How plausible is it to have zinc-sulfur as the main propellant of a gun in the absence of better ones, like gunpowder and smokeless powder?

If it isn't possible, is there a weaker, less effective alternative to gunpowder?

Edit: I want to clarify that i would be very glad if said weaker alternative had around the same power of an airgun, like the Girardoni rifle.

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    $\begingroup$ You need to be more precise with what you mean with weaker. Spitting a bullet is definitely weaker, for example. Keeping it in your pocket is even weaker. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Apr 30, 2021 at 15:01
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_gun is the first thing to spring to mind. As noted in the history section, large caliber airguns can be as powerful as a modern firearm and were successfully used for killing large game and as a military weapon. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2021 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ @GrumpyYoungMan Well, more or less. A 9mm air rifle has power comparable to a .36 black powder rifle or .357 Magnum revolver. A .35 Remington or .350 Win Mag will beat it hollow. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ There are potato guns. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Apr 30, 2021 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ I have actually thought of using airguns as the primary weapon in my world, although I would like to keep some form of gunpowder. That's why I would need to tone down the strength of said powder. $\endgroup$
    – Rhomaioi
    Apr 30, 2021 at 21:40

2 Answers 2


Gunpowder is a spectrum; that is, there are many many variations on gunpowder.

Zinc-sulfur would be one alternative, though I doubt it would be "weaker" than gunpowder -- have you ever seen video of an actual zinc-sulfur rocket, compared to a black powder engine (like Estes model rocket motors)? Zinc-sulfur is actually closer to flash powder (metal as the fuel, mixed with an oxidizer -- in this case, sulfur -- but not intimately incorporated like good gunpowder), and any form of flash powder is very, very hazardous to use in a metallic confinement like a gun barrel -- confinement can cause pressures to spike far beyond even smokeless powder's normal operating ranges.

However, gunpowder itself ranges from "pretty bad, hard to ignite, slow burning" for primitive forms (just mixed powders) to "top notch" for commercially produced (and some homemade) versions, easy to ignite, fast enough to make good firecrackers -- even with the same formula. Add in variations of formula (extra sulfur to produce more smoke also make the powder slower and weaker, for instance) and there's a broad range of "gunpowder". If the makers are new to the trade, they may not yet have arrived at an optimum mixture, or (due to things like quality of the available charcoal, perhaps not completely in their control) even the optimum mixture they can make is not the best that could be made with the best ingredients -- just as 14th century gunpowder couldn't hold a candle to 18th and 19th century products.

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    $\begingroup$ Most people REALLY under appreciate how much quality control matters. To illustrate, here is a video of homemade gun cotton (youtube.com/watch?v=WegYJJW2jCY). If you jump forward to about 18:45, he demonstrates just how vastly different it comes out based on the quality of how well it was prepared. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ Yep. I made gunpowder to my "lowest quality" method from this answer (back in the mid-1970s) and it took most of a minute to burn a firecracker casing full. Proper commercial gunpowder will burn the same amount in less than a second; potentially fast enough to self-confine to a mild explosion if ignited from the bottom. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ Aye, variable burnrate. I made homemade gunpowder rockets, once. If everything worked right, they flew almost 500m up. Usually, they flew about 30m up. On a bad week, they would just sit there and smoke at me, unable to generate enough thrust to lift themselves. And this using, to my very best ability, the exact same source materials, formula, manufacturing technique, and quality controls. I even used a full climate-control room for the prep, to ensure consistent atmospheric temperature and humidity during manufacture! I gave up on black powder, went to candy rockets. Less variable. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Apr 30, 2021 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan Did you ever figure out what the problem was? Theoretically, not practically? Like, did you require even more climate control? Or drying the materials, or having more consistent grain size, or packing, mixing or what? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    May 2, 2021 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Contamination from my containers. Some chemical (the soap for cleaning, maybe in the water, possibly wear from the ball mill for grinding) was acting as an anti-catalyst for the powder. I later repeated the exact same setup, using the same source materials but another workshop and a friend's containers and tools, and got consistent results. but by then I was hooked on rocket candy and its sheer ease of use.(and better performance, if done right) $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    May 2, 2021 at 20:56

Ever played with an airsoft gun? They usually work with either regular air compressed from a pump or bottled CO2. Airsoft guns are way weaker than regular guns, with less muzzle velocity and usually shooting ammo with much less penetration power.

Alternatively you can use paintball guns. They don't kill, but at close range the shots hurt like a son of a female dog (which is why I eventually switched to laser tag). Switch the paint balls for polished hematite crystals (a form of iron) for a lot of fun and nonlethal hurt.

If you really wish to have a weak shootout, use slings instead of guns. You will have the least lethal skirmish ever.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Many/most slingshots have more potential for injury than paintball, never mind airsoft. Same is true for a "David" style non-elastic sling. A marble from one of the latter can penetrate the skull at short range (say, inside twenty meters). The question, regardless, isn't about ways to play, it's about worldbuilding, and this doesn't really answer it in that realm. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Apr 30, 2021 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon I am suggesting arming forces with airsoft guns, that's worldbuilding too. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2021 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ Ummm. I don't see how airsoft (or even paintball) could be of any military use. Military needs to at least incapacitate enemy combatants. Slings might do this, very poor gunpowder surely can (it burns better confined, and worked okay around 1370), but not airsoft. Not to mention both airsoft and paintball require technology far beyond gunpowder. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Apr 30, 2021 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon I don't see specs in the question. $\endgroup$ Apr 30, 2021 at 21:28
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    $\begingroup$ @ZeissIkon air powered hunting rifles do exist and they will bring down human sized targets. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 30, 2021 at 21:51

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