In our age of sail, more or less every ship used cannons as their primary weapon. However, suppose that gunpowder had not been invented, but sail technology still advanced to the point that massive, multi-mast ocean-crossing sailing ships could be built. What would naval warfare look like in this scenario?

In ancient warfare, The primary ship types were ramming ships and boarding ships, but I imagine the status quo would be considerably affected if sailing ships could reach sizes and speeds which no oar-powered ship could match.

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    $\begingroup$ Ships, or warships? Many ships, like the China clippers, were purely commercial ventures. If they carried guns (and powder & cannonballs), that meant less cargo. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ Fair point. I will edit the post to specify warships. $\endgroup$
    – Globin347
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 3:33
  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean to exclude anything that behaves like gunpowder, or specifically gunpowder? $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ You might find this site a good resource: mythcreants.com/blog/… $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 5:33
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop anything that behaves like gunpowder. Otherwise, there would be no meaningful difference, and the ships would just use cannons that fire with the alternative material. $\endgroup$
    – Globin347
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 20:31

1 Answer 1


Sea Castles:

Here is an excellent page on the topic of pre-gunfire naval warfare, and I freely admit to borrowing from it quite a bit (although I was familiar with the ideas, it spells them out very clearly). Here is another good reference about the evolution of naval weaponry.

I suspect what you'll end up having is very tall ships, with sails that can be quickly swung out of the way. Other than that, you'll want very fast, very fire-resistant vessels.

First, Greek fire was a thing in naval warfare well before the advent of gunpowder. Your navies, if they choose to try and sink each other, will use fire to the utmost to damage or destroy rival vessels. Without cannons, this technology will become VERY advanced. I suspect there will be a lot of big flame throwers at sea. If this doesn't match your desired effect, you better introduce fire-proof fabrics and wood treatments as well.

Rams, while one of the few effective ways of sinking ships, will not be practical for these ships. Wind will be powering both vessels in any battle, so one ship is not likely to be going sufficiently fast in a different way with great regularity. Sails are very fragile to impacts, so ships using rams would snap off their own masks frequently.

Boarding is likely to be a prominent strategy. Get on to the enemy ship and kill or capture the other guy. You will prefer to kill him before you get on his deck, so projectiles will also be vital.

Height is a huge advantage if you are shooting arrows, firing ballistae, or just dropping a boarding plank on top of another ship. Before gunpowder, war ships got quite tall. The goal here was to have the advantage of gravity in both boarding and firing projectiles. While this might make them top-heavy (and less sea-worthy), it will help in battle.

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    $\begingroup$ For an example of "floating castles", have a look at Japanese medieval warships, such as the Atakebune $\endgroup$
    – Kyyshak
    Commented Sep 26, 2021 at 8:01

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