Assume a world that's much like ours, but in which there is a naturally occurring resource with the properties of gunpowder. This "gunpowder" is only found in one small area, measuring about 1000 square km. But it is plentiful there, and easy to mine. That means the inhabitants of this region have a nigh unlimited supply of gunpowder from day one.

Let's assume the substance isn't explosive until it's been refined by some relatively simple process such as grinding into a fine powder. This keeps the region from being one giant bomb. The refined product resembles the smokier, more volatile black powder, rather than modern smokeless powder.

How would early access to explosives change the development of early (going up to Bronze Age) warfare? What kind of secondary weapon technologies might result from having easy access to a powerful explosive?

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    $\begingroup$ Comments cleared, as the “new grand re-opening” of this question doesn’t need the old criticism and discussion. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 3, 2017 at 4:50
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    $\begingroup$ @era - I would suggest some research into the Mongolian / China (Song empire if I recall correctly) and the use of the 'Thunder Crash Bomb' used there. It's not quite bronze age, but it's a good example of what people of the era would use explosives for. Keep in mind that formula's were recorded by Arabic scholars around 1200 as reliable techniques to refine gunpowder without the natural source (uses urine and woodash primarily)...metallurgy to produce decent firearms came much later than the ability to refine gunpowder $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 3, 2017 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ This question makes me wonder if a bronze 'bombard' artillery unit is possible. Basically a giant bronze pot filled with saltpeter and a large iron ball that fits in the opening. A single hole for a fuze to light the gunpowder...light the fuze and run. If lucky, the saltpeters reaction could launch the iron ball, though none too accurately. Unlucky and youve just set off the worlds first bromze fragmentation grenade in your friendly camp. $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 4, 2017 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Twelfth the bronze canon is possible There were monasteries which produced high quality canons since they had forge and experience with own bells. Also, sometimes bells was melted to a canons. $\endgroup$
    – ADS
    May 6, 2017 at 7:39

5 Answers 5


Might as well give a why not answer to this...I'm not sure on feasibility of alot of these ideas, but the Greeks were amazing engineers in their time and might be able to get away with it. You would not see guns by any means, but I'm pretty sure if the Greek people had knowledge and access, they'd come up with some pretty creative uses.

Hand thrown bombs. It actually takes pretty simplistic technology to build a bronze sphere around the size of a baseball (doesn't need to be a perfect sphere either) with a small hole. The bomb (grenade?) is then filled with brass shards and saltpeter. Fuse it lit, bomb is thrown, brass shards everywhere. Extra points it the soldier doing the bomb throwing is mounted and exceedingly mobile (skip horse archers, lets go with horse bombers. Horses would need some pretty intensive training not to spook though)

This could readily be scaled up to a larger catapult thrown bomb. Same theory as above, load a larger bronze sphere with saltpeter, bronze shards, and something to provide a spark upon impact (flint and steel style). You now have a bomb launching catapult...probably comes with some dangers and unintentional detonation may cause friendly casualties.

It's important to note saltpeter is not gunpowder...the gunpowder we use came significantly later. This would function and behave more as blackpowder would. One of the more exaggerated effects (beyond gunky buildup) is ultimately smoke. The bombs listed above would create a lot of black smoke and likely provide smoke cover when detonated as well. This tactic could be expanded on by putting the saltpeter in a line across a field and lighting it. The result should be a relatively large smoke screen that could have relevance in army formations.

I believe it may be possible to create a bronze 'bombard' style weapon as well. A large bronze 'pot' could be filled with saltpeter and the opening to this pot hold a large iron ball. Igniting the pot (and running like ****) if lucky, would launch the iron ball a decent distance (little to no accuracy here) and make a feasible siege weapon. Unlucky sees this entire setup explode, sending shards of the pot everywhere. Probably a one shot weapon as the explosion would likely warp the bronze pot pretty heavily even in the event it worked.

This also would allow for a anti-wall technique that could make traditional siege unnecessary. Borrowing the scene from Lord of the Rings : Two towers, it would not be infeasible to mine under an enemy wall, load the entire tunnel full of this early explosives, and detonate the entire tunnel causing the walls to collapse as the earth underneath gives way.

If any of this is effective, it could heavily impact bronze age warfare. We are all decently familiar with the phalanx image (from 300 at very least) which sees a large number of men in a very tightly packed formation...this happens to be the best targets for gunpowder style bombs. Potential results:

1- Horses need training. Explosions are scary when you're not used to them...war horses would need exposure to these explosions long before battle.

2 - Move away from Phalanx and towards looser more mobile formations. Not good if an entire Phalanx unit can be dropped by one bomb.

3 - Move away from armour. Bronze age forces included exceedingly heavy Armour, almost to the point of silliness. Armour does not fare well vs gunpowder (piercing shards concentrate the impact on a small area, poking holes and allowing the shards to fly in). Edit as per comments - Bronze plate isn't the same as medieval plate...it's movement are restrictive and joints have gaps. Lower legs and arms were often unprotected (for movement reasons). A shrapnel weapon would play havok on anyone in one of these bronze suits.

I'm actually thinking, if the bombs were in any way effective, you'd see skirmish tactics over take the use of formation tactics

All speculation, but it could be a heavy heavy impact.

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    $\begingroup$ 16th century guns couldn't reliably penetrate plate armor. It actually led to a rise of heavier armor and cavalry. Of course in part this was thanks to vastly superior steel being produced but I don't think you can say that shrapnel would lead to a reduction in armor. Even WW1 saw metal armor use in the trenches. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    May 4, 2017 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Mormacil Plate armor yes...heavy developments were made in the 15th-17th centuries that kept plate somewhat common, though only really available to the wealthy. Bronze plate is another beast...arms and lower legs aren't covered (bronze would inhibit movement horribly) and any shrapnel weaponry would find the holes and unarmored components readily. Gaps in bands and joints would be vulnerable. I'd suspect greeks would adapt to faster movement (light to no armored cavalry) as a counter...once again if any of this is feasible and effective. Edited answer to address this, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 4, 2017 at 22:27

In fact, gunpowder, given from saltpeter, was invented before 10th century.

weapons such as fire arrows, bombs, and the fire lance were used from at least the 12th century

All of them could be used in the Bronze Age too.

In addition, you could expect that

  • walls are less important during siege because it's easy to blow them
  • mining, countermining are well developed

Note that in the Bronze Age there is no mass production so nobody could produce bombs enough to re-arm an army. In fact it's become possible with manufacturing.

Despite China has invented gunpowder, book printing and had good metallurgy and agriculture, it was dominated by another nations. Reasons why China didn't conquest the whole world at this moment is out of scope. But for your question it's important that warfare for medieval Europe did not significantly changed in 10-11th century - because it was too far. Another reason is warfare in Europe had been developed in its own way before gunpowder.

As soon there is only one small area with early gunpowder, the world in a whole will not be significantly changed. Despite gunpowder is important military resource, there are a lot of other important resources for the country (not only military!) and you should not expect endless war for this region.

  • $\begingroup$ Is saltpeper a typo or an old pronunciation/version of saltpeter? $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 4, 2017 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ It was mistake. Also also known as was a mistake: it was only (key) component of gunpowder. I updated the post, thank you $\endgroup$
    – ADS
    May 6, 2017 at 6:49

If your "gunpowder" is only readily available to one society, that society has a problem.

What do they do with their glorious powder?

If they go on the offense and try to fight with the powder, they risk having all of their enemies work together to wipe them out. Or they expand as an empire. Historically, empires tend to self-destruct from within. Your powder empire will be the next Rome: powerful on a regional or even continental scale, but incapable of expanding globally and eventually rotting out.

This might be where they start, but it isn't their best long-term plan.

If they sell the powder to their neighbors, they risk being overrun by a more powerful nation. There are ways around this. Making the merchants work for the state, so you can control who gets the product and who doesn't, for example. So now your nation isn't a warrior nation, but a quasi-neutral party. Like Switzerland or the Vatican, they have a great deal of influence. But they must carefully balance that to make sure they are protected from invasion.

But this path means they could then be the richest kingdom, in times of war. Since their economy centers on fostering war between other nations, their spies and saboteurs would be experts at instigating fights between rivals. Because as long as there's war somewhere, business is booming! But if peace breaks out, the military-industrial complex goes idle. And that means your people go hungry. So we gotta keep the wars going!

They might package the powder in a convoluted religion that adds various rituals to the refining process. This helps keeps that process a secret and make sure your neighbors hire you to blow things up, rather than just buying your powder and blowing you up so they can get a discount. The powder priests would closely guard the secrets of refining, storing, and safely using the powder. They would be your artillery, your demolitions team.

The powder priesthood would wield great power. And would be feared by friends and foe alike. The king might be a priest-king, since no one would dare rise to power without the powder priests' support. The priesthood would be more powerful than any king. Because they and they alone can control the boom.

The entire society would develop along different pathways than typical bronze age societies. For one, the civilization would need to build their cities with the utmost in careful planning. Refineries and storage of your powder, if it happens at any major scale, must be done with safety factors that are critical. So you'd find a defensive fort to protect your refineries and storage depots; defending those structures becomes as important as defending your kings. But your king wouldn't want to live with the powder too close by. The powder silos or keg warehouses or whatever would be housed at a separate facility, for safety-sake.

Fire would be the greatest fear for your citizens. Fire departments might develop sooner than real history. Or maybe they use carefully built canals to keep fire from reaching the powder districts.


If you mean could they have gun or cannon, the answer is no.

Metallurgy was not advanced enough during the Bronze Age to develop firearms. However they could have firepots (incendiary weapon contain in a smashable jar) or use it to destroy fortification by digging under the wall and fire the gunpowder, it will cause an explosion.

On the other hand, gunpowder could be a good fuel for a forge, so it could help to develop the metallurgy. It will allow you to dig with more efficiency and discover new minerals quicker. See the idea? The presence of a good fuel for forge could allow to discover iron and steel speeder, the effect is increased by the ability to dig faster with explosion, and to discover new minerals earlier.

The availability of gunpowder in a natural form would help to develop firearms quickly, because of the ease of getting ammunition, without needing to process complex chemicals.

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    $\begingroup$ gunpowder could be a good fuel. It's incorrect since gunpowder has 4.2 MJ/kg heat of combustion, wood 15 MJ/kg and charcoal 31 MJ/kg $\endgroup$
    – ADS
    May 4, 2017 at 14:35

The options are nearly endless with a nearly endless supply, but I would guess that you would see IEDs pretty immediately.

IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are effectively just things that go boom. Pack explosive material tightly in a sealed container, add shrapnel, and some sort of fuse or detonator. These obviously take a wide variety of forms, smallish grenade like all the way to boats loaded down.

Having early access to explosives will change warfare and thus secondary tech as well.

Having troops in tight formations makes them easier to blow up. You probably won't see armies facing off on agreed upon battlefields... Basically you can expect guerilla warfare... Small units moving quickly to effect mass casualties, or destroy resources and infrastructure.

Rather than castle like fortification (thick, heavy, expensive walls) you'd probably see things more like what we use today; a series of lighter checkpoints surrounding valuable resources. They may be able to sneak a bomb through one or two, but they're less likely to blow up anything really expensive or tactically important.

It's also worth noting that you don't really need advanced metallurgy to shoot heavy objects at your enemy. You may not be able to shoot as far, but you can still fire projectiles. Mythbusters has demonstrated this a number of times...


  • $\begingroup$ Thanks @AlexP and your movie will be coming to theaters in July: youtu.be/e9Dpy3yvEyg $\endgroup$
    – apaul
    May 3, 2017 at 18:50

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