What kinds of chemical warfare agents would be possible to synthesize and store (including binary ones, which are two precursors mixed during or immediately before firing) at an industrial scale with Napoleonic Era technology? Assuming the method of synthesizing the chemical agents are already known.

Also, would Napoleonic artillery be capable of dispensing lethal chemical agents without killing the gun crews?


2 Answers 2


It depends on how you change history

In short the answer is: since it did not happen, they could not do it. Back then people were a lot less squeamish about what kind of weapons they used. So if Napoleon or anyone else had had access to "real" chemical weapons, we would have known about it. We do not, so it could not happen.

Why is that?

Napoleon I reigned from 1804 to 1814. At that point, chemistry was blooming and lots of discoveries were made. Chlorine for instance — the first "effective" chemical weapon — was not identified as a pure element until 6 years after he placed the crown on his head.

This means that there were no chemical industries that could produce chemical warfare agents on a large scale, which is why poison gas was not employed with any considerable effect until World War I. That is not to say that no attempts were made before; there were. But in general, in the Napoleonic era they lacked the manufacturing capabilities to get the stuff made.

As for delivery... no. This is what the weapons of the Napoleonic era were like. What we today consider to be "artillery" — that is to say long range delivery of shells that you can actually fill with stuff like poison gas — were not yet in use. The cannons were for line of sight use, and were much too close to the own troops to be used for chemical warfare.

So if you want chemical warfare in the Napoleonic era, you need to change history. You need to have the belligerents stumble upon some discovery that allows them to mass produce poison gas, and preferably in such a way that it can be catapulted towards the enemy to give the range they need to be out of the danger zone themselves.

  • $\begingroup$ Re: short range delivery. Although not used at that time, longer range but less accurate weapons did exist in earlier times (trebuchet). I feel that anyone in Napoleonic times who stumbled across chemical warfare and was somehow able to produce it in bulk would, after some trial and error, understand the danger at short range and the relative unimportance of accuracy, and would thus choose to build a trebuchet-style delivery system rather than existing cannon $\endgroup$
    – Darren H
    Sep 18, 2016 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ Siege mortars would also be very valuable at delivering gas into dug-in enemy positions such as forts or cities. The spread of gas would be heavily limited by fortifications walls, which means that so long as the assaulting troops are on the other side of the wall. $\endgroup$ Sep 18, 2016 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ "since it did not happen, they could not do it."? Even today, plenty of tech is left unused due to political (e.g. old fashioned generals), financial and plenty of other non-technical reasons. $\endgroup$ Sep 19, 2016 at 9:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Nahshonpaz That was simply the short version. I also stated why they could not. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Sep 19, 2016 at 9:16
  • $\begingroup$ I think the OP wanted to know what kind of chemicals could be produce, considering they already had the knowledge, and at an equivalent industry scale at the time so it could be usefull (like how they produced gunpowder) $\endgroup$
    – Asoub
    Sep 19, 2016 at 14:33

I'm sorry I only have time for a brief answer. Perhaps others can flesh out. Until I can get back to it.

The French certainly should have been able to produce calcium phosphide which, on contact with water would produce toxic, flamable phosphine gas.

The French could also produce quick lime and naptha. This could produce choking toxic clouds of lime or burning incendiary explosions, or both.

Either could, possibly, be deployed via mortar shells.

Sorry, no time to research volumes needed to be viable as a battlefield weapon, but I'm fairly sure that quick lime was used as an airborn weapon by the Romans at least a couple times.


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