings with everything needed to propel the lead forward inside. This requires a skill in miniaturization and the machinery to do it. If she is able to build the machinery, she could get rich by building similar machines for other product makers...she could introduce accurate tools for watch making, for example. Watch makers would pay a huge amount to have equipment that made their time pieces more precise.

Also, she would need to make caps for the initial spark that a firing pin strikes. To put those in the base of the cartridge would require machines that can press them into place and crimp them so they do not fall out.

A more convenient way would be to use black powder cartridges. Black powder cartridges were like black powder muskets, but the advance was, they used paper to contain everything. When ready to use the paper cartridge, the wielder would tear off the end, pour the contained, pre-measured powder down the barrel, then the paper and lead shot would be rammed down the tube. This improved the reloading time substantially and because the powder was pre-measured, the shots were more consistent than someone using a powder horn in the heat of battle. The consistency improved accuracy because the energy created each shot was more equal, rather than one shot being extra powder powered than another.

Without proper machine tooling, you cannot crimp the bullet properly to prevent the lead shot from falling out of the end of the cartridge. This actually happened to some of the first encased metal cartridges, and nearly caused people to abandon metal cartridges altogether.

  1. Metallurgy

Modern steel isn't the same as steel 600 years ago. The blacksmiths did not understand molecular properties. they just knew, if you worked iron in a fashion, mixed some chemicals, eventually, you had a steel that was stronger than what they had before.

That means that the metal available to her would be of a lower quality, meaning it would not be as capable of handling the pressures needed to fire a bullet down range with punch. Rifling requires even more pressure because you are introducing friction causing the bullet to move in a manner that is not its natural path.

To improve the pressure strength, she could put metal bands around the areas of high pressure...the explosion end of the barrel and ate the exit breach of the barrel. The amount of reinforcement depends on the quality of the steel, and the strength of the powder. The ends of a barrel are the weakest points of a gun barrel, and when the energy created by the bullet is too great, it will initially cause stress fractures that eventually, or immediately cause the barrel to split. Watch the YouTube channel Demolition Ranch to see this.

  1. Rifling

Rifling looks hard to do, but it really isn't that hard at all. What you need is a cutter that can fit the length of the barrel connected to a screw outside of the barrel that is as long as the gun barrel length. Slide the cutter up and down the fixed screw, and it will cut an internal pattern in the barrel that exactly matches a reverse of the screw. You do not need advanced metal for this, it can be made out of wood.

Rifling is good if you have breach loading bullets, but really has not much effect with muzzle loading ammo.

I'm not telling you how to write your story, but I would suggest using an air rifle design. Air rifles were used since the 16th century to hunt deer and wild boar.

Here is a wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_gun

and a quote from it: "Air guns represent the oldest pneumatic technology. The oldest existing mechanical air gun, a bellows air gun dating back to about 1580, is in the Livrustkammaren Museum in Stockholm. This is the time most historians recognize as the beginning of the modern air gun.

Throughout 17th to 19th century, air guns in calibers .30–.51, were used to hunt big-game deer and wild boar. These air rifles were charged using a pump to fill an air reservoir and gave velocities from 650 to 1,000 feet per second (200–300 m/s). They were also used in warfare, the most recognized example being the Girandoni air rifle.

At that time, they had compelling advantages over the primitive firearms of the day. For example, air guns could be discharged in wet weather and rain (unlike both matchlock and flintlock muskets), and discharged much faster than muzzle-loading guns.[1] Moreover, they were quieter than a firearm of similar caliber, had no muzzle flash, and were smokeless. Thus, they did not disclose the shooter's position or obscure the shooter's view, unlike the black powder muskets of the 18th and 19th centuries."

This would be an easier solution over developing a self-contained metal bullet. It can be rifled, breach-loaded, and fire more quickly than a musket, plus has the added value of no smoke and much quieter...and hits like a Colt 1911 .45.

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    $\begingroup$ I think I'd still like to find a way to get a rifled gun in to the story but you bring up some great ideas and points which I might look into, thanks :) $\endgroup$ – GMHLee Jan 6 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ Add to your requirement list: Access to a high-precision Lathe. Without a good lathe, it is virtually impossible to machine the parts to the needed tolerances to allow Rifling, or the sliding action of the bolt mechanism. $\endgroup$ – PcMan Jan 7 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ I saw the equipment used at the Harper's Ferry Armament that John Brown took over prior to the Civil War. They were pretty rudimentary. The lathe was nothing near as precise as a cheap one from Harbor Freight today. $\endgroup$ – Sensii Miller Jan 7 at 21:59

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